Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Our Robots, Ourselves
Jim O’Loughlin (presented at Supper Club on 19 Sept. 2017)

          So, maybe you’ve seen this movie: in the near-future, machines created by humans become so sophisticated that they achieve sentience, meaning that they are able to think independently and become conscious of their own identities.  Very soon after, they decide that there is no need for so many people and begin a genocidal attack on humanity.
          Or, maybe you’ve read this book: it takes place in a world in which the robots humans have created become so adept at laboring that there comes to be no need for most human workers. The result is a sophisticated consumer economy that nevertheless has mass unemployment and inequality.
          Or, then again maybe you’re looking forward to the TV comedy about a world in which artificial intelligence has surpassed human intelligence and hilarity thus ensues.
          Respectively, those are plot synopsis for the James Cameron-directed film Terminator, Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Piano Player, and a forthcoming FX series entitled Singularity, slated to be directed by Robert Downey, Jr., with Damon Wayans, Jr. and Amanda Lund.
          However, those are also the scenarios underlying, respectively again, physicist Stephen Hawking’s recent concern in interviews about a rogue robot rebellion, the many current magazine and newspaper articles with titles like “Robots could take over 38% of U. S. jobs within 15 years,” and the multi-million dollar investments by the founders of Google and PayPal in biotech and computerized schemes to achieve immortality (Masunaga).
So, what happened? Did science fiction make predictions that turned out to be true? Should we worry about the robot apocalypse or, alternatively, start saving money for an immortal future in which our brains are uploaded to robot bodies?
          Though this presentation is going to examine some recent advances, in the end, I am skeptical about claims of a looming robot revolution because they too neatly conform to the fears and fantasies that have long occupied human thought, particularly in regard to androids, a term used to describe robots with human features and characteristics. Instead of being concerned about a future dominated by robots or androids, I will encourage us to think in terms of cyborgs, a term used to describe creatures that blend human and robotic qualities.  I’ll encourage us to think in terms of cyborgs not because that is what I think the future holds for us, but because that describes the creatures we are right now.
          At our current point in history advances in the field of Artificial Intelligence are attracting a lot of interest and a lot of concern.  Let’s think of this as the Watson moment, after the IBM computer that in 2011 was able to win Jeopardy in a competition against human champions. It was a remarkable accomplishment because Jeopardy seemed to require a level of understanding that had seemed beyond what computers could do. And our Watson moment did not occur in isolation but was part of a wave of technological advances, from the smartphone to the Human Genome Project, that have been met with similar reactions that combine enthusiasm and concern.
          Of course, such concerns are not new, and with a little bit of historical distance they perhaps seem less monumental.  Many of us will remember a different moment in time, what we can call the Deep Blue moment in 1997 when a different IBM computer defeated grandmaster Gary Kasparov in chess. Contemporaneous reporting on this match spoke of it as a paradigm-shifting event, as in the New York Times headline, “Computer Defeats Kasparov, Stunning the Chess Experts” In fact, Deep Blue was part of a wave of ambitious Artificial Intelligence research.  But this was a wave that crashed amidst unrealistic expectations and predictions. Vernor Vinge predicted in 1993 that Singularity (the point at which computers would surpass human intelligence) would be reached by 2023, which is likely to be proven incorrect (Ford).  A study of Digital Culture published as recently as 2008 claimed that  “Artificial Intelligence, at least as it was originally understood, has been largely discredited” (Gere 223). Despite the growing importance of computers and digital technology around the turn of this century, artificial intelligence had come to be seen as a pipe dream rather than a serious pursuit.  And, in the end, it is easy to forget that we live in a world where computers can beat humans at chess, and life still goes on.
However, at our current moment, in the era of big data, Artificial Intelligence is a hot topic again.  As I speak, an enormous amount of resources are being invested by high tech companies such as Google, Apple, and Amazon in a new round of Artificial Intelligence research.  A computer recently defeated a human in a game of Go, which had previously seemed beyond the capacity of machines.  Never mind all of the once-science-fiction scenarios with which I opened this presentation.
