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Saturday, November 18, 2017

How Do We Solve the Problems We Create?

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If you read many self-help books, or listen to any motivational speakers or even if you just read the occasional inspiration quote that get posted by that one friend on facebook (you know the one I’m talking about.) You start to realize that certain stories or analogies get used over and over again. One of the analogies I’ve encountered on several different occasions concerns the problems that arise when you help a chick to hatch. Here’s an example of what I mean from the blog of a licensed clinical social worker:


Some new hatchers assist emerging chicks too soon and/or too thoroughly. Anxiety at this stage is high, especially for first-timers.  They misinterpret the needs of the chick and prematurely intervene, sometimes with dire consequences.  Some of these dire consequences are due directly to the well-intentioned intervention (ex: hemorrhaging due to torn membranes) and some are due to the consequences of the well-intentioned intervention (ex: the chick’s circulation wasn’t allowed to pump hard enough to allow them to warm themselves up once hatched).  The bottom line is, chicks actually need to peck their own way out of their own shell.  Without the strengths developed within their struggle, they are left vulnerable to their environment.


This is true for people too.  Our life experiences (including how we respond to them) are our shells, and figuring out how to navigate them effectively prepares us to effectively navigate our world.


Perhaps you’ve encountered this analogy or maybe you haven’t, but either way, this post is going to be about the necessity of struggle, which is the kind of thing that calls for an analogy, or an inspirational story. But as usual rather than just starting with story, I have to explain the whole thing and make it complicated. In fact, as a further complication, now that I’m re-telling it, and in the process, lending the enormous credibility of my blog to the whole thing, I feel compelled to see if there’s any truth to it.


A quick search seems to indicate that it is one of those things that’s mostly true, though as with so many things there are caveats. Yes, the general recommendation is that you shouldn’t help the chick hatch. That said, it’s not an automatic death sentence for the chick if you do. It does appear that more often than not if you help it hatch it will probably later die, but that may be less about the struggle giving the chicken the necessary tools to live and more the fact that if a chick is too weak to break out of its shell that it’s probably too weak to survive period. So perhaps this isn’t the best analogy, but I’m too lazy to find another one, also if you don’t think a certain amount of  struggle is necessary then I’m honestly not sure what you’re doing here in the first place.


However, in the interests of being thorough I suppose I could spend a small amount of time trying convince those on the fence that struggle is, in fact necessary. Though I would think the chick and the shell thing would be all the proof anyone would need, particularly given how directly and unequivocally I presented it. But I suppose it’s possible it didn’t convince you.


In that case, to understand struggle, let’s start at the highest level, you’re either religious, or you’re not. If you are religious, than struggle is built in to basically all religions both doctrinally and observationally. On the other hand, if you’re not religious than natural selection is all about the struggle for survival. Outside of that, I suppose there’s a third option, where you believe in some sort doctrine-free spiritualism which doesn’t include any struggle at all, something along the lines of The Secret, but if that’s the case then let me say, and let there be no mistake about whether I’m serious, because I am, you’re an idiot. And you should go away. Meaning you’re either an idiot (and we can ignore that category because I just told them to leave.) Or you believe struggle is part of existence.


But wait, you may be saying. You claimed that struggle is necessary. Going from being part of life to being necessary is still a big leap, one which you haven’t made. Very well, for the religious, one has to assume that struggle is necessary on some level or it wouldn’t exist. For the non-religious, non-idiots, it’s a little more complicated, and in fact it is in this area where I’ll be spending most of my time.


From here on out I’m going to assume that we all agree that struggle is part of existence (the idiots having been banished) and that all that’s left is determining whether it’s actually necessary. On this point there are two ways of thinking:


Camp One: These are the people who believe that struggle is so deeply intertwined with how things work from an evolutionary standpoint, that it would be impossible to eradicate it entirely without consequences that are worse than the initial suffering. Such consequences might include, but are certainly not limited to, bodily atrophy, diseases, autoimmune disorders, apathy, depression, lack of offspring etc.


