Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Division Engines

Charles Babbage is credited with the invention of the Difference Engine capable of complex calculations it is regarded as the progenitor of the modern computer (more so than the abacus). The subject of this blog post is the outcome of technical advances has been to transform Babbages Difference Engine into a Division Engine - one that facilitates (socialdivision.

Since inception computers acted as ... well ... things to do computations; addition, multiplication, division (its worth mentioning that such computations are what we do in image processing or even audio processing). Eventually the internet transformed computers into communication tools more so than computational tools. Indeed without connectivity the usefulness of a computer became substanitally lowered (even for people who still call upon their core functions as computational).

This led to ultimately the rise in popularity of computers for merely communications needs (well and I've complained about for decades, turning the internet into TV) and suddenly that was appealing to people who just wanted to stay in touch.

Thus the birth of social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

This is where I consider we stepped over the threshold from communications tool and it became a "division tool" as these media (by nature) contrive to amplify divisions between us, facilitate misunderstandings , perpetuate cognitive confirmation bias (by our selection of who whe choose to listen to) and give an almost "genetic algorithm" to memes to enhance their potency and subvert critical thinking and analysis (cos like TLDR).

I recommend the following lecture ... this class works the problem so well I was compelled to write this.

The concept of "alternative facts" is now circling the "TwitterSphere" and Facebook with essentially nothing more than ridicule or derision. Noone seems to actually take the idea of "alternative presentation" by the media and say "hey, that's interesting, I thought X, but you're saying its Y"

To quote from Marcus Aurelius :
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. 
Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” 
Twitter and Facebook simply encourage people to pitch battle and stick more strongly with their respective camps.

Human social psychology evolution of course centred around the face to face ... we would often behave differently out of defference to the others we spoke to (or if nothing more than concern they may punch us on the nose if we were too in their face). Social media obscures this by allowing essentially a context free / responsibility to outcome free platform.

As an example of this, a recent discussion with an actual friend (whom I know in reality) on Facebook beginning as misunderstanding what I'd said (and essentially telling me to go fuck myself) really started me wondering. Another with a less fiery exchange of words left me wondering WTF as that person is one who I regard as highly intelligent and capable of critical though (meaning critical examination of the arguments, both the opposition and their own).

I refer to a post I made back in 2011 (here), let me quote from that:
If the community has polarized views on topics then arguing will just lead to entrenching that division. Further there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that "no matter what", people just are unwilling to accept any new facts if it conflicts with their existing viewpoint.

A Professor from Georgia State University, Jason Reifler conducted a series of experiments that looked at whether people changed their views when they were presented with the correct facts. He found that not only did they not, but it reinforced their will to keep a grip on their existing facts.

Clearly this has a significant effect on the politics around any public dialog; a quote from an (ABC interview) with him:

JASON REIFLER: When we told people that the United States had not found weapons of mass destruction, conservatives, compared to conservatives that we didn't correct actually believed more strongly that the US had found weapons of mass destruction.

So that by telling them that in fact the US didn't and pointing to a CIA report known as the Duelfer report citizens actually, their response was, well actually now I believe it more strongly.

ELEANOR HALL: So not only did they not believe the facts that you were putting before them; they actually reinforced the incorrect views they originally had.


ELEANOR HALL: What hope is there then for truth in politics?

JASON REIFLER: The downside of the research that my co-author and I have done to date is that it's very depressing. We don't have a terribly good understanding yet of ways to try and improve public debate, to try and improve political dialogue.

So people seem to treat discussion like a footy match; with a winner and a looser at the end of the match and go home still rooting for their team.
As just mentioned people are unwilling to accept that discussion may lead to them being wrong or that they may learn something they didn't know before (which should lead to them changing their point of view).

Somehow making computers communications tools (indeed modification of communication to require computers) has resulted in Charles Babbages Difference Engine to be reduced to simply a Division Engine ... vexing

So to me humanity faces an enormous challenge:

  • how to engage with this communication tool and be informed by it not formed by it
  • how to accept that access to data is not access to knowledge
  • how to be humble and polite in discussion in a world with no perceivable ramifications to what ever you dish out of your keyboard.
I'll leave you again with the words of Marcus
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” 


gnarlydog said...

I see it a bit differently, on the notion that individuals can become "assholes" behind the keyboard.
While I don't doubt the intelligence of most individuals that I like to deal with, I see particular patterns in their behavior that might lead to a (perceived) altered behavior on screen.
I usually like to analyze the person's character whether shy or extrovert, passive-aggressive or confronting and outspoken, and so on.
Those are to me the clues to what could trigger a behavior where that person is not held back by the (in)ability to verbalize his/her thoughts in a not moderated face-to-face environment.
OK, for example take Jane: she is a rather shy perceived "sitting on the fence" kind of girl. In a group discussion she sits back and listens and doesn't voice her opinion right there and then but she has plenty going on in her head. Take John; he speaks his mind, interrupts other while talking and has an outlet to his thoughts, he doesn't bottle it up and usually resolves his conflicts with others by speaking his mind.
You can now imagine how these two individuals might behave behind the keyboard... who might burst out and lash out on pent up resentment he/she might have with others. You get my drift.
I believe the keyboard brings out the true self where the social convention of judicious restrain is not as pressing and maybe allows one to say it as they think? insults included ;-)

obakesan said...

Hi there
You are the second person who seems to have focused on my personal conflict example. Perhaps that's distracting?
The point of people failing to engage critical analysis and the distribution of often false information as well as the amplification of memes seems to have been missed.
Perhaps I need to rewrite this

Bombi said...

I like the analogy he makes with natural selection and the evolution of the worst of the worst comments rising to prominence. Sort of makes it seem like there's an inevitability to this strange mutation of "information" sharing.

I think the relative anonymity the internet affords us lets someone's filters for expression and proper consideration to become much more lax. So you get far more extreme and perhaps more visceral gut reactions which just helps the process along even quicker. I think that might be what gnarlydog is referring to in a way? Another ingredient into the toxic mix if nothing else.

Maybe that's another reason people don't critically engage with the information fed to them? They're not as accountable through the filter of the screen & keyboard, so they'll think and feel less about the repercussions of their thoughts and actions.