A Brief History of the Gradual Shift from Submission Censorship towards Self Publishing

One of my friends who has enough patience to patiently listen to my own long-winded diatribes into various affairs in the realms of such sophisticated topics as literacy, economics or even the conditions of life in general (yet who will also occasionally interject and pepper my arguments with opinionated remarks about my own psychological state) has a quite strong prejudice against self publishing. This prejudice is not merely his own but is very widespread throughout the literate communities which grew up in the 20th Century and also to this day remains firmly established in “paper” media communities (e.g. in so-called “academic” circles).

This attitude will become increasing “odd” as time marches on, but for the 20th Century (and also previous centuries) is was very reasonable. Let me back up a little further in order to provide a wider historical context.

Since time immemorial, publishing has always been a very highly capital-intensive industry. The first (“movable type”) printing presses ought to be compared with today’s bioengineering or perhaps something like space exploration. Yet unlike space exploration, the historical context of ca. 1450 was a boiling cauldron just waiting for a little pressure to build up in order to explode — and what an explosion it was! The explosion of the Protestant Reformation lasted several hundred years, perhaps finally culminating in the American and French Revolutions. As I have previously noted, one of the hallmark quotes that depict this revolutionary period is the statement that “in America, law is king” — and thereby, of course, Tom Paine was referring to the somewhat new-fangled notion of written law (*).

(*) let it be known that I am well aware that the magna carta predated this expression by about a half millennium (and the code of Hammurabi predated it by several millennia)

Yet widespread literacy was uncommon even during the French Revolution (which itself, it can be argued, lasted several decades). The price of paper media remained inaccessibly expensive for ordinary / average / common people from the early days of vellum (and papyrus — let alone clay tablets and the like) well into the 19th Century. For Martin Luther, the first printing presses posed a precipitous fall in the price of publishing. For the publishing industry in the 19th Century, advances in printing technology and cheap paper became a pricipitous rise in the affordability of paper media for the broad masses, who would — perhaps thereby — become increasingly literate. In my humble opinion, it was during this era that “mass media” first became a thing. Later technological advances would continue to increase the role of mass media, but the “penny paper” was quite certainly the seed that set it all off.

Today, publishing remains a very capital-intensive industry by global standards. First of all, for the past two centuries literacy has largely remained a first-world phenomenon, as an adequate education of the masses — which Martin Luther demanded already five centuries ago — is (or at least was) a very cost-intensive project. Yet even much more simply put: a computer or handheld device (such as a mobile phone) capable of “online publishing” continues to remain a quite significant investment in many markets (plus the added costs of additional literacy requirements, which even the vast majority of the populations in most first-world countries simply do not suffice).

So what do I think will change as time marches on?

It may happen that the (in some cases) very significant “startup” costs (in some global markets) will contine to decrease — yet I am actually quite skeptical that these costs will fall significantly anytime soon (simply because they involve some very difficult-to-solve technological issues).

What I believe will obviously happen is that the cost of consumption — which has already fallen from quite insignificant (in some markets) to completely negligable (in other words: essentially zero) — will very significantly change the economics of mass media, insofar as it will no longer be possible to charge even just a penny (see also Esther Dyson’s seminal treatise on this development — see e.g. “Intellectual Value“).

It did not take long for the first “e-cunabula” (the incunabula of online media) to become plastered with advertising. Worldwide, propaganda industries have become very large and also remain very influential. Quite like the Roman Catholic Church’s response to Galileo, the publishing and propaganda industries have by and large responded to the challenge these disruptive technologies present with censorship. But the plethora of online media flooding the world with propaganda are running out of eyeballs they can arguably sell their so-called services to.

And this is, I believe, the root of the widespread skepticism with regard to self-publishing. In the past, a publishing intermediary was seen as a good method for separating the wheat from the chaff, and self-publishing was mainly practiced by an elite upper class rich enough to pay for the publication of whatever hare-brained ideas they might want to propagate into wider society.

