The Shirky- Morozov Debate or how FaceBook beat Linux

One thing that struck me throughout the 2012 presidential contest was the Obama campaign’s novel use of Big-Data and targeted communication to mobilize voters. Many of these trends I found somewhat disturbing, namely, the practice of micro-mobilization through fear,  the application of manipulative techniques created in commercial advertising and behavioral economics to spur voter mobilization, and the  invasion of privacy opened up by the transparency culture and technology of social media.

These doubts and criticisms were made despite the fact that I am generally an Obama supporter, would ultimately cast my vote for the man, and was overall delighted by the progressive victories in the election, not least the push back against voter suppression which had been attempted, and only at the last minute thwarted, in my home state of Pennsylvania.

The sheer clarity of the success of the Obama campaign’s strategy makes me think that these techniques are largely a fait accompli, and will be rapidly picked up by Republicans to the extent they can. Political commentators have already turned their eyes to the strategy’s success,  completely ignoring the kinds of critical questions brought to our attention, for instance, by,Charles Duhigg, in The New York Times only a few weeks ago.

Given their effectiveness, there might be very little push-back from liberal voters regarding the way the 2012 campaign was waged, and such push-back might be seen as demands for unilateral disarmament on the part of Democrats should they come from Republicans- in which case the demand might quite rightly be seen as just another example of the GOP’s attempts at voter suppression. Or, should such push back against these techniques come from a minority of progressives in, or allied with, the Democratic party who are troubled by their implications, such complaints might be written off as geriatric whining by out of touch idealists who have no clue on how the new era of networked politics works. And this would largely be right, the campaigns of 2012, and the Obama campaign most especially, have likely brought us into a brand new political era.

A recent article in Time Magazine gives a good idea of how the new science of campaigning works: it is data driven, and builds upon techniques honed in the world’s of advertising and psychology to target both individuals and groups strategically.
Like the world’s of finance and government surveillance it is a new ecology where past, and bogus, claims by individuals to be able to “forecast the future” by ” gut-instinct” has fallen before Big Data and the cold brilliance of the quants.

That data-driven decision making played a huge role in creating a second term for the 44th President and will be one of the more closely studied elements of the 2012 cycle. It’s another sign that the role of the campaign pros in Washington who make decisions on hunches and experience is rapidly dwindling, being replaced by the work of quants and computer coders who can crack massive data sets for insight. As one official put it, the time of “guys sitting in a back room smoking cigars, saying ‘We always buy 60 Minutes’” is over. In politics, the era of big data has arrived.

One can feel for a political pundit such as Michael Gerson who attacked the political predictions of the data savvy Nate Silver in the same way one can feel sympathy for the thick-necked, testosterone heavy, Wall Street traders who were replaced by thinner-necked quants who had gotten their chops not on raucous trading floors but in courses on advanced physics.  And, at the end of the day, Silver was right. Gerson’s “observation” about the nature of American politics in his ridiculous critique of Silver-  given the actual reality of the 2012 campaign- is better understood as a lament than an observation:

An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.

Put another way: The most interesting and important thing about politics is not the measurement of opinion but the formation of opinion. Public opinion is the product — the outcome — of politics; it is not the substance of politics. If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates, not in “scientific” assessments of public views.

My main objections here are that this is an aspirational statement- not one of fact, and that the role Gerson gives to pundits, to himself, is absolutely contrary to reality- unless one believes the kind of “clarity” found by paying attention to the talking heads on Fox News is actually an exercise in democratic deliberation.

Yet, there are other ways in which the type of political campaign seen in 2012 offer up interesting food for thought in that they seem to point towards an unlikely outcome in current debates over the role and effect of the new communications technology on politics.

In some sense Obama’s 2012 campaign seems to answer what I’ll call the “Clay Shirky- Evgeny Morozov Debate. I could also call it the Shirky-Gladwell debate, but I find Morozov to be a more articulate spokesman of techo-pessimism (or techno-realism, depending upon one’s preference) than the omnipresent Malcolm Gladwell.

Clay Shirky is a well known spokesperson for the idea that the technological revolution centered around the Internet and other communications networks is politically transformative and offers up the possibility of a new form of horizontal politics.

