Month: July 2019

Political Awokeness: the Next Phase of Digital Population Control

Many on the left (and also some on the center-right) are lately penning critiques of the disturbing phenomenon of “surveillance capitalism”—for example here, and here.

Many of these critiques are perceptive, very well-written and much-needed. But I cannot help wonder how many of these brave and principled souls would still demur at the involuntary “moralization” of our surreptitiously collected personal data, if the algorithmic ranking of citizens by credit or criminal scores, currently at issue, were instead replaced or even simply supplemented… by measures of individual wokeness…?

One has only to imagine something like the already tremendously spooky mylife.com—which features a “reputation” gauge that literally judges for you, on the basis of criminal and financial data, whether a given citizen-of-interest is “good” or “bad”—but with the addition of an extra weighting factor. Let us call this the “political-awokeness” factor (or some other euphemism to taste; it doesn’t matter).

This “political-awokeness” factor would collate all the person’s available correspondence, public statements, social media, and lifestyle/purchasing decisions, subject it to an opaque (and probably poorly-validated) machine-learning rubric, and return a value indicating the person’s degree of concordance with and advocacy for leftist-SJW orthodoxies (or, in the event of a Fascist instead of Marxist takeover, rightist-racialist orthodoxies; technology is quite flexible and indifferent to such fine-points of ideology).

How many of those critics of “surveillance capitalism”, who decry most articulately and justly the digital invasion and ranking of our lives and souls in the name of capital, would nonetheless be perfectly happy to go for ranking of citizens by “political-awokeness”? I cannot say with certainty, but we will soon know: for the experiment is almost surely underway already.

Such a scale based on political amenability is no more far-fetched than one based on finances, criminal records, or any other personal data; such things have been in the works for a long, long time.

We enjoy pointing at the Chinese “social credit score” and feeling a flush of moral pride (or schadenfreude) that we in the West, at least, still appreciate freedom and privacy and due process before judgment(!)

But in fact, even if very slightly behind, Western organizations are hardly less obsessed than Chinese ones with developing such tech for themselves—in fact, they are largely in sync with China on this.

To take just one example, consider the “incivility detector”, announced several months ago, which combs the Internet for signs of rudeness or even, perish the thought, outright meanness. Or, for a more thorough sampling, we might want to consult such scholarly tomes as “Social, Cultural, and Behavioral Modeling“, a periodic collection of research proceedings whose recent annals include such juicy titles as “Detecting Betrayers in Online Environments Using Active Indicators”; “Learning Latent Representations of Users Using Their Social-Media Activities”; “Multi-Agent Accumulator-Based Decision-Making Model of Incivility (MADI)”; “Exploring Fake News and Satirical Responses During the Black Panther Movie Event”; “#metoo Through the Lens of Social Media”; and my own totalitarian favorite, “Fine-Scale Prediction of People’s Home Location Using Social Media Footprints”.

Interestingly, these investigations are nearly always approached from a leftist or social-justiciar perspective, not a financially-focused “capitalist”—let alone rightist—one. (Surely, these authors’ political-awokeness scores must be astronomical!)

***

Glancing over the deluge of such developments, which seem to meet less and less resistance even as their flow becomes greater and greater, it is hard not to suspect that we are actually approaching the point where it will be completely useless to refer to things as “Orwellian”—partly because, due to sweeping intellectual illiteracy, no one will really know who Orwell was or grasp what point he was even making, but mostly just because everything will be Orwellian. There will simply be nothing meaningfully to compare Orwell’s forecasts against; at that point, the word will have been wholly exhausted of shock-value.

But even so, one has to ask: why such a rush on the part of elites around the globe to out-Orwell themselves? Are there simply no other technological frontiers left to fight on?

This last is a distinct possibility, actually, as technological stagnation is far further advanced (pardon the mixed metaphor) than is generally discussed or admitted. Still, it’s almost as if the elite are anticipating a period of exceptionally hard times not far ahead, in which it will be necessary to deploy much stronger and more innovative means of control and persuasion to keep the population from eating each other—and, of course, the elites themselves.

“Just Animals”

My thoughts keep returning to an exchange I recently had online with someone who, almost from the outset of the discussion, angrily declared:

“We’re all just animals; humans are animals no different from the rest of the animal kingdom; the only difference is that we stupidly think we are better and act all conceited. If we weren’t just animals, we would behave better to each other and seek peace and quiet…” etc., etc.

Sensing a certain heatedness in the above, I first thought of saying something flippant to lighten the tension. But suddenly I felt the view expressed was really so grim and dangerous that it would not help to mince words. So I instead said what I really felt:

“I think this is an overconfidently reductionist and also highly fashionable view, one I don’t think I can share.”

Interestingly, the person gave no arguments, but simply ended the conversation at once, and I have not heard from them since. (Perhaps I was too strong, but then immediate rejection and silencing of those who do not abet one’s beliefs is also, as we have seen all too clearly and all too many times, quite standard procedure now.)

