Data

 

Everywhere I turn, articles, seminars, news reports and scheduled seminars focus on the issue of data. The article Sunday morning in The Washington Post by Craig Timberg entitled, “Trump campaign consultant took data about millions of users without their knowledge,” begins with Facebook’s recent suspension of Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that evidently played a key role in President Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Cambridge Analytica had claimed that it was at the pinnacle of marrying the art of political persuasion to the science of big data by tailoring advertising to the psychological traits of voters, in this case, political messages and fundraising requests married to political dispositions through psychographic targeting. The company boasted of possessing 5,000 data points on every American.

I am not here concerned with the ethics of privacy (improperly sharing data and failing to destroy private information), the ethics of spying given the covert character of data, the tactics, the accuracy of using five selected basic traits such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, to develop correlations, the lack of regulation of this Wild West frontier of human knowledge or the effectiveness of these correlations, however valid any one of those questions may be. Quite aside from the immoral and probably illegal use of data from tens of millions of Facebook users without their permission or knowledge, and using that data for nefarious political purposes, the specifics are even more frightening with tales of Alexander Nix, the recently suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica, and his cohorts caught openly claiming to have used shadow companies as fronts, using bribes, sex workers as traps and a host of other unethical practices to advance the position of the company.

My focus is the significance of the effort in gaining access to the psychological profiles of an estimated 50 million Americans and equivalent numbers in other countries. For example, on the issue of effectiveness, Cambridge Analytica claimed that its data modeling and polling showed Trump’s strength in the industrial Midwest and shaped a homestretch strategy that led to his upset wins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The actual as well as potential for undermining Western democracies is important and leaders of populist parties, like the Five Star Movement in Italy, which won 33% of the Italian vote in the 4 March elections and has been the first major digital political organization in the world, boasted that the dawn of electronic populism has come ending the era of liberal representative democracy. Luigi Di Maio: “You can’t stop the wind with your hands.” Digital means and digital data are combined to revolutionize politics and supposedly return power to the people.

This morning, I also received an email inviting me to attend the Walter Clarkson Symposium.  The keynote address by Deborah Stone addresses the “The Ethics of Counting” and the day-long symposium itself will focus on: “The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision-Making.” The issue: how data is collected to result in policies based on evidence-based decisions to produce statistical methods and models relied upon for policy decisions. The advocates promote such data for the ability to reduce complex realities to objective and comparable metrics. Critics suspect the evaluations.

The effects on humans clearly extends into the economic sphere. Last evening, I attended a symposium of top Canadian applied economists focused on prognostication or prophecy, the core purpose of the data age according to Jill Lepore. The economists looked at the tea leaves of fiscal and monetary policy, housing and taxation as well as trends and forces affecting the value of the Canadian dollar to paint a relatively bleak picture of the Canadian economy based on each of the economist’s efforts at large data crunching.

The reliance on data as a primary form of knowledge and determinant of policy has a definite history which Jill Lepore argued began with photography in the nineteenth century. Initially, I found this ironically to be counter-intuitive, but her point was that the era of facts correlated with the Sanctuary of Truth, of numbers correlated with the Sanctuary of Method, was succeeded by the primacy of large data that, in my argument can be correlated with the university as a Social Service Station. The reason Jill pointed to film was because photography in the late nineteenth century was used as evidence. This was coterminous with the decline in faith of eye-witnesses in identifying individuals involved in crimes. As our senses were undermined, though data had not yet filled the vacuum, the first steps had been taken to displace our senses and prepare the ground for the empire of data.

Ironically, according to Jill, these first efforts were used for utopian reasons – to undermine the case for the ill-treatment of the Negro in the U.S. At the same time, the effort established the pathway to indirect evidence and that a “picture was worth a thousand words.” James Frye developed the lie detector in the 1920s to show that a compilation of data in one’s body, of which we were not consciously aware, could be a more reliable detector of lying than that of any so-called expert at “spotting” lies. Orson Wells radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds,” seemed to prove that in the age of radio one could no longer rely on one’s ears any more than one’s eyes.

The negative efforts to disenfranchise the senses had prepared the ground for the age of data which began in 1948 with the invention of the computer following the secret work at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes in Britain during WWII. Bletchley Park has been commemorated in a number of films, especially Enigma in 2001 with Kate Winslet, Saffron Burrows and Dougray Scott, but even more effectively in The Imitation Game (2014) staring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. The government code and cypher codebreakers learned to penetrate the German and Enigma ciphers, an impossible task without the use of a proto-computer. The “Ultra” intelligence produced undoubtedly shortened the war.