Increasingly, however, since there will be little or no economic motivation to publish anything (insofar as the marginal costs of publication have become so negligable that they are now “too cheap to meter”), we will need a new method to separate the wheat from the chaff. Luckily, I have already developed the solution to this quandry, namely: the distinction between rational and irrational media (see “Hope & Change: Flipping the F-word & Removing the Old-Fashioned R-word” — and please note that irrational media are by their nature vastly more widespread than rational media, which are by comparison extremely scarce).

The main reason why this distinction remains a more-or-less well-kept secret is that establishment propaganda industries (such as the so-called “traditional” publishing industry and / or the advertising industry) aim to prevent the spread of increased literacy skills in order to reap more profits for their own propaganda interests.

It is only a matter of time. Recently, Frances Haugen has started to campaign against a prominent propaganda machine (“Facebook” [or “Meta”]). Yet she is probably also aware of the situation among other propaganda machines … in particular: what is perhaps the most prominent propaganda machine of all (“Google” [or “Alphabet”]). Why would she remain silent about one of the most prominent propaganda machines’ profit motives while at the same time deploring another somewhat less prominent propaganda machine’s profit motives? (see also “FaceBook Whistleblower Frances Haugen Presents Idea (for Government Regulation) that All Search Engine Algorithms Should Display Search Results in Reverse-Chronological Order“)

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The relationship between the Validity of Natural Language Expressions and the Statistical Concepts of Accuracy and Precision

As you may be aware, I recently started reading a book that was quite the bestseller a few years ago (see e.g. my initial reaction to the quote: “The problem is that the pervasiveness of technology and mass marketing is screwing up a lot of people’s expectations for themselves: the inundation of the exceptional makes people feel worse about themselves, makes them feel that they need to be more extreme, more radical, and more self assured to get noticed or even matter“).

At first, I was very impressed that Mark Manson was apparently able to convey quite complex concepts in a very simple, colloquial language. I am now in the midst of going through the text with a more “fine-toothed comb”, to see whether I still find the ideas to be as impressive as the first time around.

Spoiler alert: Not quite.

Yet at the same time I am acutely experiencing a phenomenon that both enabled this to become such a runaway bestseller, but also is to some degree one of its primary pitfalls.

As I mentioned in the previous (“initial”) review, Mark is prone to making bold statements — and I might also add: in a very simple language, with little sophistication in his mode of expression. He begins by drawing a sketch of a drunkard literary genious — Charles Bukowski. We thereby are confronted with a wanton spirit, flailing about and occasionally hitting a nail on the head (I myself have not read much Bukowski, perhaps little bits and pieces, mainly short quotes noted in passing by some person apparently not secure enough to use their own words).

If we map out the validity of linguistic expressions, we may think of that as a scatter plot, with each expression located somewhere along axes measuring accuracy and precision (at least theoretically — I am not saying this might be simple or easy to measure). I think we can all agree that our immediate gut reaction would be to aim for high degrees of both accuracy and precision. See, for comparison, these images (source: “Accuracy and precision – Wikipedia“):

High accuracy, Low precision
High precision, Low accuracy

The point I particularly notice is what happens when our linguistic expressions are imprecise: In such cases, there may still be sporadic occasions of arguments that seem valid — for example, an expression that in a particular context seems to hit the nail on the head … but which, in a different context may appear completely baseless and untrue.

In this vein, making bold statements in a muddy or colloquial language seems to be less a work of art than making exact statements in a meticulous or scientifically explicit language. Although the former may seem easier to grasp, the latter appear more reliable.

In the meantime, I will continue to withhold judgement on Mark Manson’s words. I remain somewhat mesmerized, but unreliably so. 🙂

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In What We Trust

You may recall a post I made a few months ago .. in which I mentioned that “I am not at all proud of the species I apparently belong to” (“I understand that this is very important to you”). Another way of putting this idea is that I have little trust in the human species (that is very general – perhaps it might be more appropriate to say that I have little trust in the vast majority of humans; there are a very small number of humans in whom I might be able to manage to have a small amount of trust in).

When the so-called “Founding Fathers” framed the Constitution of the United States of America, they were strongly influenced by an idea referred to as “Natural Law” – and it is out of the same historical context that the American currency (the US dollar) received many of its emblematic quotes – one of which is “In God We Trust”, That quote seems increasingly far-fetched as time marches on, but still most people on Earth do seem to need to have something they can trust.