Really what my sometime interlocutor does not see—because she is too busy congratulating herself for quoting scientistic bromides and therefore, by a sort of crackpot modus ponens typical of the lumpen-intellectuals of today, being “smart”—is that the view she expressed is monstrous, not only because it allows one to degrade humans without limit, but because it actually allows one, as a first step, to degrade animals without limit.

The slip, I believe, was in her saying animals are “just animals”—meaning biochemical machines with no “higher” potentials or capacities. This is, after all, pop-scientistic boilerplate now: all life is merely “moist robots”.

But just as one feels no moral pang in taking apart a vacuum cleaner or smashing a TV with a hammer, why, if an animal is “just” an animal, should one feel any such compunction about doing the same to it? And thus, if humans are no better, to a human being…?

The implications of the whole view, it is not too hard to see, are actually horrifying: they admit no limit of brutality, for they deny all moral basis for distinguishing brutality from taking apart a watch.

In fact the situation was even worse than this, for my friend’s tone betrayed an actual hatred of the human, a desire to place it not equal to, but below the animal. Why? Most likely, as she hinted, as punishment for humanity’s not “behaving better to each other”, and so failing to live up to those selfsame “higher” potentials which she loudly denies–and ultimately, for disappointing her.

If this interpretation is right, we see here an extraordinary phenomenon–out of a reflexive spite or a personal sense of disappointment, she has committed to deny the existence of these potentials—in order to get back at them!

Here is the irony: in their need for revenge at personal failings and slights, the progressive-minded of today must admit, albeit backhandedly, to the very things they are driven to deny—much as the postmodernist must concede the existence of truth in order to deny it, when he says, “truly, there is no truth”!

Like all nihilistic drives built around rage, revenge and resentment, we find self-negation at the core of this kind of “progressive enlightenment”. For is not my friend herself a human? What are we to make of this conflict? Does she then yearn actually to be lesser than what she is? Would she like, perhaps, even to be degraded in some way, perhaps even be forced to be a “moist robot”–all to relieve her of this pain of being human?

But self-contradiction inevitably breeds restlessness; and so, as long as it is never resolved at its source, it can feed on itself indefinitely, continually expanding the perimeter of its grievances, and continually degrading that which it claims to restore or heal.

This very line of thought might provide, in fact, a most useful definition of evil: Evil is that which begins by promising everything and ends by sparing nothing.

Flynn’s Retreat and Academic Idiocracy

I recently came across some remarkable news: the Flynn effect, the mysterious trend of ever-rising IQs that has been documented though most of the early and middle 20th century and has been the source of much technocratic/laissez-faire optimism, appears to have actually begun reversing in many countries. We are, it seems, now measurably becoming “dumbed down”. This is claimed to be due to “environmental factors”.

My own experience may be relevant here as far as these intellectual “environmental factors” go, for not too long ago I was involved with proctoring a statistics-based course, focusing on applications in public health and medical research. This was graduate level, at a pretty high-ranking research university.

Here are some of the interesting features of how the course was designed:

1) extra-credit quizzes, worth 5% of the total course grade;

2) extra credit questions on both the midterm and final exam, together totaling an entire grade-point (B to A);

3) lowest homework quiz score is dropped;

4) most exam questions do not require showing any of one’s calculations;

5) finally, most amazingly, an extra-credit “make-up” exam, where you get to “redo” questions you got wrong on an exam for credit (I helped get this particular foolishness blocked at least, and got a good dose of student flak for it).

Final result: of all students, and even without 5),

• About four-fifths got an A or A- (with about half of these scoring above 100%),

• one-fifth got some kind of B,

• One student got an F (because they didn’t even show up for the last 2 exams).

This is now considered “successful teaching”; indeed the professor who designed the course and rubric and gave the lectures was cited for “outstanding contributions” to teaching.

Of course the real shock, after larding the course with this much extra-credit and other fudges, is that anyone still got less than an A. In reality, belying the grades, I would say perhaps a bit under half the students understood the material at a functional level by the end. However one quickly discovers that:

• If a student gets anything less than an A-, they will complain because this stops them from doing “capstone research”.

• If a student gets anything less than a B-, they will complain because, in a misguided attempt to battle grade inflation, programs have moved towards making B- the minimum passing grade–thus pressuring instructors to simply inflate their grades even more.

These students will go on, one assumes, to fairly responsible positions in management, tech, and perhaps clinical research. We already are beginning to see how that works out. But if the university is just a business and students are just customers, who are we to deny them what they paid for?

Degree mills, everybody: it’s what the People (& college administrators) have spoken for! If IQs are indeed sliding, this kind of inflation of coursework will be both partly to blame, yet also increasingly demanded—thus completing the vicious circle.