Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

There is something ironic and vaguely tragic about how various Internet platforms — mostly search engines and social media networks — have unwittingly been thrust into roles their creators never envisioned for themselves. Unless I’m mistaken, they launched under the same business model as broadcast media: create content, or better yet, crowd-source content, to draw in viewers and subscribers whose attention is then delivered to advertisers. Revenue is derived from advertisers while the basic services — i.e., search, job networking, encyclopedias and dictionaries, or social connection — are given away gratis. The modest inconveniences and irritations of having the screen littered and interrupted with ads is a trade-off most end users are happy to accept for free content.

Along the way, some platform operators discovered that user data itself could be both aggregated and individualized and subsequently monetized. This second step unwittingly created so-called surveillance capitalism that Shoshana Zuboff writes about in her recently published book (previously blogged about it here). Essentially, an Orwellian Big Brother (several of them, in fact) tracks one’s activity through smart phone apps and Web browsers, including GPS data revealing movement through real space, not just virtual spaces. This is also the domain of the national security state from local law enforcement to the various security branches of the Federal government: dragnet surveillance where everyone is watched continuously. Again, end users shrug off surveillance as either no big deal or too late to resist.

The most recent step is that, like the Internet itself, various platforms have been functioning for some time already as public utilities and accordingly fallen under demand for regulation with regard to authenticity, truth, and community standards of allowable speech. Thus, private corporations have been thrust unexpectedly into the role of regulating content. Problem is, unlike broadcast networks that create their own content and can easily enforce restrictive standards, crowd-sourced platforms enable the general population to upload its own content, often mere commentary in text form but increasingly as video content, without any editorial review. These platforms have parried by deploying and/or modifying their preexisting surveillance algorithms in search of objectionable content normally protected as free speech and taken steps to remove content, demonetize channels, and ban offending users indefinitely, typically without warning and without appeal.

If Internet entrepreneurs initially got into the biz to make a few (or a lot of) quick billions, which some few of them have, they have by virtue of the global reach of their platforms been transformed into censors. It’s also curious that by enabling end uses to publish to their platforms, they’ve given voice to the masses in all their unwashed glory. Now, everyone’s crazy, radicalized uncle (or sibling or parent or BFF) formerly banished to obscurity railing against one thing or another at the local tavern, where he was tolerated as harmless so long as he kept his bar tab current, is proud to fly his freak flag anywhere and everywhere. Further, the anonymous coward who might issue death or bomb threats to denounce others has been given means to distribute hate across platforms and into the public sphere, where it gets picked up and maybe censored. Worst of all, the folks who monitor and decide what is allowed, functioning as modern-day thought police, are private citizens and corporations with no oversight or legal basis to act except for the fact that everything occurs on their respective platforms. This is a new aspect to the corporatocracy but not one anyone planned.

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This is about to get weird.

I caught a good portion of a recent Joe Rogan podcast (sorry, no link or embedded video) with Alex Jones and Eddie Bravo (nearly 5 hours long instead of the usual 2 to 3) where the trio indulged themselves in a purported grand conspiracy to destroy civilization and establish a new post-human one. The more Jones rants speaks (which is quite a lot), the more he sounds like a madman. But he insists he does so to serve the public. He sincerely wants people to know things he’s figured out about an evil cabal of New World Order types. So let me say at least this: “Alex Jones, I hear you.” But I’m unconvinced. Apologies to Alex Jones et al. if I got any details wrong. For instance, it’s not clear to me whether Jones believes this stuff himself or he’s merely reporting what others may believe.

The grand conspiracy is supposedly interdimensional beings operating at a subliminal range below or beyond normal human perception. Perhaps they revealed themselves to a few individuals (to the cognoscenti, ya know, or is that shared revelation how one is inducted into the cognoscenti?). Rogan believes that ecstatic states induced by drugs provide access to revelation, like tuning a radio to the correct (but secret) frequency. Whatever exists in that altered cognitive state appears like a dream and is difficult to understand or remember. The overwhelming impression Rogan reports as lasting is of a distinct nonhuman presence.