All of which raises a reasonable question: do we have to worry about robots?
          Well, here’s the news: robots are not just coming, they are already here.  Advanced manufacturing uses any number of robotic devices that have sped up production processes, eliminating the need for human workers in many traditional manufacturing fields. Robots can vacuum rugs and retrieve merchandise in a warehouse. However, those are all different robots, designed for specific, predictable and repetitive purposes. They are not what we usually think of when we think of robots.  Those seem to just be machines.
          And, yes, robots are just machines. But when we think of robots, at least at the level of our fears and fantasies, what usually comes to mind would be better described as androids.  Androids are robots that are designed to look like us and mimic human behavior.  Androids are the ones that with varying degrees of sophistication, we fear replacing us.  Androids could be us, but stronger, smarter version of us that are less prone to emotional decision making.  When we think of robots, we are usually thinking of androids.  But if robots are already here, androids are still very, very far away.
          Take the issue of jobs. If there is a bottom line on this issue, it is that jobs that consist of repetitive motions done in controlled settings are ripe for robotization.  This includes the kind of traditional manufacturing jobs that have already been in decline in fields like automotives or textiles, but in that category one also has to several white collar jobs such as those of accountants, agents and tellers.
          However, there are real limits to what robots can do.  As Michio Kakio points out, robots have bad eyesight and they don’t understand simple aspects of human behavior.  They struggle mightily with unpredictable situations, be that unsteady terrain or unstable humans.  There are plenty of non-repetitive jobs that will not only survive but thrive in the future, and they tend to involve regular interactions in unpredictable situations.  These jobs would include blue collar professions such as landscaping, plumbing and police work, as well as creative class professions that may involve working with computers but for varying and irregular reasons.
          Our fear of, or desire for, androids is misplaced.  An Nicholas Carr has recently written, “The human nervous system is a marvel of physical control, able to sense and respond fluidly to an ever-changing environment. Achieving such agility with silicon and steel lies well beyond the reach of today’s engineers. Even the most advanced of our current automatons still get flustered by mundane tasks like loading a dishwasher or dusting knickknacks.”
          Douglas Eck, a scientist on the Google Brain team, a cutting-edge AI research group states, “I think it’s unlikely to me that a machine-learning algorithm is going to come along and generate some transformative new way of doing art… And I think we’re just so, so, so far from this AI having a sense of what the world is really like. Like it’s just so, so far away.” (Metz)
          So, yes, robots can take jobs, as they have long taken jobs, and I don’t want to minimize the effects of a job loss for an individual who has been supplanted from his or her career.  But that is different than thinking that robots will take all jobs or that they will not also create new job categories. Historically speaking, it has been a sucker’s bet to think that technological innovations will eliminate jobs and work altogether.  To give one example, in 1900 farmers made up 38% of the U. S. labor force.  However, after more than a century of mechanized agriculture, farming accounts for less that 2% of the U. S. labor force.  But that doesn’t mean that less food is grown or that there is a 36% decline in available jobs. (Farmers)
          Instead, new job categories appear, particularly in fields that engage with emergent technology.  Right now in the United States, there are more jobs in the solar power industry than there are in the coal industry.  At UNI, it is not unusual for one of our graduates to move into an entry level position in website management or social media coordination, categories of work that did not even exist when I was in school.
          When we talk about people, technology and intelligence, we have a tendency to keep moving the goalposts.  Each new innovation, because it is new to us, seems revolutionary.  But we quickly become accustomed to these advances and we learn to live with them, and we then redefine what we think of as non-machine human intelligence to exclude that which is done by computers.  There may be some comfort in reestablishing the borders between humans and machines, but it only leaves us in a position to repeat the cycle, to be excited or terrified by the innovations of each age.  There must be a better way to understand this complex and evolving relationship.