UNIVAC was put on display in 1951. It was used in a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film, Desk Set (originally a William Marchant 1955 play), in 1957 to show how facts could be established using such a device far faster than relying on human observations and analyses. Spencer Tracy plays the “electronic brains” engineer who manages EMERAC (the Electromagnetic MEmory  and Research Arithmetical Calculator). Katherine Hepburn plays what will become an obsolete “fact checker.”

JFK would become the first television-age politician when “The Simulation Project” was launched in 1958 to determine what policy positions would turn on voters and which would turn them off. Data had entered the age of political manipulation. But numbers still reigned even as data sciences rose in academe to claim not only that data knew faster, but that it knew better and, even more importantly, that only data could tell us some things – such as the key elements of sociology – demographical distributions – and economics – such as the material I heard last night correlating falling single house prices in the GTA with rising condo prices with speculative investing with numbers of overseas investors to create a graph of demand and supply correlated with market prices. This was not just a matter of adding and correlating numbers, but of employing algorithms to knit the data together and produce a formula for predicting shifts in market pricing.

It was no surprise, in line with Gauchet’s analysis, that these economists all seemed at heart to be committed to neo-liberalism. When you marry a Trump regime that seems to have no respect for a balanced budget and engages in redistribution of wealth to the rich – quite aside from is impulsive, unpredictable and shape-shifting character – with the Trudeau regime in Canada also based on deficit financing and a redistributive rather than growth budget, but one dedicated to serving the middle class rather than plutocrats, then the outlook has to be pessimistic and even more pessimistic for Canada that is in such a vulnerable position, exacerbated when it does not cut corporate and individual tax rates to compete with the Americans.

However, economic suicide is not the same as political enslavement. In 1989, a London think tank gathered vast quantities of data about an audience’s values, attitudes and beliefs, identifying groups of “persuadables,” and targeted them with tailored messages. In the 1990s, the technique was tested on health and development campaigns in Britain and then extended to international political consulting and defence. Those were efforts at control at the same time as data was being collected and spliced and diced to careen everything out of control.

An algorithm invented in 1999 by a graduate student at the University of Waterloo was used to bundle mortgages together and sell them as tranches, a system which began to reel out of control in 2003 as salesmen and bankers promoted the products without an iota of understanding or even any ability to develop such an understanding, of precisely what they were selling. For it was based on a computer projection and different taxonomic tools to create a new species of monetary instruments. The economic bust of 2007-08 that followed almost brought down the whole international economic order. As indicated above with the story of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, privacy, so critical to the age of the Sanctuary of Truth and the age of facts but also to the world’s public in general, became a major casualty. The world of data seemed to produce greater calamities than benefits, especially for the ordinary man or woman.

As also indicated above, we are entering a new age in which evidence-based medicine in numerous fields can be handled better by the computer than by highly trained individuals. But, at the same time, as data is crunched and analyzed in ways no ordinary human can do, falsification becomes barely detectable until the economic house comes crashing down. As also indicated above, the data predators have emerged out of the woodwork who, like termites, are currently eating through the foundations of our homes. It should be no surprise that paranoia increases, which in turn can be exacerbated by the complexity, inaccessibility and control over parts of our lives and its overall trend towards decontextualizing. History itself gets thrown into the waste bin of history. As the speakers said at last evening’s symposium, Canada has the highest proportion of its population with tertiary degrees but also the highest level of unemployed educated individuals. In a day of data, who needs historians or philosophers.

What is the link to data as a new foundation stone of evidence for a university. Some believe the issue is not evidence, but the wearing of blinkers to ward off unwanted information. As Heather MacDonald noted, we not only educate large numbers who cannot get jobs comparable with their degree of education, but we also bring up our children without the appropriate values of character and resilience (characteristic of the teaching in the Sanctuary of Truth) needed in such circumstances. “Instead, we merely validate them. From their earliest days of school, we teach them that they are weak individuals in need of constant therapeutic support. In England, the ‘safe space’ pedagogy was introduced in elementary schools long before students began to demand safe spaces at universities. High school students were told that they didn’t have to listen to lectures about suicide or other difficult subjects because they were likely to be traumatized. So by the time they enter university, students have become entitled to this kind of protection and validation. They actually feel that they have a right not to hear words that jar or challenge them, and that speaking these words is a cultural crime.”

It is the world of the data-based university as a Social Service Station that I will explore tomorrow.

