Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Putting the Socialism Back into Social Media

A few days ago, I saw this on Twitter:
Today I am thinking about how grateful I am for Twitter. I know lots will think it’s silly, but you see, I started tweeting regularly after the breakup of all breakups, when I was so heartbroken that I was desperate for anything to keep my mind occupied. I started interacting with more & more people, feeling free to share my thoughts on things happening around us, and connecting with a lot of folks in academia I might not have been able to otherwise. I’ve learned so much from so many on here, I’ve been directed to resources that have made me both a better teacher & a better person, & I’ve been exposed to perspectives that have blown me away & rethink some of my most enduring perceptions of the world.
Some tweeps & I now communicate regularly outside of Twitter, people I would have never had the opportunity to meet, but now we share our thoughts & experiences & pics of our families. So while Twitter has some issues, for me it’s made this big big world a little smaller, and for that, I am grateful. Thank you to everyone I’ve interacted with on here, I think you’re all damn cool. 😊 Except all you Nazis. You suck. – @DrPsyBuffy on Twitter
Reading it took me back to my early days on Usenet, one of the earliest social media platforms. This kind of story goes back to the very beginnings of social media. Real old-timers remember the Bandykin mailing list, created in the early 1980s when Bandy (Andrew Scott Beals) lost his girlfriend.
So what happened? How did we end up in trollworld? Why are the Nazis taking over?
The early net was not heaven. There was plenty of conflict. Oversharing and trolling emerged early. Then, as now, people argued that one must allow abuse as free speech. But there were no huge incentives for abuse, either; one didn’t make money from being a troll. Nowadays, all the owners of the big social media sites want, first and foremost, to get and keep user attention and to keep people on the site as much as possible and the most effective way of doing this is through sophisticated trolling. Beyond that, the big social media sites also want to sell information about their users and advertising. When you joined a mailing list or a Usenet group, what you found there was what you joined for. On Facebook, the system is constantly trying to distract you, as well as filling your screen or window with advertising. Looking at the Facebook screen, literally ½ of it is filled with content not relevant to your online social activity. If there is an ad shown in the timeline, the area shrinks to ¼ .
Positive social activity does not generate as much traffic – people will want to go offline and do other things and don’t respond as compulsively to joy as they do with fear and anger. So, the current economic model of the advertising-supported web is slanted heavily to the negative. It is like a rough saloon, where the music is loud so that people will drink more (this has been measured) and the fights are good for business.
I have arrived at the view that the old socialist economic model of the internet, supported by government subsidies and donated time and service was healthier. So let’s put socialism back into social media!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Review: Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

This book is what I have come to expect from Jaron Lanier: a snarky, exasperating introduction to some valuable and interesting ideas. So, whyfor the four stars? Because it is timely and because it has some important things to say.
Broadly, Lanier argues that: (reason 1) social media has turned into a giant stimulus-reward behavior modification system which leads to compulsive engagement and (reason 2) it is selling the time and attention of participants and doing so in a way which affects both them and society as a whole in a negative way. To put it in other terms, it is a giant continuous engaging distracting hard sell and surveillance system. Now, behavior modification has its limits. Notoriously, once someone stops participating in a behavior modification program, the program stops having effect, which is why, for instance, alcoholics have to keep returning to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But with social media, the program never stops. It is the television that is never turned off, always yammering in the background, always distracting.
Lanier goes on to explore the consequences of this in the subsequent eight chapters, one for each argument. These are less convincing, and Lanier, who after all was a Silicon Valley impresario, making the pitch for his position, throws out arguments rapidly, hoping some will stick. He is better, I think, in interviews, and here he is explaining to Harper Simon of the LA Review of Books:
The problem, however, is that behind the scenes there are these manipulation, behavior modification, and addiction algorithms that are running. And these addiction algorithms are blind. They’re just dumb algorithms. What they want to do is take whatever input people put into the system and find a way to turn it into the most engagement possible. And the most engagement comes from the startle emotions, like fear and anger and jealousy, because they tend to rise the fastest and then subside the slowest in people, and the algorithms are measuring people very rapidly, so they tend to pick up and amplify startle emotions over slower emotions like the building of trust or affection. – from an interview with Simon Harper in the LA Review of Books[1]
Some of the book is unexpectedly timely: covert advertising, targeted through Facebook’s vast surveillance system, influenced the outcome of elections in the USA and UK, both in negative directions, and when Facebook came under investigation, it proceeded to attack its critics by trolling up anti-Semites. And this pales in comparison to the Myanmarian use of social media to assault its Rohingya minority, Chinese use of social media to abuse its Muslim population, and the vast “social credit” system that China is attempting to build, which will certainly lead to a society where social media trolls are a major factor.
I will briefly protest yet again that lasting citations must include more than URLs; URLs, as Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World-Wide Web, foresaw and Sarah Kenzidor recently found to her sorrow, are ephemeral.
So, a timely book with some serious flaws. Read it anyway.

