Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Better Worst-Case Scenario

Dystopian literature is all the rage right now, but this excellent article argues that we are worrying about the wrong sort of future. Most of us associate the surveillance state with Orwell's 1984, and if you're North Korean, that analogy is on the nose. Americans and Europeans, however, live in a surveillance state that's not gray and Stalinist. You are being watched, yes—not by people who are itching to put you in prison, but by people who want to seduce you: believe my ideas, they whisper. Buy my stuff. Vote for my candidate. Sign my petition. All the data that we're sucking up in our giant surveillance machines isn't going to land you in the Gulag. But your brain may end up hijacked.

How you look to a marketer

"To make sense of the surveillance states that we live in, we need to do better than allegories and thought experiments, especially those that derive from a very different system of control. We need to consider how the power of surveillance is being imagined and used, right now, by governments and corporations.

"We need to update our nightmares . . ."


The original article, which the io9 piece excerpts, is here. I have never worried terribly about Big Data for the very reason Zeynep Tufekci says here: nobody is going to come arrest me for my opinions or my phone calls. They're just going to prod me to buy products or join movements, which doesn't seem quite as pernicious. (I'm still not convinced it is as pernicious.) Big Data as a tool is, in itself, neutral; it can be and is used for good as well as evil. I'm a technophile, so I've been focused on the good. But when I see the war of ideas exploding across the world, a war which is becoming literally bloody, I see the potential downsides. It's easier to sell an idea to people when you know everything about them. Ask any marketer. These days it's not just products that are being peddled to us in ever-more sophisticated ways: it's ideas. Religious ideas, political ideas, economic ideas. Think about Rand Paul whispering to Mitch McConnell (they didn't realize the mic was on) that he couldn't believe the Dems hadn't "poll tested" a particular stance. If you don't think every message you're receiving hasn't been carefully manufactured by marketing geniuses who know exactly how to push all your emotional buttons so you'll begin nodding like a puppet ... well.


The villain of classic dystopian stories is Big Brother: he has a goal and a fist. You will believe what he believes, do what he says, or you will end up imprisoned or dead. He doesn't care what you think: people are bodies, a labor force—not brains. This is still the kind of villain many people face ... just look at Kim Jong Un. But in modern western democratic societies, the villain is more nebulous: he cares desperately what you think. What you think is everything. He's trying to lure you in, not batter you down. In fact, he might look like that most classic of villains, the Devil. Satan, as a literary figure, didn't throw people into prisons and torture them into submission. (The threat of Hell, it might be argued, is God's tactic, not Satan's.) Satan seduced, he whispered, he tempted. Satan was a master marketer, not an autocrat. Look at the body language in the image here: Satan is a bottom-up sort of bad guy, wheedling and persuading. Autocrats are top-down: they rely on fear and force. Maybe our new dystopian stories ought to hearken back to our oldest literature?

Marketing is nothing new, but what is new is the data behind it. The humans who run stuff (corporations, governments, churches, social media) have gotten so much better at eliciting beliefs from the rest of us, finding and pulling the strings that make people twitch one way or another. The combination of brain science, marketing knowhow, and reams of data is very difficult to beat. We may have free will (it's an open question among philosophers), but it's becoming clear we have less of it than we'd like to believe. Humans are, in the end, distressingly easy to manipulate. And we like it! We enjoy having the certainties of our convictions. We embody our beliefs as if we came up with them ourselves, and then we bask in the pleasure of hearing our thoughts echoed by those around us. This is especially true when opinions are polarized; your beliefs become even more precious to you when they are challenged. It's not just about belief anymore, it's about winning. It's about intellectual tribalism. Marketers know how to utilize that, too.

Dystopian literature, especially cautionary tales like 1984, can train a new generation to recognize and prevent oppressive government. That was critical in the 20th century, when the USSR had global aims and tremendous power. Any society that teaches Orwell in its high schools is very unlikely to wind up with an Orwellian state running things: the book inoculates a culture against that version of government. But since that's not the problem we're facing, what's a better vaccination? Tufekci proposes Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which is not typically taught these days (my daughter was assigned Orwell, not Huxley), and which isn't selling especially well, certainly not compared to 1984—which has been flying off the shelves since Snowden's revelations. BNW puts forth the meme of "soma," a drug that keeps citizens happy, anxiety-free, and compliant, which might be a good stand-in for any number of seductive ideas sold to us by marketing-savvy institutions. I haven't read BNW since high school so I can't assess it, but I think Minority Report might also be a good book to dust off (and the movie ain't half bad, either): remember the mall scene? Very personalized advertisements.

