The Facebook Experiment, Briefly Noted

More than likely, you’ve recently heard about Facebook’s experiment in the manipulation of user emotions. I know, Facebook as a whole is an experiment in the manipulation of user emotions. Fair enough, but this was a more pointed experimented that involved the manipulation of what user’s see in their News Feeds. Here is how the article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  summarized the significance of the findings:

“We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.”

Needless to say (well except to Facebook and the researchers involved), this massive psychological experiment raises all sorts of ethical questions and concerns. Here are some of the more helpful pieces I’ve found on the experiment and its implications:

Update: Here are two more worth considering:

Those four six pieces should give you a good sense of the variety of issues involved in the whole situation, along with a host of links to other relevant material.

I don’t have too much to add except two quick observations. First, I was reminded, especially by Gurstein’s post, of Greg Ulmer’s characterization of the Internet as a “prothesis of the unconscious.” Ulmer means something like this: The Internet has become a repository of the countless ways that culture has imprinted itself upon us and shaped our identity. Prior to the advent of the Internet, most of those memories and experiences would be lost to us even while they may have continued to be a part of who we became. The Internet, however, allows us to access many, if not all, of these cultural traces bringing them to our conscious awareness and allowing us to think about them.

What Facebook’s experiment suggests rather strikingly is that such a prosthesis is, as we should have known, a two-way interface. It not only facilitates our extension into the world, it is also a means by which the world can take hold of us. As a prothesis of our unconscious, the Internet is not only an extension of our unconscious, it also permits the manipulation of the unconscious by external forces.

Secondly, I was reminded of Paul Virilio’s idea of the general or integral accident. Virilio has written extensively about technology, speed, and accidents. The accident is an expansive concept in his work. In his view, accidents are built-in to the nature of any new technology. As he has frequently put it, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash … Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

The general or integral accident is made possible by complex technological systems. The accident made possible by a nuclear reactor or air traffic is obviously of a greater scale than that made possible by the invention of the hammer. Complex technological systems create the possibility of cascading accidents of immense scale and destructiveness. Information technologies also introduce the possibility of integral accidents. Virilio’s most common examples of these information accidents include the flash crashes on stock exchanges induced by electronic trading.

All of this is to say that Facebook’s experiment gives us a glimpse of what shape the social media accident might take. An interviewer alludes to this line from Virilio: “the synchronizing of collective emotions that leads to the administration of fear.” I’ve not been able to track down the original context, but it struck me as suggestive in light of this experiment.

Oh, and lastly, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg issued an apology of sorts. I’ll let Nick Carr tell you about it.

Technology, Speed, and Power

Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book, Future Shock, popularized the title phrase and the concept which it named, that technology was responsible for the disorienting and dizzying quality of the pace of life in late twentieth century industrialized society. Toffler, however, was not the first to observe that technology appeared to accelerate the pace of modern life; he only put a name to an experience people had been reporting since at least the late nineteenth century.

More recently, Tom Vanderbilt framed his essay, “The Pleasure and Pain of Speed,” this way:

“The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa catalogues the increases in speed in his recent book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. In absolute terms, the speed of human movement from the pre-modern period to now has increased by a factor of 100. The speed of communications (a revolution, Rosa points out, that came on the heels of transport) rose by a factor of 10 million in the 20th century. Data transmission has soared by a factor of around 10 billion.

As life has sped up, we humans have not, at least in our core functioning: Your reaction to stimuli is no faster than your great-grandfather’s. What is changing is the amount of things the world can bring to us, in our perpetual now. But is our ever-quickening life an uncontrolled juggernaut, driven by a self-reinforcing cycle of commerce and innovation, and forcing us to cope with a new social and psychological condition? Or is it, instead, a reflection of our intrinsic desire for speed, a transformation of the external world into the rapid-fire stream of events that is closest to the way our consciousness perceives reality to begin with?”

Vanderbilt explores both of these possibilities without arriving at a definitive conclusion. He closes his essay on this ambiguous note: “That we enjoy accelerated time, and pay a price for it, is clear. The ledger of benefits and costs may be impossible to balance, or even to compute.”