Some trust in news media. Some trust in large corporations. Some trust in religions. Almost everyone trusts in something, be that the hopeful expectation that the sun will also rise tomorrow, or that gravity or similar physical properties will continue to function in the future as they have in the past.

I, myself, have for quite some time increasingly placed trust in something I refer to as “natural language” – even though it seems quite difficult to say exactly what is or isn’t such a so-called “natural” language. It seems to be a technology devised by humans – but according to the Bible, it also seems to be closely associated with the original creation (namely, God seems to have created many things simply by mentioning [or naming] them).

There are, however, a few things that can easily be identified as NOT natural language, the most prominent example being strings governed by intellectual property law. The most common of these are trademarks – commonly referred to as “brand names”, and since all “intellectual property” must comply with intellectual property laws (in the case of trademarks: trademark law), they cannot be said to follow the laws of nature. Natural law is an enticing concept, but codified rules, laws and regulations seem quite the polar opposite to being “freaks of nature”.

Nonetheless, what is deemed “natural” versus what is deemed “artificial” (or “man-made”) is largely a judgment call, much like the decision whether or not to consider humans to be a part of nature itself.

Let me get back to the way many people place trust in currencies and other financial instruments. Some people will “take money to the bank”, others will bank on a currency’s hard value by investing in it (this happens in the “bond” market, and is thereby also closely associated with interest rates).

There is a weird overlap between trust in language and trust in money: very masterful artisans of language have what is referred to as an ability to coin phrases (this is often said to be the case, for example, of William Shakespeare).

Likewise, as I am feeling very confident and bold right now, I will go out on a limb and hypothesize that all financial instruments actually do represent something, whether that is a valuable metal, a piece of livestock, a share of ownership in a corporate entity, or whatever. This is very similar to the way in which words and more generally languages represent things. Words and languages are instruments, tools, … and even more generally: a communications technology. We can invest in communications by investing in words and language. These investments take place in marketplaces — more specifically: linguistic communities.

And this is where I hope to close the circle: Those of us who trust in written language and those of us who trust in the Internet, we trust in the governing bodies of the organizations referred to by the strings we use on a daily basis. I trust in “com” (which is managed by Verisign) and I trust in “blog”(which is managed by Automattic) and also in many other strings (which are managed by a wide variety of registries). Yet I do not trust them equally, any more than I would be so foolish as to trust all currencies or similar financial instruments equally. Some registries are very general organizations, other registries are very specific organizations. Some have very well defined organizational structures, other organizational structures are more loosely circumscribed or even cryptic. They are all very different, and I place different degrees and modes of trust in these different phenomena, just like I differentiate between mountains and machines, mice and men, moons and magnetic fields.

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Obscurity is an issue we all have to deal with

It’s been almost two decades since Tim O’Reilly wrote “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.” That article mainly dealt with issues of copyright and similar intellectual property laws – and one point where his observations and the observations I aim to make here seem to agree is the view (i.e. perspective, opinion, etc.) that the legal framework may not matter as much as the attention (and similar behaviors) of end users, consumers, etc.

I have been thinking about this general topic for several weeks now, and perhaps you may find it surprising to hear that my thought processes along these lines began by thinking long, hard and deep about the marketing concept referred to as “unique selling proposition”. I aim to actually argue that people should not aim to be individuals as much as they should view themselves as members of communities.

What Tim O’Reilly’s quote above says is that authors and other creative artists cannot exist in isolation – their existence crucially depends on interactions with communities of people who are willing to interact with and thereby support their work. Fans, consumers, target audiences, … – whatever you want to call these people, marketplaces, ideas – the community of engaged participation matters a lot.

Being an individual, being unique, separated, censored, cut off or even ostracized may be the worst thing that could happen to an author, a creative artist or even anyone at all.

We do not solve any social or societal problems by removing an individual from our community. A death penalty does not solve anything as much as it creates a new problem: it turns us into murderers. One death does not cancel out another death. Instead: Each and every individual murder adds up – the cumulative total only grows into a larger number, a bigger problem, … — more death.

