[Image of an eye in a light-skinned face; the iris and pupil have been replaced with a green neutral-faced emoji; by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons]
Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.
Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.
Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.
This week Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill*, talks with us about the implications of algorithmically filtering social media feeds.
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:
I was born during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, a one-term administration remembered mostly for the Iran hostage crisis, the New York City blackout, and stagflation. The Carter babies—anyone born between his inauguration in January 1977 and Reagan’s in January 1981—are now 30 to 34, and, like Carter himself, the weirdly brilliant yet deeply weird born-again Christian peanut farmer, this micro-generation is hard to pin down. We identify with some of Gen X’s cynicism and suspicion of authority—watching Pee-Wee Herman proclaim, “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel,” will do that to a kid—but we were too young to claim Singles and Reality Bites and Slacker as our own (though that didn’t stop me from buying the soundtracks). And, while the proud alienation of the Gen X worldview doesn’t totally sit right, we certainly don’t yearn for the Organization Man-like conformity that the Millennials seem to crave. […]
But maybe we’re not the only ones who feel unmoored. After explaining the gist of the piece to a 29-year-old friend over email, she responded: “I feel like I’m especially without generation because I’m not quite a Carter baby but not really a Millennial either. … I feel like Noreen, who is only two years younger than me, is of a slightly different generation, which seems crazy! But it feels true.” Her email was a classic Generation Catalano move: dancing near the spotlight, and then dancing with herself.
I hate the name, but I can identify with this, although I missed the Carter administration by about 10 months. Some measures of when Generation X place its end as late as 1981, while the Millennial generation starts as early as the late 70s. There’s a lot of overlap.
The “wisdom of the crowd” has become a bit of a pop cliché, but it’s backed up by real-world evidence. When groups of people are asked to provide estimates of obscure information, the median value of their answers will often be remarkably close to the right one, even though many of their answers are laughably wrong. But crowds rarely act in the absence of social influences, and some researchers in Zurich have now shown that providing individuals information about what their fellow crowd-members are thinking is enough to wipe out the crowd’s wisdom. […]
Compared to the control setup, the additional information changed the crowd’s collective behavior dramatically. In what the authors term the “social influence effect,” the panels that were provided with information about their peers quickly narrowed their focus onto a fairly limited set of values, meaning the diversity of their answers decreased. In contrast, the control group retained its initial diversity throughout the repeated rounds of questioning.
Worse still, the panels that were provided with social information narrowed in on answers that were more likely to be wrong.
The best baseball players don’t always get elected All-Stars. And the Nobel Prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving member of the scientific community. This, according to a pair of recent studies, is because such recognition can depend upon how well known an individual is rather than on merit alone. Moreover, because it’s human nature for people to try to find common ground when talking to others, simple everyday conversations could have the unfortunate side effect of blocking many of the best and most innovative ideas from the collective social consciousness.
“In our research, we found that people are most likely to talk about things they think they have in common with others, rather than topics or ideas that are more unusual or striking,” said Nathanael J. Fast, a PhD student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Fast is one of three authors of the paper “Common Ground and Cultural Prominence: How Conversation Reinforces Culture,” with Chip Heath of the Stanford Business School, and George Wu of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. “This has the effect of reinforcing—or even institutionalizing—the prominence of familiar cultural elements over ones that are perhaps more deserving.”
There’s more to alcohol than getting pissed but you’d never know it from the papers. In a period of public hand wringing over ‘binge drinking culture’, our understanding of the ‘culture bit’ usually merits no more than an admission that people do it in groups and this is often implicit in the work of psychologists.
In a recent Psychological Bulletin review on the determinants of binge drinking, psychologists Kelly Courtney and John Polich devote only a few sparse paragraphs to the social issues in an otherwise impressive review, despite the fact that drinking alcohol is one of the most socially meaningful and richly symbolic activities in our culture. […]
But it is not just the meaning of drinks which determine the role alcohol plays in our lives, it is the meaning of drinking as well. Sociologists have been exploring this territory for years and we would do well to read their maps, because it shows us how culture influences not only our views on drunkenness, but the experience of being intoxicated itself. […]
While health campaigns are focusing on risk reduction, research by Sheehan and Ridge with teenage girls in Australia found that any harm encountered along the way tends to be “filtered through a ‘good story,’ brimming with tales of fun, adventure, bonding, sex, gender transgressions, and relationships”.