Maybe I’m not quite as barking mad as Jones or as credulous as Rogan and Bravo, but I have to point out that humans are interdimensional beings. We move through three dimensions of space and one unidirectional dimension of time. If that doesn’t quite make sense, then I refer readers to Edwin Abbott’s well-known book Flatland. Abbott describes what it might be like for conscious beings in only two dimensions of space (or one). Similarly, for most of nature outside of vertebrates, it’s understood that consciousness, if it exists at all (e.g., not in plants), is so rudimentary that there is no durable sense of time. Beings exist in an eternal now (could be several seconds long/wide/tall — enough to function) without memory or anticipation. With that in mind, the possibility of multidimensional beings in 5+ dimensions completely imperceptible to us doesn’t bother me in the least. The same is true of the multiverse or many-worlds interpretation. What bothers me is that such beings would bother with us, especially with a conspiracy to crash civilization.

The other possibility at which I roll my eyes is a post-human future: specifically, a future when one’s consciousness escapes its biological boundaries. The common trope is that one’s mind is uploaded to a computer to exist in the ether. Another is that one transcends death somehow with intention and purpose instead of simply ceasing to be (as atheists believe) or some variation of the far more common religious heaven/hell/purgatory myth. This relates as well to the supposition of strong AI about to spark (the Singularity): self-awareness and intelligent thought that can exist on some substrate other than human biology (the nervous system, really, including the brain). Sure, cognition can be simulated for some specific tasks like playing chess or go, and we humans can be fooled easily into believing we are communicating with a thought machine à la the Turing Test. But the rather shocking sophistication, range, utility, and adaptability of even routine human consciousness is so far beyond any current simulation that the usual solution to get engineers from where they are now to real, true, strong AI is always “and then a miracle happened.” The easy, obvious route/accident is typically a power surge (e.g., a lightning strike).

Why bother with mere humans is a good question if one is post-human or an interdimensional being. It could well be that existence in such a realm would make watching human interactions either impenetrable (news flash, they are already) or akin to watching through a dim screen. That familiar trope is the lost soul imprisoned in the spirit world, a parallel dimension that permits viewing from one side only but prohibits contact except perhaps through psychic mediums (if you believe in such folks — Rogan for one doesn’t).

The one idea worth repeating from the podcast is the warning not to discount all conspiracy theories out of hand as bunk. At least a few have been demonstrated to be true. Whether any of the sites behind that link are to be believed I leave you readers to judge.

Addendum: Although a couple comments came in, no one puzzled over the primary piece I had to add, namely, that we humans are interdimentional beings. The YouTube video below depicts a portion of the math/science behind my statement, showing how at least two topographical surfaces behave paradoxically when limited to 2 or 3 dimensions but theoretically cohere in 4+ dimensions imperceptible to us.

Everyone is familiar with the convention in entertainment media where characters speak without the use of recognizable language. (Not related really to the convention of talking animals.) The first instance I can recall (someone correct me if earlier examples are to be found) is the happy-go-lucky bird Woodstock from the old Peanuts cartoons (do kids still recognize that cast of characters?), whose dialog was shown graphically as a series of vertical lines:

When the cartoon made its way onto TV for holiday specials, its creator Charles Schultz used the same convention to depict adults, never shown onscreen but with dialogue voiced by a Harmon-muted trombone. Roughly a decade later, two characters from the Star Wars franchise “spoke” in languages only other Star Wars characters could understand, namely, Chebacca (Chewie) and R2D2. More recently, the character Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy (known to me only through the Marvel movie franchise, not through comic books) speaks only one line of dialogue, “I am Groot,” which is understood as full speech by others Guardians characters. When behemoths larger than a school bus (King Kong, Godzilla, Jurassic dinosaurs, Cloverfield, Kaiju, etc.) appear, the characters are typically denied the power of speech beyond the equivalent of a lion’s roar. (True villains talk little or not at all as they go about their machinations — no monologuing! unless it’s a James Bond film. An exception notable for its failure to charm audiences is Ultron, who wouldn’t STFU. You can decide for yourself which is the worse kind of villainy.)