Let’s imagine how there are about 8 billion people on Earth. In some ways, we already are a global community, and in other ways we aren’t. Each and every person alive is breathing as we speak. Yet each of our own spoken language is a little bit different than the speaking of others. This may be due to our voice, our accent, our dialect, … it may be due to a wide variety of reasons. Indeed, I think it’s quite reasonable to expect that for each and every one of us, there are more people we cannot understand at all than there are people we can understand, be understood by, communicate with sufficiently to have a sense of mutual understanding with.

There is no reason for individuals to take pride in splendid isolation from one another. We ought not to celebrate our unique individuality as much as we should stand in awe, wonder and amazement if and whenever we feel we are able to come to a common understanding, to reach agreement, to collaborate and help each other.

So please: Do not lose sight of your fellow participants in each and every one of our common and shared experiences!

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Hope & Change: Flipping the F-word & Removing the Old-Fashioned R-word

I have an important announcement to make: I’ve learned something — and what I learned has helped me to change my course.

Many years ago, I started using Facebook (in large part because one of my friends said “facebook” was college slang for ‘[student] directory’ — and indeed, it may have been that at the time [I think ca. 2007] ). Shortly after that, I started using the R-word to describe the way it (and also similar media properties) work(s). However, my description was not well understood, and it caused a lot of confusion (eventually leading me to publish a clarifying article).

Yet the article stuck with the R-word — and therefore it remained disconcerting to most who read it.

Many years went by, and then along came a big man who talked a lot about a big schtick which he referred to as “fake news”. I felt vindicated. The big man became a leader, and then all of a sudden there was much more recognition for the phenomenon referred to by the F-word (which was essentially the same thing I had been referring to for well over a decade with the R-word).

Well, today I am introducing a new and improved R-word: “rational”. There are many positive things about this new R-word — and especially positive is that it already has a widely accepted polar opposite: the negative term “irrational”.

I have never liked the I-word — it didn’t really makes sense to me, because I always thought that there is actually always some sort of logic to irrational thoughts (who knows? maybe this was an irrational idea? 😉 )

But my insight today is indeed newfangled: Maybe “rationality” is not a matter of the way individuals think, much in the same way that “language” is not a matter of the way individuals understand themselves, but rather a matter of how members of a community understand each other.

So from now on I think I will refer to “rational media” vs. “irrational media”. I wonder whether people will immediately understand this to mean that “gobbledygook” like “facebook” and/or “google” are irrational – I hope so!

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I understand that this is very important to you

One of the texts on my “summer reading” list was “The Plague” (by Albert Camus). I had never read anything of Camus’ before, and I was stunned by his immense ability to explicate intricate details of human thought and behavior, and also very eloquently at that:

this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule [1]

Albert Camus, “The Plague”

I am at a point right now, where I sense callousness and apathy from all sides, while I go under in a pool of bullshit as if I were sinking in quicksand.

One of my central missions, ideas and struggles over the past couple decades has been raising awareness for the illness I refer to as “retard media” (you would not be severely wrong to equate this with what many other people refer to as “social media”, but you would actually be largely wrong – for more on this, see my definition of “retard media”). Recently, Netflix published a documentary called “The Social Dilemma” – and this documentary echoes a lot of what I have been saying all along (except that the proposed solution is actually quite remarkably along the lines of “more of the same”).

More of the same bullshit: What a dismal outlook for humanity. I have said for many years already, that I am not at all proud of the species I apparently belong to.

Retard media is not the only catastrophic disaster happening in our world, but regretably it’s one most people don’t get — let alone do they realize that it is indeed a catastrophic disaster that works like a catalyst, a steroid to boost the power of humanity’s ignorance of other catastrophic disasters most humans seem very callous and apathetic towards. Boost the power! Boost the power of ignorance – that is what humanity has come to. I distinctly remember sitting on a sofa with my brother and sister, sometime in the last millennium, watching a weather report during a hurricane event. The weatherman was babbling on about some statistics, and then said something like “let’s see what our reporter out on the beach is experiencing” … and I commented “let’s go to the videotape” … and my bother completely cracked up. Of course kids today may have never even heard of the expression “let’s go to the videotape”, but there was an era of sportscasting highlights where this expression was as regular, ordinary and standard as greeting someone on the street with a “hello” or “good day”. Today, the expression shines out like a rare antiquity of a bygone era, but what remains standard is the monetization of the incredible, the sensationalist, the clickbait.