Camp Two: These are people who believe the opposite, that technology will eventually enable us to eliminate struggling (and presumably also pain and suffering and malaria and auto-play videos on websites.) They will admit that perhaps struggle is necessary now, a la the chick and the egg, or needing to exercise to stay healthy, but that it’s on it’s way out. Yes, we once lived in a world where struggle was necessary to toughen us up, develop immunities, exercise willpower, and so forth, but that all of the things which were once “powered” by struggle will eventually be powered some other way, or be done away with entirely.


I think both groups would agree that it’s worthwhile and benevolent to remove unnecessary or counterproductive struggle, and by extension unnecessary pain and suffering. The questions which divides to two are how cautious do we need to be before we declare that something is unnecessary or counterproductive and is there some line, past which, we should not proceed?


At this point you would almost certainly like an example. And one of the best known involves the recent increase in the occurrence of allergies. There are several theories for why this is happening, but almost all of them revolve around allergies being a by product of some overzealous attempts to eliminate a form of natural struggle.


The best known of these theories is the hygiene hypothesis. The idea here being that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty of things to keep it occupied, but that now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, decides to overreact to things like peanuts. As I said this is just one theory, but all of the alternative theories also involve the absence of some factor which humanity previously considered a struggle. Also it is interesting, speaking of peanuts, that the NIH recently reversed their recommendation from avoiding peanuts until children were at least three, to recommending that you give peanuts to kids as soon as they're ready for solid food (approximately four months old.) Which obviously follows from this model.


As I said I’m not claiming that we know with absolute certainty that allergies are increasing because we’ve eliminated some necessary struggles. Though I will say that if that is the case, Most affected people, particularly those with the severest allergies, would trade those allergies in a heartbeat for growing up in a slightly less hygienic environment. Which I suppose makes this a point in the group one column. This is something where eliminating the struggle was not worth the tradeoff.


If this trend was limited to allergies, then I wouldn’t be writing about it, but we’re also seeing dramatic increases in the diagnosis rate of autism. And while part of this is certainly due to it being diagnosed more, almost no one thinks that this explains 100% of the increase. On top of allergies and autism, if you were following the news over the summer you may have seen a story about sperm counts halving in the last 40 years. This one is less well understood than the allergy problem, but it almost certainly represents something we’re doing to make life easier, which has the unforeseen side effect of reducing sperm counts, and by extension fertility.


These first three examples may all be genetic issues, but there are also cultural issues with modernity. For example the number of suicides and attempted suicides has skyrocketed in recent years, particularly among young people, whom you would expect to be the most impacted by recent cultural changes. Obviously there are lots of people who feel the increase comes because teens are struggling too much, but any sober assessment of historical conditions would have to conclude that this is almost certainly ridiculous. On the contrary, as I have said previously, if you remove struggle from a children’s life then you also remove the reasons why they might be unhappy. And, if after all these things are removed, they are still unhappy, the logical conclusion, since it’s nothing external, is that it has to be internal, and from that conclusion suicide can unfortunately often follow.


You may disagree with this theory, and may be it is only a temporary blip, unrelated to any of our misguided attempts to make life easier for kids, not evidence of a long term trend, but how sure are you of this, and are you willing to bet the lives of thousands of young people on whether or not you’re right?


On this last point you may be noticing some similarities to a previous post I did about the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. As you may or may not remember, stressful situations improved mental health. And as wars become less stressful mental health appears to be getting worse. If you don’t remember that post, this paragraph from Tribe is worth repeating:


This is not a new phenomenon: decade after decade and war after war, American combat deaths have generally dropped while disability claims have risen. Most disability claims are for medical issues and should decline with casualty rates and combat intensity, but they don’t. They are in an almost inverse relationship with one another. Soldiers in Vietnam suffered one-quarter the mortality rate of troops in World War II, for example, but filed for both physical and psychological disability compensation at a rate that was 50 percent higher… Today’s vets claim three times the number of disabilities that Vietnam vets did, despite...a casualty rate that, thank God is roughly one-third what it was in Vietnam.


