How dark epistemology explains the rise of Donald Trump


We are living in what is likely the golden age of deception. It would be difficult enough were we merely threatened with drowning in what James Gleick has called the flood of information, or were we doomed to roam blind through the corridors of Borges’ library of Babel, but the problem is actually much worse than that. Our dilemma is that the very instruments that once promised liberation via the power of universal access to all the world’s knowledge seem just as likely are being used to sow the seeds of conspiracy, to manipulate us and obscure the path to the truth.

Unlike what passes for politicians these days I won’t open with such a tirade only to walk away. Let me instead explain myself. You can trace the origins of our age of deception not only to the 2008 financial crisis but back much further to its very root. Even before the 1950’s elites believed they had the economic problem, and therefore the political instability that came with this problem, permanently licked. The solution was some measure of state intervention into the workings of capitalism.

These interventions ranged on a spectrum from the complete seizure and control of the economy by the state in communist countries, to regulation, social welfare and redistributive taxation in even the most solidly capitalist economies such as the United States. Here both the pro-business and pro-labor parties, despite the initial resistance of the former, ended up accepting the basic parameters of the welfare-state. Remember it was the Nixon administration that both created the EPA and flirted with the idea of a basic income.  By the early 1980’s with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher the hope that politics had become a realm of permanent consensus- Frederick Engel’s prophesied “administration of things”- collapsed in the face of inflation, economic stagnation and racial tensions.

The ideological groundwork for this neo-liberal revolution had, however, been laid as far back as 1945 when state and expert directed economics was at its height. It was in that year that Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek in a remarkable essay entitled The Use of Knowledge in Society pointed out that no central planner or director could ever be as wise as the collective perception and decision making of economic actors distributed across an entire economy.

At the risk of vastly over simplifying his argument, what Hayek was in essence pointing out was that markets provide an unrivaled form of continuous and distributed feedback. The “five year plans” of state run economies may or may not have been able to meet their production targets, but only the ultimate register of price can tell you whether any particular level of production is justified or not.

A spike in price is the consequence of an unanticipated demand and will send producers scrambling to meet in the moment it is encountered. The hubris behind rational planning is that it claims to be able to see through the uncertainty that lies at the heart of any economy, and that experts from 10 000 feet are someone more knowledgeable than the people on the ground who exist not in some abstract version of an economy built out of equations, but the real thing.

It was perhaps one of the first versions of the idea of the wisdom of crowds, and an argument for what we now understand as the advantages of evolutionary approaches over deliberate design. It was also perhaps one of the first arguments that what lies at the very core of an economy was not so much the exchange of goods as the exchange of information.

The problem with Hayek’s understanding of economics and information wasn’t that it failed to capture the inadequacies of state run economies, at least with the level of information technologies they possessed when he was writing, (a distinction I think important and hope to return in the future), but that it was true for only part of the economy- that dealing largely with the production and distribution of goods and not with the consumer economy that would take center stage after the Second World War.

Hayek’s idea that markets were better ways of conveying information than any kind of centralized direction worked well in a world of scarcity where the problem was an accurate gauge of supply vs demand for a given resource, yet it missed that the new era would be one of engineered scarcity where the key to economic survival was to convince consumers they had a “need” that they had not previously identified. Or as John Kenneth Galbraith put it in his 1958 book The Affluent Society we had:

… managed to transfer the sense of urgency in meeting consumer need that was once felt in a world where more production meant more food for the hungry, more clothing for the cold, and more houses for the homeless to a world where increased output satisfies the craving for more elegant automobiles, more exotic food, more elaborate entertainment- indeed for the entire modern range of sensuous, edifying, and lethal desires. (114-115).

Yet rather than seeing the economic problems of the 1970’s through this lens, that the difficulties we were experiencing were as much a matter of our expectations regarding what economic growth should look like and the measure of our success in having rid ourselves (in advanced countries) of the kinds of life threatening scarcity that had threatened all prior human generations, the US and Britain set off on the path prescribed by conservative economists such as Hayek and began to dismantle the hybrid market/state society that had been constructed after the Great Depression.

It was this revolt against state directed (or even just restrained) capitalism which was the neoliberal gospel that reigned almost everywhere after the fall of the Soviet Union, and to which the Clinton administration converted the Democratic party. The whole edifice came crashing down in 2008, since which we have become confused enough that demons long dormant  have come home to roost.