He goes on to say that the most important characteristic of accelerated time may be neither pleasure nor pain, but utility. It’s not entirely clear, though, how useful acceleration really is. Earlier, Vanderbilt had noted the following:

“Rosa says the ‘technical’ acceleration of being able to send and receive more emails, at any time, to anyone in the world, is matched by a ‘social’ acceleration in which people are expected to be able to send and receive emails at any time, in any place. The desire to keep up with this acceleration in the pace of life thus begets a call for faster technologies to stem the tide. And faced with a scarcity of time (either real or perceived), we react with a ‘compression of episodes of action’—doing more things, faster, or multitasking. This increasingly dense collection of smaller, decontextualized events bump up against each other, but lack overall connection or meaning.”

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At the turn of the twentieth century, not everyone was complaining about the accelerating pace of life. In 1909, F.T. Marinetti published “The Futurist Manifesto,” a bracing call to embrace the accelerated pace of modernity. The Italian Futurists glorified speed and technologies of acceleration. They also glorified war, violence, danger, and chauvinism, of both the male and nationalistic variety. At the Smart Set, Morgan Meis recently reviewed the Guggenheim’s exhibition, “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe.” Early in his review, Meis cited the fourth of Marinetti’s Futurist principles:

“We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

“Speeding Train (Treno in corsa),” Ivo Pannaggi (1922)
“Speeding Train (Treno in corsa),” Ivo Pannaggi (1922)

The Manifesto also included the following cheery principles of action:

8. We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

9. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.

Seis rightly insists that Futurism and Fascism were inextricably bound together despite the efforts of some critics to disentangle the two: “There is no point in denying it. Most of the Italian Futurists, Marinetti most of all, were enthusiastic fascists.” From there, Seis goes on to argue that the Futurist/Fascist embrace of speed, violence, and technology was a form of coping with the horrors of the First World War:

“Sensible persons confronted by the calamity and destruction of WWI felt chastened and depressed in the aftermath of the war. There were civilization-wide feelings of shame and regret. “Let us never,” it was said by most, “do that again. Let the Great War be the war that ends all wars.” The Futurists did not accept this line of thinking. They were among an odd and select group that said, “Let us have more of this. Let us have bigger and more spectacular wars.” […] “How does it make us feel,” they wondered, “to say yes to the bombs and the machines and the explosions?”

In saying “yes,” in asking for more, they discovered a secret source of power. It was a way forward. By choosing to embrace the most terrible aspects of the war and the industrial civilization that had made it possible, the Futurists gave themselves a kind of immunity from the paralysis that European civilization experienced after the war.”

In other words, there was power in embracing the forces that were disordering society and disorienting individuals. There is nothing terribly profound in the realization that embracing new technologies often puts one at an advantage over those who are slower to do so or refuse to altogether. It is only the explicit embrace of violence in the wake of World War I that lends the Futurists the patina of radical action.

In our own day, we hear something like the Futurist bravado in the rhetoric of the posthumanist movement. The future belongs to the brave and the strong, to those who are untroubled by the nebulous ethical qualms of the weak and sentimental. As Gary Marcus recently wrote about the future of bio-technological enhancements, “The augmented among us—those who are willing to avail themselves of the benefits of brain prosthetics and to live with the attendant risks—will outperform others in the everyday contest for jobs and mates, in science, on the athletic field and in armed conflict. These differences will challenge society in new ways—and open up possibilities that we can scarcely imagine.”

If we must speak of inevitability with regards to technology, then we must speak of the inevitability of the human quest for power.

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The French philosopher and critic, Paul Virilio, was ten years old when the Nazi war machine overran his home. He went on to devote his academic life to the problems of speed, technology, and modernity. Anyone who voices concerns with the character of technological modernity will eventually be asked if they are against Progress, and, indeed, such was the case for Virilio in a 2010 interview. He responded this way:

“No. I’ve never thought we should go back to the past. But why did the positive aspect of progress get replaced by its propaganda? Propaganda was a tool used by Nazis but also by the Futurists. Look at the Italian Futurists. They were allies with the Fascists. Even Marinetti. I fight against the propaganda of progress, and this propaganda bears the name of never-ending acceleration.”

A little later in the interview, Virilio was asked if he was annoyed by those who insisted that technological progress was an unalloyed good. He responded,

“Yes, it’s very irritating. These people are victims of propaganda. Progress has replaced God. Nietzsche talked about the death of God—I think God was replaced by progress. I believe that you must appreciate technology just like art. You wouldn’t tell an art connoisseur that he can’t prefer abstractionism to expressionism. To love is to choose. And today, we’re losing this. Love has become an obligation. Progress has all the defects of totalitarianism.”

Virilio has long argued that the “accident” is an intrinsic element of technology. Virilio’s use of the word “accident” is meant to encompass more than the unplanned happenstance, he alludes as well to the old philosophical distinction between substance and accidents, but it does take the conventional accident as a point of departure. Virilio does not, however, see the accident as an unfortunate deviation from the norm, but as a necessary component. In a variety of places, he has expressed some variation of the following:

“When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution… Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

Elsewhere, Virilio borrowed a theological concept to further elaborate his theory of the accident:

“Now, this idea of original sin, which materialist philosophy rejects so forcefully, comes back to us through technology: the accident is the original sin of the technical object. Every technical object contains its own negativity. It is impossible to invent a pure, innocent object, just as there is no innocent human being. It is only through acknowledged guilt that progress is possible. Just as it is through the recognized risk of the accident that it is possible to improve the technical object.”

In yet another context, Virilio explained, “Accidents have always fascinated me. It is the intellectual scapegoat of the technological; accident is diagnostic of technology.” This is a provocative idea. It suggests not only that the accident is inseparable from new technology, but also that technological progress needs the accident. Without the accident there may be no progress at all. But we do not acknowledge this because then the happy illusion of clean and inevitable technological progress would take on the bloody aspect of a sacrificial cult.

In the face of the quasi-religious status of the cult of technology, Virilio insists, “It is necessary to be an atheist of technology!”

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In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler commended the reading of science-fiction. Against those who held science-fiction in low literary regard, Toffler believed “science fiction has immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of anticipation.” “Our children,” he urged,

“should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.”

Bradbury, for one, marked an obsession with speed as one of the characteristic disorders of the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451. In that world, traveling at immense and reckless speed was the norm; slowness was criminal. In the story, speed is just one more of the thought-stifling conditions of life for most characters. The great danger is not only the risk of physical accidents, but also the risk of thoughtlessness, indifference, and irresponsibility. Mandated speed and the burning of books both worked toward the same end.

Interestingly, these imaginative aspects of Bradbury’s story were already present in the Futurists’ vision. Not only did they glorify speed, violence, and technology, they also called for an incendiary assault on the educational establishment: “It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.”

In Fahrenheit 451, a character named Faber is among the few to remember a time before the present regime of thoughtlessness. When the protagonist, Guy Montag, meets with him, Faber lays out three necessary conditions for the repair of society: quality of information, the time to digest it, and “the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.”

If we credit Bradbury with knowing something about what wisdom and freedom require, then we might conclude that three disastrous substitutions tempt us. We are tempted to mistake quantity of information for quality, speed for time, and consumer choice for the freedom of meaningful action. It seems, too, that a morbid, totemic fascination with the technical accident distracts us from the more general social accident that unfolds around us.

It would be disingenuous to suggest “solutions” to this state of affairs. Bradbury himself steered clear of a happy ending. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, the general, cataclysmic accident is not circumvented. We may hope and work for better. At least, we should not despair.

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Another writer of imaginative fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien has his character Gandalf declare, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

Tolkien too lived through the mechanized horrors of the First World War. He would likely sympathize with Virilio’s claim, “War was my university.” But unlike the Futurists and their Fascist heirs, he did not believe that an embrace of power and violence was the only way forward. Interestingly, the counsel against despair cited above is taken from a point in The Fellowship of the Ring when a course of action with regards to the ring of power is being debated. Some of those present urged that the ring of power be used for good. The wiser among them, however, recognized that this was foolishness. The ring was designed for dominance, and the power it yielded it would always bend toward its design and corrupt those who wielded it.

