The rise of populism in the attention economy

We only have so much attention to give and as such, it’s a valuable resource. Everyone wants our attention: social media, advertisers, politicians, family and friends. Attention is a limited resource and technology gobbles up at lot of it; just look at the number of people glued to their screens on any street or in any cafe.

Herbert Simon image: Wikipedia

Noble Prize winning political scientist Herbert A. Simon described the concept of the attention economy in 1971. The growth of information dilutes our attention. Simon says:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

More recently, James Williams has researched how technology absorbs our attention. Williams is a doctoral researcher at Oxford University but before that he also spent 10 years working for Google. He believes that the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.

Williams spoke to CBC’s Spark about the misalignment between the goals that we have for ourselves and the goals that our technologies would impose on us. Technology attracts attention that we would really like to apply elsewhere. He told host Nora Young:

“The things that we want to do with our lives, the things that we’ll regret not having done, the things that I think technology exists to help us do aren’t really represented in the system and aren’t really the sort of incentives that are driving the design of most of these technologies of our attention today (June 1, 2018).”

Seen from the goal of attention-getting, U.S. President Trump makes a lot of sense. He does whatever it takes to get our attention because he understands the impact that it has on his ratings. The content of his Tweets may be sheer fabrication but that’s not the point. His years as a TV showman taught him the effect that outrage has on tribalism. What is factually true is irrelevant.

“This is what people didn’t realize about him [Trump] during the election, just the degree to which he just understood the way the media works and orchestrated it,” says Simon. “But I don’t think there is going back, as long as these media dynamics remain as they are. In a way, I think we have to be more concerned about what comes after Trump than what we have with him.”

Trump is not interested in unifying the country –he wants to divide it so the largest tribe is his.

Research published in the February issue of American Sociological Review reveals the way Trump supporters view his acknowledged dishonesty. Participants in a study were told that one of Trump’s tweets about global warming being a hoax had been definitely debunked –that global warming is real. Trump supporters saw the tweet, not as literal, but as a challenge to the elite (Scientific American, September, 2018).

Canadian philosopher and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, foresaw the impact of technology:

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” and “The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.”

Four decades later, McLuhan might have added: “Populism is the politics of the global village.”

Advertisements

Normalizing the voices in our heads

Hearing voices is often regarded as a sign of mental illness. But maybe voices are just part of a spectrum.

image: The Atlantic

Professor T. M. Luhrmann says the idea of a continuum of voices is gaining recognition:

“This is the new axiom of the psychotic continuum theory: that voices are not the problem. The problem is the way people react to their voices.” says the professor of Anthropology at Stanford University (Harper’s magazine, June, 2018).

Luhrmann has been studying voices for decades and found people with intense experiences who aren’t psychotic.

One of them is Sarah, who was only four when a “spirit guide” appeared to her. When she told her mother of what she was seeing and hearing, her mother warned: “Cut it out. This is what they put people in psychiatric hospitals for.”

Sarah grew up otherwise normal, went to college and became a nurse. She began to see souls as they left the bodies of dying patients. They often gave her messages to give to people they’d left behind. While she could hear them, she realized that no one else did.

At sixty-two, Sarah is married and still working. One of her voices, “Tom,” is friendly. Other voices, “the council,” not so much but Tom helps mediate between the two.

“But Sarah is not psychotic,” says Luhrmann, “To use the language of psychiatric nosology [classification of diseases], she has no ‘functional impairment.’ She can work and care for herself and others; her marriage is good and stable. She has never been hospitalized.”

Sarah describes the council’s voices as if they are coming from a radio which would tune in and out.

My mother used to describe something like that: voices that that seemed to be coming from a radio; indistinct and sometimes with music. She would try turning off the radio only to find it was already off.

As an electronics teacher, people sometimes approach me with what I call the “radio phenomena.” They would wonder what the electronics were behind the indistinct voices they heard, seeming to come from a radio. While people can pick up strong radio signals as a result of metal oxides in tooth fillings, it’s rare and only works with strong AM signals. I was generally at a loss to explain the phenomena but it’s starting to make sense now.

Sarah has learned to live with her voices but others struggle. Schizophrenics have traditionally been prescribed antipsychotic medications with limited results.

One grassroots movement called Hearing Voices is offering an alternative approach to medication. They encourage those who are tormented with voices to address them. It’s difficult because the voices are frightening.

