If you asked me to remember something from a Presidents Day in the past, I would struggle to come up with something. The question that always came to mind when it was brought up was: “do we have the day off of work?” and that is about it.
This year it’s different. I have a lot of emotions going through me today. I remember the great presidents of the past (one of which is pretty darn recent) and can’t help but feel a #NotMyPresident urge.
The topic that keeps coming to mind though is FAKE NEWS. I cringe when it is used to ironically argue about truth and then see actual lies being spouted during the same argument. I feel like I am watching a magician try to misdirect me but this time I CAN SEE IT RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY EYES.
I feel like I am in a large scale fight for basic truth, participating in a game of Go or Othello with information. Just when you feel like you have the majority agreeing to be on the same page, something pops up and everyone flips their bit to the other color.
After reading Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions I can’t help but relate the world of computers to the world of humanity. In this case I think of the population holding their views as a huge cache, and thus the battle is over invalidating and changing more of the nodes that the opposition.
The nodes are not all equal of course. It is important to know that flipping some nodes can have a huge domino effect (akin to a large line in Othello). Nodes also aggregate as a larger consciousness, which is fascinating. This even happens within us, let along in a group. The notion of self is an aggregation, as seen clearly with people who have issues with the corpus callosum. My favorite story is the following:
One child named Paul S. had a functional language center in each half of his brain due to trauma in his left hemisphere. When researchers posed the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” to each side of his brain, each hemisphere had a different answer: the right brain wanted to be an automobile racer and the left wanted to be a draftsman.
So “I” am an aggregation of sub-systems. We then lump other abstractions on top. A company, a party, a state, all the sum of the parts and each have their own interface. Sometimes you have a leaky abstraction, and at others the details are well hidden.
When the world is calm, it feels like the cache is only subtly changing. Right now we are in a time of insanity, and thus it feels like a cancer has overtaken the board. “The Resistance” feels like white blood cells rushing in to combat the cancerous cells that are causing havoc. (I know that the other side would argue that the Tea Party was doing that when they thought the cancer was there in the past).
The oldest game in the book
This game isn’t new. Information has long been associated with power. The game has changed a lot over time though as the scale and speed of access has spread to become global. Back when we were in small tribes, the cache was much more local. Today it is as global as the Internet itself, with data flowing at the speed of light.
You could define successful organized religions as those who spread the Word in a way to get their believes into a large part of the cache. They also normally play the role of trying to slow down changes. You could argue that checks and balances are good, but I often feel like the major side effects are that they stop truth from spreading. The world is flat. Adam and Eve riding on dinosaurs. You name it. If your religion is at odds with science, it is often at odds with me. If a religion is orthogonal and allows for the real truth to be embraced? Much better, but rare.
How do we change the game?
As always, understanding the incentives in the system is key. If no one reads retractions in the paper, then why wouldn’t you bluster away? If your business model is based solely on clicks vs. subscriptions, you will change the content.
We need to combat the falsehood out there. In the debates there was a lot of talk about whether the networks should do live fact checking (uh, yes? :) and the still holds. I would love for the networks to time delay content so they could fact check it to get more information to the populace. One concern though is the tragedy of the commons. If one network decides not to do this then do they get the rewards of being a lil earlier?
We have heard from a lot of the large tech titans about the responsibility they feel to combat the issue. We have PageRank, but how fantastic would a TruthRank be? Snopes, Factcheck.org, Politifact, and friends do yeoman's work here and we need to do more. It is tricky though. Some topics are very binary, but most topics are subject to some form of interpretation, and we all need to be humble about the difference. I really feel like we need to all team up on this as much as possible as I witnessed a depressing backfire over the elections. I remember debating with people, showing them data from sources (such as Snopes), and then would end up with “those are all liberal machines!” Crap, the backfire effect in full force.
How do you know when to stop or to keep pushing? It appears that the more concrete the evidence the better, but it is so hard to comprehend when minds will change. Take one of the topics this weekend, where conservatives at large finally backlashed against Milo. As abhorrent as the latest tapes were, it is mind boggling that his other remarks about race and gender issues were not enough.
The aggregators and gateways have huge power here too. What surfaces on feed? What does your device say when you ask it “What’s new?” What pops up on your device when you turn it on? What is your “go to” source of information? These all have huge weight, and this is why so many said “finally!” when Fox News started to talk about Trump’s lies and totalitarian remarks about the media. Until recently if you only watched that network you would be looking at a parallel universe.
In fact, that is exactly what is happening isn’t it. As a node in the cache we aren’t yet members of a Borg collective. The cache isn’t evenly distributed, and our reach isn’t full. Certain abstractions may answer in a certain way, but our consciousness is far from shared.
This is the crisis that I think about on President’s Day in 2017. I hope that we make a lot of progress and I am nervously curious about where my mind will be this day in 2018. I won’t even let me brain think about what my heart wishes for here.