Now, the title of this presentation, as many of you probably realized right away, is a riff on the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, perhaps one of the most influential feminist books ever, which, when first published in 1971, was groundbreaking for its forthright discussion of women’s health and sexuality. My use of this title is, of course, a pun (and hopefully a good one), but it is also a metaphor.  Our Bodies, Ourselves allowed women to have a fuller sense of identity through understanding the materiality of their existence. If basic facts about biology and sexuality were not spoken about, how could women understand their own lives? Our Bodies, Ourselves sought to address that knowledge gap.
In a related sense, I want to argue that our obsession with androids actually masks the role of computers and all sorts of machines in our lives. In keeping with that approach, I would like to draw on the work of Donna Haraway who, as far back as her 1984 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto” has argued that we should embrace the model of the cyborg, which she calls “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” The concept of the cyborg inherently rejects the dualism of human and machine. It does not look back to foundational myth of an idyllic past of human autonomy. Instead, the cyborg accepts a complex experience that combines the biological and the mechanical, the masculine and the feminine, the human and the animal.
And I would encourage us to think less about the threat of robots or about the fantasy of androids and instead to acknowledge the extent to which we are all already cyborgs. We can acknowledge this to the extent that we do not feel quite ourselves when we don’t have our phones with us.  Or maybe we have within our physical bodies stents or replaced joints.  Or perhaps we drive cars that have become so familiar they have come to feel like an extension of our selves.
These connections between the human and the machine may carry with him some kind of guilt, if we feel that they compromise our sense of autonomy, as if the ideal human existence is one where we do not need machines or implants or vehicles.  But if we embrace the concept of the cyborg we can accept that our bodies have always been merged with technology. We have always relied on machines, devices and tools to survive. In many ways, the best definition of humans is to categorize us as a species that uses tools.
So I’m not worried about robots, or, at least I should say, I’m not any more worried about robots than I am about any other political issue facing us.  The mechanization of jobs?  Yes, be concerned, but not because of robots but because the concentration of wealth in the top 1% of income earners has led to productivity increases not improving the lives of most workers.  The long term fate of the planet? Yes, be concerned about a political structure that struggles to address or even acknowledge climate change.  I’m concern about all of that. But I’m not any more or less concerned because of robots, because I don’t believe that they are either the cause of or the solution to our problems.
I’d like to end by reading a short piece of science fiction that comes at this issue from a different direction and perhaps captures the lived experience of the kind of argument I have aimed to make tonight. 

Driving School

It’s not like I’m against technology. I binge watch TV, my health info gets updated every minute on my wristwatch, and my left eye (the one with lousy vision) has a computerized contact lens, so I can wink and get the latest stock market report or whatever. So, it’s just not about the technology, okay.
I just don’t like self-driving cars, and I don’t care that they’re all anyone uses anymore. Sure, I get the appeal.  They’re safer, they’re easier, you can still play Candy Crush while driving.  But, I’m just not comfortable in a car without a steering wheel. To be honest, back in the day, I didn’t even like being a passenger in a conventional car.  I was one of those passengers who slammed his foot into the floor whenever the driver had to brake quickly. I just need to be in control of my destiny, and in self-driving cars I feel like I’m trapped. Also, it creeps me out the way that all the new cars communicate with each other, so that a whole group of them can flow along a busy highway like a school of fish, darting and dashing between lanes as a group. Every time I’m in a self-driving car and it switches lanes in traffic, I brace for a crash. Of course, the crash never comes because the automotive hive-mind just adjusts and absorbs my car into the swim of the school. Still, it kind of freaks me out.
          I have my old car, the one I used to drive myself, stored out in the backyard.  I keep it around, partly out of nostalgia and partly in case of zombie apocalypse.  I still start it up every month or so just to make sure it runs, and one of those times when I was sitting behind the steering wheel, remembering what it used to be like to drive, I decided, what the hell, why not just take the old car out for a spin? It’s not exactly illegal to drive cars yourself anymore, but it’s not recommended either, since 125 m.p.h. is the going speed for the self-driving cars on the interstate.  I figured I would tool around on some country roads where the only automated machine I would have to worry about crossing was a combine.
That’s how it started, at least. And, I’ve got to tell you, driving felt just like I remembered it.  One hand on the steering wheel, the other arm resting against the window. I got to choose how fast or how slow to go, and I had a world of roads to explore. The sun was shining through the trees and everything was green and warm.
          And then I got lost. Yeah, I forgot that when I used to drive I also had a GPS system so I would know where to go. But who needs GPS in a world with self-driving cars? Well, apparently I did, because by the time I realized I was lost I was surrounded on all sides by soybean fields without even a farmhouse in sight.
          Now, I didn’t panic.  After all, this was the car I kept in case of zombie apocalypse, so I had plenty of canned food and a sledgehammer, but still I wanted to get home.  Then, in the distance, there was a break in the soyfields where I saw the interstate cutting through.  All I needed to do was get on the highway and drive in the direction of home.
          Of course, this meant I would have to drive as fast as the automated cars.  I should have mentioned that the car I was driving was a Kia, which might not mean anything nowadays, but it really wasn’t the kind of car designed to go 125.  Still, I had to get home, so when I approached the on-ramp, I floored the gas pedal and the engine started whining.  I was doing 85 when I hit the turn for the on-ramp, which surprisingly felt plenty fast, but I was crawling compared to the rest of the cars on the highway, and when their sensors picked me up, cars began weaving and slowing to avoid hitting me as I merged.
The gas pedal was floored but I couldn’t quite get to 100, and by the sounds the engine was making, I wasn’t sure I wanted to.  Cars darted left and right, verging then merging around me. I hunkered down in the granny lane and tried to ignore all the traffic zooming by and seemingly missing crashing into me by inches.  As I approached town, the traffic increased but the speed stayed the same.  I was driving so fast that my Kia was shaking, and cars now began passing me on all sides.
          Then, and I don’t know how it happened or why, it was as if all of the cars realized at the same time that I was in trouble. They surrounded me, and I could feel myself getting caught in the draft of the cars in front of me.  I eased off the gas and my car fell into the flow of the school.  A dozen cars strong we swiftly sped up.  I was worried at first about hitting the cars that were inches away from me on all sides.  But when I steered slightly, the other cars all adjusted.  The rattling of my car lessened and the engine stopped wheezing.  We glided down the road like a school of fish heading downstream. When we approached my exit and I signaled for a turn, the cars on my right parted and I eased onto the off-ramp.
          Soon I was alone again on the road nearing my house. I was still gripping the steering wheel like my life was at risk, and maybe it had been.  But as I slowed and approached home, I suspected that maybe there had been nothing to worry about the whole time.
Works Cited
(and, yes, this is not current MLA citation style, which I only use when forced, so don’t get me started on the problems with it)

Carr, Nicholas. “These Are Not the Robots We Were Promised” NYTimes 9 Sept. 2017. Online.
Ford, Martin. The Rise of the Robots. Basic Books: 2015.
Gere, Charlie. Digital Culture 2nd Edition. London: Reaktion Books.
“Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture,” National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2014)
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.
Kakio, Michio. “The Jobs of the Future Will Be What Robots Can’t Do”  Online Video
Masunaga, Samantha. “Robots could take over 38% of U. S. jobs within 15 years.” L.A. Times 24 March 2017. Online.

Metz, Rachel. “Why Google’s AI Can Write Beautiful Songs but Still Can’t Tell a Joke” MIT Technology Review 7 Sept. 2017. Online.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Re-tooling for Culture Wars 2.0
Mike Waggoner
Supper Club
April 18, 2017

What I am saying tonight is different from what I would have said some months ago—perhaps not so much different in substance, but rather in its urgency. Between then and now, of course, was the watershed event of the November 8 US election. This event, both the run up to it and the ensuing fallout from it, has affected me in unexpected ways, but primarily in my personal stance towards my work. Like several in the room, I am “of a certain age”—that time when some of my colleagues and friends are “heading for the exits,” either by way of retirement or the funeral pyre. It is about that time when some of us may be reaching what one scholar called the fourth stage of Hindu spiritual development—the one where the elders head out to the forest leaving the striving to those younger.