Luhrmann met one man at a Hearing Voices workshop. “His voices would yell at him for hours, cursing him, screaming that they should drag him out to the forest and leave him to die in the leaves.” He was encouraged to placate them. One of his voices was obsessed with Buddhism, so he agreed to read Buddhist texts and offer prayers during an allotted hour. Within a year, he had almost completely transitioned off medication.

Rather than treating voices as a disease, a better plan might be to treat them as part of rainbow of voices -some relatively benign, some requiring therapy.

“The central insight of these methods is that the way people respond to their voices can change the course of their lives,” says Luhrmann.

Homophobia contributes to loneliness

Men haven’t always avoided open displays of affection for each other. Rachel Giese author of Boys: What It Means To Become A Man says:

“Our squeamishness about male friendship is a historical anomaly: connections between men have been idealized throughout Western history and understood as foundational to society, culture, and art. The veneration of men’s friendships can be charted as far back as ancient Greece (Walrus magazine, May 2018).”

  image: Mental Floss

Before the mid-1800s, society was structured around organizations of men –guilds, religious orders, service clubs, sports teams and the military. Displays of affection and confessions of love between men were common and unremarkable. In his essay “On Friendship,” French philosopher Michel de Montaigne describes his relationship with deceased friend as one with “souls mingling and blending with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them.”

Such gushes of emotion would be suspect in today’s society. Even the innocuous term “bromance” carries a certain discomfort. “It celebrates same-sex fondness,” says Giese, “but does it with a smirk—as if two men caring for another needs to be explained or justified.”

Culture changed at the start of the twentieth century as women became more integrated into public life. Schools, places of work, and politics were no longer the exclusive domain of men. Marriage shifted from an arrangement between families to one based on romance and love. The nuclear family replaced the male-dominated associations as the centre of culture and society.

Victorian values made homosexuality a perversion and a threat to social order: platonic friendships became suspect. These values resist change. Men are defined as the opposite of women, the head and provider of the family -and heterosexual. In this context, homosexuals are seen to be the opposite of a “real man.”

Homophobia has a toxic effect on boys. Professor Niobe Way has studied the emotional landscape as boys mature. The common notion is that boys are less communicative, invulnerable and less capable of intimacy, than girls. However, Professor Way found genuine affection among boys. One fifteen-year old told her of his feelings for another boy: “[My best friend and I] love each other…. I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really, understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other. It just happens, it’s human nature.”

As adolescent straight boys approach manhood, the fear of being perceived as a homosexual grows. They leave behind friends as they explore the uncertain terrain of romantic relationships of women. They are vulnerable as they no longer have a foot in either world.

Professor Way believes that young men are suffering from a “crisis if connection” as a result of being told that real men can’t be close to each other. Men can end up lonely at a cost to their health. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaks of loneliness, isolation and weak social connections:

“[They] are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.”

Canadians look beyond America

For the first time in decades, Canadians are more likely to hold a negative view of the U.S. than positive. According to a survey by the Environics Institute, it’s the lowest ever with only 44 per cent saying that they hold a positive view of the U.S.

     image: openeurope.org.uk

It happened overnight says Doug Saunders:

“It is not a subtle drift – Canadians were overwhelmingly positive about the United States as recently as 2016, until Donald Trump’s inauguration put a majority into the anti-American column. The proportion of Canadians who see the United States as “a negative force in today’s world” is now almost 6 in 10, a 12-per-cent rise over 2008, making America by far the most negative country in the eyes of Canadians (Globe and Mail, April 16).”

Canadians see the U.S. even more negatively than even North Korea which is second at 46 per cent.

The U.S. and Britain used to be viewed as “standing out as a positive force in today’s world.” Now Germany is number one, Britain has fallen to second place, and Sweden has risen to third.

While we don’t share languages, we do see similar values in Germany and Sweden.  Those two countries took in two-thirds of Europe’s refugees during the crisis of 2016 at a time when President Trump was denouncing them. And they have avoided far-right governments, which make them look more like Canada.

Canadians look globally in terms of trade. Almost three-quarters of Canadians have a “very favourable” view on international trade. Even NAFTA is more popular than ever. Two-thirds of us say that it “helped rather than hurt” Canada -the highest level since the agreement took effect in 1994.

It may seem as though whatever Trump is against we favour, but it’s not just anti-Trumpism.

Peace defines Canada as much as war. Much has been made of the battle of Vimy Ridge as a defining moment for our country. However, peace played a significant role in shaping Canadian values. Pollster for Environics Institute, Michael Adams, says:

“In recent decades, Canadians have consistently named peacekeeping as their country’s most notable contribution to world affairs since Pearson’s Nobel Prize. This sentiment has held through both Canada’s World surveys that the Environics Institute has carried out, first in 2008 and in 2018 (Globe and Mail, April 16).”