This convention works well enough for storytelling and has the advantage of allowing the reader/viewer to project onto otherwise blank speech. However, when imported into the real world, especially in politics, the convention founders. There is no Babelfish universal translator inserted in the ear to transform nonsense into coherence. The obvious example of babblespeech is 45, whose speech when off the teleprompter is a series of rambling non sequiturs, free associations, slogans, and sales pitches. Transcripts of anyone’s extemporaneous speech reveal lots of restarts and blind alleys; we all interrupt ourselves to redirect. However, word salad that substitutes for meaningful content in 45’s case is tragicomic: alternately entirely frustrating or comically entertaining depending on one’s objective. Satirical news shows fall into the second category.

45 is certainly not the first. Sarah Palin in her time as a media darling (driver of ratings and butt of jokes — sound familiar?) had a knack for crazy speech combinations that were utter horseshit yet oddly effective for some credulous voters. She was even a hero to some (nearly a heartbeat away from being the very first PILF). We’ve also now been treated to a series of public interrogations where a candidate for a cabinet post or an accused criminal offers testimony before a congressional panel. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos famously evaded simple yes/no questions during her confirmation hearing, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh similarly refused to provide direct answers to direct questions. Unexpectedly, sacrificial lamb Michael Cohen does give direct answers to many questions, but his interlocutors then don’t quite know how to respond considering their experience and expectation that no one answers appropriately.

What all this demonstrates is that there is often a wide gulf between what is said and what is heard. In the absence of what might be understood as effective communication (honest, truthful, and forthright), audiences and voters fill in the blanks. Ironically, we also can’t handle hear too much truth when confronted by its awfulness. None of this is a problem in storytelling, but when found in politic narratives, it’s emblematic of how dysfunctional our communications have become, and with them, the clear thought and principled activity of governance.

In the lost decades of my youth (actually, early adulthood, but to an aging fellow like me, that era now seems like youth), I began to acquire audio equipment and recordings (LPs, actually) to explore classical music as an alternative to frequent concert attendance. My budget allowed only consumer-grade equipment, but I did my best to choose wisely rather than guess and end up with flashy front-plates that distract from inferior sound (still a thing, as a visit to Best Buy demonstrates). In the decades since, I’ve indulged a modest fetish for high-end electronics that fits neither my budget nor lifestyle but nonetheless results in my simple two-channel stereo (not the surround sound set-ups many favor) of individual components providing fairly astounding sonics. When a piece exhibits problems or a connection gets interrupted, I often resort to older, inferior, back-up equipment before troubleshooting and identifying the problem. Once the correction is made, return to premium sound is an unmistakable improvement. When forced to resort to less-than-stellar components, I’m sometimes reminded of a remark a friend once made, namely, that when listening, he tries to hear the quality in the performance despite degraded reproduced sound (e.g., surface noise on the LP).

Though others may argue, I insist that popular music does not requires high fidelity to enjoy. The truth in that statement is evidenced by how multifunction devices such as phones and computers are used by most people to listen to music. Many influencers laugh and scoff at the idea that anyone would buy physical media or quality equipment anymore; everything now is streamed to their devices using services such as Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Prime. From my perspective, they’re fundamentally insensitive to subtle gradations of sound. Thumping volume (a good beat) is all that’s needed or understood.

However, multifunction devices do not aim at high fidelity. Moreover, clubs and outdoor festivals typically use equipment designed for sheer volume rather than quality. Loud jazz clubs might be the worst offenders, especially because intimate, acoustic performance (now mostly abandoned) set an admirable artistic standard only a few decades ago. High volume creates the illusion of high energy, but diminishing returns set in quickly as the human auditory system reacts to extreme volume by blocking as much sound as possible to protect itself from damage, or more simply, by going deaf slowly or quickly. Reports of performers whose hearing is wrecked from short- or long-term overexposure to high volume are legion. Profound hearing loss is already appearing throughout the general public the same way enthusiastic sunbathers are developing melanoma.

