Ben Rhodes, Facebook, and News Manipulation

A New York Times profile of Ben Rhodes inflamed controversy on a number of fronts. First on Ben Rhodes contempt for journalists and his claim that he manipulated reporters to push the Obama Administration’s narrative on the Iran Deal, and secondly on claims of poor reporting. Aside from displaying the arrogance of Ben Rhodes, and possibly the administration, it shows that the primary manipulation of news is still done by people, not by algorithms and not for pageviews.

More traditional news media has been breaking down for some time now and another story highlights the consequences of that. A recent report by Gizmodo displayed the manipulation of trending news topics at Facebook. Facebook has become an important source of news and a primary means of information dissemination for a large part of the Western populace. And now, with the fake news scandal after the election it is obvious that people are the culprit and not merely algorithms.

Pressure to break stories, because the first person or organization to post a story online will get an enormous bump in traffic, has never been greater for journalists. This has led to the fraying of ethics and helps people like Ben Rhodes manipulate the public. So now, as prominent individuals manipulate the traditional media, and unreliable news sources overwhelm social media, the basis for public cooperation in democratic governments is eroding. The prospect of the collapse of democracies is not unthinkable as it may have once been.

Technology and Information in the Western World

At the start of the 21st Century it was obvious that information (data, communications, news) was valuable as it had not been before. The ability to collect, utilize, and disseminate information reaped efficiencies and knowledge from the multitudinous amalgamation of modern society. Sifting and organizing this data became the paramount task for business and government, and the sifting is done with algorithms. Algorithms dominate modern life in subtle and pervasive ways and they are often placed on a pedestal: the better the algorithm the better your software. With all of this data and all of this organization of data, there is a loss of focus on the issues data is actually used to resolve. There is a dark side to the task of intertwining society and reducing every tendency and action to a data point – and it’s not Big Brother sifting through your personal life that is a problem.

People are the problem. Technology does not exist in a vacuum and it exists to aid people. Technology does not make all decisions for us. The proliferation of data has led to a problem that algorithms cannot solve. People must interpret and use the data, and if there is so much information available to the public, it is up to people to filter it themselves and decide what is important to listen to. There is also the problem of trying to force people to be better at reaching certain data points. For instance, children shouldn’t get a higher grade on an English exam, they should be better at analyzing and writing in the language. Likewise, people shouldn’t just read more information, they should be analyzing the available information more efficiently.

A narrative after the presidential election centers around the dissemination of fake news and its possible impact on the outcome. Much of the blame has centered on Facebook and social media for allowing the spread of fake news, but this criticism is misplaced. People must take some responsibility before we force technology to make decisions for us. The centrality of data and algorithms, information culture in its entirety, must be maintained as an AIDE and not as a LEADER.   Our reliance on technology cannot extend to giving up agency. If people cannot decide between believing fake news sources or not, and we need an algorithm to decide for us, then people are abdicating their right to self-government to mathematical constructs.

Dostoyevsky and Internet Outrage

Dostoyevsky’s novella “The Double” and several of his short stories examine a narcissistic and shame-based personality schema that is still in evidence, maybe even in increasing prominence, in the modern world as much as in the mid-1800’s. The rigid social structures and bureaucracies of Imperial Russia have been replaced by the strict impression management of social media, but the emotions remain the same. Shame is the emotion of social failure, and a relentless self-obsession that relies on examination of others fuels that core emotion. Shame is to be guarded against at all cost, people must succeed, especially in relation to others, while also concealing themselves from negative exposure.

The end of “The Double” exposes the narrator to his tremendous social failure, but it is also a failure related to his sense of enititlement. This type of emotional transaction, the transmission of outrage from the observer to the subject, where it’s transformed into shame, is the basic emotional currency of the Internet. Emotion is an easily received thrill. Just as the youngest generation is increasingly seeking “experiences” over material goods, so are we all seeking emotional highs and lows through media. The problem with this is that it undermines reason and sustained action. Interacting with other people this way is a precursor for nihilism, and phenomena like the popularity of Donald Trump can be directly tied to this social disease of sensation seeking.