In fact, over the last couple years I have found myself thinking about stepping away from academe. I am tiring of the bureaucracy at my university. I am currently on my fifth president (not counting the four interims) and my fifth dean of our college. I have seen legislative wrangling toy with university budgets and have endured various management and teaching-learning fads as they sweep across the ever-shorter attention span of administration. I have, to be sure, continued to enjoy my remaining colleagues and students and particularly my study and writing. But I thought I could foresee the near-term trajectory of work in my field and those who could carry it on and that things would be fine without me. Of course, that is still the case.
But the 2016 election was a proverbial “wake-up call” for me. I, along with many others, clearly did not read the near-term trajectory of our politics accurately. We were not to enjoy the (assumedly) easy transition in administrations that would continue the albeit hard fought, but achievable progressive society we assumed was all our goal. “Cold water in the face,”, “slap in the face,” “fire lit under me”—whatever the simile, many of us woke that morning of the 9th needing to come to terms with a new reality. The mean-spirited, racist, xenophobic, misogynist (and we can go on) rhetoric of the campaign was rewarded with those attitudes seemingly sanctioned by the voting public. (At the same time, we can and should console ourselves that there were nearly 3 million more voters who opposed these views so we are in the majority--still we also know how our electoral system worked out). But what does this “wake-up call” mean for me, for any of us who share this sentiment.
This is pretty political, you may be saying to yourself, although up to this point I think I may be preaching to the choir. In our current larger societal context, however, I would argue it has never been more important in the history of our country and, indeed, the world for each of us to martial our knowledge, energy, and resources in the service of the public good. There is considerable experience and wisdom in this room that needs to be shared. As the Farmers’ insurance commercial reminds us: “we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Whatever drift I may have been settling into regarding my own future work arrangements--that changed virtually overnight. I am awake and I say—to the barricades.
Now, before we all break into our favorite songs from Les Mis, we need to review the landscape for what this means for us, because however mad and determined to do something that we may be, we do operate in environments that shape, enable, and constrain, our activity. In my remarks tonight, I would like to talk about the challenges of the milieu in which we live and the idea of claiming and exercising our voice in this time.
A survey of 7000 first year college and university undergraduates in the US revealed that only 6 percent of them could name the 13 colonies and many of them thought the first president was Abraham Lincoln, who was also known for “emaciating the slaves.” This information was reported in a New York Times article--in 1943. In a similar survey done at the bicentennial, no improvement was shown. Current assessments continue to show a similar dismal trend of broad cultural ignorance.
This apparently continuing deficit in basic knowledge calls to mind an anniversary we can note that bears on this consideration of the current cultural milieu. This year is the 30th anniversary of the publication of Alan Bloom’s, The Closing of the American Mind, often referred to as the “opening shot in the culture wars.” Bloom, a distinguished University of Chicago political philosopher argued that the distinctive American character was being lost to a plethora of new and emerging “voices” parading under the banner of diversity. Education and the larger society were being eroded by competing (read “lesser”) works being admitted to the university curriculum while scaling back the traditional canon ridiculed as that of “dead white men.” This brief foregoing description risks caricaturing his argument; his work is complex and nuanced and deserves attention as a serious act of public scholarship, whether we hold it in high or low esteem.
Its publication proved wildly popular and produced a flurry of responses and companion pieces, perhaps predictably among them one called The Opening of the American Mind by historian Lawrence W. Levine, published in 1996. It was an articulate counter argument, one commentator saying that the book should “put an end to ‘culture war’ talk.” It neither gained the traction of Bloom’s book, nor settled the argument. Andrew Hartman produced an excellent 2015 history of the culture wars, A War for the Soul of America (the title taken from the battle cry of Pat Buchanan in his 1992 speech at the Republican National Convention). Hartman summarizes his argument this way:
This book gives the culture wars a history—because they are history.