As a result of technological change, notions of how music is meant to sound is shifting. Furthermore, the expectation that musical experiences are to be shared by audiences of more than, say, a few people at a time is giving way to the singular, private listening environment enabled by headphones and earbuds. (Same thing happened with reading.) Differences between music heard communally in a purposed performance space (whether live or reproduced) and music reproduced in the ear (earbuds) or over the ear (headphones) canal — now portable and ubiquitous — lead to audio engineers shifting musical perspective yet again (just as they did at the onset of the radio and television eras) to accommodate listeners with distorted expectations how music should sound.

No doubt, legitimate musical experiences can be had through reproduced sound, though degraded means produce lesser approximations of natural sound and authenticity as equipment descends in price and quality or the main purpose is simply volume. Additionally, most mainstream popular musics require amplification, as opposed to traditional acoustic forms of musicmaking. Can audiences/listeners actually get beyond degradation and experience artistry and beauty? Or must we be content with facsimiles that no longer possess the intent of the performers or a robust aesthetic experience? These may well be questions for the ages for which no solid answers obtain.

Caveat: Rather uncharacteristically long for me. Kudos if you have the patience for all of this.

Caught the first season of HBO’s series Westworld on DVD. I have a boyhood memory of the original film (1973) with Yul Brynner and a dim memory of its sequel Futureworld (1976). The sheer charisma of Yul Brynner in the role of the gunslinger casts a long shadow over the new production, not that most of today’s audiences have seen the original. No doubt, 45 years of technological development in film production lends the new version some distinct advantages. Visual effects are quite stunning and Utah landscapes have never been used more appealingly in terms of cinematography. Moreover, storytelling styles have changed, though it’s difficult to argue convincingly that they’re necessarily better now than then. Competing styles only appear dated. For instance, the new series has immensely more time to develop its themes; but the ancient parables of hubris and loss of control over our own creations run amok (e.g., Shelley’s Frankenstein, or more contemporaneously, the surprisingly good new movie Upgrade) have compact, appealing narrative arcs quite different from constant teasing and foreshadowing of plot developments while actual plotting proceeds glacially. Viewers wait an awful lot longer in the HBO series for resolution of tensions and emotional payoffs, by which time investment in the story lines has been dispelled. There is also no terrifying crescendo of violence and chaos demanding rescue or resolution. HBO’s Westworld often simply plods on. To wit, a not insignificant portion of the story (um, side story) is devoted to boardroom politics (yawn) regarding who actually controls the Westworld theme park. Plot twists and reveals, while mildly interesting (typically guessed by today’s cynical audiences), do not tie the narrative together successfully.

Still, Westworld provokes considerable interest from me due to my fascination with human consciousness. The initial episode builds out the fictional future world with characters speaking exposition clearly owing its inspiration to Julian Jayne’s book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (another reference audiences are quite unlikely to know or recognize). I’ve had the Julian Jaynes Society’s website bookmarked for years and read the book some while back; never imagined it would be captured in modern fiction. Jaynes’ thesis (if I may be so bold as to summarize radically) is that modern consciousness coalesced around the collapse of multiple voices in the head — ideas, impulses, choices, decisions — into a single stream of consciousness perhaps better understood (probably not) as the narrative self. (Aside: the multiple voices of antiquity correspond to polytheism, whereas the modern singular voice corresponds to monotheism.) Thus, modern human consciousness arose over several millennia as the bicameral mind (the divided brain having two camera, chambers, or halves) functionally collapsed. The underlying story of the new Westworld is the emergence of machine consciousness, a/k/a strong AI, a/k/a The Singularity, while the old Westworld was about a mere software glitch. Exploration of machine consciousness modeling (e.g., improvisation builds on memory to create awareness) as a proxy for better understanding human consciousness might not be the purpose of the show, but it’s clearly implied. And although conjectural, the speed of emergence of human consciousness contrasts sharply with the abrupt ON switch regarding theorized machine consciousness. Westworld treats them as roughly equivalent, though in fairness, 35 years or so in Westworld is in fact abrupt compared to several millennia. (Indeed, the story asserts that machine consciousness sparked alive repeatedly (which I suggested here) over those 35 years but was dialed back repeatedly. Never mind all the unexplored implications.) Additionally, the fashion in which Westworld uses the term bicameral ranges from sloppy to meaningless, like the infamous technobabble of Star Trek.