Canadians are more connected than Americans. Anatoliy Gruzd, one of the authors of a recent report The State of Social Media in Canada, told CBC Radio’s Spark:

“Canada is one of the most connected countries in the world. There are twice as many Twitter users than the U.S. per capita. We are very outside-looking. We want to know world events (Mar. 11, 2018)”

Facebook is the most popular social medium with 84 per cent of Canadians having an account. YouTube is second at 59 per cent.

Canada is a nation of immigrants and, unlike the current U.S. president, we value them as an asset not a liability. Canadians look to the world, not only because trade is vital to our economy and to keep in touch with families in home countries, but because we see ourselves as part of a global community.

 

The first Canadians

We arrived in North America, in what is now Canada, 16,000 years ago. Within a few thousand years, three quarters of the continent’s large animals were gone.

   image: sciencemag.org

By “we,” I don’t mean we European colonizers, I mean we Homo sapiens.

There were no indigenous people when we arrived. Not like 70,000 years ago when we came to Europe from Africa. Then, the indigenous people of Europe were the Neanderthals. We probably treated them much in the way that Europeans treated the indigenous people of North America -as savages.

Am I equating indigenous people of North America to the indigenous people of Europe? Yes. We are all humans, says Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens:

“Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo,’ and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.”

We encountered other humans as we spread around the globe, probably with the same disdain. We dismiss other humans who look slightly different as inferior; it’s a convenient way of subjugating “others” and appropriating their land and resources.

The extent to which Neanderthals were human is indicated in our DNA. Shortly after arriving in Europe, the Neanderthals disappeared. There are two possible explanations: either sapiens and Neanderthals interbred to become one species or the Neanderthals died off, or we killed them. If we interbred, we are not “pure sapiens” but carry DNA of those other humans that we encountered –Denisovans from Siberia, Homo Erectus in East Asia.

DNA analysis reveals interbreeding. Europeans and those from the Middle East carry one to four per cent of Neanderthal genes. Melanesians and Australian Aboriginals carry six per cent of Denisovan genes. We humans are probably all one species, just as Spaniels and Chihuahuas are all dogs.

To the chagrin of racists, the only pure members of our species are found in Africa. The rest of us are just bastards.

When we walked into North America 16,000 years ago across the Bering Strait, we had no idea that we were walking into a new world. In just a few thousand years we traveled all the way to the island of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. Along the way, we exterminated many species.

“According to current estimates, in that short interval, North America lost thirty-four out of forty-seven genera of large animals,” says Harari, “South America lost fifty out of sixty.”

After flourishing for 30 million years, sabre-toothed cats were gone as well as giant sloths that weighed up to eight tons. Gone were giant beavers, horses, camels and mammoths.

We arrived in Australia with the same disastrous results. Within a few thousand years, out of twenty-four species of large Australian animals, most of them marsupials, twenty-three became extinct.

The unsettling fact is that we were not good stewards of the land, not as first people and certainly not as European colonizers.

We sapiens are remarkable humans in other respects. We inhabit every corner of the earth. But I can’t help but feel that it’s going to end badly.

Maybe a new version of humans will rise, breed with us, and do a better job at living in harmony with the planet.

In defence of Facebook

I like Facebook but I’m not an apologist for the social media giant.

Facebook has done things wrong. They failed to prevent Cambridge Analytica from gathering detailed information of millions of users. The method used was especially disturbing. They developed a quiz in which 270,000 people responded. Then the response snowballed to 50 million as data from friends was gleaned.

However, while Cambridge Analytica’s tactics were sneaky, they didn’t get anything more than what they could have obtained through a paid ad. Facebook says they are going to make the source of those ads transparent. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says: “People should know who is buying the ads that they see on Facebook.” About time.

Last year, Facebook admitted that Russian provocateurs bought 3,000 ads.  The ads were insidious because they generated anxiety over social issues: immigrants, gun rights and the LGBT community. This disquiet played well in the hands of the populist Donald Trump.

Facebook’s mistake was that it didn’t do enough to prevent such abuses. Zuckerberg said so on CNN: “This was a major breach of trust. I’m really sorry this happened. We have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data.”

Facebook performs a valuable service. It connects me to friends and family and a larger community of Kamloopsians. I have found friends from decades ago through Facebook. I can correspond in Spanish with Mexican friends with the help of Google translate.

Grassroots action groups are made on Facebook. I learn of musicians and artists coming to town through Facebook. The city posts notices on Facebook. Small businesses can advertise by just starting a Facebook page. I can send complaints to big businesses by just posting on their page.

Russian ads are not unique. All Canadian political parties pay for ads on Facebook that target specific groups, and all have detailed information on voters.

It’s not just Facebook. Every time I use a “points” card at a store, information is collected. Any time I use Google services –the browser, Gmail, or YouTube- my behaviour is tracked for the sake of advertisers.

Such a wealth of intimate data can be used for good or evil. It could be used to determine the democratic will of citizens. It could be sold to the highest bidder. Facebook needs to be regulated.

Zuckerberg himself admits it; although his reservations are revealed in his double negative: “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated,” he said. “I actually think the question is more what is the right regulation rather than yes or no, should it be regulated?”

When Marshall McLuhan said that “The medium is the message,” he meant that nature of media affects society more than its content. Just as the printing press changed our perception of the world, so has social media.

The content of Facebook is staggering; more than just kittens and social agitation. It embraces our global digital collective consciousness. Embedded in the algorithms are the wishes and desires of one-third of the world’s population.

But more than the content, Facebook represents a new media which is altering our perceptions in ways yet to be discovered. Resistance to social media is simply an indication of how disruptive and new the technology is.

The beaver is Canadian

The beaver exemplifies what it means to be Canadian. Rachel Poliquin puts it this way:

“Humpbacked and portly, with an earnest and honest charm, beavers epitomize the Canadian spirit of unpretentiousness, integrity, and industriousness (Canada’s History magazine, Aug/Sept, 2017).”

    image: wordartsme.com

The beaver has not always been regarded as exceptionally hard-working. Canada’s indigenous people viewed them as skilled builders, healers, and earth-makers but not any more hard-working than coyotes or porcupines.

Eurasian beavers were hunted to near extinction. Ancient physicians regarded the beaver’s smelly sent organs as a potent medicine. Beavers would give off the smell to repel attackers, a bit like a skunk. Mistaking the castor sacs that held the scent for testicles, early Europeans thought the beavers bit off their testicles and shed their fur to escape capture. The Greek fabulist Aesop had this to say:

“If only people would take the same approach and agree to be deprived of their possessions in order to live lives free of danger; no one, after all, would set a trap for one already stripped to the skin.”

Eurasian beavers were seen by Christian moralists as models of chastity, austerity, and prudence.

Beavers were so rare in Europe, that by the time that Europeans arrived in North America, they saw them for the first time. They were so impressed by the rodent’s architectural abilities that they imagined a beaver society that could achieve such wonders.

The seventeenth-century French aristocrat, Niclolas Deny, outlined what he saw as a beaver society in which specific tasks were assigned such as cutting down trees, making stakes, with the oldest carrying dirt with their tails. The construction of beaver mansions was overseen by foremen. Beaver carpenters, ditch diggers, log carriers, ensured a high standard of construction. If any workers were neglectful, the foreman “chastises them, beats them, throws himself on them, and bites them to keep them at their duties,” wrote Denys.

Denys’ views mirrored the society in which he grew up. Great public works could only be achieved by keeping the grunt labourers in line. Whipping them into submission was an accepted means of accomplishing a greater good.

Europeans wondered what kind of political structure the beavers preferred. Of course, since only rich aristocrats could afford to explore, beavers must have preferred aristocratic overseers.

Aristocratic beaver society served as a model for settler society. Lazy beaver workers would have the fur stripped from their backs, it was imagined, and banished from beaver society to live their lives, exiled, in holes.

This was a convenient tale to tell independence-minded settlers, many who were escaping social upheaval in Europe. It was to keep settlers under the thumb of aristocrats. Poliquin explains:

“Outcast beavers also offered a moral lesson for habitants who were tempted to go primitive and become coureurs de bois. Venturing into the wilderness to seek their fortune in furs, coureurs de bois were naturally vilified by the ruling classes and bourgeois fur merchants. Living like vagabond beavers, they refused the duties of societies and acquired a taste for wandering and its associated vices. Repent now, the fable almost warns, lest you end up in a dark and dirty hole with no coat on your back.”

Modern Canadian beavers have escaped the tyranny of aristocracy and live in well-insulated homes. They come out of their dens to vote every four years. Unpretentious, yet a bit smug, they imagine their society to be better than others such as the one to the south.