The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course (p. 285).

I’m not so sure. The same year Hartman made this declaration, 2015, Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow published an edited volume entitled, The State of the American Mind, a collection of 15 essays essentially continuing Bloom’s argument, just updating it. Bauerlein is an academic—English professor at Emory--and Bellow is an executive in publishing. (Adam Bellow is also the son of Saul Bellow the noted novelist and University of Chicago professor who, coincidentally, wrote the foreword to Bloom’s book “back in the day”). To underscore its relationship to the earlier days of the culture wars, this latest salvo also features an introduction by the famous or infamous, again depending upon individual proclivities, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Of course, both of these recent books (Bauerlein and Bellow, and Hartman) appeared before last year’s presidential election where the continuing divide in US culture was laid bare. If there was any doubt that the culture wars continue, there should not be now, all be they in mutated form. Unlike the Thirty Years religious wars of 17th century Europe, there does seem to be any corresponding Peace of Westphalia in sight for our 30 years’ culture wars. The following is some of why I think that is the case.
Andrew Hartman and others point out that in the nearly twenty years between the end of World War II and the election of John F. Kennedy, there coalesced a set of conservative cultural standards, “assumptions and aspirations shared by millions of Americans, that came to constitute a “normative America.” These standards included “hard work, personal responsibility, individual merit, delayed gratification, social mobility”. . . stringent sexual and gender expectations within heterosexual marriage, a consensus around white Judeo-Christian values, and a cohesiveness required in these norms deriving from a shared, perceived threat of Cold War and alien cultural and ideology (p. 5).
Hartman succinctly summarizes the transition ushered in by the upheavals that would occur in the 1960s: “The new America given life by the sixties—a more pluralistic, secular, more feminist America—was built on the ruins of normative America” (p. 6). His announcing the “ruins of normative America” to me was a bit like Mark Twain’s famous quip about rumors of his death being greatly exaggerated. This normative America, thought to be lost to the 60s, would begin to find its voice again in Richard Nixon’s 1969 reference to the “silent majority,” a phrase we heard resurrected nearly 50 years later in this past election cycle.
So, in our current cultural milieu we recognize a pervasive lack of basic knowledge thought to be necessary to viable citizenship. We further recognize a continuing 50 plus year old cultural divide between the world reacting to and emerging from 1960s America. There are two other elements in the environment, newer I think, that we should acknowledge and take into account as we assess our stance toward what we can do as individuals.
First, more than there being a continuing basic civic illiteracy, some argue that there is actually a “campaign against established knowledge,” to borrow a phrase from Tom Nichols new book, The Death of Expertise--something we have, again, seen come to the surface in the recent election cycle and continue through to the present. There has been proven distortion and misrepresentation on both sides, and even outright lies and entirely fabricated “fake news.” Some of the fall-out from all this showed up in a recent poll that found that 44% of Americans believed
that media made up stories and fabricated sources. (By the way, I hope no one here had anyone injured in the Bowling Green Massacre). But beyond that there is a deeper current in American culture that has been with us a very long time.
Richard Hofstadter argued this in his 1963 book Anti-intellectualism in American Life. Though the seeds of this attitude may be seen as early as Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1835 and 1840 works Democracy in America, it was in the 1952 presidential election between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson that this epithet took hold and was reinforced and exacerbated during the McCarthy era in the 1950s. (So here we have another characteristic baked into “normative America”—anti-intellectualism.). With the election of Eisenhower, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. put it: “the New Dealers were replaced by the car dealers.” Schlesinger argued that the election brought on “the vulgarization which has been the almost invariable consequence of business supremacy.” He more pointedly, and provocatively, went on to say, “Anti-intellectualism has long been the anti-semitism of the businessman.” The mid-50s collapse of McCarthy, combined with the shock of the Sputnik launch, illuminating the shortcomings in American science, led to a brief resurgence of respect for the intellect that led into the 60s, though that respect was later to be tarnished by the “intellectuals’ war” in Viet Nam—engineered by the best and the brightest led by Robert McNamara (one of Steve Bannon’s favorite books by the way). In a more recent analysis of American anti-intellectualism, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason brings current similar historical trends with current examples.