At least since the crisis, economists have taken a renewed interest in not only the irrational elements of human economic behavior, but how that irrationality has itself become a sort of saleable commodity. A good version of this is Robert J Shiller and George Akerlof’s recent Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception. In their short book the authors examine the myriad of ways all of us are “phished” – probed by con-artists looking for “phools” to take advantage of and manipulate.

The techniques have become increasingly sophisticated as psychologists have gotten a clearer handle on the typology of irrationality otherwise known as human nature. Gains in knowledge always come with tradeoffs:

“But theory of mind also has its downside. It also means we can figure out how to lure people into doing things that are in our interest, but not in theirs. As a result, many new ideas are not just technological. They are not ways to deliver good-for-you/good-for-me’s. They are, instead, new uses of the theory of mind,  regarding how to deliver good-for-me/bad-for-you’s.” (98)

This it seems would be the very opposite of a world dominated by non- zero sum games that were heralded in the 1990’s, rather it’s the construction of an entire society around the logic of the casino, where psychological knowledge is turned into a tool against consumers to make choices contrary to their own long term interest.

This type of manipulation, of course, has been the basis of our economies for quite sometime. What is different is the level of sophistication and resources being thrown at the problem of how to sustain human consumption in a world drowning in stuff. The solution has been to sell things that simply disappear after use- like experiences- which are made to take on the qualities of the ultimate version of such consumables,  namely addictive drugs.

It might seem strange, but the Internet hasn’t made achieving safety from this manipulation any easier. Part of the reason for this is something Shiller and Akerlof do not fully discuss- that much of the information resources used in our economies serve the purpose not so much of selling things consumers would be better off avoiding, let alone convey actual useful information, but in distorting the truth to the advantage of those doing the distorting.

This is a phenomenon for which Robert Proctor has coined the term agontology. It is essentially a form of dark epistemology whose knowledge consist in how to prevent others from obtaining the knowledge you wish to hide.

We live in an age too cultured for any barbarism such as book burning or direct censorship. Instead we have discovered alternative means of preventing the spread of information detrimental to our interests. The tobacco companies pioneered this. Outright denials of the health risks of smoking were replaced with the deliberate manufacture of doubt. Companies whose businesses models are threatened by any concerted efforts to address climate change have adopted similar methods.

Warfare itself, where the power of deception and disinformation was always better understood has woken up to its potential in the digital age: witness the information war still being waged by Russia in eastern Ukraine.

All this I think partly explains the strange rise of Trump. Ultimately, neoliberal policies failed to sustain rising living standards for the working and middle class- with incomes stagnant since the 1970’s. Perhaps this should have never been the goal in the first place.

At the same time we live in a media environment in which no one can be assumed to be telling the truth, in which everything is a sales pitch of one sort or another, and in which no institution’s narrative fails to be spun by its opponents into a conspiracy repackaged for maximum emotional effect. In an information ecosystem where trusted filters have failed, or are deemed irredeemably biased, and in which we are saturated by a flood of data so large it can never be processed, those who inspire the strongest emotions, even the emotion of revulsion, garner the only sustained attention. In such an atmosphere the fact that Trump is a deliberate showman whose pretense to authenticity is not that he is committed to core values, but that he is open about the very reality of his manipulations makes a disturbing kind of sense.

An age of dark epistemology will be ruled by those who can tap into the hidden parts of our nature, including the worst ones, for their own benefit, and will prey off the fact we no longer know what the truth is nor how we could find it even if we still believed in its existence. Donald Trump is the perfect character for it.


Panopticon 2.0

The hope that I have long held onto, is that whatever the dystopian trends taking place today, that we have timeto stop them. This election season is making me question the possible naivete of this hope, for things are moving so fast, and the trends are so disturbing, that I am beginning to fear that by the time we even understand them enough to be motivated enough to change their trajectory, that they will already be a fait accompli.
This is nowhere more clear than the way two relatively recent trends: social media in business, and behavioral economics in academia, are being applied in the 2012 elections. These developments threaten to erode the very assumptions at the core of our democratic political system: the idea of the voter as an individual endowed with the ability for reasoned choice and argument and the capacity for morally informed judgement.Charles Duhigg’s  article in this past Sunday’s New York Times is disturbing in its portrayal of how both the Romney and Obama campaigns are using the data mining capacity of social media and the findings of behavioral psychology to manipulate people into voting for them on November, 6. I’ll take data mining and social media to start.
To be frank I was well aware of the dangers of social media as a tool for manipulation, but did not realize that perhaps the primary danger from that corner came not from the potential abuse by governments security services,but from its potential to subvert the democratic process itself.Here are some extensive quotes from Duhigg’s article “Campaigns Mine Personal Lives to Get Out Vote” on the Romney and Obama campaigns use of data mining and social media in the election.