[1] Simon, Harper, “Delete Your Account Now: A Conversation with Jaron Lanier.” LA Review of Books, October 8, 2018. Available at https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/delete-your-account-a-conversation-with-jaron-lanier

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The border. I was right. Wish I had been wrong.

Me, back in 2008:
Oh, you hominids could make the border into a killing field, make a feast for us corvids. That would stop them from coming, probably. The people who ran Abu Ghraib and run Gitmo, they'd be happy to do it for you. And then they'd do it to you.
I was writing about undocumented workers; at the time the current refugee problem had yet to emerge.

White House authorizes use of force for troops stationed at border: report. (The Hill.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Wall Street Democrats For The Lose

A scathing opinion of Seth Moulton and the anti-Pelosi faction from R J Eskow: Wall Street is leading the attack on Pelosi.
This ersatz rebellion’s most visible leader is Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a custom-crafted biography in a suit who appears to hold no core beliefs. […] During his short political career, Moulton has received a total of $1,723,870 from the investor class that comprises the so-called “FIRE” sector — financial, insurance and real estate.
It seems to me that the Democratic Party is still trying to serve both Mammon and the people and this still cannot be done.

Monday, November 19, 2018

White Women Voting

How many women are threatened into their votes by their partners? How many are pressured in other ways?

It may be that white women are less supportive of Trumpism than their votes show.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Gloating More: Reflections on a Blue Wave


Yes! The Democrats took the House and credibly defended a difficult map in the Senate. I hope there will now be more checks on Trump and the fascist Republican Party.
There is something in this victory to please multiple Democratic factions: women, people of color, and social democrats. Personally, I am pleased that part of my essay Turning Out the Left has been vindicated. I am also pleased that young people, feminists, people of color, and social democrats seem to be forming a coalition; after infighting of the 2016 election I was wondering if that was even possible.
On the other hand, I expect a horrible lame duck session; I expect the Republican Congressional delegation to take all advantage possible of their remaining weeks in power.
Once the new Congress is seated, both parties will be choosing new leadership in the House. The newly-elected social democrats will come into conflict with the Wall Street Democrats. I do hope the House Democrats will use their subpoena power to investigate the Trump administration’s corruption and crimes against humanity.
Given that the Senate and the Presidency are both in Republican hands, and a right-wing Supreme Court majority, I am not hopeful for much Democratic legislation until 2020, and the Court may do much damage. Still, skillful Democratic legislators may be able to at least get some decent deals through. At least, I hope, they will protect the social insurance programs.
So, a lot to hope for, but not immediately. We must keep our hopes up and take heart from our success at the polls and in investigations.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Review: Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise

(Crossposted to Goodreads.)

“And for what purpose? Why are we encouraging the spread of this lunacy? I mean we here, in North America. I don't mean […] the richest people in the world battening on the poorest. That's just greed, which is a comparatively clean kind of vice. I'm talking about perversion, horrible, disgusting, systematic, deliberate perversion of the power of reason to destroy people without killing them, to strip them of their initiative, their joy in life, their hope, […], their last ultimate irreducible human resource, hope. Out of sheer desperation millions of people are abandoning the use of reason, bankrupting themselves to buy [new age junk], in a last puerile attempt to outdo the bastards who've made "reason" a dirty word.
“They've done it, you know—it's the dirtiest word in any human vocabulary right now. And it's been brought about in my own lifetime, almost entirely. Cold rational decisions, every step leading to them perfectly logical, underlay the wars in Asia […] and at every step we lost. Not just the wars, but bits ourselves. Compassion. Empathy. Love. Pity. We systematically chopped ourselves down to the measure of a machine.
– Fictional psychologist Xavier Conroy, from John Brunner’s The Jagged Orbit

I decided to go and read Nichols The Death of Expertise, since he is a prominent never-Trump figure whose public persona I rather like.
Oh. My. God.
This is a book of excuses by, I think, an enormously guilty man. Somewhere in the back of his mind he probably knows that it is conservatism that mounted the huge attack on knowledge and expertise that began in the last quarter of the 20th century. Somewhere in the back of his mind he probably knows that this was done to defend the policies which his political faction supported: the relaxation of financial law, widespread war, ecological destruction as a way to gain wealth. There’s some good material here on the genuine disrespect for knowledge and the problem of the value of intellectual authority when the basics of many subjects are widely and quickly available. (Anyone who has tried a home repair based on YouTube videos has something to say about this matter.) I read this just after Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and the books have something to say to each other.
But this is an arsonist fighting the fire he helped feed. The vast amount of distortion that has been introduced into public discourse and is maintained by huge spending on propaganda is almost entirely from Nichols’s own political faction. It was “conservative” experts who rationalized the policies that killed millions through pointless war. It was “conservative” experts who rationalized the lawless financial and economic policies that destroyed the savings of the American middle class. And it is “conservative” experts who are still attacking the knowledge of scientists to defend the continuing destruction of the earth’s planetary environment.
Congratulations, Dr. Nichols. Your side won. And now you are surprised and angry that your victory has turned to ashes? This is a start. I am glad that at least you at least are willing to acknowledge that it is ashes. But it is time to look back at your intellectual sources, to, as economist Brad Delong says, mark your beliefs to market.

