Weekly Head Voices #119: Snowcrash.

This edition of the not-quite-Weekly Head Voices covers the period of time from Monday March 6 to Sunday March 26, 2017.

As is becoming sort of a tradition around these parts, I get to show you a photo or two of our over-nerding antidote trips into the wild.

This is the path to the Koppie Alleen beach in the De Hoop Nature Reserve. Paths and photos of paths make me all pensive:

The following impression is of the De Hoopvlei. The short hiking trail along the vlei turned my morning run into an epic one.

The weekend before the De Hoop one, I spent at least half an hour sitting on the sofa just thinking.

Two things are noteworthy about this event.

  1. I had half an hour of pure, uncut, interruption-free idle time.
  2. During this time, I resisted the urge to flip out or open any information consumption device, instead electing to have my thoughts explore my internal landscape, like people used to do in the old days.

I was trying to come up with better ways to keep track of this landscape. The Deep Work phase I’m going through currently applies to work time (doh), but somehow not to free time, where I’m very much prone to latch on securely to the internet firehose for a mind-blasting gulp-athon.

Coincidentally, and perhaps even slightly ironically, the firehose deposited this insightful Scientific American article titled Warning: Your New Digital World Is Highly Addictive.

Psychology and marketing professor Adam Alter argues that the companies behind the apps and the media that we consume are naturally applying various advanced tools to ensure that we remain engaged for as long as possible.

In short, you spend so much time in Facebook (I don’t anymore haha) because Facebook employs really clever people who build systems that run continuous experiments on your viewing behaviour and figure out what to show you so that your eyeballs remain glued to that little display.

This makes absolute sense of course.

If your company’s life blood was advertising revenue, and/or user engagement was important to your company’s bottom line for some or other reason, of course you would analyse and A/B test the living daylights out of your users in order to keep them in your app / media stream for that much longer.

The following day, the firehose of faux-wisdom gave me this: Tim Berners-Lee: I invented the web. Here are three things we need to change to save it.

Sir Berners-Lee is arguing that we’ve lost control of our data (“your” data belongs to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, <insert your thing here>; you should blog more it’s better) and, more importantly, that we’re being manipulated by less than benevolent actors (pronounce with melodramatic accent on the “tors”) who, again based on advanced analytics tools, manufacture and modify news in order to sway public opinion. (Read my other recent post Fake News is Just the Beginning if your tin foil hat is just getting warmed up.)

In 2011, 2012 and 2014, I wrote briefly about our innate weakness for anything new. Social media is almost the perfect poison in that respect. You keep on scrolling down, because what if, what if there’s something new that’s going to answer that question you have not even formulated yet.

Putting all of this together: The internet is a beautiful thing. However, we have evolved parts of it to target an insidious psychological weakness in ourselves. Furthermore, there is a massive commercial incentive to keep on tweaking the distractions so that they become even more addictive, negating many of the information-related advantages they might have offered.

As if that was not sufficient, there is political and commercial incentive to develop techniques that essentially subvert our cognition, thereby fairly effectively misleading us to make decisions that satisfy somebody else’s agenda.

All is not lost.

Making time to think is great. Set aside as much as you can. Stare into space. Resist the urge to check the little magic window.

Personally, I like to form habits as much as possible.

Deep Work has become a habit for me. I am going to bring in old-school glassy-eyed staring-into-space thinking as a habit also. Complementary to that, and as an answer to my search for ways of keeping track of my mental landscape, I have resolved to write / draw as much of that mental landscape as I can, at regular intervals.

More generally, I wonder if, and how, we as humankind are going to address the issue of news and opinion manipulation.

Do we have to resign ourselves to this future? Is it going to become a question of which side employs the most expensive analytics and data science, and can hence out-manipulate its opponents? Or are we humans somehow going to develop systemic immunity?

In any case, I wish you all great success and happiness staring into space!

P.S. I nominated Alexandra Elbakyan for the brand-new MIT Media Lab Disobedience Prize. If you have some time, and you feel that publically funded research results should be available to the public, please add your nomination.

 

Fake news is just the beginning.

Intrigued by the trailers of the movie The Arrival, which I have not seen yet, I read the short story compilation Stories of your life and others by Ted Chiang.

The short story Story of your life, on which the movie is based, has a fascinating premise. However, I do hear that the film does not spend that much time on her discovery of and assimilation by the alien writing system “Heptapod B”, which to me was one of the more interesting threads.

Anyways, this post is not about that story.

It’s about another story in the collection called Liking What You See: A Documentary, written way back in 2002.

