Big data and the new behavioralism


In his book Social Physics, MIT’s Sandy Pentland argues that the collection of “big data” on people’s associations and behavior offers a way not only to gain a better understanding of society but to engineer society to be more productive, creative, and harmonious. I review the book in the new issue of MIT Technology Review. Here’s a bit from the review:

Even if we assume that the privacy issues can be resolved, the idea of what Pentland calls a “data-driven society” remains problematic. Social physics is a variation on the theory of behavioralism that found favor [in the sixties], and it suffers from the same limitations that doomed its predecessor. Defining social relations as a pattern of stimulus and response makes the math easier, but it ignores the deep, structural sources of social ills. Pentland may be right that our behavior is determined largely by social norms and the influences of our peers, but what he fails to see is that those norms and influences are themselves shaped by history, politics, and economics, not to mention power and prejudice. People don’t have complete freedom in choosing their peer groups. Their choices are constrained by where they live, where they come from, how much money they have, and what they look like. A statistical model of society that ignores issues of class, that takes patterns of influence as givens rather than as historical contingencies, will tend to perpetuate existing social structures and dynamics. It will encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it.

Read on.

Image: SimCity screenshot.

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Technology below and beyond

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“Neither helplessness nor unbounded enthusiasm and indifference to consequences would have allowed humans to inhabit the earth for very long,” observed Bruno Latour in a lecture in Copenhagen in February. “Rather a solid pragmatism, a limited confidence in human cunning, a sane respect for the powers of nature, a great care invested to protect the fragility of human enterprise — these appear to be the virtues for dealing with first nature. Care and caution: a totally mundane grasp of the dangers and of the possibilities of this world of below.”

We live in two worlds, Latour says. There’s first nature, the earthly “world of below,” and there’s second nature, the transcendent “world of beyond.” Second nature reflects our yearning for a world “more solid, less transitory, less perishable” than that of the earth. Through most of history, second nature manifested itself in myth and religion. Now, argues Latour, it manifests itself in the “laws” of economics:

The transcendent world of beyond has always been more durable than the poor world of below. But what is new is that this world of beyond is not that of salvation and eternity, but that of economic matters. [...] The world of economy, far from representing a sturdy down-to-earth materialism, a sound appetite for worldly goods and solid matters of fact, is now final and absolute.

Purging an economic system of its contingencies and investing it with inexorability tends “to generate for most people who don’t benefit from its wealth a feeling of helplessness and for a few people who benefit from it an immense enthusiasm together with a dumbness of the senses.” You get either fatalism or hubris.

It strikes me that what Latour says about our current conception of economics goes equally well for our current conception of technology. Consider the following passage from his speech in which, in three instances, I’ve replaced the word “capitalism” with the word “technology”:

We begin to see how difficult it is to disentangle the contradictory affects created by an appeal to the concept of technology: it generates a prodigious enthusiam for seizing unbounded opportunities; a dystopian feeling of total helplessness for those who are submitted to its decrees; a complete disinhibition as to the long-term consequences of its action for those who profit from it; a perverse wound of smug superiority in those who have failed to fight its progression; a fascination for its iron laws in the eyes of those who claim to study its development, to the point that it appears to run more smoothly than nature itself; a total indifference to how the soil on which it is rooted is occupied; a complete confusion about who should be treated as a total stranger and who as a close neighbor. And above all, it marks a movement towards modernization that delegitimates those who stay behind as so many losers. Actually now that technology is thought to have no enemy, it has become a mere synonym for the implacable thrust forward of modernization. From this tangle of effects, I get no other feeling than an increased sense of helplessness. The mere invocation of technology renders me speechless.

“Resistance is futile”: Depending on who’s speaking, it’s a statement of triumphalism or of defeatism.

Latour finds, in thinking about our shifting sense of economics, a great irony in the “inversion of what is transitory and what is eternal.” The irony becomes even stronger when we consider the similar inversion that has taken place in our view of technology. The glory of technology stems from the possibilities it opens to people in the material world of first nature. The glory hinges on technology’s contingency, on the way it yields not only to circumstance but to human desire and planning. When technological progress comes to be seen as a transcendent, implacable force, a force beyond human fashioning, it begins to foreclose opportunities at least as often as it opens them. It starts to hem us in.

“A solid pragmatism, a limited confidence in human cunning, a sane respect for the powers of nature, a great care invested to protect the fragility of human enterprise”: Would not these earthly virtues serve us equally well in dealing with technology?

Image: detail of Botticelli’s “St. Augustine in His Studio.”


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Seeing through Glass


The War of the Eyeballs begins today, with the initial public offering of Google Glass. To mark the occasion, I give you my all-time favorite Marshall McLuhan quote:

Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.

Just a heads-up.

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The joy of cooking


From Max Levchin:

I relax by fine-tuning various kitchen processes and recipes using approaches borrowed from genetic algorithms. I approach a recipe as if it were a genome where every ingredient and process in the recipe is a gene that I modify randomly. I use a computer program so the modifications are truly random. I basically recombine the genetic makeup of the best recipes over and over again until I come up with what tastes the best.

It never really struck me before, but I do something very similar when I decide which combination of condiments to put on a hot dog.

Image: Jennifer Lamb


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The William Wilson effect


“Oh, outcast of all outcasts most abandoned! —to the earth art thou not for ever dead?”

Returning to the Smashing Facebook meme — a meme of my own imagining, I acknowledge — it struck me that Edgar Alan Poe might shed light on the matter. Poe understood the psychology of social media when Mark Zuckerberg’s great-great-great-grandfather was still in short pants.