Friday, November 2, 2018

2016: The Black Working Class Vote

Been thinking. Dangerous thing, a raven thinking.
The Democratic Party was wrong, in adopting its studied neutrality in matters of economics at the national level. Intersectionality made this into a racist policy. Both banks and the general public were left to their own devices, and so the banks with their extensive financial resources did well, while the general public, its savings drained by years of unsupportive economic policy, did poorly. This led to the economic abandonment of people of color, who were hammered in the crash of 2008. This abandonment, in turn, led to people of color in the north midwest abandoning the Democratic Party after 2008. As Shah and Wichowsky observed in “Foreclosure’s Fallout,” in Milwaukee County in 2012, foreclosure decreased turnout in the heavily (27.2%) African-American county.
Ordinarily unemployment around the time of an election increases turnout (see, for instance, Levin et al, “Participation in the Wake of Adversity: Blame Attribution and Policy-Oriented Evaluations” but this is one of a long series of articles to this point); there is an urge to make one’s voice heard.
But there has to be the expectation that someone is listening! In 2018 Malaika Jabali wrote “The Color of Economic Anxiety” about African-American voters in Milwaukee. She quotes Fred Royal, the president of the Milwaukee NAACP chapter, about the Clinton campaign: “African Americans, especially African Americans in this city with [high rates of] poverty, 50 percent black male unemployment for […] years. That shows you the systemic racism that isn’t being addressed. And if you’re not going to speak to that, why would I be engaged?” What did reach those voters? The pro-union message of Bernie Sanders; the old black union men and the young black voters of Milwaukee supported Sanders in the primary. They also remembered William Clinton in Arkansas, the bipartisan racist anti-crime agenda of the 1990s, the anti-union, pro-business agenda of his faction of the Democratic Party. Milwaukee African-American union leader Wendell Harris commented, “I didn’t like him. He was the architect of the New Democrats, and in essence they were supposed to be as close to the Republicans as possible to still be considered a Democrat.”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign was wrong. Clinton’s “other basket” never contained many white men, not even a majority of white women (but see White Women Voting.) They could not be brought to vote for her. Bernard Sanders was wrong. White working-class voters hadn’t turned to racism because of hard times; they were racist to begin with.
On the one hand we had the racist and sexist vote, energized by years of attacks on Hillary Clinton and Trump’s promises to the white working class. On the other hand, we had the African-American working class, worn down by years of bipartisan anti-union policies and the crash of 2008, the foreclosures and the years out of work. There was the extensive Russian propaganda to aggravate the conflict; to support the bigots and discourage the African-Americans. In northern states like Wisconsin, the white working class turned out for Trump and the black working class stayed home.
The Democratic Party lost 2016 because of racism: they paid more attention to white voters they couldn’t reach and not enough to working-class people of color they could have reached. The conservative economic policies of the Democratic Party in the 1990s led to short-term success and long-term failure.
To succeed, the Democratic Party must court women and people of color. Policies must address both economic issues as well as racism and sexism. Democratic politicians must be seen to support people of moderate means of all races.
It is going to be a close election. I do not know if enough has been done for the Democrats to win, or if there is enough revulsion at the fascism the Republicans have descended to bring the Democrats to power in at least one of the houses of Congress. Whether or not the Democrats win, they must change. To continue as they have is to cede the field to the fascists.


Enten, Harry. “Registered Voters Who Stayed Home Probably Cost Clinton The Election.” FiveThirtyEight (blog), January 5, 2017. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/registered-voters-who-stayed-home-probably-cost-clinton-the-election/.
Jabali, Malaika. “The Color of Economic Anxiety | Current Affairs.” Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/10/the-color-of-economic-anxiety.
Levin, Ines, J. Andrew Sinclair, and R. Michael Alvarez. “Participation in the Wake of Adversity: Blame Attribution and Policy-Oriented Evaluations.” Political Behavior 38, no. 1 (March 2016): 203–28. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-015-9316-6.
Shah, Paru, and Amber Wichowsky. “Foreclosure’s Fallout: Economic Adversity and Voter Turnout.” Political Behavior, October 19, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-018-9509-x.
“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Milwaukee County, Wisconsin.” Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/milwaukeecountywisconsin/PST045217.