Close to the end, an initially strong campaign for calliagnosia (a non-invasive and highly selective procedure to remove humans’ innate appreciation of attractiveness in others, already a great science-fiction philosophy prop) at the fictitious but influential unversity Pembleton is lost at the last minute due to a highly persuasive televised speech by the leader of the opposition.

Read the following extract for how exactly this was done:

In the latest on the Pembleton calliagnosia initiative, EduNews has learned that a new form of digital manipulation was used on the broadcast  of PEN spokesperson Rebbecca Boyer’s speech. EduNews has received files from the SemioTech Warriors that contain what appear to be two recorded versions of the speech: an original — acquired from the Wyatt/Hayes (ed: PR firm) computers — and the broadcast version. The files also include the SemioTech Warriors’ analysis of the difference between the two versions.

The discrepancies are primarily enhancements to Ms. Boyer’s voice intonation, facial expressions and body language. Viewers who watch the original version rate Ms. Boyer’s performance as good, while those who watch the edited version rate her performance as excellent, describing her as extraordinarily dynamic and persuasive. The SemioTech Warriors conclude that Wyatt/Hayes has developed new software capabable of fine-tuning paralinguistic cues in order to maximize the emotional response evoked in viewers. This dramatically increases the effectiveness of recorded presentations … and its use in the PEN broadcast is likely what caused many supporters of the calliagnosia initiative to change their votes.

I would like to remind you that Ted Chiang wrote that story in 2002.

When I read this, I had to sit still for a moment, thinking about all of the advanced techniques that are currently being used to analyse us all, and then to manipulate or even manufacture news with the explicit purpose of swaying public opinion in a specific direction.

My thoughts moved on to the great advances being made with deep learning based human speech synthesis, facial re-enactment (see youtube at the top of this post), cut-and-paste voice editing (Adobe’s VoCo) and much much more.

Up to now, the major mechanisms of influence have been curating which packets of information people consume. However, the tools for also modifying the contents of these packets of information seem to be ready.

We’ve been photoshopping photos of people to make those people appear more attractive since forever.

How long before we start seriously “videoshopping” televised speeches to make them more persuasive? With people consuming ever-increasing amounts of potentially personalised video, there’s an even bigger opportunity for those who desire to influence us for reasons less pure than just edification.

Critical Thinking 101: Three super easy steps to spot poppycock on the internet.

Today it happened again.

A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes

(quote not by Mark Twain, origin quite interesting)

Someone on facebook forwarded an article that was full of badly written and utterly unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about topic X. (topic X could be anything: politics, health, whatever)

To me, it was instantly clear that the article was 100%, undiluted, hogwash.

Now you probably think that I must have decades of experience separating the internet wheat from the chaff.

While that is true, you too can fortunately very quickly become a wheat-chaff-separation ninja by applying the following three super-easy steps.

1. Ensure that the site with the article is a legitimate source

This is where most people get tripped up. Someone shares something on social media, you see it, and your blood boils, so you reshare without checking.

Next time, break the cycle by quickly checking the address of the news link. This is your first line of defense.

Here are some examples to get you started:

Poppycock: naturalnews.com, worldunity.me, someconspiracy.wordpress.com, … (send me more)

Legitimate: newscientist.com, nytimes.com, theguardian.com, propublica.org

It doesn’t take much practice to spot the pattern.

If the address looks like it could be a BS source, there’s a high probability it is. Remember, we live in the age of fake news, when any idiot can and will put up a website and fill it with misleading information.

Important: Images with text on them shared on Facebook are instantly disqualified. Come on people, we can’t be that gullible!

If you’re still in doubt, continue on to the next step:

2. Search for the site and/or the article contents on Snopes and on Google

Snopes is an absolute goldmine, and it’s free for you to use, so please do.

You can search for any topic or any story, and it will immediately give you a judgement of its veracity and a complete facts-based motivation for its decision.

If you can’t find anything on Snopes, googling the name of the site, or the contents of the story will often reward you with external sources to help you decide. Remember to apply rule 1 to the external sources you find.

3. Find more external LEGITIMATE sources confirming or denying the contents of the article

If after applying steps 1 and 2 you still have some doubt, try to find more external sources, applying rule 1 to each of these of course, that confirm or deny the contents of the article.

If you can’t find any legitimate external sources, that’s usually a sign that the article under study should be flatly ignored.

PROFIT!

Only when you’ve applied all three steps, and they all have helped you to make the call that the link under study is not poppycock, only then consider sharing it with your internet friends.

Furthermore, if you see a suspicious looking article shared by any of your friends, please do gently point them at this post!

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