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Political discussion usually falls out of scope on this blog, though I use the politics category and tag often enough. Instead, I write about collapse, consciousness, and culture (and to a lesser extent, music). However, politics is up front and center with most media, everyone taking whacks at everyone else. Indeed, the various political identifiers are characterized these days by their most extreme adherents. The radicalized elements of any political persuasion are the noisiest and thus the most emblematic of a worldview if one judges solely by the most attention-grabbing factions, which is regrettably the case for a lot of us. (Squeaky wheel syndrome.) Similarly, in the U.S. at least, the spectrum is typically expressed as a continuum from left to right (or right to left) with camps divided nearly in half based on voting. Opinion polls reveal a more lopsided division (toward Leftism/Progressivism as I understand it) but still reinforce the false binary.

More nuanced political thinkers allow for at least two axes of political thought and opinion, usually plotted on an x-y coordinate plane (again, left to right and down to up). Some look more like the one below (a quick image search will reveal dozens of variations), with outlooks divided into regions of a Venn diagram suspiciously devoid of overlap. The x-y coordinate plane still underlies the divisions.

600px-political-spectrum-multiaxis

If you don’t know where your political compass points, you can take this test, though I’m not especially convinced that the result is useful. Does it merely apply more labels? If I had to plot myself according to the traditional divisions above, I’d probably be a centrist, which is to say, nothing. My positions on political issues are not driven by party affiliation, motivated by fear or grievance, subject to a cult of personality, or informed by ideological possession. Perhaps I’m unusual in that I can hold competing ideas in my head (e.g., individualism vs. collectivism) and make pragmatic decisions. Maybe not.

If worthwhile discussion is sought among principled opponents (a big assumption, that), it is necessary to diminish or ignore the more radical voices screaming insults at others. However, multiple perverse incentives reward the most heinous adherents the greatest attention and control of the narrative(s). in light of the news out just this week, call it Body Slam Politics. It’s a theatrical style borne out of fake drama from the professional wrestling ring (not an original observation on my part), and we know who the king of that style is. Watching it unfold too closely is a guaranteed way to destroy one’s political sensibility, to say nothing of wrecked brain cells. The spectacle depicted in Idiocracy has arrived early.

I’m on the sidelines with the issue of free speech, an observer with some skin in the game but not really much at risk. I’m not the sort of beat my breast and seek attention over what seems to me a fairly straightforward value, though with lots of competing interpretations. It helps that I have no particularly radical or extreme views to express (e.g., won’t find me burning the flag), though I am an iconoclast in many respects. The basic value is that folks get to say (and by extension think) whatever they want short of inciting violence. The gambit of the radicalized left has been to equate speech with violence. With hate speech, that may actually be the case. What is recognized as hate speech may be changing, but liberal inclusion strays too far into mere hurt feelings or discomfort, thus the risible demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings suitable for children. If that standard were applied rigorously, free speech as we know it in the U.S. would come to an abrupt end. Whatever SJWs may say they want, I doubt they really want that and suggest they haven’t thought it through well enough yet.

An obvious functional limitation is that one doesn’t get to say whatever one wishes whenever and wherever one wants. I can’t simply breach security and go onto The Tonight Show, a political rally, or a corporate boardroom to tell my jokes, voice my dissent, or vent my dissatisfaction. In that sense, deplatforming may not be an infringement of free speech but a pragmatic decision regarding whom it may be worthwhile to host and promote. Protest speech is a complicated area, as free speech areas designated blocks away from an event are clearly set up to nullify dissent. No attempt is made here to sort out all the dynamics and establish rules of conduct for dissent or the handling of dissent by civil authorities. Someone else can attempt that.

My point with this blog post is to observe that for almost all of us in the U.S., free speech is widely available and practiced openly. That speech has conceptual and functional limitations, such as the ability to attract attention (“move the needle”) or convince (“win hearts and minds”), but short of gag orders, we get to say/think what we want and then deal with the consequences (often irrelevance), if any. Adding terms to the taboo list is a waste of time and does no more to guide people away from thinking or expressing awful things than does the adoption of euphemism or generics. (The terms moron, idiot, and imbecile used to be acceptable psychological classifications, but usage shifted. So many euphemisms and alternatives to calling someone stupid exist that avoiding the now-taboo word retard accomplishes nothing. Relates to my earlier post about epithets.)