The Aging Infrastructure Paradox

Many countries in the developed world have an infrastructure crisis. In the United States there is an avowed problem with bridges and railroads, but also with water and sewage systems and with internal governmental communications technology. There is general agreement that these aging structures need to be replaced or repaired, but the cost is tremendous and the political jockeying for funds is, and will be, intense.

There is another problem, though. With technology advancing so rapidly, how does a municipality or nation decide when to proceed in adopting technology with promised cost reductions and improvements over the horizon? Any project undertaken will necessarily be outdated and overcost compared to projects undertaken in the near future, but further deterioration in infrastructur hurts all facets of society.

It is clear that in physical infrastructure projects leaders must choose a contractor and technique and live with it, technology in this arena and costs will always fluctuate but structures must be maintained.

In communications technology any investment designed to modernize infrastructure will be rendered obsolete in a few years. Anything adopted in the public sector will immediately lag behind innovations in the private sector. This can lead to problems that are not immediately apparent, such as tech support being ended for the technology in use. If quantum cryptography or other innovations provide superior security from cyberattacks then anything not using that technology will be vulnerable to intrusion. Systems that are immediately antiquated will be vulnerable and attractive targets.

Flexibility is integral in modernity’s ever-advancing technological revolution. Skeleton structures that can be modified and updated are optimal, instead of rigid, permanent structures, in both physical and communications projects.

The Post-Will, Post-Fate Future

Our wills and fates do so contrary run, that our devices still are overthrown; are thoughts are ours, their ends none our own.
Shakespeare succinctly summed up a fundamental debate about human nature with that quote. It seems that we are predestined to play certain roles in our lives. When we look back at the episodes that define our existence, often we find that patterns seem to emerge from the randomness that permeates our interactions. This is possibly an illusion, but it also refers to something we know to be true, that we make unconscious decisions that subtly and overtly shape our lives.
Every bit of us is being broken down into discrete chunks of data. And all of that data is processed with other data, and constantly refined algorithms comb through all that data to sort and find patterns. It is the avowed goal of the founders of Google, for instance, to create a personal assistant that optimizes all of the minute decisions we make in a day. Less traffic than usual? Your sleep not quite as sound? Sleep in for 10 more minutes before getting up, this will be determined for you.
Now the AI deprives of us will, but it does not exactly exist as fate either. That is, it determines in a mathematical manner the most efficient way to live in our lives at the moment, from moment to moment. It does not determine an overarching theme for our lives. But how will we cope with this new aimlessness?
It seems likely that the majority of people will acquiesce, handing control of their lives over to algorithms and enjoying the placid comfort of decision-less existence. People who rebel will almost certainly be at a disadvantage, both in the comfort of their lives and in their place in society. This is I, Robot and The Matrix in real life. Will AI have to give us the illusion of control in order for us to maintain our emotional equilibrium? But we will know it is a lie. We will all have to find our unique pleasures and goals. Even the realm of art will be penetrated by AI, and a society of artists will be unnecessary, so will self-improvement. So what exists beyond the intellectual? The only thing that we will control or want to control, and the only thing that distinguishes us from an intelligent computer, is our emotions and physicality. Perhaps we will seek to manipulate our emotions, “I wish to feel joy!” Or maybe, due to the imperfections of human psychology, profound sadness. The other is physical pleasure. Drugs and stimulations will be in high demand.

I’m not sure where this leaves us as a species, but once our minds are rendered impotent compared to a computer, all we have left are our bodies and our primitive feelings. Existence, even immortal existence, could be rendered utterly meaningless. That flaw, that has driven humanity so far, to discover meaning, always asking “why?” and “how?” will certainly be our undoing once there is no purpose to answering those questions.