As I pointed out back then, if you parse this out, Vietnam vets had a disability per casualty rate that was six times higher than World War II vets and current vets have a disability per casualty rate 54 times as high as the World War II vets. All of this is to say that there is significant evidence that making things easier (less of a struggle) doesn’t make things better.


For the most extreme view on this problem let’s turn to a response to 2016 EDGE Question of the Year, What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news? What makes it important? This particular response, by John Tooby, was titled: The Race Between Genetic Meltdown and Germline Engineering. And the gist of the article is that previous to that advent of modern medicine most people died, and this was especially true of individuals with harmful genetic mutations. This is no longer the case, and thus humanity is accumulating an “unsustainable increase in genetic diseases”.


The article makes several fascinating points:


  • On the necessity of a certain number of people to die before reproducing:


For a balance to exist between mutation and selection, a critical number of offspring must die before reproduction—die because they carry an excess load of mutations.


  • On how fast this problem can escalate


Various naturalistic experiments suggest this meltdown can proceed rapidly. (Salmon raised in captivity for only a few generations were strongly outcompeted by wild salmon subject to selection.)


  • He even goes on to say that this may be the explanation of the worldwide decline in birthrates among developed nations


If humans are equipped with physiological assessment systems to detect when they are in good enough condition to conceive and raise a child, and if each successive generation bears a greater number of micro-impairments that aggregate into, say, stressed exhaustion, then the paradoxical outcome of improving public health for several generations would be ever lower birth rates. One or two children are far too few to shed incoming mutations.


This strikes me as one of those obviously true things that no one wants to think about. But it also dovetails in very well with the theme of the post, and brings up an issue central to the claims of the second group, those who believe all struggle and suffering can be eliminated through technology. In this case we know exactly how to fix the problem, it’s even in the title. We just have to master germline, or more broadly, genetic engineering. Furthermore this isn't some hypothetical technology with no real world examples. The CRISPR revolution promises that this is something we could do very soon (if not already). The chief difficulty at this point is not in editing the genes, but in knowing what genes to edit. And I don’t want to minimize the difficulties involved in that effort, but there’s definitely nothing about the idea which seems impossible. Nearly all experts would say it’s not a matter of if, but when.


As a matter of fact mastering genetic and germline engineering would probably help with all of the examples we’ve looked at. Despite what people want to claim there’s a genetic component to nearly everything, certainly with autism, but probably also with allergies and low sperm counts and even suicide risk. In theory anything that can be treated with a pill could be treated with genetic engineering and this treatment would probably involve fewer long term side effects. At least health-wise…


So there you have it, the second group is correct, all we have to do is improve CRISPR to the point where we can genetically modify humans, do some experiments to figure out which genes do what, and the negative mutation load, and the low sperm count and the allergies and the autism, and possibly even the elevated suicide will all go away. Struggle was necessary to healthy development, but once we master the genome it won’t be, at least not for anything that can be fixed with genetics. In other words as Tooby’s title declares, we’re in a race between genetic meltdown and germline engineering. Obviously we have to win that race, but as long as we do that, everything will be fine right?


Are you sure about that? From where I sit, if we develop genetic and germline engineering of the kind Tooby is talking about, that’s not the end of our problems, it may be the end of certain specific problems, but it’s the beginning of a whole new set of problems. (Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Gattaca?)


I know that the current laws on genetic engineering are still embryonic (get it? embryonic?) But it is nevertheless true that most people already recoil at the thought of designer babies, or really anything involving modifying genes much beyond doing it as a means of curing disease. Up until this point I’ve used genetic and germline engineering somewhat interchangeably, but they are different. Germline engineering is the process of making modifications which are heritable. If you use it to make someone exceptionally strong, their children would have a greater chance of being exceptional strong as well. This is why Tooby specifically talks about a race between germline engineering and genetic meltdown, because whatever fixes you made would have to transfer for it to be of any use. One of the reasons this differentiation is important is that the US has mostly banned germline engineering, beyond this you can find countless articles debating whether it’s ethical or not.