There’s a sucker born every minute” seems as steadfast today as the day P.T. Barnum was alleged to have said it, centuries ago.

This week, an online friend said / wrote to me (essentially – I have slightly changed the wording, in order to protect the privacy of my friend … but the meaning of the statement is, IMHO, still the same): “I understand that this is very important to you” — and added that this is simply not on their radar – not in the slightest (*). At first, I was very appreciative of their apparent empathy, but then on second (or maybe third) thought it slowly began to dawn on me what the significance of “to you” in this expression is (after all, following Zipf’s insights into the economics of expressions [in particular the one known as the “principle of least effort”], there must be something to motivate someone to express those two additional syllables which would alternatively seem superfluous). Also following Gricean maxims of implicature, it must be that “this” in the above expression is apparently deemed not important in the standard case.

Is that callous or apathetic? Or is it really just me?

(*) Here I would like to note that this perspective on my work is not at all a “rare exception”, but rather that it has been the incessantly repeated callousness and apathy I have come to know only too well, staring me in the face non-stop, day in and day out.
[1] The full paragraph reads (in English translation): “But the narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The narrator does not share that view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.”
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Patronizing Patrons Outside Your Own Community vs. Being a Patron Inside Your Own Community

One of my good friends (the kind that actually try to push back on the kinds of things I often say) has been hammering away for some time at my attitude – sort of calling it patronizing.

I beg to differ.

But before I address that, let me note something about “patronage”. I think this general term means vastly different things in different contexts or from different perspectives. I think it has a lot to do with “in-group” (“we” / “us”) vs. “out-group” (“the others”) perspective. From a narcissist’s point of view, patronizing attitude is a “looking down upon” the out-group. I can sense this perspective if / when I think about the others being fooled by propaganda, for example. In this case, they are / become the patrons of propaganda and thereby consume it as factual, unquestionable, etc. Being a patron in the context of communications, understanding or similar exercises in enlightenment means clarifying, contextualizing, contributing to “sense-making” (much in the tradition of Brenda Dervin’s use of the term).

Much of what I say here was precipitated on a discussion between Joe Rogan and Melissa Chen, broadly about free speech, but in particular and quite poignantly their agreement that if people shut down free speech, then it is often because of an attitude of patronizing others (i.e., to use Joe Rogan’s words):

“Those people are dumber than you; you’re smarter; you know better; you need to stop these people from being tricked [by propaganda]” [#1427 “Melissa_Chen”, 1:01:55; the discussion of this topic begins @ just shy of 58 min.].

Another primary factor in this analysis is the separation into “in-group” vs. “out-group”. For our purposes here, we will simplify this as a simple demarcation of linguistic communities – and we need not get into the precise specification of dialect, slang, jargon,etc. sub-communities. For us, it will suffice to paint the picture in broad strokes without getting caught up in the fine details of ands, ifs, buts, etc.

Now if people look at others and point fingers, saying the other people think this way or that way, then I think this is patronizing. I feel this must happen when anyone functions as (takes on the role of) writers or readers. The writer or the reader treats each other as others – as dialectical partners. If communication channels are closed (as they typically are in the case of retard media), then the linguistic communities are separated. If, on the other hand, communication channels are open to participation, if community engagement is possible, welcomed, even desired and warm invitations are expressed and clearly communicated, then participants who actually do engage and communicate are thereby contributing to the discourse and engaging in the development of the shared, common language. I believe my own work (i.e., what I refer to as engagement with “rational media”) falls into the latter category. The former is patronizing, the latter is being / acting as a patron of the shared / common language – in the development of mutual understanding, by engaging in negotiation of meaning.

If / When I point out that retard media is built on a “propaganda” model, I do not patronize the patrons of that business model – they inflict that upon themselves by engaging / participating in that community. The institutions patronizing them are the advertisers (those who are responsible for the advertisements), not the persons who observe / point out the way advertising industry works, the way the participants in that industry are behaving, engaging, interacting, etc. with their targets.