Those who complain their free speech has been infringed and those who support free speech vociferously as the primary means of resolving conflict seem not to realize that their objections are less to free speech being imperiled but more to its unpredictable results. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement successfully drew attention to a real problem with police using unnecessary lethal force against black people with alarming regularity. Good so far. The response was Blue Lives Matter, then All Lives Matter, then accusations of separatism and hate speech. That’s the discussion happening — free speech in action. Similarly, when Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee rather than stand and sing the national anthem (hand over heart, uncovered head), a rather modest protest as protests go, he drew attention to racial injustice that then morphed into further, ongoing discussion of who, when, how, why anyone gets to protest — a metaprotest. Nike’s commercial featuring Kaepernick and the decline of attendance at NFL games are part of that discussion, with the public participating or refusing to participate as the case may be. Discomforts and sacrifices are experienced all around. This is not Pollyannaish assurance that all is well and good in free speech land. Whistleblowers and Me Too accusers know only too well that reprisals ruin lives. Rather, it’s an ongoing battle for control of the narrative(s). Fighting that battle inevitably means casualties. Some engage from positions of considerable power and influence, others as underdogs. The discussion is ongoing.

Among the many complaints that cross my path in the ongoing shitshow that American culture has become is an article titled “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality),” authored by Jon Henschen. His authorship is a rather unexpected circumstance since he is described as a financial advisor rather than an authority on music, technology, or culture. Henschen’s article reports on (without linking to it as I do) an analysis by Joan Serrà et al., a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute. Curiously, the analysis is reported on and repackaged by quite a few news sites and blogs since its publication in 2012. For example, the YouTube video embedded below makes many of the same arguments and cites the so-called Millennial Whoop, a hook or gesture now ubiquitous in pop music that’s kinda sorta effective until one recognizes it too manifestly and it begins to sound trite, then irritating.

I won’t recount or summarize arguments except to say that neither the Henschen article nor the video discusses the underlying musical issues quite the way a trained musician would. Both are primarily quantitative rather than qualitative, equating an observed decrease in variety of timbre, loudness, and pitch/harmony as worse music (less is more worse). Lyrical (or poetical) complexity has also retreated. It’s worth noting, too, that the musical subject is narrowed to recorded pop music from 1955 to 2010. There’s obviously a lot to know about pop music, but it’s not generally the subject of serious study among academic musicians. AFAIK, no accredited music school offers degrees in pop music. Berklee College of Music probably comes the closest. (How exactly does songwriting as a major differ from composition?) That standard may be relaxing.

Do quantitative arguments demonstrate degradation of pop music? Do reduced variety, range, and experimentation make pop music the equivalent of a paint-by-the-numbers image with the self-imposed limitation that allows only unmixed primary colors? Hard to say, especially if one (like me) has a traditional education in art music and already regards pop music as a rather severe degradation of better music traditions. Reduction of the artistic palette from the richness and variety of, say, 19th-century art music proceeded through the 20th century (i.e., musical composition is now understood by the lay public to mean songs, which is just one musical genre among many) to a highly refined hit-making formula that has been proven to work remarkably well. Musical refinements also make use of new technological tools (e.g., rhythm machines, autotune, digital soundfield processing), which is another whole discussion.

Musical quality isn’t mere quantity (where more is clearly better), however, and some manage pretty well with limited resources. Still, a sameness or blandness is evident and growing within a genre that is already rather narrowly restricted to using drums, guitars, keyboards, vocals. The antidote Henschen suggests (incentivizing musical literacy and participation, especially in schools) might prove salutary, but such recommendations are ubiquitous throughout modern history. The magical combination of factors that actually catalyzes creativity, as opposed to degradation, is rather quixotic. Despite impassioned pleas not to allow quality to disappear, nothing could be more obvious than that culture drifts according to its own whims (to anthropomorphize) rather than being steered by well-meaning designs.

More to say in part 2 to follow.