In interviews, however, consultants to both campaigns said they had bought demographic data from companies that study details like voters’ shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences and financial problems.

The campaigns have planted software known as cookies on voters’ computers to see if they frequent evangelical or erotic Web sites for clues to their moral perspectives. Voters who visit religious Web sites might be greeted with religion-friendly messages when they return to or”

You may wonder exactly where the Romney and Obama campaigns are getting such detailed personal information on voters. Quite simply, they are buying it from analytics companies that possess this kind of information on anyone with an internet connection. Which if you are reading this- means you.
I find this troubling on so many levels that exploring them all would fill multiple posts, so let me concentrate on just a few.To start with this seems to represent a qualitative change in political manipulation and institutionalized lying. One might bring up the point that elections have been about advertising since their was advertising and politicians have been lying since the ancient Greeks,   but it certainly seems that the practices detailed by Duhigg take this manipulation to a whole new level.
As I mentioned  in my post What’s Wrong With Borgdom?  ,the recent short piece of design fiction Sight offers a disturbing picture of how access to our “sociogram” or “social map”, which comes as close as we ever have to actually peering inside someone’s head, might be used as a tool of manipulation and control. To quote from that post:
Sight  is a very short film that shows us the potential dark side of a world of ubiquitous augmented reality and social profiles- a world in many ways scarier that the Borg because it seems so possible. In this film, which I really encourage you to check out for yourself, a tech- savvy hotshot, seduces, and we are led to believe probably rapes, a young woman using a “dating app” that gives him access to almost everything about her.
Sight  gets to the root of the potential problem with social media which isn’t the ability to interconnect and communicate with others , which it undoubtedly provides,  but the very real potential that it could also be used as a tool of manipulation and control.
Sight  is powerful because it shows this manipulation and control person to person, but on a more collective level manipulation and control is the actual objective of advertisement. It is the bread and butter of social media itself.”
Politicians and political advertisements have, of course, always told us what they thought we wanted to hear. But past political advertisers were in effect playing blind. They had to define their message broadly enough that it would ring true with a nondescript “average voter”. This was extremely wasteful and its wastefulness was a good thing. As long a person was able to hold true to their individuality and swim against the crowd they could could actually remain free in thought and opinion. By being able to peer under one’s skull the age of targeted advertising can use the specific qualities of the individual against himself.
This is a sophisticated form of lying in that the way political communication has been “framed” has nothing to do with the actual positions of the parties themselves, but on what they should tell you to garner your support.  A Democratic operative might reason:”He’s a registered Democrat who faithfully attends church. We will not mention any contentious social issues on which he might differ from our party platform”. For a Republican operative: “She’s a registered Republican who visits Ron Paul websites and periodically looks at porn on the internet. We should focus on lower taxes and deregulation and avoid any mention of Christian-conservative themes common in the GOP”.
This is something like the kinds of focus groups we have been seeing on cable news shows for years now where the participants are hooked up to physiological monitors while they watch debates and other political fare- their every reaction minutely monitored by a machine. The difference being that we are now all hooked up to such a machine that we call the internet, and are being monitored -secretly- something almost none of us have actually volunteered to do.
Another thing I find highly disturbing about the use of data mining and social media by the two major parties is not how they are being used right now, but their potential to stifle competition to the Democrats and Republican from a third party.  If used in this way data mining and social media will enter the already extensive tool kit: from irrational gerrymanderingto politically closed primaries, to media bias, that currently preserves the two party duopoly.Duhigg doesn’t really explore this point in his article, but theoretically it should be possible for the social maps used by the Democrats and Republicans to pick-off independents by identifying them based on the websites they visit or the books they browse on Amazon, perhaps even search for at their local library. If we don’t have psychological studies to figure out exactly what you should tell a Ron Paul supporter or a disaffected progressive to come over to “your side” messages that are then targeted at such groups in this election cycle, we will in the next.If all that weren’t creepy enough, the two parties are also taking advantage of their knowledge of our social networks to convince us to vote in their favor. Again quoting Duhigg:
When one union volunteer in Ohio recently visited the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s election Web site, for instance, she was asked to log on with her Facebook profile. Computers quickly crawled through her list of friends, compared it to voter data files and suggested a work colleague to contact in Columbus. She had never spoken to the suggested person about politics, and he told her that he did not usually vote because he did not see the point.”We talked about how if you don’t vote, you’re letting other people make choices for you,” said the union volunteer, Nicole Rigano, a grocery store employee. “He said he had never thought about it like that, and he’s going to vote this year. It made a big difference to know ahead of time what we have in common. It’s natural to trust someone when you already have a connection to them.”
I have no idea how the conversation between these two people began, but I’d put my hard earned money on the fact that it didn’t start honestly, which would have went something like this: “Based on psychological studies it has been shown that people are more likely to trust someone they know than someone they do not. A computer algorithm operated by the Obama campaign identified the fact that I was a voting Obama supporter and union member and that you were a non-voting union member, and deemed that if I spoke with you I might be able to convince you to vote for Obama”.
A very narrow band of partisan ideologues are out to define what the future of the country should look like, and that leads into my next topic: the novel use of techniques perfected in the field behavioral economics in the current election.
Duhigg doesn’t use the term behavioral economics, but I’m pretty sure it’s at the root of many of the techniques being used by the Romney and Obama campaigns. Behavioral economics is essentially the study of how to get people to do stuff. The book that brought the field to popularity a couple years back was Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Suestein. The basic premise behind Nudge was that people do irrational things that aren’t really amenable to change through personal insight, but that could be shaped to be more rational by policy makers aware of how the flawed human mind actually works.  People can be influenced to make certain decisions over others by the smallest of changes, such as the decision to eat a salad or Friendly’s Grilled Cheese Burger Melt  can be influenced unconsciously by things such as menu design or food placement.
I remember reading Nudge and being frankly annoyed not just by the paternalism of the whole thing, but by the fact that it seemed to be promoting a type of paternalism laced with subterfuge where the person being “nudged” towards change had no idea what was going on. I also had the response of “who will parent the paternalist?” after all, except for a very narrowly defined set of issues regarding individual health, most questions in society are about values and trade-offs, and really can’t or shouldn’t be decided by policy makers beforehand.
There are also the questions of untestable assumptions and bias that inflict “experts”whatever their intentions. A lot of Nudge is devoted to getting Americans to sock more away in their 401ks. It was published before the financial crisis and I was reading it after the fact, and it seemed clear to me that if these “rational” experts had, using their behavioral techniques, managed to get us irrational folk to pour more savings into the stock market- those who did so would have lost their shirt. Techniques identified by Duhigg that probably have their roots in behavioral economics include:
The campaigns’ consultants have run experiments to determine if embarrassing someone for not voting by sending letters to their neighbors or posting their voting histories online is effective.  Another tactic that will be used this year, political operatives say, is asking voters whether they plan to walk or drive to the polls, what time of day they will vote and what they plan to do afterward.

The answers themselves are unimportant. Rather, simply forcing voters to think through the logistics of voting has been shown, in multiple experiments, to increase the odds that someone will actually cast a ballot.

Duhigg quotes one operative as saying:

“Target anticipates your habits, which direction you automatically turn when you walk through the doors, what you automatically put in your shopping cart,” said Rich Beeson, Mr. Romney’s political director. “We’re doing the same thing with how people vote.”
Web 2.0 could have resulted in a re-invigoration of democracy by facilitating the exchange of views between regular citizens and increasing their  capacity to politically organize.  Instead, it has resulted in an unprecedented ability for a narrow group of ideological partisans pursuing their own self-interest to control the society underneath them.
Rather than a high-tech version of Athenian democracy we have the beginnings of an electronic panopticon watching over, and attempting to subtly, and secretly, control us all.
* Image @ Top, a social map/sociogram. Source: Visual Complexity