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Is Big Data turning me into Mr Angry?

August 24, 2017

“Steve”, a friend said to me the other day, “I’ve noticed a change in your writing over the past year”. “Same style, same quality” – he knows how to soften me up before delivering the punchline – “but angrier”.

Not surprising, I replied. I am angry. Angrier than at any time in my adult life, actually. I’m angry that so many people in the US got suckered by Trump. I’m angry at the millions in my country who fell for the Brexit con. And angry at the abject incompetence of the governments on either side of the pond.

But why so cross, I wonder? After all, I’m in my sixties, and it won’t be too long before I join the dribbling millions festering in care homes, indifferent as to whether we are governed by Theresa May or Coco the Clown so long as we get our regular wipe-downs and scrambled egg for tea.

I’m not there yet, but I am at an age when many people, after a lifetime of being disappointed by successive governments (or indeed by life itself), shrug their shoulders and accuse them all of being a bunch of lying bastards.

But my anger burns bright. It’s kindled by every idiocy from Trump, and by every bumbling attempt from our Brexit negotiators to pretend that things are going along fine, thank you very much.

Every day I scan the newspapers and the social media, in the vain hope that someone has come up with a definitive piece of evidence that will bring Trump’s presidency to an end, or that a majority of MPs will surprise us all by putting the interests of the country before party and career and bringing down Brexit.

I like to think of myself as a rational human being, despite the anger. The things I’m concerned about – injustice, cruelty, institutional greed, political deceit, intolerance – spring from rational judgements, or so I believe. In other words – if you’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow – Type 2 thinking rather than Type 1, which is all about fast reaction and gut feeling. The difference between righteous anger and petulance, perhaps, if you could define what righteousness actually means.

No doubt the good Professor Kahneman would be able to rip my self-image into shreds by exposing my biases and assumptions. If you’re interested in how people tend to ascribe bias to others rather than themselves, Margo Catts, an author and blogger of my acquaintance, has written an excellent piece, I am a Racist, about the cultural sub-texts that inform attitudes and behaviour.

But I don’t believe I’m easily manipulated, except possibly by members of my family. Am I being complacent about not being susceptible to the arts of persuasion? Perhaps.

It’s odd really. I don’t go to rallies where speakers whip up mass emotion. I don’t go to the pub and get into booze-fuelled arguments about politics. The only people I talk to about such matters are close family and friends, not all of whom agree with me. Mine is a relatively solitary anger. And yes, it’s probably reinforced by people I’ve never met. So where’s this amplification coming from?

In the second part of Secrets of Silicon Valley, a documentary recently on the BBC, writer Jamie Bartlett delves into the power of Big Data, the ability of tech firms to use our digital footprints to know us better than we know ourselves, and the role of the digital media in electing Donald Trump. I’ve written a couple of posts about this stuff here and here. But Bartlett’s interview with a Stanford University professor who also worked for Facebook caused me to stop and think.

The professor described how Facebook ran an experiment with their users to see how easily they could be emotionally manipulated. In a nutshell, they found that by pushing more negative stuff in their direction, they generated more negative emotions, and vice versa for positive stuff. In other words, they were capable of amplifying the emotions of their users. The point being that such a technique is an ideal tool for demagogues like Trump.

So, I began to wonder, does this explain why I can’t look at a copy of the Daily Mail without going into a seething rage at its rampant attempts to manipulate? Am I myself being manipulated by some tech god who knows exactly what presses my nuclear button? Just as Amazon knows what kind of books I like?

And if I happen to be a Daily Mail reader, will the same all-seeing tech god soon be able to send me a personalised version of the Daily Mail, with all my nuclear triggers lined up on one page?

Yes, I’m pretty sure we’re heading that way. The ability to pull – to select the content we want – has been around for a while. Hence the much-vaunted social media echo chamber effect, in which we surround ourselves with the like-minded. But as Trump showed, we’ve given so much of ourselves away in our busy internet lives that companies like Cambridge Analytics can seek us out like targets for precision-guided missiles – one individual at a time.

So who’s manipulating me? Certainly not the likes of Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm whose role in the Leave and Trump campaigns was highlighted in Bartlett’s documentary. I don’t look at ads on the social media. Fake news spread by Russian bots? I like to think I can spot a fake story from a mile off, so unlikely.

Then we come to the mainstream print and online media. Well I have to admit they’re a prime suspect. But they’ve been around for a long time – or at least the print media has – so what’s new? There have always been Rupert Murdochs telling us what to think.

But what’s different is that the social media gives us access to a far wider choice of media than we ever had before. When I was a kid, my parents had two newspapers delivered to their doorstep every day – the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. The enlightened school I attended in my teens made most of the other high-circulation British papers available for us to read – the Times, the Guardian and even the Daily Mirror. I was lucky – that was a privilege not available to most of my contemporaries.

Fifty years on, I can access (to a greater or lesser extent depending on paywall arrangements) – newspapers in the US – the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post for example, in the UK, in the Middle East and virtually any other place in the world.

In addition, I can subscribe to on-line sites that are more than one man and a dog outfits: Huffington Post, Politico, Slate and a host of others that I deem not to be a waste of time. And should I be so inclined, I could gorge myself on Breitbart and InfoWars.

And then there are bloggers, many of them who write as a sideline, but whose reputations come from their professional achievements. Lawyers like Laurence Tribe and David Allen Green. Academics like Mary Beard and her current Darth Vader, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Most of what I read is measured and well argued. I may disagree with some of the stuff, but at least the authors are writers, not ranters. Are they manipulating me? Possibly, yes, but theirs is a typical Type 2 manipulation, by argument rather than through a punch in the gut.

And finally we have the 140-character merchants, of which the master is Donald Trump. On the anti-Trump side, the supreme exponent is Simon Schama, whose hatred of Trump and all he stands for knows no bounds. Schama is a prince of the Age of Reason – an eminent historian and creator of many fine documentaries. I admire his work enormously. The interesting thing about him is that he seems to have invented an alternative personality dedicated to trashing a man whom he sees as the worst president in history. After a couple of his tweets I’m ready to man the barricades.

There are others like him, and I confess that I’ve not been averse to posting the occasional acerbic tweet about people of whom I disapprove.

So back to the original question. Am I angrier because all the loud voices and persuasive arguments are firing me up? I don’t think so. I’m angry because there’s much to be angry about. No more, no less.

But I can understand that if you are angry about one thing, you can easily be persuaded to be angry about another. And I reckon that that’s what Cambridge Analytica and their ilk are good at. And as people transfer their anger from one issue to another, their anger deepens and they find it harder to think of positives to balance the negatives. Which probably explains why when I get het up about Brexit, my thoughts turn to Trump. And then I think about how my shiny new IPad only charges up to 83%, and why our elderly dog seems determined to trip me up by constantly lurching into my path, and how members of my family constantly interrupt me when I’m in full flow.

Yet when I look further into myself, I realise that Trump and Brexit are only marginally responsible for my anger. They’re merely targets of opportunity. And the psychoanalysts of Big Data are simply discovering the obvious: that as you approach old age, you go in one of three directions – you get angrier with the world you think you see more clearly, you get happier by blotting out what’s staring you in the face, or you subside into a resigned indifference.

But here’s the thing Big Data will struggle to understand. I’m never happier than when I’ve got something to moan about.

From → Politics, Social, UK, USA

  1. Interesting article and opinions , Loved the way you wrote

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