A paradoxical strength/weakness of reason is its inherent disposition toward self-refutation. It’s a bold move when undertaken with genuine interest in getting things right. Typically, as evidence piles up, consensus forms that’s tantamount to proof unless some startling new counter-evidence appears. Of course, intransigent deniers exist and convincing refutations do appear periodically, but accounts of two hotly contested topics (from among many) — evolution and climate change — are well established notwithstanding counterclaims completely disproportionate in their ferocity to the evidence. For rationalists, whatever doubts remain must be addressed and accommodated even if disproof is highly unlikely.

This becomes troublesome almost immediately. So much new information is produced in the modern world that, because I am duty-bound to consider it, my head spins. I simply can’t deal with it all. Inevitably, when I think I’ve put a topic to rest and conclude I don’t have to think too much more about it, some argument-du-jour hits the shit pile and I am forced to stop and reconsider. It’s less disorienting when facts are clear, but when interpretive, I find my head all too easily spun by the latest, greatest claims of some charming, articulate speaker able to cobble together evidence lying outside of my expertise.

Take for instance Steven Pinker. He speaks in an authoritative style and has academic credentials that dispose me to trust his work. His new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Still, Pinker is an optimist, whereas I’m a doomer. Even though I subscribe to Enlightenment values (for better or worse, my mind is bent that way), I can’t escape a mountain of evidence that we’ve made such a mess of things that reason, science, humanism, and progress are hardly panaceas capable of saving us from ourselves. Yet Pinker argues that we’ve never had it so good and the future looks even brighter. I won’t take apart Pinker’s arguments; it’s already been done by Jeremy Lent, who concludes that Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. Lent has the expertise, data, and graphs to demonstrate it. Calling Pinker a charlatan would be unfair, but his appreciation of the state of the world stands in high contrast with mine. Who ya gonna believe?

Books and articles like Pinker’s appear all the time, and in their aftermath, so, too, do takedowns. That’s the marketplace of ideas battling it out, which is ideally meant to sharpen thinking, but with the current epistemological crises under way (I’ve blogged about it for years), the actual result is dividing people into factions, destabilizing established institutions, and causing no small amount of bewilderment in the public as to what and whom to believe. Some participants in the exchange of ideas take a sober, evidential approach; others lower themselves to snark and revel in character assassination without bothering to make reasoned arguments. The latter are often called a hit pieces (a special province of the legacy media, it seems), since hefty swipes and straw-man arguments tend to be commonplace. I’m a sucker for the former style but have to admit that the latter can also hit its mark. However, both tire me to the point of wanting to bury my head.

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If the previous blog in this series was about how some ideas and beliefs become lodged or stuck in place (fixity bias), this one is about how other ideas are notoriously mutable (flexibility bias), especially the latest, loudest thing to turn one’s head and divert attention. What makes any particular idea (or is it the person?) prone to one bias or another (see this list) is mysterious to me, but my suspicion is that a character disposition toward openness and adherence to authoritative evidence figure prominently in the case of shifting opinion. In fact, this is one of the primary problems with reason: if evidence can be deployed in favor of an idea, those who consider themselves “reasonable” and thus rely on accumulation of evidence and argumentation to sharpen their thinking are vulnerable to the latest “finding” or study demonstrating sumpinorutha. It’s the intellectual’s version of “New! Improved!”

Sam Harris exploits rationalism to argue against the existence of free will, saying that if sufficient evidence can be brought to bear, a disciplined thinker is compelled to subscribe to the conclusions of reasoned argument. Choice and personal agency (free will) are removed. I find that an odd way to frame the issue. Limitless examples of lack of choice are nonequivalent to the destruction of free will. For example, one can’t decide not to believe in gravity and fly up into the air more than a few inches. One can’t decide that time is an illusion (as theoretical physicists now instruct) and decide not to age. One can’t decide that pooping is too disgusting and just hold it all in (as some children attempt). Counter-evidence doesn’t even need to be argued because almost no one pretends to believe such nonsense. (Twisting one’s mind around to believe in the nonexistence of time, free will, or the self seems to be the special province of hyper-analytical thinkers.) Yet other types of belief/denial — many of them conspiracy theories — are indeed choices: religion, flat Earth, evolution, the Holocaust, the moon landings, 9/11 truth, who really killed JFK, etc. Lots of evidence has been mustered on different sides (multiple facets, actually) of each of these issues, and while rationalists may be compelled by a preponderance of evidence in favor of one view, others are free to fly in the face of that evidence for reasons of their own or adopt by default the dominant narrative and not worry or bother so much.