If, despite the ban, and the ethical questions and people’s distaste at the idea of designer babies, if Tooby is to be believed, we really don’t have any choice in the matter, which means, along with solving the genetic meltdown problem we buy ourselves a whole host of new problems. Including:


Greater divisions between rich and poor: This problem is bad enough already, but toss in the ability for the rich to increase their child’s IQ and health and suddenly you’ve got gaps which no amount of affirmative action, or protests are going to fix.  Also there’s a non-trivial chance that this ends up being a positive feedback loop. With the new smarter richer groups discovering additional positive mutations to add to the mutations they already have at a faster and faster rate.


Racial problems: This is similar to above but probably even more radioactive. Radioactive enough that I don’t even want to speculate. (I’ll give you one hint: transracial.) But I’m sure you can imagine several potential scenarios where this technology makes everything a whole lot worse.


Bioweapons: If you can develop positive mutations then you can develop negative mutations, and while the delivery for those would still need to be accomplished, none of the technology makes this problem harder and it may make it a lot easier. Which takes us to our next point.


Limited Genetic Diversity: Once people start making modifications they will coalesce around certain mutations, leading to a great number of people whose genetic diversity is significantly less than the “default”. Also as we know there are some “bad” mutations which have good side effects (the classic example being sickle cell anemia.) If a disease mutated to affect one, it would be equally effective against all of them. And following from the last point that disease wouldn’t have to be natural.


Different “breeds”: At some point when this has gone on long enough (and really not even all that long) it’s not inconceivable that you could have various breeds of humans, as different from one another as great danes are from toy poodles. How the world deals with something like this is well beyond my ability to predict, but I can’t imagine that it makes things better.


The good news for Tooby, but the bad news for anyone worried about any of the above is that CRISPR is not the Manhattan Project. It doesn’t take billions of dollars and millions of man hours, it’s something you can do from home. Now germline engineering is more difficult, but not that much more so. Certainly it’s not the kind of thing the US could keep any other country from doing if they wanted to.


All of this has taken us pretty far from the topic of whether struggle is necessary, and our two groups. But if nothing else you can begin to see the complexities involved in group two’s assertion that we can eventually solve everything through technology. Yes you can help a chick hatch, but most of the time it will die. Yes, you can make war safer and less connected to the rest of life, but PTSD will go way up. Yes modern medicine can keep people alive who otherwise would have died, but their negative mutations end up in the gene pool. Yes we can solve that with Germline engineering, but that creates a whole new set of problems. Yes we can make life materially better for everyone by using fossil fuels but the resultant CO2 causes global warming.


This is a complicated subject and I am not urging a retreat to some kind of prelapsarian past. But I think we should question the idea that any struggle is bad, that technology and progress has all the answers, and that we can solve all the problems we create.





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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Is Facebook More Like a Newspaper or a Video Game?

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Over the weekend I listened to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (as narrated by Nick Offerman.) It’s an enjoyable book, though something of a polemic, and easier to understand if you know that Twain hated Sir Walter Scott (among other things he blamed him for the Civil War). As you may or may not know, Scott was a well-known novelist of the time who romanticized the entire medieval period, and, when you read Twain’s novel, it’s apparent that it was born out Twain’s dislike of Scott specifically and of the idealization of the medieval period more generally.


One of Twain’s major goals was to show how backward everything was during the medieval period, and how awful things were for the great majority of people. Consequently one of the major themes of the book is the importance and wonder of progress, and on that front I may revisit it in more depth, but for now I just want to pluck one fact out of the book to set the stage for this post’s subject.


If you’re unfamiliar with the story, an engineer is sent backward through time to the era of Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot. Where, in the course of various adventures, the engineer attempts to modernize ancient Britain by implementing such things as the telegraph (and telephone), a new monetary system, and the abolition of slavery. All of it spiced up with the liberal application of dynamite. But of all the things this engineer considers important, Twain lays particular emphasis on the creation of a newspaper. As I recall it’s one of the first, if not the first thing the engineer turns his mind too once he has a free hand.