Just yesterday, an acquaintance of mine let it be known that he was, as he put it, “off the Book.” Translation: he had cancelled his Facebook account. This was not, I immediately recalled, the first time he had made such an announcement. He had gone off the Book, and then back on the Book, at least a couple of times previously. That’s not unusual these days. I’ve met a lot of people who, exhausted with the work of maintaining appearances on Facebook, try to break the habit, only to find, a few days or a few weeks later, that they’ve reactivated the account.

At the start of Poe’s story “William Wilson,” the title character recalls how, in his youth, he met a schoolmate who shared not only his name but his aspect, his tone of voice, his manner of dress, his personality. The very image of himself, this double, this doppelganger, becomes, after a brief period of friendship, William Wilson’s rival and then his nemesis. As the years pass, wherever Wilson goes the other Wilson is there. His presence becomes ever more oppressive.

“From his inscrutable tyranny did I at length flee, panic-stricken, as from a pestilence; and to the very ends of the earth I fled in vain.”

Finally, Wilson can take no more. In a moment of hopelessness and rage, he attacks his double.

“The contest was brief indeed. I was frantic with every species of wild excitement, and felt within my single arm the energy and the power of a multitude. In a few seconds I forced him by sheer strength against the wainscotting, and thus, getting him at mercy, plunged my sword, with brute ferocity, repeatedly through and through his bosom.”

The doppelganger is mortally wounded. And yet William Wilson is anything but liberated. He discovers, after the violent deed is done, that there is no other man in the room with him. He is alone. He looks into a mirror and, aghast, discovers that it is he himself who has been stabbed.

“But what human language can adequately portray that astonishment, that horror which possessed me at the spectacle then presented to view? The brief moment in which I averted my eyes had been sufficient to produce, apparently, a material change in the arrangements at the upper or farther end of the room. A large mirror, — so at first it appeared to me in my confusion — now stood where none had been perceptible before; and as I stepped up to it in extremity of terror, mine own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood, advanced to meet me with a feeble and tottering gait.”

I know you see the moral of the tale, dear reader, but indulge me while, like Aesop, I belabor it: One terminates one’s Facebook account only to discover that one has terminated one’s self.

“You have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead — dead to the world and its hopes. In me didst thou exist — and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”

Image: still from Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.


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Fire the robot


Toyota, which just yesterday announced a recall of more than six million cars for a variety of defects, is having second thoughts about its robot culture. A longtime pacesetter in factory automation, the company is putting a new stress on nurturing human expertise and craftsmanship, reports Bloomberg:

“We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them,” said [Mitsuru] Kawai, a half century-long company veteran tapped by President Akio Toyoda to promote craftsmanship at Toyota’s plants. “When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything.” These gods, or Kami-sama in Japanese, are making a comeback at Toyota, the company that long set the pace for manufacturing prowess in the auto industry and beyond. Toyota’s next step forward is counter-intuitive in an age of automation: Humans are taking the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

The trend in manufacturing is to turn workers into robot tenders who feed parts into automated machines and watch for breakdowns. The shift of core manufacturing tasks from people to robots may boost productivity in the short run. But the cost is a decay in human know-how and a loss of the unexpected insights that come with that know-how. Robots, for all their speed and precision, lack perspective and understanding. They can monitor and optimize measurable aspects of production processes, but they can’t view those processes from different angles, and they have no feel for the goods being produced. So-called “smart factories” are actually pretty stupid.

Recognizing the dangers in allowing craftsmanship to decay, Toyota is giving pink slips to some of its robots, returning their jobs to people in order to promote the development of deep know-how:

Learning how to make car parts from scratch gives younger workers insights they otherwise wouldn’t get from picking parts from bins and conveyor belts, or pressing buttons on machines. At about 100 manual-intensive workspaces introduced over the last three years across Toyota’s factories in Japan, these lessons can then be applied to reprogram machines to cut down on waste and improve processes, Kawai said. In an area Kawai directly supervises at the forging division of Toyota’s Honsha plant, workers twist, turn and hammer metal into crankshafts instead of using the typically automated process. Experiences there have led to innovations in reducing levels of scrap and shortening the production line 96 percent from its length three years ago.

Much of the current thinking about the future of automation adopts the viewpoint of the robot. It overstates the importance of the things computers are good at (things that tend to be easily measured) and understates the importance of the things that people are good at (things that often are not easily measured). The flaw in that view manifests itself only over the long run, after masters have begun to lose their mastery and companies have begun to lose the intangible benefits mastery brings. Just because a robot can take over a job doesn’t mean it should.

Photo: Wikipedia.


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The loom of the self


“It is hard to resist a technology that is also a tool of pleasure,” write Sarah Leonard and Kate Losse in the new issue of Dissent. “The Luddites smashed their power looms, but who wants to smash Facebook — with all one’s photos, birthday greetings, and invitations?”

That’s on the money. Things do get messy, confused, when the means of production is also the means of communication, the means of expression, the means of entertainment, the means of shopping, the means of fill-in-the-blank. But out of such confusion comes, eventually, simplification, a concentration of effort and effect. Imagine if, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the power loom were also a social medium. In weaving your quota of cloth, you also wove the story of your life and unfurled it in the public eye. Think of how attached you’d become to your loom. You’d find yourself staying late at the mill, off the clock, working the levers and the foot pedals, the shuttle purring. Hopelessly entangled in the threads, you’d demand a miniature loom that you could use at home, and then an even smaller one that you could carry around with you. Every chance you got, you’d pull out your little loom and start weaving, and all around you others would be doing the same, weaving, weaving, weaving.

I have taken my life from the world, you would say, and I have turned it into cloth, and the pattern in the cloth: that is who I am.


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