Tomorrow: The Primacy of Data and the end of the Social Service Station

Advertisements

Alternatives to Persuasion

Alternatives to Persuasion

by

Howard Adelman

Given the apocalyptic vision that forms the foundation of satire, given that satire does not exist to offer palliatives or lessons, given that the ultimate role of its caustic method is to unveil the skeletal horror at the core of the present, where does hope come from? Where is the opening to escape this underworld of horrors? Where is there a path to redemption? It will not come from satire. For the arts of persuasion come from a very different order. Satire is inherently destructive and may prepare the ground. But satire itself is not intended to persuade, to move a person from one set of beliefs to another,

There are other methods for doing so. Inducements can be used to replace influence. In István Szabó’s 1999 film Sunshine starring Ralph Fiennes as the male protagonist, the director traces three different generations of a wealthy Jewish family called Sonnenschein who changed the family name in Hungary to Sors, meaning fate. The latter is an ironic name because, while in each generation the hero acts to take his fate into his own hands, the family’s fate is always to be regarded as Jews no matter what efforts taken to assimilate. The Holocaust does not come as an aberration in the second generation, but merely the most extreme version of the persistent years of anti-Semitism that continue well after the Nazis are defeated.

Ignatz Sonnenschein is a dedicated judge and totally loyal to the Emperor, in spite of the class discrimination of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Adam Sonnenschein, who changed the family name to Sors, converted to Catholicism to escape the race discrimination of the high period of Hungarian nationalism, ends up frozen to death as a Jesus-icicle in a Nazi concentration camp by the bare-faced racism of the Nazi period. Ivan Sors, as a police officer under the communists after WWII is forced, not only to witness, but to abet the purge of Jewish communists, including that of his Jewish friend and superior played by William Hurt, by a corrupt Stalinist regime. The attempt of the Sonnenscheins to trade in their Jewish identity for another repeatedly fails.

In the middle of these three generations, to advance his career and be able to play in the Officers Club, the only route to competitive fencing at such a high level, Adam Sors (modeled on the real life of the Hungarian Olympian fencing gold medalist in the 1936 Olympics, Attila Petschauer) converts to Roman Catholicism. Inducements to set aside one’s ostensible set of beliefs for another may be monetary, but they can also be pride and ambition, Thus, after winning the Hungarian national fencing championship, the heads on Adam’s original “Jewish” fencing club offer him huge amounts of money to rejoin the original club, but Adam not only refuses, but berates “those people” who believe they can buy anything they want in an exhibition of Jewish self-hatred. Adam’s rejection of financial inducements in favour of the inducements of honour and status and the opportunity to realize an ambition, does not make the latter a better quality of honey to the crasser but, ironically, purer inducement of money.

But authority can also be used to attempt to change minds and hearts. In New Spain, that eventually became Mexico, many centres of authority were in competition: the Office of the Inquisition versus the hierarchy of the church itself, the female nunneries from Augustinian Hieronymites to the much stricter Carmelites, the church versus the power of the state, and various forms of state power, including the conflict between Vicereine Leonor Carreto and her husband, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Sebastián de Toledo. But the underlying battle is between these various sources of formal authority and the authentic authority of knowledge, whether of Copernicus or of a young brilliant self-taught illegitimate child, Juana Inés de Asbaje, eventually Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

The actual name of the superb Netflix original series, covering the life of this extraordinary scholar and poet and eventually a person of enormous political and intellectual influence in the history of Mexico, is called Juana Inés. She is forced by the authorities to join a nunnery as the only, and initially illusionary, route to her faith in the authority of knowledge, an intellectual source of authentic authority to resist the corruption of both the court and the church. The influence of ideas is the only authentic means of persuasion in comparison to the influence of inducements. In that contest, Juana Inés de la Cruz betrays both her faith and her political superiors, vows to give up writing, but continues in her deeper faith to eventually produce 200 volumes.

Finally, intellectual persuasion can be contrasted with the use of coercive means to get someone to change positions. The latter is exemplified in how God deals with Pharaoh, sending Moses in to warn Pharaoh of each disaster about to befall him and Egypt. In the end, it is not persuasion or even the threats of more disasters, but murder and war that get Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Persuasion backed by inducements, formal authority or coercive power, are never and can never be authentic means to change people’s minds and hearts.

However, inducements, whether intellectual or material, are not the only instruments to alter behaviour. For altering behaviour is quite a different enterprise than changing people’s hearts and minds.

Like Pharaoh, Trump is a bully and a tyrant. He cannot and will not be convinced that he is on the wrong track, that he is leading his country to destruction. But one must beseech him, not in the belief that he will be convinced, but to teach oneself the arts of civility, the sophisticated arts of persuasion, even though they can have absolutely no real effects on this egoistic centre of self-aggrandizement. Given that scenario, it matters little if you suffer an impediment of speech, if you are neither smooth of tongue nor clever with words, or you have the gift with words and are clever with language and an inventive wordsmith, for, in any case, Pharaoh Trump seems incapable of coherent conversation and dialogue as witnessed by his rambling, erratic and almost unhinged press conference this past Thursday – but more on that in other blogs.