“Stories of people who ruin things for everyone else…or who are accused of that. [..] A bad apple, at least at work, can spoil the whole barrel. And there’s research to prove it. Host Ira Glass talks to Will Felps, a professor at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, who designed an experiment to see what happens when a bad worker joins a team. Felps divided people into small groups and gave them a task. One member of the group would be an actor, acting either like a jerk, a slacker or a depressive. And within 45 minutes, the rest of the group started behaving like the bad apple.”
“Sara Waller (ed.)
Department of Philosophy
Case Western Reserve University
Abstracts for a new title in the Wiley-Blackwell series Philosophy for Everyone, under the general editorship of Fritz Allhoff, are solicited. Previous volumes in the partner series, Epicurean Philosophy, include Wine & Philosophy and Food & Philosophy. Serial Killers & Philosophy broadens the spectrum of topics and activities that inspire reflection on the human condition, while harkening back to the simple pleasures of fava beans and a nice Chianti. Serial Killers & Philosophy will integrate the insights of philosophers and academics from related disciplines, and industry insiders. The abstracts and resulting selected papers should be written for an educated, but non-specialized, audience.
Existential philosophers, postmodern scholars, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and artists have discussed death, violence, and killing, and this volume invites papers in this vein. The scope of the collection is broad, and might include discussions of suspense, or analyses of the portrayal of the murderer and his or her victims in film and writing. Potential contributors might consider Jack the Ripper, Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, the masked men of Friday the 13th and Saw, as well as the charming Dexter. What aspects do serial killers share, and what makes them different from mass murderers, cult leaders, state officials, CIA operatives, legal executioners, etc.? What drives people to kill repeatedly, and how do the rest of us understand these killers? How and why do we present them to ourselves as entertainment? What is the nature of punishment and retribution and how might justice be involved in, and in response to, serial murder? Interdisciplinary papers spotlighting serial killers and killing as they consider human nature, the paradox of horror-pleasure, mental delusions, sociopathy, and the nature of violence, retribution, justice, etc. are welcome. We invite papers from disciplines ranging from neurology to film theory, as well as contributions from criminal investigation professionals, to discuss the factors behind serial killing. Potential contributors should not feel creatively constrained by the topics listed above.
In the finished volume, we hope to also include writings from such notorious serial killers as Dennis Nilsen and Aileen Wuornos.
Guidelines for Contributions:
Abstract of paper (approx. 250 words) submission deadline: December 15, 2008
Acceptances will be issued by January 15, 2009
Submission deadline for completed papers will be July 1, 2009
Final papers should be approximately 4000-5000 words
Abstracts should be submitted by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please contact Sara Waller at the above email address if you have any questions about the book. Other proposals for series titles are also welcome; please direct those to Fritz Allhoff at email@example.com”
For the first 10 minutes I spent bouncing around this website, I assumed it had to be a joke.? The internets have provided us with the too-funny to be real antics of the Landover Baptist Church, and the too-real to be funny hatred of the Westboro Baptist Church. However, the Creation Science Wiki is a very earnest and straight-faced contribution to the field of…well, polite euphemisms have never come easily for me.
They offer a very classical version of Creationism, complete with charts detailing the Biblical age of the Earth, detailed discussion on the Center of the Cosmos, our 6000 year old Universe, and the inspirational story of Robert Gentry, whose career as a nuclear physicist convinced him to become a Young Earth creationist.? (Apparently, this is not a typical path for nuclear physicists to take.) It’s also a wealth of hilarious quotes:
Anyways, I don’t present this as smug mockery.? You owe it to yourself to get into an altered state and really immerse your head in this material…suspend your disbelief and open yourself up to the “What If.” It’s fun.