August Reading - Neural Coupling, Google Coupling, Bombast & War Rhetoric (Notes)

  • In Sync Communication

    In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), "Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication", Princeton researchers used fMRI to record the brain activity of people communicating. They found that people more successfully communicated when the listener's brain activity mirrored the speaker's brain activity. When people can anticipate and predict one another's speech, their brain activity becomes "coupled", which leads to better understanding.

  • Technological Coupling? Google AIandYou

    Once upon a time, Microsoft vowed, preposterously - it seemed at the time, to "put a computer on every desk, in every home." Another mid-1990's Microsoft marketing campaign asked whimsically, "Where do you want to go today?" We've come a long way. This week, Google's Eric Schmidt promised:

    "If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use Artificial Intelligence... We can predict where you are going to go."

    Schmidt's declaration unnerved more than a few people. But if I were monetizing Google's growing collection of search data, I too would use this line when marketing to states, businesses, and advertisers. For the US military in the throes of the Wikileaks' revelations, Schmidt's announcement might be reassuring, an excellent business proposition. But is Schmidt's assertion possible? Or is it one of those technological promises like 'we will sequence the genome and cure disease', or 'voice recognition software will translate anything', that will ultimately fail to advance as promised?

  • Technological Unveiling

    Even if Google's promise doesn't reach its imagined apex, today's technology allows the unprecedented unveiling of people. From the article, "The Web Means The End of Forgetting", in New York Times:

    "In 1890, in perhaps the most famous article on privacy ever written, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis complained that because of new technology -- like the Kodak camera and the tabloid press -- ''gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious but has become a trade.'' But the mild society gossip of the Gilded Age pales before the volume of revelations contained in the photos, video and chatter on social-media sites and elsewhere across the Internet."

    The author goes on to describe companies who make a business of restoring a marred on-line reputation, showing that the technological unveiling phenomena is certainly not hurting business for anyone, of course, and this is key. Now that Google reassuringly promises to restore the balance of power for business and governments that might feel as though information is a little too "free", by promising that not even one commenter will be inadvertently shielded, those who may have been threatened by the internet (governments) can relax?

  • Does the Internet Propagate Bombast, Polarity, and Cognitive Dissonance?

    On one hand Google promises to predict "where you will go next". On the other hand, for individuals who want to be heard, the internet is so vast their voices easily get lost. Although people who once held a prominent platform of authority seem most anguished in their reactions to this, public discourse in science, politics, economics, immigration, foreign policy -- anything -- now turns to YELLING, goes polar, spirals downhill, and gets crazy and scraped of tempered reason. Some people wonder if the web is to blame for the rumor cacophony.

    But strangely, some of the same people who have focused on the internet's role in incivility, have in fact been most falsely and most viciously maligned, not on the internet, but by talk show hosts with daily audiences in the millions -- Cass Sunstein by Glenn Beck, for instance. In his latest salvo Glenn Beck told audiences that Sunstein would lead government to tax "rumors". This might indeed undermine Beck's existence, if only it were true.

    As I've mentioned, I don't agree that the web has promulgated incivility. With the web, at least, there's some barrier of entry -- both internet access, and the ability to read. Talk shows on radio and TV are far more accessible not only to those who like to be talked at, but to the millions of workers/voters whose jobs involve driving or working everyday NOT at the computer. Arguably, Glenn Beck single-handedly contributes far more to the culture of incivility, intolerance, and hate crimes, than the skeeviest internet site or most prolific or vile commenter.

    But as I see it, the internet seems more unwieldy to the people/organizations/institutions who before the internet, enjoyed a much more exclusive and unassailable platform.

  • "Why American Writers and Speakers are Often Bombastic"

    People love to blame the rise of the internet for incivility and the like, but perhaps we've always been a society prone to uncivil bombast. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) wrote of his observations traveling around America, in his book "Democracy in America:

    "Each citizen of a democracy generally spends his time considering the interests of a very insignificant person, namely, himself. If he ever does raise his eyes higher, he sees nothing but the huge apparition of society or the even larger form of the human race. He has nothing between very limited and clear ideas and very general and very vague conceptions; the space between is empty..."

    "Writers, for their part, almost always pander to this propensity which they share; they inflate their imaginations and swell them out beyond bounds, so that they achieve gigantism...By this means they hope to catch the eye of the crowd at once and easily keep it fixed on themselves, an object in which they often succeed..."

    Wrote Tocqueville: "Writer and public join in corrupting each other."

  • How Things Work: To War! With Excellent "Evidence"!

    The internet is not the only territory of falsehoods and rumors. Carne Ross, UK diplomat in charge of the Iraq dossier at the UN who resigned the Foreign Office over the Iraq War, cited some British documents detailing the risks of invading Iraq versus the successful containment policy at the time. What method did the US and UK use to convince the public? The Financial Times quotes Ross:

    "This process of exaggeration was gradual and proceeded by accretion and editing from document to document, in a way that allowed those participating to convince themselves that they were not engaged in blatant dishonesty. But this process led to highly misleading statements about the UK assessment of the Iraqi threat that were, in their totality, lies."

    In comparison, the ("fictional") movie, "In The Loop" satirizes the British government's Iraq decisions for it's abrupt and buffoonish launch into war war. While the underlying arguments of mushroom clouds and the like have been proven groundless, we have a mix of theories as to how the UK and US managed the PR segue into war.

  • WikiLeaks

    Andrew Bacevich, and also the New Yorker, noted some hypocrisy in the US military's stance on WikiLeaks (no, not with the 'blood on their hands' drumbeat). They observe that the military's intention to punish the perpetrator of the Afghanistan documents leak runs opposite of the military's complacency about its own leaks in the past. Bacevich said (transcript):

    I do think is a reprehensible action. But it's also reprehensible when, in the summer of 2009, before President Obama had made his Afghanistan decision, that the McChrystal recommendation was leaked to the Washington Post, which effectively hijacked the debate over what the Obama administration should do about the Afghanistan war. And I don't remember Admiral Mullen or Secretary Gates or these other people deciding that they were going to go find out who leaked the McChrystal recommendations, because I believe that that is as reprehensible as this leak of the 90,000 documents. That was a direct assault on civilian control of the military. So if you're going to get upset about one, you ought to get upset about the other, too."

    WikiLeaks continues to be a fascinating case study for the military, technology, journalism, international law, and foreign policy, as well as bystanders.

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