The public struggles in its grasp of truthful information, as reported in a Pew Research Center study called “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News.” Here’s the snapshot:

The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.

Indiscriminate adoption by many Americans of a faulty viewpoint, or more pointedly, the propaganda and “fake news” on offer throughout the information environment, carries the implication that disciplined thinkers are less confused about truth or facts, taking instead a rational approach as the basis for belief. However, I suggest that reason suffers its own frailties not easily recognized or acknowledged. In short, we’re all confused, though perhaps not hopelessly so. For several years now, I’ve sensed the outline of a much larger epistemological crisis where quintessential Enlightenment values have come under open attack. The irony is that the wicked stepchild of science and reason — runaway technology —  is at least partially responsible for this epochal conflict. It’s too big an idea to grok fully or describe in a paragraph or two, so I’ll simply point to it an move on.

My own vulnerability to flexibility bias manifests specifically in response to appeals to authority. Although well educated, a lifelong autodidact, and an independent thinker, I’m careful not to succumb to the hubris of believing I’ve got it all figgered. Indeed, it’s often said that as one gains expertise and experience in the world, the certainty of youth yields to caution precisely because the mountain of knowledge and understanding one lacks looms larger even as one accumulates wisdom. Bodies of thought become multifaceted and all arguments must be entertained. When an expert, researcher, or academic proposes something outside my wheelhouse, I’m a sitting duck: I latch onto the latest, greatest utterance as the best truth yet available. I don’t fall for it nearly so readily with journalists, but I do recognize that some put in the effort and gain specialized knowledge and context well outside the bounds of normal life, such as war reporters. Various perverse incentives deeply embedded in the institutional model of journalism, especially those related to funding, make it nearly impossible to maintain one’s integrity without becoming a pariah, so only a handful have kept my attention. John Pilger, Chris Hedges, and Matt Taibbe figure prominently.

By way of example, one of the topics that has been of supreme interest to me, though its historical remove renders it rather toothless now, is the cataclysm(s) that occurred at the conclusion of the last ice age roughly 12,000 years ago. At least three hypotheses (of which I’m aware) have been proposed to explain why glacial ice disappeared suddenly over the course of a few weeks, unleashing the Biblical Flood: Earth crust displacement, asteroidal impact(s), and coronal mass ejection(s). Like most hypotheses, evidence is both physical and conjectural, but a sizable body of evidence and argumentation for each is available. As I became familiar with each, my head turned and I became a believer, sorta. Rather than “last one is the rotten egg,” however, the latest, most recent one typically displaces the previous one. No doubt another hypothesis will appear to turn my head and disorient me further. With some topics, especially politics, new information piling on top of old is truly dizzying. And as I’ve written about many topics, I simply lack the expertise to referee competing claims, so whatever beliefs I eventually adopt are permanently provisional.

Finally, my vulnerability to authoritative appeal also reacts to the calm, unflappable tones and complexity of construction of speakers such as Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Charles Murray. Their manner of speaking is sometimes described pejoratively as “academese,” though only Pinker has a teaching position. Murray in particular relies heavily on psychometrics, which may not be outright lying with statistics but allows him to rationalize (literally) extraordinarily taboo subjects. In contrast, it’s easy to disregard pundits and press agents foaming and fulminating over their pet narratives. Yet I also recognize that with academese, I’m being soothed more by style than by substance, a triumph of form over function. In truth, this communication style is an appeal to emotion masquerading as an appeal to authority. I still prefer it, just as I prefer a steady, explanatory style of journalism over the snarky, reinterpretive style of disquisition practiced by many popular media figures. What communicates most effectively to me and (ironically) pushes my emotional buttons also weakens my ability to discriminate and think properly.

Yet still more to come in part 5.