Shirky sees the potential of governance to follow the open source model of software development found in collectively developed software such as Linux and Github that allow users to collaborate without being coordinated by anyone from above- as opposed to the top-down model followed by traditional software companies i.e. MicroSoft.  Although Shirky does not discuss them in his talk- the hacktivists group of Anonymous and Wikileaks follow this same decentralized, and horizontal model. As of yet, no government has adopted anything but token elements of the open source model of governance though they have, in Shirky’s view embraced more openness- transparency.

In an article for the journal Foreign Affairs in 2011 entitled The Political Power of Social Media, an article written before either the Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street movements had exploded on the scene, Shirky made a reasoned case for the potential of social media to serve as a prime vector for political change. Social media, while in everyday life certainly dominated by nonsense such as “singing cats”, also brought the potential to mobilize the public- overnight- based on some grievance or concern.

Here, Shirky responded to criticisms of both Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov that his techno-optimism downplayed both the opiate like characteristics of social media, with its tendencies to distract people from political activity, along with the tendency of social media to create a shallow form of political commitment as people confuse signing an online petition or “liking” some person or group with actually doing something.

I do not agree with all  of what Morozov has to say in his side of this debate, but, that said, he is always like a bracing glass of cold water to the face- a defense against getting lost in daydreams. If you’ve never seen the man in action here is a great short documentary that has the pugnacious Belarusian surrounded by a sort of panopticon of video screens where he pokes holes in almost every techo-utopia shibboleth out there.

In his The Net Delusion Morozov had made the case that the new social media didn’t lend themselves to lasting political movements because all such movements are guided strategically and ideologically by a core group of people with real rather than superficial commitment who had sacrificed, sometimes literally everything, in the name of the movement. Social media’s very decentralization and the shallow sorts of political  activities it most often engenders are inimical to a truly effective political movement, and, at the same time, the very technologies that had given rise to social media have increased exponentially the state’s capacity for surveillance and the sphere of a-political distractions surrounding the individual.

And in early 2011 much of what Morozov said seemed right, but then came the Arab Spring, and then the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the former at the very least facilitated by social media, and the latter only made possible by it. If it was a prize fight, Morozov would have been on the mat, and Shirky shaking his fist with glee. And then…

It was the old-school Muslim Brotherhood not the tech-savvy tweeters who rose to prominence in post-Mubarak Egypt, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement faded almost as fast as it had appeared. Morozov was up off the mat.

And now we have had the 2012 presidential campaign, a contest fought and won using the tools of social media and Big Data. This suggests to me an outcome of the telecommunications revolution neither Shirky nor Morozov fully anticipated.

Shirky always sides with the tendency of the new media landscape to empower the individual and flatten hierarchies. This is not what was seen in the presidential race. Voters were instead “guided” by experts who were the only ones to grasp the strategic rationale of goading this individual rather than that and “nudging” them to act in some specific way.

Morozov, by contrasts, focuses his attention on the capacity of social media to pacify and distract the public in authoritarian states, and to ultimately hold the reins on the exchange of information.

What the Obama campaign suggests is that authoritarian countries might be able to use social media to foster a regime friendly political activity- that is to sponsor and facilitate the actions of large groups in its own interests, while short circuiting similar actions growing out of civil society which authoritarians find threatening.  Though, regime friendly political activity in this case is likely to be much more targeted and voluntary than the absurdities of 20th century totalitarianism that mobilized people for every reason under the sun.

The difference between authoritarian countries and democratic ones in respect to these technologies, at least so far, is this: that authoritarian countries will likely use them to exercise power whereas in democracies they are only used to win it.

If 2012 was a portent of the future, what Web 2.0 has brought us is not Shirky’s dream of “open-sourced government” which uses technology to actively engage citizens in not merely the debate over, but the crafting of policies and laws, an outcome which would have spelled the decline of the influence of political parties.  Instead, what we have is carefully targeted political mobilization based on the intimate knowledge of individual political preferences and psychological touch- points centrally directed by data-rich entities with a clear set of already decided upon political goals.  Its continuation would constitute the defeat of the political model based on Linux and the victory of  one based on FaceBook.

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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 mittromney.com or barackobama.com.”

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