What do you think? Do we need to retool our dystopian books and movies to warn us against the sweet whispers of insidious marketing instead of hard fist of autocratic regimes? Can we use literature to energize a new generation to be good critical thinkers, more skeptical of the ideas sold to them? Can "manipulative advertisers" ever compete with "tyrannical leader" for villainy? How would the hero fight back?

18 comments:

  1. When I was little I read a then famous book, "The Hidden Persuaders," by Vance Packard about manipulating the masses, mostly in terms of the getting the consumer to do things, but the metaphor was expanded somewhat to the electorate. It was thought at the time that these revelations would change how people saw the world and alter their behavior, but now, almost 50 years later, the marketing state has grown ever more powerful.

    I do think dystopian literature is useful. Exposing people to ideas always seems like cause for hope in the long run.

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    1. Hey Stephanie, nice post! I appreciate your line of thinking on this topic too. I'm curious what you think about Hunger Games? I find it to be very interesting, and while it really comes across as dystopian, I'm not really convinced that it is. The Hunger games seems more a mirror of the world we actually live in now. We in the Western world are the citizens of the capitol, living high, being entertained by other people's suffering and even death. Our wealth fed by the extreme poverty and financial slavery of other people on this planet.

      In terms of your question, I think it would make an interesting genre of dystopian fiction. How to fight back against the subtle and ingenious ploys of marketing, and those who control the marketing.

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    2. Laoch: That sounds like a great book! My kids both had "consumer awareness" classes in middle school, in which they were taught all the ways marketers try to lure you in—I think that's great. I try to follow up by pointing out ad tricks or having them point tricks out to me. Just to keep it fresh. It's hard to keep "they're tricking me" forefront in your brain when you're viewing ads. (Or listening to politicians.)

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    3. And Mike: thanks for stopping by! I really liked the HG series, and I'm working my way through Divergent now (not loving it as much). The latter is perhaps more like Brave New World, which I am now reading. (I got 30% through it yesterday, yay audiobooks.) Anyway, I think ALL dystopians are a "mirror of the way we live now." They wouldn't work otherwise. 1984 was based on Orwell's observations of the Soviet State, and was really quite apt, not farfetched. Your points about HG were deliberately done by Collins to make readers squirm ... and to warn them. Of course, she was also heavily influenced by the past. There are a lot of references to Roman culture: the Colosseum with its fights to the death as a form of entertainment, the excesses of the wealthy in the Capitol, slave labor ... even the names of the characters. As plutocratic as we seem now, it was worse back then.

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  2. Babe, I'm overwhelmed by your words. I haven't had my coffee (I was trying to remember how to say coffee in Arabic ...) I'd have to give everything you've written here a lot more serious thought before anything worth posting in response came out of this groggy head.

    The one thing that stands out, though, is your comment on Satan's posture. You are a firebrand, girl! In the best possible way.

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    1. Thank you! I'd been thinking, "bottom up, it's all bottom up" as I wrote, and was searching over and over for images and analogies. Then the Satan idea came to me in a flash, and as soon as I saw that particular image. Wow. It really connected.

      Hope you found your way to coffee. :) I can't remember the word, either, but doesn't it sound a lot like "coffee?" Hope yours has fewer grounds in it than the traditional kind, ha.

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    2. It came to me at 5:46 in traffic. Kahui. Though I don't know how to spell it, that's just phoneticalisticalish. :P

      Your mind works in interesting ways.

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  3. As I see it, the future is more likely to be run by companies that sell us stuff - imo, you know, the Corporate State. And I could totally see a world like Minority Report.

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    1. Hey! You just made the think of two things: first, the Lego movie is kind of like a corporate dystopia, yeah? I mean, "Lord Business." (If you haven't already, it's worth seeing.) Second, Cloud Atlas. I totally forgot about this, I can't even believe it. I haven't seen the movie but the book definitely depicts a corporate dystopia: it's even called a "corpocracy." In case you haven't read it:

      'The fifth story is set in Nea So Copros, a dystopian futuristic state that is gradually revealed to be in Korea and to be a totalitarian state that has evolved from corporate culture. It is told in the form of an interview between Sonmi~451 and an 'archivist' who is recording her story. Sonmi~451 is a genetically engineered fabricant (clone), who is one of many fabricants grown to work at, among other places, a fast-food restaurant called Papa Song's. Fabricants, it is revealed, are treated as slave labor by 'pureblood' society, who stunt the fabricants' consciousness through chemical manipulation. Sonmi~451 encounters individuals from a rebel underground who draw her out of the cloistered fabricant world, and allow her to become self-aware, or "ascended."' (From Wikipedia)

      Although it's still pretty top-down. The corporate state simply forces people to do stuff; it doesn't wheedle. I think. I read that book a few years ago and it's not the bulk of the story.

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  4. This just in: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/27/gchq-nsa-webcam-images-internet-yahoo

    1984 and Minority Report both cited here.

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  5. Probably just wouldn't have the same ring to it - some big evil govt we can fight against, vs ... the marketing machine brainwashing us through the TV to buy stuff. :P

    I think you make a great point, though.

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    1. I know, right? Even in Brave New World, which I'm now halfway through, there's a real top-down aspect: they brainwash the kids systematically through sleep training, with the purpose of making them mindless, ravenous consumers. "I love new clothes. Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches." I think we can see why Tufekci says BNW is a good novel for these times, though!

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  6. Holy moly, Stephanie. You're really trying to kick start my gray matter this morning, aren't you? (And all I've been drinking so far this morning is ice water, so I haven't even had a jolt of caffeine, yet.)

    I was gonna reference "Hidden Persuaders" too, but Loach already beat me to it. If you can still find a copy of it, it's well worth the read.

    We're bombarded by so much propaganda, it isn't funny. Some is hidden and subtle, but most of it is blatant and in-your-face. Defiant. Even so-called news programs have a definite slant to them. Once upon a time, journalists were ethically obliged to remain neutral, and deliberately chose words that weren't "loaded". Now, both on TV and in print, they seem to be hellbent on entertaining us... and persuading us to get into lock-step with their way of thinking. And don't even get me started on the misinformation that gets shared and re-shared via the Internet. The "truth" is still around, but it's getting harder and harder to detect it in the midst of all the crapola.

    Do I think reading certain books can make us more aware of the dangers inherent in manipulating the data gathered on each of us? Yes, I think education is always the answer to awareness, and reading is its strongest tool. The problem is: what percentage of the population actually reads anymore? And if they do read, what kind of books are most of them reading? ("Fifty Shades of Smut"?)

    A fantastic post, Stephanie. I'll tell you a secret. When I'm doing a Google search, and only have to type in a letter or two before Google "helps" by correctly(!) finishing the word for me, it kinda freaks me out... but it also delights me.

    Happy weekend!

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    1. I think people are still reading books, but you may be right about the quality of what they're reading. I agree about the Google search algorithms ... freakily predictive!

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  7. Wonderful article.
    1. I'm so glad you brought up the seemingly prescient Minority Report,. Your blog immediately reminded me of that.
    2. I think you are absolutely correct about the need to broaden our sense of what might be dsytopian and antithetical to human well-being. That doesn't mean we should not still examine Orwell's threat (though we probably shouldn't just teach 1984 but also Animal Farm-it has some applicability across dystopian systems).

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    1. Philip K. Dick was nothing if not prescient, at least about worst-case scenarios. I wish he was more readable, I'd like to read more of his work. I rely on movie adaptations instead. :) Good point about Animal Farm.

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  8. "... warn us against the sweet whispers of insidious marketing instead of hard fist of autocratic regimes?" My worry are those who dream of achieving an autocratic regime by mastering the tools of insidious marketing.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reality-based_community

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    1. That Rove (maybe) quote is scary; that whole administration was really scary, and it seems more and more is coming out about how thoroughly irresponsible they really were. I don't doubt there are many who dream of autocracy by mastering the rules of insidious marketing — ask any cult leader — but at least in this part of the world, autocracy is difficult to pull off. It looks like "insidious marketing" might be helping Sisi in Egypt, though.

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