The argument here is that there is a basic tendency to rely on our own assessment of a situation over rational comment by another with presumed and credentialed expertise on the subject. This self-reliance may be, for example, because one had lost trust in so-called experts because some previous expert pronouncements have been off the mark. In Nichols book he argues that we have entered a new stage in this evolution, though the move is a matter of degree rather than kind. It is one brought on by the “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers.” But there is one further element that threatens to further manipulate this, perhaps, “socially genetic” American condition of the distrust of expertise, and it is one enabled by our increasing technological sophistication which is being used to shape the information we receive even at a level of which we are unaware.
We are all familiar with this manipulation at a basic marketing level. We have all done searches on google, amazon, or whatever only to find later that ads for those items mysteriously pop up in our facebook feeds or other online sites we visit. We’re being tracked and profiled. But this surveillance and ensuing analysis has gone further, much further. A small US firm, Cambridge Analytica, spun off from the larger British data analytics firm SCL, specializes in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations.” SCL has refined their models over 25 years of military psychological operations (psyops) work in places like Afganistan and Pakistan. Through the use of sophisticated algorithms employed by artificial intelligence and using automated bots to rapidly and tirelessly examine hundreds and thousands of internet sites, these companies are coming to know our habits, emotional triggers, and subtle communication preferences of which we may not be aware.
As an example, SCL, the British parent company to Cambridge Analytica, built a psychometric model by creating a facebook quiz (admit it, some of us have taken one), getting a response rate of 6 million users, thereby producing a remarkable trove of data. They further found that by deploying the automated bots across the internet to correlate and corroborate patterns, they could, with 150 ‘likes’ on a facebook page, predict the users behavior better than could their spouse. With 300 likes, they claimed to know you better than yourself.
Cambridge Analytica, the US offshoot of SCL, claims to have 5000 pieces of data on each of 220 million US voters. What do they know about us and how have they been using it? They can track our reaction to words and phrases and then shape their messaging accordingly (think about the addition of the angry emoji and other more incremental reaction tools on facebook). The information obtained through bio-psycho-social profiling is being “weaponized,” to use a favorite term by former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon, now White House strategist and Trump whisperer. The objective is “cognitive warfare.” Put together with our “google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, bog sodden” way of life, the stakes associated with evaluating information on the internet, or any source, go way up.
Now just to spice up this “milieu stew” let’s add one more ingredient and that is our current treatment of the idea of “political correctness.” We heard this used again and again in this past election. This phrase originated in the 1950s McCarthy era as a sarcastic reference to Stalinist Russia where one could be punished for not parroting the “official” line. It became employed early in the culture wars in the 80s and forward, again, to disparage in a sarcastic manner, any attempt to acknowledge and show respect for some other-than-dominant (most often Christian) white-group. It has morphed during the past election cycle into criticism by the perceived down-trodden (mostly the Christian Right and poor working class whites—and there is some overlap) that their rights are being displaced by minority groups. In connection with this latter sentiment, religious liberty has morphed from the free exercise of religion delineated in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution to the right to use one’s religious beliefs to defend one’s prejudices.
So, we have a large portion of the general population that persists in a low-level understanding of the rudiments of civic knowledge. Additionally, I argue that we must acknowledge evidence of long term anti-intellectualism in the United States. Further, this ignorance and its associated attitude constitutes a condition toward which current communication techniques and technologies are being employed to sway public opinion in ways that many of us would say are authoritarian and inimical to American values. And, words and ideas are being re-contextualized for differing purposes.