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Automatism + Automaticity – What is my role?

While writing the previous episodes, I wondered how other people would react to them. I decided to publish them even though I think most people are not very concerned about the well-being of others. I expect most people will react with something like “what do I care what happens after I die? I only want money here + now while I’m alive”.

Whether that’s labeled as “self-centered” or “egotistical”, I don’t care to make that judgment call – many will gladly refer to something like Adam Smith’s notion of “enlightened self-interest” (or more current might be Lily Allen’s “Everyone’s at it” 😉 ).

What has become more clear to me is how people’s behavior probably masks some much more deeply held beliefs (in the sense of repressed thoughts). People do not so much try to defy nature or evolution as they try to cover up their own fears or discomfort with feeling small or insignificant. They do not want to go out on a limb and risk being laughed out of the room.

Therefore, they will not play the Holy Fool, but rather play it safe and agree with the majority. The bandwagon effect capitalizes on these fears and insecurities to foster compliance with the proposed propaganda regime.

I am happy that I have now figured out an explanation for the observed mainstream compliance that does not require me to explain it with illiteracy. This allows me to maintain that it is at least possible that some people are not illiterate, but rather that they perhaps simply choose to make what seems to be irrational decisions for some other reason.

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Automatism + Automaticity – Let’s do this right!

In the previous episode, I raised some concerns about how automatism and automaticity affect us, our technologies and therefore also the world in general. I quoted a line from Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, “Talking to strangers” – but I didn’t mention how he noted that although Holy Fools (people who are foolish enough to criticize the social order when they sense that something is wrong) are necessary, they are not sufficient (in his words: “we can’t all be Holy Fools” [19:10] ).

Mr. Gladwell’s book is mostly about communication between individual humans (this is also known as “interpersonal communication”). This is a very important technology, but it is not the only technology we need to think about. Automatism is also a crucial technology – and I think we need to pay more attention to it.

We can hopefully all still recall from our biology classes in school that the process of evolution includes several aspects. One fundamental pillar to the way evolution works is the aspect of variation – and this does indeed echo Gladwell’s sentiment that a homogeneous population of only Holy Fools would probably not work very well. In the theory of evolution, survival of a species depends on enough variation within the species to ensure that the species does not completely succumb to an attack from one vector.

My understanding of computers leads me to believe that this is a significant difference between machines and evolutionary technology (also known as “life” 😉 ). While life thrives on variation, machines thrive on standardization. Half a century ago, the pioneers of the Internet Age made a decision that recognizes this vulnerability inherent in computer technology – and therefore they built an Internet that was based on a principle of decentralization (and thereby implicitly also a system based on trust in the evolutionary principle of strengthening by variation).

While it may be acceptable to dismiss the occasional Bernie Madoff as a cost of doing business, a Bernie Madoff every day is a different thing. Or even worse: an existential threat. In any case, relying on one monopolistic technology is not a recipe for success – or even survival.

We have years, decades, even centuries long legacies of technologies based on “one right way” of thinking – and it’s easy to see why. Against a medieval backdrop of unenlightened quackery, witchcraft and whatnot, the Enlightenment delivered astoundingly reliable results. Newton and the like delivered mathematical formulas, scientific methods, accuracy and precision. True and false became undeniable facts.

Folk psychology is the kind of crude psychology we glean from cultural sources such as sitcoms — but that is not the way things happen in real life.

Malcolm Gladwell, “Talking to Strangers”, chapter 6, audio version 26:20

In real life, true and false are very far from being undeniable facts. One might even argue that undeniable facts are not undeniable facts. Today the widespread fanatical devotion to data is no longer tempered with a reasonable understanding of how data collection actually works.

The expression “it’s complicated” is perhaps the quintessential embodiment of the kind of insight we need more of now – more than ever. We need to say goodbye to “one right way” and we need to say hello to diversity, variations from norms and differentiation in algorithms.

Differentiating in algorithms means becoming aware of context, realizing that different perspectives require different qualifications, understanding that variation in nature requires variation in (and in particular: qualitative) measurement. Otherwise, all those numbers will only glaze over and we won’t be able to distinguish apples from oranges.