The importance of newspapers specifically and the free press more generally, was not only important to Twain, of course, it has been a major feature of American ideology going all the way back to the founding. And it has generally been seen as something which by itself counterbalances all manner of possible abuses. For example, this quote from Jefferson sums up the role of “papers” nicely:


The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.


This was written while Jefferson was ambassador to France, and if you’re familiar with his later long running battle with Hamilton (which occurred mostly in the newspapers of the time) it’s possible he may have eventually moderated this absolute support. But I’ll have more to say about that later.


To our examples of Twain and Jefferson we could add the First Amendment, of course, and also dozens of other historical quotes all supporting the freedom of the press. Though, as I said in the past, despite all this historic support, there have been some people who have recently started to question unlimited freedom of the press. Still this mostly comes up with reference to hate speech. When you’re talking about being informed about politics, almost everyone from Jefferson, down to the present day has felt that absolute freedom to discuss politics is central to the American ideology and particularly central to the workings of democracy. At least... everyone thought this... until Russia came along... and started buying ads on Facebook…


Okay, I might be exaggerating the impact, but the alarm over the issue is interesting. Particularly the question of where Facebook fits, when we’re talking about freedom of the press and newspapers and all the things which have been so important back to the very beginning of the republic.


When speaking of where social media fits, if nothing else, it’s definitely clear that the rules of the game have been dramatically changed. To illustrate this I’d like to start with looking at the money spent by the Russians. Lots of people go on and on about the Russians tampering with the election, but how much money and influence were they really throwing around? For me this appears to be the part of the story getting the least critical attention, but the part which is potentially the most fascinating. To keep things simple let’s look just at what was spent on Facebook.


From what I can tell there are two numbers floating around, $100,000 and $46,000. I think one number is earlier in the year, and one number is right on the eve of the election, but I’m happy to add the two of them together to get a grand total of $146k being spent by the Russians on Facebook. In fact let’s be even more conservative and assume that some spending hasn’t yet been uncovered and double it, and then round the whole thing up to $300k.


Having come up with a total, the first question I want to ask is, how does that compare to what the candidates themselves spent on Facebook? Well the number there, as far as I can tell, is $81 million for both candidates, which means the two candidates outspent the Russians (even using our very conservative figure) by 270x (or 3/10ths of a percent.) And, as I said this is a conservative estimate, TechCrunch, a site, which as far as I know, doesn’t have any conservative leanings, looks at the more narrow pre-election spending and concludes the Russians were outspent by 1,760x (or 6/100ths of a percent.)


But wait? You may be saying. I heard that the Russians reached 126 million people, isn’t that 40% of the country? Surely that has to represent more money than the $146k or even the $300k we’re talking about? Perhaps. As far as I can tell Facebook will sell you impressions (a fancy way of counting every time your ad gets loaded whether or not the person even notices it) for a half a cent. At that rate 126 million impressions would have cost them $630k, so still very much within the realm of numbers I’m talking about and it only takes our worst case scenario from 270x, to 129x (still less than a percent) as much spending. But also, Facebook gives you a break if your content is particularly viral, meaning that maybe they got the impressions for less than that. Also, I assume that Facebook, at the point where they have to appear before congress and explain themselves, would make sure they reconciled the amount spent with the number of people reached, but maybe not. Either way I don’t think it changes the fact that the Russians spent a relatively tiny amount. This comparison becomes more extreme when you look beyond the candidate’s Facebook spending to the total campaign spending, which clocks in well north of a billion dollars. (This site gives the total money raised by both candidates at $2.35 billion.) Of course then you’d want to look at total spending by the Russians across all platforms, but you still get a situation where the money spent by the candidates is hundreds of times greater than that spent by the Russians.


All of this leaves us with two possible conclusions: Either, the Russian money was a drop in the bucket, and it had no effect on the outcome of the election. (And everyone should get over things.) Or, social media spending, particularly of the kind the Russians did, is disproportionately effective, and that for a measly 150k (or 300k, or 600k) they were able to buy the presidential election for Trump, when it otherwise would have gone to Clinton.  Now, to be fair, this was a close election, and in close elections you have the benefit of being able to point to any single factor and credibly claim that it could have swung the election (2000 is great for that sort of thing). And thus, I suppose, it’s even possible that there’s a third option. That each dollar the Russian groups spent on Facebook was about as effective as a dollar spent on TV ads, or canvassing, or what have you, but that the race was close enough that it still made the difference in who won.


If it’s the first, that the Russian spending made no difference, then there’s not much of a story, just the typical Monday morning quarterbacking that’s going to happen after any close election. Democrats can’t accept that they lost “fairly” and so they focus on nefarious outside influences to explain the election. It wasn’t that Clinton should have campaigned more in Michigan (or at a minimum kept her TV ads there running in October), it was the evil Russians (cue Boris and Natasha.)


This is certainly a possible explanation, and perhaps even the most likely, but it’s not very interesting, so for the rest of the post I’m going to assume that social media did have a disproportionate impact on the race, and to be fair there is more evidence than just the Russian angle. When even the Economist is running a cover story titled Social media’s threat to democracy you have to figure that I’m not the only one who thinks that social media spending might have been disproportionately effective. For example, if we look beyond the Russian angle, many people think that it was Trump’s (technically Jared Kushner’s) mastery of Facebook that explains why he won. This section from The Economist is particularly interesting:


The Leave campaign...experiment[ed] with different versions [of Facebook ads]... dropping ineffective ones. The Trump campaign in 2016 did much the same, but on a much larger scale: on an average day it fed Facebook between 50,000 and 60,000 different versions of its advertisements...Some were aimed at just a few dozen voters in a particular district.


As I said in the beginning, there’s a strong bias in American towards considering the press, and particularly the newspapers, to be the good guys and going out of our way to give them as wide a latitude as possible, particularly in reporting political matters. If that’s correct and the press are the good guys, what changed with Facebook? Why is it different than a newspaper? Why is its effect malevolent where previously, on the balance, the press was considered to have a benevolent effect? (There is an argument that it doesn’t, but for the purposes of this post we’re going to assume that Twain and Jefferson were correct.)


I think that quote about the 50,000 ads a day gives us a pretty good idea of the difference.


The first place where most people are inclined to place blame is the hyper-partisan character of the ads Trump and the Russians (and to a lesser extent the Democrats) were showing on Facebook. And I agree this is tempting target, but remember how I said that we would return to a discussion of Jefferson? Well, when Jefferson, who, remember, was a strong supporter of freedom of the press, was waging his titanic battle against Hamilton. That battle mostly took place in the newspapers of the time, and the partisanship and venom of those newspapers makes our own disagreements seem pretty mild. And these weren’t obscure newspapers, these were the major papers of the time. Thus I don’t think hyper-partisanship is a very good candidate for the difference between newspapers at the founding of the country and social media today.


The next place people look, and a place I’ve gone to myself, is the idea that Facebook is just too big. Senator Al Franken (yeah the guy who used to be on SNL) just recently gave a speech about this issue. Wired titled it the Speech that Big Tech has Been Dreading, and in it Franken not only called out Facebook, but also Google and Amazon, saying the following:


Everyone is rightfully focused on Russian manipulation of social media, but as lawmakers it is incumbent on us to ask the broader questions: How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives?


Now whether Facebook has too much control or whether they’re big enough to be a true monopoly is certainly up for debate, but you can see where a large number of people get a significant amount of their information from this one source. In other words, there are a lot of people who spend 4 hours a day on Facebook, but don’t spend five minutes reading something like New York Times. Now if Facebook ended up showing these people a broad selection of news from all over the political spectrum this dominance might not be a problem, but as we all know, Facebook targets you with ads they know you will like. And beyond that they provided Trump and the Russians with the ability to target ads down to the level of the individual. As the Economist pointed out, in addition to those 50,000 ads, they were also running ads which were aimed at just a few dozen voters in a particular district. All of which brings me to my next point.


When you read the front page of the New York Times, or even of the local paper you know you’re reading exactly the same front page as everyone else. This has largely carried over to the web. When I go to cnn.com I see the same thing my wife sees when she goes to cnn.com. But this is not what happens at all with Facebook, as the example of targeting a few dozen individuals indicates. But people don’t realize this. People see something on Facebook and they naturally assume that this is more or less what everyone is seeing. Consequently they are far less likely to question whether it’s true or not. And even if they do question it, or ignore it, or if it’s ineffective in any way, then the Trump team still has 49,999 tries, each DAY, to get it right.  All of which is to say that Facebook (and most social media) is targeted and responsive in a way that makes it a completely different animal from traditional media. The Economist describes it thusly:


The algorithms that Facebook, YouTube and others use to maximise “engagement” ensure users are more likely to see information that they are liable to interact with. This tends to lead them into clusters of like-minded people sharing like-minded things, and can turn moderate views into more extreme ones. “It’s like you start a vegetarian and end up a vegan,” says Zeynep Tufecki of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describing her experience following the recommendations on YouTube. These effects are part of what is increasing America’s political polarization, she argues.


Even taking into account this increase in polarization, if that’s all there was to it, we’d probably be okay. But on top of everything else, not only do Facebook and similar sites, disseminate hyper-partisan information, act as a near monopoly, convince isolated people that they’re part of a community, and increase polarization, they are also are doing their very best to make all of this as addictive as possible.


This is usually the point where someone comes along and accuses me of being just another old guy who thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket and just wants the damn kids to get off his lawn. And maybe that is exactly what’s going on. Here’s what the article from The Economist had to say about this possibility:


Social media are hardly the first communication revolution to first threaten, then rewire the body politic. The printing press did it (see our essay on Luther). So did television and radio, allowing conformity to be imposed in authoritarian countries at the same time as, in more open ones, promoting the norms of discourse which enabled the first mass democracies.


Several things are worth pointing out from that quote. First, there at the end, we have another example of past media serving to improve democracy. Second if you boil down the question to whether social media represents a communication revolution, and separate it from the effect it may or may not have had in the most recent election, I think most people would not hesitate to declare it revolution. If that’s the case, perhaps we should move away from considering the narrow question of what the Russians did or didn’t do, since we may be too close to the issue, and examine other examples of communication revolution. The quote mentions two, the more recent TV and radio revolution and the revolution in printing at the time of Martin Luther.


For those who aren’t up on their history. The reason they had an essay on Luther is that we just hit the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door (if that in fact happened). And as they allude to, one of the big reasons the Protestant reformation happened when it did was the invention of the printing press. Luther himself was a master of the medium and in the 1520s, he was responsible for more than a fifth of the empire’s entire output of pamphlets. At the time one churchman said, “Every day it rains Luther books. Nothing else sells.”


As you also may or may not recall the Protestant Reformation resulted in one of the bloodier periods of European history (the 30 Years War, the French Wars of Religion, the English Civil War, etc.) So that’s one of the revolutions. On the other hand, the TV and Radio revolution was almost entirely peaceful and we can always hope that even if social media does represent a revolution it will be more similar to the revolution brought on by TV and Radio than the one brought on by the printing press. Though, I fear that when you look at ease of control, social media is a lot closer to the decentralized revolution of the printing press, then the centralization of TV and radio.


The only question left, assuming you agree with me thus far, is what we should do about it? The Economist asks the same question and comes up with this response:


What is to be done? People will adapt, as they always do. A survey this week found that only 37% of Americans trust what they get from social media, half the share that trust printed newspapers and magazines. Yet in the time it takes to adapt, bad governments with bad politics could do a lot of harm.


I agree. People will adapt. But remember that Facebook and the other sites can also adapt. The Russians can adapt. And we already read about the 50,000 adaptations the Trump campaign was making every day. I have no doubt we will eventually adapt, but in the meantime we’re trying to hit a moving target, and a lot can happen while we’re working it out.


Finally, given the evident success of this tactic, how much more money and how much bigger is this problem going to be in 2020?






If this post made you hate social media, or if you already hated social media, consider donating to something that isn’t, this blog. Sure I’m not as reliable as the newspaper, but I’m better than your crazy uncle.