One technique is to imitate the arts that allowed Pharaoh to achieve power and to maintain power. You must learn precisely whom you are addressing. You must master the science of segmentation of the audience and the arts of manipulating that audience. The character of the addressee, not the substance of the address, is what counts. In the contemporary world, it means using all the techniques of big data and psychographics to break down a supposedly homogeneous electorate of equal and rational citizens and decision-makers into a disconnected amalgam of colours. It is akin to the practice of pop art creating a portrait of the public made up of different pure colours, each colour representing a cluster of the population with common psychometric characteristics to which you can appeal. Truth is irrelevant in such messaging. Seeking out a constant message in the old politics is a disaster because you are not trying to convince them to buy your line or buy into your convictions, but to buy into a portrait where they can locate their own fears and desires.

What is needed is audience targeting and data modeling to match the message to the recipient. Alexander Nix is the new magician in the Pharaoh’s court. And the first lesson is name recognition. The first lesson is branding. The leader must be portrayed as a Pharaoh, as one entitled to and capable of exercising power, as the one and only one capable of exercising that power and occupying the position of the highest authority in the land. Pharaoh may be as ignorant as Swiss cheese and as incapable of composing a coherent paragraph only so long as he communicates strength and the will to power. The media is not the message. The message is the media that requires audience fragmentation.

If Trump were to kill Senator Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate when the Senate is in session and everyone could observe what took place, the Senate would never convict Donald Trump of murder or even manslaughter in the Pharaoh’s court. If Donald Trump were to stand on Fifth Avenue and kill a passerby, his voters and supporters would never find him guilty. That is Donald Trump’s absolute belief. He is immortal and cannot be downed by mere instruments of law and rationality. The objective of an election for a Pharaoh is to create a supine audience and a supine group of legislators that will revel in your power on the one hand as an ordinary follower and cower before that power as a co-conspirator. The objective is not to have an electorate that chooses, but to find and tease out different groups among that electorate who can be seduced, not with a coherent and repeated positive message, but with a message in which voters can find their fears confirmed and their hopes raised. The repetition of messages is used only to destroy the reputations and possibilities of individual rivals and the broader traditional media in general.

To accomplish this task, it is necessary to combine the findings of behavioural science with the techniques developed in advertising, now refined by the feedback mechanisms of big data analysis. There is no single audience. There are only audiences. You may not be able to reach the Israelites, but you must reach out to the mass of Egyptians. Not because they are divided into shepherds and stone masons, farmers and undertakers, but because they are divided, not by function, but by form, by sets of characteristics that allow one group to be inspired by one message and another group by another. Mass advertising is no longer useful. Targeted advertising is. The art of behavioural communications must be mastered to manipulate, not communicate with, different audiences.

But if I use my rod and leave the lectern to point to these different factors on the screen at the front of Plato’s dark cave, and then, while everyone is watching the graphics on the screen, turn my pointer into a slithering serpent hissing like a snake oil salesman to take down Pharaoh, he already has a host of magicians who have mastered those black arts. The sorcerers merely respond and overwhelm you with their spells and tricks. Your disposition in the first place is to use persuasion, not manipulation, so you are handicapped when it comes to competing against master manipulators. You must learn and understand the magic of manipulation, but it will never provide the road to victory, just the route for understanding the black arts at your opponent’s disposal.

Those arts attempt to establish a congruity between the message and the messaged, to marry data on age and gender, ethnicity and religious affiliation, with data on attitudes and preferences, hopes and plans, fears and foibles. If you master those arts, they will make you competitors of your opponent’s sorcerers, but not victors of citizens who choose their leaders and are influenced by them. You must go far beyond mastering the magic arts of manipulation. But you must first develop those arts, not to persuade citizens, but to undercut the power and authority of Pharaoh. It is important to understand him and not focus on the followers he manipulates to build his strength.

That is why satire is a propaedeutic. To what? That is the question.  Especially if the next phase of the battle leads to war. For the shedding of blood and the gutting to let the blood of one’s enemy gush forth will provide the next battleground. It may not be the beaches of Normandy, but it may be the beaches of Yemen. The Pharaoh may botch his battles, may try to second guess his generals and leave unprepared and without intelligence to pursue clearly enunciated goals. But it is you that must track every drop of blood that flows into the river of time. It is you who must track the casualties on both sides, and not mainly the soldiers, but the women, the old people and especially the children. You must track every single individual who contributes to turning the Nile or the Mississippi from a slow-moving stream of water into a place where the only way to bathe is to bathe in blood.

That will not make you a winner, but it will level the playing field somewhat. You must now help sew distrust between the Pharaoh and his courtiers. And you must take them on, one at a time, in a concentrated attack from all quarters.

The arts of persuasion can only have room to thrive if the non-persuasive arts are mastered. But they must be put to work always and only in the service of advancing and making room for dialogue and rational debate.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman