Thursday, August 13, 2020

Big Tech, Big Food Products and Big Education: leveraging our tastes to stress our bodily and social metabolisms to destruction

We have an epidemic of evolutionary novelty and it is killing us
Bret Weinstein

Everybody is plugged into an apparatus that is sitting in between us, in the way conversation used to and, what it is doing, is that it is feeding us things that confirm what we actually believe, much of which is real, but that, in effect, people, smart scientific people, who know very well that the right way to think carefully is to be falsificationist, to look for things that disconfirm your beliefs, are being fed an overwhelmingly verificationist message and that is causing everybody to be dead sure they know what is going on, when very few of us have any clue.
Bret Weinstein

We Homo sapiens are remarkably adaptable, including in our diets. Human populations have lived for generations on a remarkably varied range of diets.

The consistent feature of human diets is food preparation and cooking. We are cucinivores, food preparers. With the last century or so seeing dramatic shifts in how we process food.

As our technological capacities have expanded, so has our capacity to process food. This has exposed a major weakness. What is palatable does not have a strong connection to what is nutritious. But it is far easier to sell to our palate than to our nutrition. Indeed, it is possible to sell to our palate in a way that actively misleads and misdirects our hunger signals.

This misfiring between palate, hunger sensations and nutrition has led to an increasingly metabolically unhealthy population. Something I have discussed previously.

But a similar mismatch is stressing our social metabolism. (A metabolism being a system for breaking things down — catabolic processes — and building things up — anabolic processes.)

Evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein have a nice short discussion of the Twitter recommendation algorithm not putting into their feed tweets from people that they follow that don’t conform to the recommendation algorithm’s apparent inferred positioning of their cognitive preferences. The Twitter algorithm is, in effect, trumping their choices about who to follow by its attempt to identify and target their cognitive palate.

This could be seen as shadow banning. I doubt that this is a significant phenomena, at least in a political context on large online platforms, as it would seem to involve a fair bit of effort. Especially as much the same apparent effect could be created simply by, in this instance, the Twitter algorithm targeting inferred cognitive palate.

The much bigger issue is that the Twitter algorithm is doing at least two noxious things. First, it is actively working against people’s attempts to have a broad range of information sources, at least regarding viewpoint diversity. So it is undermining cognitive nutrition.

Second, it is intensifying, and to some extent creating, information and viewpoint silo-ing. That is, people getting quite different, but patterned, streams of information. Not only patterned, but patterned in a way that separates people into systematically information-restricted-and-differentiated groups sharing common viewpoints.

It is well established in social science that the more conformity of viewpoint and opinion there is in a social group, the more intense the shared views are likely to become and the worse any decisions are likely to be. The former because what is common gets reinforced and intensified. The latter because more and more things that turn out to matter are likely not to be considered at all.

Social media algorithms acting to reinforce viewpoint-and-information narrowing are thereby actively deranging collective cognitive functioning. Or, as we might say, collective sense-making.

So, the recommendation algorithms are undermining attempts to maintain cognitive nutrition and actively assisting in deranging the collective cognitive metabolism. And they are doing it in a way analogous to how Big Food Products is undermining human metabolic health: by targeting our palate in ways disconnected to our nutrition and that also deranges our hunger signals. In the case of Big Tech, it is our cognitive palate, our cognitive nutrition and our social-emotional signals, but the underlying pattern is remarkably similar.

Big Tech are for-profit businesses. There are some inherent complexities involved in online media platform provision that Canadian YouTuber J. J. McCullough has an informative short discussion of. His discussion is specifically about YouTube, but has wider application.

Nevertheless, as with Big Food Products, income seeking encourages Big Tech to target (cognitive) palate when not only is (cognitive) palate not well connected to (cognitive) nutrition but the form of the targeting actively deranges our internal feedback signals. This is also clearly disastrous in its implications.

Especially as Twitter is, as more than one exiting media insider has pointed out, effectively becoming the editor for many mainstream media publications. Journalists are, after all, hardly immune to these patterns. (And those that are more resistant are increasingly bailing to their own, independent, operations using, ironically, online media.)

There was already a serious problem with narrative-driven journalism (see discussion of an obvious case here and a much more significant example here). The interaction of narrative-driven journalism with Big Tech is making the problem with both worse.

Disrupting the public sphere

Analyst Martin Gurri has explored the disruptive effects of new media in his book, originally published in 2014, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. He also blogs about the issues he raises in the book. In a recent essay he wrote:

The collapse of trust in our leading institutions has exiled the 21st century to the Siberia of post-truth. I want to be clear about what this means. Reality has not changed. It’s still unyielding. Facts today are partial and contradictory — but that’s always been the case. Post-truth, as I define it, signifies a moment of sharply divergent perspectives on every subject or event, without a trusted authority in the room to settle the matter. A telling symptom is that we no longer care to persuade. We aim to impose our facts and annihilate theirs, a process closer to intellectual holy war than to critical thinking.

Historian Niall Ferguson has argued that the Internet has disrupted the public sphere in a way that is deeply analogous to the effect of the printing press on late medieval and early modern Europe.

As that was the time of the Reformation and the wars of religion, not a reassuring analogy.

Ferguson also notes that iconoclasm, tearing down statues and other public icons, is a typical manifestation of the disruption of the public sphere.

One wonders if that makes Robin DiAngelo’s bestseller White Fragility the contemporary equivalent of the C16th and C17th best seller, the Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of the Witches. Economist Glenn Loury and linguist John McWhorter have discussed how the current use of racist! is very like the past use of witch!. Or, indeed, the past use of heretic!.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has already famously observed that morality blinds and binds: it brings people together around shared norms and values, but it also blinds their view of evidence and others. Having narrative-driven journalism interact with cognitive-palate-targeting social media makes this dynamic much worse.

Selecting for cognitive intensity

Moreover, any cognitive identity built around a system of belief is going to have some resistance to disconfirming or problematic facts. Create a large enough community of people with such a cognitive identity and a selection process is set up, selecting for mechanisms that protect that identity, that protect that intensified collective cognitive palate.

Something education is supposed to do is to help us make sense of the world around us. (That is something journalism is supposed to do too.) But educators (and journalists) are as prone to human foibles as the rest of us. In particular, they are likely to care about status.

The trouble with schools of education, and schools of journalism, in higher education, is that, to the extent that education or journalism can be said to be academic disciplines at all, they do not have much inherent intellectual heft or status to them. The temptation to compensate for that lack of intellectual heft or status by seeking some other form of status thus becomes very strong, with that very lack of intellectual heft providing little or no countervailing pressure. The obvious form of (compensating) status to embrace is moral status; to embrace some form of activism, of seeking to make the world a better place.

Schools of education and journalism then become strongly prone to shift from being centres of skill-based education (here’s tools to help you go about the tasks of teaching or reporting) to being centres of ideas-based indoctrination (here’s how you become a Good Person making the world a Better Place).

So, we get young people with little life experience who go to such schools of activism to become teachers or journalists, who take those attitudes to their workplaces, spreading such ideas among their students and any young readers, who then go to university … And so the cycle repeats and intensifies.

Moreover, there is nothing to stop this pattern being adopted in other parts of higher education. Hence the proliferation of so-called “grievance studies” courses and degrees, but which are rather better described as gimme degrees in moral self-congratulation. Which universities happily provide, because there’s money in it.

Their graduates then go out into workplaces and bureaucracies, including university administrations, and we get another round of the cycle.

Note that such is better described as status-hacking rather than status built on serious understanding or achievement.

This shifting from education in role-undertaking skills to indoctrination in status-providing ideas is, of course, another manifestation of appealing to cognitive palate rather than genuinely providing cognitive nutrition. With the emphasising on status-providing ideas over what actually works having the effect on the schooling of students that one might expect.

So, there is an expanding social environment in which selection takes place for memes (ideas that differentially replicate in a competitive environment, just like genes) that create status-providing cognitive identities that appeal to cognitive palates and which include protections from disconfirming facts, ideas or concerns.

Sooner or later, a set of super-replicating memes would be likely to evolve, helping to create and intensify narrative-driven journalism. Which then interact (disastrously) with social media structured to appeal to your cognitive palate but mislead and derange mechanisms of cognitive nutrition. (Such as dismissing science, a key provider of cognitive nutrition, as a patriarchal tool of white supremacy.)

Prestige, bottom-up status, is a key currency of human cooperation. In thriving societies and civilisations, prestige is typically harnessed for pro-social activities. In declining societies and civilisations, prestige is increasingly harnessed for anti-social activities. Including social dominance (i.e. top-down) status games.

And, as past waves of iconoclasm and social upheavals have demonstrated, people can be perfectly happy to destroy lots of physical, social and other capital if such destruction offers them status rewards.

Obviously (1) this is the situation we are now in. (2) this is not going to end well.

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