Doing this right requires many right ways, not one right way.

This also means that an essential requirement for doing this right is that we need to accept and embrace complexity. This is something that has traditionally become ever more marginalized in the modern scientific method – modern science has traditionally preferred simplicity to complexity. Is that because of our own way of thinking? Is human automatism at odds with the automatism of natural evolution?

[thank u, next]

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Automatism + Automaticity – 20th Century

If you thought my previous introduction was dark, then if you use your imagination a little to color in the details of what comes next, then you may actually begin to lose your faith in humanity – but I choose to spare you such sketches, because I myself don’t even want to have to stomach such gory images of reality. *

Throughout the 20th Century, there was much interest in automatism and automaticity. The beginnings of this interest can easily be traced far back into the 19th Century, but rather than meticulously detailing the historical background, let me point out that the interest in these topics was from several different sources. Industrialization generally raised interest in machinery and automation. At the same time, Marxist ideas contrasted capital with labor. There was also much scientific interest in logic and reasoning, and finally there were also significant scientific advances in medicine and also in related fields such as psychology.

By the middle of the 20th Century, a new industry known as “media” had become established – and this new industry (with roots in publishing dating back several hundred years, ultimately to the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press) was strongly aligned with and likewise strongly based in capitalism. This led to much research and development in promoting and increasing the productivity of capital investment, resulting in less interest in human-centered (“humanist”) analyses (final result: more interest in profit maximization).

In this context, there was an increasing divergence between machinery and automation on the one hand, and human interests (including notions of “humanity” and “humane behavior”) on the other. Increasingly, humans became an input into algorithms focused on maximizing other measures, such as output or profit. Today, automatism is popularly viewed as a dystopic Luddite horror story rather than in a context of scientific fascination with natural phenomena.

The ideal scenario in this scheme is the “making money while you sleep” image, that of a fat slob sipping a drink, gazing at bathing beauties, while relaxing under a palm tree along the beach on some remote island beside a laptop tallying up the money rolling in as dumb laborers in some grungy industrial town far away work in sweatshops to scratch together enough money for rent, food, clothing and maybe every now and then a cigarette.

You just assumed that someone was paying attention.

Nat Simons of Renaissance Technologies, quoted in Malcolm Gladwell, “Talking to Strangers”, chapter 4, audio version 12:52 [talking about the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme fiasco]

Apparently, no one was paying attention to the ponzi scheme fraud perpetrated by Bernie Madoff – nor to any of the dozens of cases of crimes against humanity documented in Malcolm Gladwell’s book. There are many many more cases throughout the 20th Century where apparently no one was paying attention. In most industrial countries a large portion of the population ingest chemicals to help them pay less attention, produced by industries making ever more profits. Is this a case of automaticity in action? Is this good or bad, right or wrong?

Many industries reap large profits by manipulating information such that humans automatically behave in ways reminiscent of Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. These industries are able to reap so much profit, that they are willing and able to invest large sums into research and development – not about products or services, but rather about marketing products and services to consumers willing and able to pay for them, leading to more profits for these industries. Is this a case of automaticity in action?

When we utilize a search algorithm, are we aware of the way that search algorithm works? A few years ago, I asked Matt Mullenweg to pay attention to this question. There were thousands of software developers in the room – you could hear a pin drop. Later, several developers spoke with me and laughed at how absurd it was for me to question Google’s authority in this field. Is this a case of automaticity in action?

The 20th Century is over, but we need to be aware of our roots. There are legacy technologies. Each legacy technology potentially gives rise to its own distinct legacy automaticity. We are morally accountable for our decisions to use a technology, or to refrain from using it. If Greta Thunberg can choose to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a boat, you can choose to behave rationally the next time you search for information.

We are free to choose. Will we choose the automatism of a Pavlov dog? Sometimes, yes. Always? Well, maybe we ought to ponder the alternatives a little more….

* I am reminded here of Susan Sontag’s excellent “Regarding the Pain of Others” – if you need a little more disgust in your life, I recommend picking up a copy.

[thank u, next]

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