One of the things I’m did this past spring was an independent study—a vehicle by which to move through my dissertation’s tentative bibliography, at a pace of around two books at time, every two weeks, and to write short comparative analyses of the texts. These books covered intersections of philosophy, psychology, theology, machine consciousness, and Afro-Atlantic magico-religious traditions, I thought my reviews might be of interest, here.
My first two books in this process were Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and David J. Gunkel’s The Machine Question, and while I didn’t initially have plans for the texts to thematically link, the first foray made it pretty clear that patterns would emerge whether I consciously intended or not.
[Image of a careworn copy of Frantz Fanon’s BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS, showing a full-on image of a Black man’s face wearing a white anonymizing eye-mask.]
In choosing both Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Gunkel’s The Machine Question, I was initially worried that they would have very little to say to each other; however, on reading the texts, I instead found myself struck by how firmly the notions of otherness and alterity were entrenched throughout both. Each author, for very different reasons and from within very different contexts, explores the preconditions, the ethical implications, and a course of necessary actions to rectify the coming to be of otherness.
Here’s a long piece by Larissa MacFarquhar from the New Yorker last year about Ittetsu Nemoto , a Zen Buddhist priest who works with suicidal people and shut-ins known as “hikikomori.” Read the whole thing, but I found this letter a hikikomori wrote to Nemoto, included in the article, particularly interesting:
Long ago, becoming a training priest was recognized as a way of living, and I think that considerable numbers of the priests were people who had troubles that prevented them from living in society—people who would be called depressed or neurotic in today’s terms. . . . The basic rule was to leave the family and friends, discard all the relationships and renounce the world. . . . The old society accepted these training priests, although they were thought to be completely useless. Or rather, it treated them with respect, and supported them by giving offerings. . . . In very rare cases, some attained so-called “enlightenment,” and those people could spread teachings that could possibly save people in society who had troubles. In other words, there were certain cases where training priests could be useful to society, and I think that is why society supported them. . . . I think that training priests and hikikomori are quite similar. First, neither of them can fit in to this society—while the training priests are secluded in mountains, hikikomori are secluded in their rooms. They both engage in the activity of facing the root of their problems alone. . . . However, nobody accepts this way of living anymore, and that’s why hikikomori hide in their rooms. . . . But hikikomori are very important beings. Hikikomori cannot be cured by society; rather, it is society that has problems, and hikikomori may be able to solve them.
KF: I kind of see this book as a users’ guide to the human brain. The brain, the missing manual; that sort of thing. What is the book, in your own words? Maybe we’ll start with Taylor then Bill can chime in.
TE: First of all, I want to acknowledge that Bill is kind of the originator of the book. He had already been working on it for a while and I want to give a little history here, just because I think it speaks to what the book’s about. He came to me about four or five years ago and said, “I’m working on this book. I’m kind of hitting a place where I’m feeling really blocked. Would you be willing to help me co-write it because you’ve done some similar stuff with some of your other writing?” I thought it over and I said, “Yeah, sure.”
It’s been a long road to get this book put together. I mean, it’s turned into three e-books and a workbook which speaks to it. So what do we see it as? I think I see it as a catalog of certainly stuff related to the brain but really behaviors and actions that can come out of being more aware of the brain and how it programs a lot of our behavior. That’s my take on it. Bill, what would you say to that?
BW: Well, I think we’ve tried to produce a taxonomy, a way of categorizing behavioral practices, things that can be described in purely behavioral terms; that actually have a measurable neurological effect on people, physiological effect on people. Things that you can learn to do that could be said to truly impact your skills as far as fundamental human activities; things like concentration, memory, metabolism; things that impact pretty much anything you would want to do in your life.
We’ve tried to abstract that as much as possible from any specific tradition because in many ways, the traditions these things come out of have a tendency to separate out people as much as they bring them in. Someone will say, “Well, psychology is too cold or inhuman for me” or “I don’t do Eastern mysticism” or “That’s too fuzzy and spiritual”, any reason to not try the thing themselves, whereas in behavioral terms, these are things that you can learn to do that will change your level of skill as a human being.
Companies selling ‘probiotic’ foods have long claimed that cultivating the right gut bacteria can benefit mental well-being, but neuroscientists have generally been sceptical. Now there is hard evidence linking conditions such as autism and depression to the gut’s microbial residents, known as the microbiome. And neuroscientists are taking notice — not just of the clinical implications but also of what the link could mean for experimental design. […]
The evidence that probiotics affect human behaviour “is minimal to say the least”, Mazmanian acknowledges. Still, he says, a growing number of researchers are starting to look at some mental illnesses through a microbial lens.
How about some positive news before the long weekend? Science magazine reports:
If you had the choice between hurting yourself or someone else in exchange for money, how altruistic do you think you’d be? In one infamous experiment, people were quite willing to deliver painful shocks to anonymous victims when asked by a scientist. But a new study that forced people into the dilemma of choosing between pain and profit finds that participants cared more about other people’s well-being than their own. It is hailed as the first hard evidence of altruism for the young field of behavioral economics.
The article is also noteworthy because it revealed that Auernheimer was, by his own admission, behind a campaign to terrorize educator and game designer Kathy Sierra (previously).
Auernheimer went on to become the poster-boy for the over-prosecution of hackers both in the hacker community and tech press, and subsequently denied that he ever told Schwartz that he was behind the harassment of Sierra. This week she wrote a bit about what that felt like to watch close friends and respected journalists suddenly becoming very chummy with the person not only destroyed her career but made her fear for life, and why she doesn’t take Auernheimer’s denials seriously:
But the one thing I never expected was that after all these years, he’d suddenly deny it. Even more so, that reasonable, logical, intelligent people would actually believe this. He’d suddenly, after 6 years, claim that a world-class, international, Livingston-winner (“Pulitzer of the Young”) journalist would just somehow… come up with that. And that in six years it never occurred to weev, not once, to publicly deny it no matter how many times he was asked about it.
(Schwartz himself came into these conversations more than once over the past year to remind weev about their conversation, to confirm that yes, it happened exactly as he described in the 2008 feature. Not that it made a difference. After all, in weev vs. amazing writer with everything to lose by lying, who are you going with? Weev. They went with weev.)
(Note: she says she’s taking down her original post soon, but a copy can also be found here).
Elsewhere, ex-troll turned journalist Emmett Rensin wrote for Vox.com that trolling has changed, man. “But I want to tell you about when violent campaigns against harmless bloggers weren’t any halfway decent troll’s idea of a good time — even the then-malicious would’ve found it too easy to be fun,” he writes. “When the punches went up, not down.”
I’m not sure that’s historically accurate though, given the malicious glee trolls of yore took in, say, hacking an epilepsy forum to place seizure inducing flashing images on the site.
So what is to be done? The usual response is “don’t feed the trolls,” which makes sense if you’re just talking about the occasional blog post, but today’s troll praxis is to flood someone’s Twitter mentions and inbox with threats, call their phones, send packages to their physical address, and use that address to order pizzas, taxis and, sometimes, to “swat” them. Swatting, for those who don’t know, is where you spoof a call from a particular number — your victim — to the police or 911 saying that you’re being held prisoner in your own home. A SWAT team then shows up, and if the victim is lucky, all that happens is that they get the shit scared out of them. But as Radley Balko has documented, SWAT teams often have a habit of shooting first and asking questions later, so there’s a real danger of the victim actually being killed by the police.
But yeah, you’re just supposed to ignore all that and hope the trolls move on to another victim.
OK, so what do we really do? I wish I had an answer. Some of it probably will be technical. Better security and what not. Some of it will need to be legal — actually putting people behind bars for pulling this crap. And some of it will necessarily be social — addressing what the hell actually makes people want to do this stuff in the first place.
And what exactly is that, anyway? It’s easy to do arm-chair psycho-analysis about the erosion of white privilege, holding power over others or finding acceptance in a peer group. But is that what’s really going on? And even if so, how do you solve the problem?
In an amazing (and probably triggering for racism, anti-semitism, and general harassment) blog post Leo Traynor wrote about meeting the person who had waged a three year harassment campaign against Traynor and his wife, sending the two of them threatening emails and Tweets, as well as packages in the mail. The perpetrator turned out to be the teenage son of of one of Traynor’s friends. Asked why he did it, the kid said “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sorry. It was like a game thing.”
There’s clearly a huge social problem if a kid could ever think something like this would be just a bit of fun, but it points to a larger problem here, which is that kids have a tendency towards being assholes. Usually they grow out of it. But technology now enables kids to stalk, harass, and generally ruin the lives of strangers remotely, and semi-anonymously. In other words, the amount of damage a kid, or group of kids working together online, can do with seemingly little risk, at a remove from the consequences, is far greater than ever before. (Note: Traynor’s post mentions that the kid spent a lot of time on conspiracy sites, which suggests, at least to me, that there may have been more to the anti-semitic content of his messages than a “game thing,” so this could be more than just something he’d grow out of).
All of which is to say, I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but it’s something I want to look into more deeply. I’ve found a few academic papers on trolling, and hope to find more:
Julie Norem: It’s a strategy for dealing with anxiety and helping to manage anxiety so that it doesn’t negatively influence performance. If you feel anxious in a situation, it doesn’t really matter if it’s realistic or not, you feel how you feel. It’s hard not to feel that particular way. If you feel anxious, you need to do something about it. Usually people try to run away from whatever situation makes you anxious. But there are other ways of dealing with it. Defensive pessimism is one way.
When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations, but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong. What we’ve seen in the research is if they do this in a specific, vivid way, it helps them plan to avoid the disaster. They end up performing better than if they didn’t use the strategy. It helps them direct their anxiety toward productive activity.
It started as a headache, but soon became much stranger. Simon Baker entered the bathroom to see if a warm shower could ease his pain. “I looked up at the shower head, and it was as if the water droplets had stopped in mid-air”, he says. “They came into hard focus rapidly, over the course of a few seconds”. Where you’d normally perceive the streams as more of a blur of movement, he could see each one hanging in front of him, distorted by the pressure of the air rushing past. The effect, he recalls, was very similar to the way the bullets travelled in the Matrix movies. “It was like a high-speed film, slowed down.” […]
What’s more, Valtteri Arstila at University of Turku, Finland, points out that many of these subjects also report abnormally quick thinking. As one pilot, who’d faced a plane crash in the Vietnam War, put it: “when the nose-wheel strut collapsed I vividly recalled, in a matter of about three seconds, over a dozen actions necessary to successful recovery of flight attitude”. Reviewing the case studies and available scientific research on the matter, Arstila concludes that an automatic mechanism, triggered by stress hormones, might speed up the brain’s internal processing to help it handle the life or death situation. “Our thoughts and initiation of movements become faster – but because we are working faster, the external world appears to slow down,” he says. It is even possible that some athletes have deliberately trained themselves to create a time warp on demand: surfers, for instance, can often adjust their angle in the split second it takes to launch off steep waves, as the water rises overhead.
Scott Alexander on the backlash against trigger warnings:
But this is all tangential to what really bothered me, which is Pacific Standard’s The Problems With Trigger Warnings According To The Research.
You know, I love science as much as anyone, maybe more, but I have grown to dread the phrase “…according to the research”.
They say that “Confronting triggers, not avoiding them, is the best way to overcome PTSD”. They point out that “exposure therapy” is the best treatment for trauma survivors, including rape victims. And that this involves reliving the trauma and exposing yourself to traumatic stimuli, exactly what trigger warnings are intended to prevent. All this is true. But I feel like they are missing a very important point.
YOU DO NOT GIVE PSYCHOTHERAPY TO PEOPLE WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT.
Psychotherapists treat arachnophobia with exposure therapy, too. They expose people first to cute, little spiders behind a glass cage. Then bigger spiders. Then they take them out of the cage. Finally, in a carefully controlled environment with their very supportive therapist standing by, they make people experience their worst fear, like having a big tarantula crawl all over them. It usually works pretty well.
Finding an arachnophobic person, and throwing a bucket full of tarantulas at them while shouting “I’M HELPING! I’M HELPING!” works less well.
Wired reports on DIY transcranial direct current stimulation, and why the science behind it might not be all it’s cracked up to be:
It’s a rare thing for a scientist to stand up in front of a roomful of his peers and rip apart a study from his own lab. But that’s exactly what Vincent Walsh did in September at a symposium on brain stimulation at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. Walsh is a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, and his lab has done some of the studies that first made a splash in the media. One, published in Current Biology in 2010, found that brain stimulation enhanced people’s ability to learn a new number system based on made-up symbols.
Only it didn’t really.
“It doesn’t show what we said it shows; it doesn’t show what people think it shows,” Walsh said before launching into a dissection of his paper’s flaws. They ranged from the technical (guesswork about whether parts of the brain are being excited or inhibited) to the practical (a modest effect with questionable impact on any actual learning outside the lab). When he finished this devastating critique, he tore into two more studies from other high-profile labs. And the problems aren’t limited to these few papers, Walsh said, they’re endemic in this whole subfield of neuroscience.