In the words of Tolstoy: “What shall we do and how shall we live?” I believe that this is a question that each of us must answer. I want to propose one starting place to formulate an answer. And that is to analyze the kind of unique power that each of us has to employ in this fight, because in the end, I believe that solutions to these pervasive problems will involve a power struggle—one that begins with each of us as individuals, giving renewed poignancy to the phrase: “Think globally, act locally.” We do have power, even though for some of us, as the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “We are not now that strength which in old days, Moved earth and heaven.” Remember: we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.
I want to use a well-known and serviceable, if old, study of power by French and Raven that I feel is germane to consider at this juncture. This is because the strength of one’s impact in speaking out will be affected by the overall power one brings to the task.
As you may recall French and Raven identified five different kinds of power in their classic 1965 study: 1) coercive, 2) legitimate, 3) reward, 4) expert, and association. Coercive does not apply so much to our discussion here as we cannot make anyone attend to our lofty pronouncements (well, my wife may have that power over me). This type of power pertains to more of a military or incarceration situation. Legitimate power is that which comes from an official position that we recognize as rightfully held, usually associated with an organization or bureaucracy. Reward power, as it sounds, involves being able to bestow some desired result on the recipient. This type of power may come into play if your audience sees your contribution as valued return on the investment of their time in listening to you. Expert power, closely related to reward power, is clearly a pertinent type of power if you are an independently recognized and desired source of the knowledge being sought. Finally, there is the power of association in which a public identifies with speaker for reasons in addition to other kinds of power be they expert or legitimate: you may know them personally or there may be some non-rational draw to them.
For one example, let’s apply this to my talk tonight. First, I have no coercive power here. I cannot make anyone follow what I say, particularly this group who’s not-so-hidden mission is to argue about everything. Regarding legitimate power, I am a duly invited and elected member of this august body, so at least I have some minimal legitimate standing to be holding forth tonight. Any reward power I may have in this instance depends upon whether, by the end of this talk, you feel like you have some positive resonance with what I have said or at least were somewhat entertained--in either case it being a positive trade-off for your time spent. Expert power is not supposed to come into play in this group as we are to speak outside of our areas of expertise, but I suppose there could be some expert power residing in one’s ability to make a convincing argument. Finally, there is associational power. Does our individual relationship involve some dimension that draws you to what I am saying? Is it that my white hair cries out “wisdom.” Or we’re good enough friends that you’re extending me a credibility “line of credit” thereby giving me the benefit of the doubt. Or by the same token, there could be a negative
attribution arising out of association. You’ve heard something suspect about me, so you believe that I’m talking out of my . . . depth. The cumulative power that accrues in this calculus will determine the extent to which you as a hearer will be impacted by these remarks. It also works the other way of course. Who we listen to and are persuaded by depends upon our assessment of that speaker’s collective power.
As I alluded to above, my wife, in addition to other kinds of power (aka charm) has some measure of coercive power as reflected in the saying “ain’t mamma happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
In a small example of legitimate power, we all defer to (and count on) Judy’s role in scheduling us to speak and Mike’s role in alerting us monthly of our meeting. For reward power, perhaps timely service of food, drink, and processing of our checks by Tony’s staff. For recognized expert power in law we would acknowledge Max or Darius, or for questions within the physical sciences, Lynn or Paul. The power of association--the self-congratulatory good will extended to each other in the spirit of “for [insert correct pronoun]’s a jolly good person.”
I believe that we must consider each of our audiences in a similar way. We all have circles in which we move where our influence may be exerted. Again Tennyson, “that which we are we are, one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. . .”
I am reminded of the famous Pogo cartoon where he says “We are faced with insurmountable opportunities.” Regarding the attitude that we take into this fray, a couple things come to mind. Cornel West visited UNI last year and someone asked him: “In the face of all this, are you optimistic?” He said, “No, but I must do this anyway.” I take that sober reflection with a longer perspective we should all recognize from Martin Luther King: “The moral arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice.”