It is worth mentioning that Tolkien once explained to a friend that “all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.” He elaborated on the idea of the “Machine” in this way: “By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills.”

So rather than submit to the logic of power and dominance, Gandalf urges a counterintuitive course of action:

“Let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”

The point, I suggest, is not that we should seek to destroy our technology. It is rather that we should refuse the logic that has animated so much of its history and development: the logic of power, dominance, and thoughtless irresponsibility. That would be a start.


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The Internet, the Body, and Unconscious Dimensions of Thought

Thinking What We Are Doing

Part One of Three (projected).

Writing near the midpoint of the last century, Hannah Arendt worried that we were losing the ability “to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do.” The advances of science were such that representing what we knew about the world could be done only in the language of mathematics, and efforts to represent this knowledge in a publicly meaningful and accessible manner would become increasingly difficult, if not altogether impossible.  Under such circumstances speech and thought would part company and political life, premised as it is on the possibility of meaningful speech, would be undone.  Consequently, “it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking.”

Arendt was nearly prescient.  She clearly believed this to be a dystopian scenario that would result in the enslavement of humanity, not so much to our machines, but to one narrow constituent element of our humanity – our “know-how,” that is our ability to make tools.  What Arendt did not imagine was the possibility that digitally, and thus artificially, augmented human thought might avert the very enslavement she foresaw.

On the eve of the 21st century, similar concerns were articulated by Paul Virilio who believed that our technologies, particularly the Internet, created a situation in which a total and integral accident was possible – an accident unlike anything we have heretofore experienced and one that we could not, as of yet, imagine.  Virilio termed this possibility the general accident.  Like Arendt, Virilio believed that the emerging shape of our technological society threatened the possibility of politics; and if politics failed, Virilio claimed, the general accident would be inevitable. Again, like Arendt, Virilio too seems unable to imagine that the way forward may lay through, not against technology, particularly the Internet.

If the concerns expressed by both Arendt and Virilio continue to resonate, it is because the structure of the challenge they articulated remains intact.  The pace of technological development outstrips our ability to think through its attendant social and ethical implications; moreover, the political sphere appears so captivated by the ensuing spectacle that it is ensnared by the very problems we call upon it to solve.  We are confronted, then, with a technologically induced failure of thought and politics, along the lines anticipated by Arendt and Virilio.

Gregory Ulmer is likewise concerned about the challenges presented to our thinking and our politics by technology, specifically the Internet; but Ulmer is more sanguine about the possibility of inventing new forms of thought adequate to our circumstances.  Electracy, according to Ulmer, will be to the digital age what literacy has been to the age of print: an apparatus of thought and practice directed toward the perennial question:  “why do things go wrong?”

Ulmer further elaborates the function of electracy in reference to subjectivity:

If the literate apparatus produced subjectivation in the mode of individual selves organized collectively in democratic nation-states, electracy seems to allow the possibility of a group subjectivation with a self-conscious interface between individual and collective . . .

Ulmer begins Electronic Monuments with a discussion of Paul Virilio’s general accident because, in Ulmer’s view, Virilio has “most forcefully” articulated concerns about “the Internet as the potential source of a general accident.” Unlike Virilio, however, Ulmer believes the best response to the potential of the general accident lies not in opposition to Internet, but through the possibilities created by the Internet.

In The Human Condition, Arendt set for society a very straightforward goal:  “What I propose, therefore, is very simple:  it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” While Arendt goes on to help the reader understand “what we are doing,” the matter of thinking what we are doing remains an elusive task.

Ulmer attributes our inability to think what we are doing to the blindness that plagues us, both individually and collectively, and he draws on a combination of Greek tragedy and psychoanalysis to frame and theorize this blindness.  Reflecting on Greek tragedy, an “oral-literate hybrid” bridging oral and literate forms of problem recognition, Ulmer explains, “The aspect of tragedy of most interest in our context is (in Greek) ATH (até in lowercase), which means ‘blindness’ or ‘foolishness’ in an individual, and ‘calamity’ or ‘disaster’ in a collectivity.”

The sources of ATH, according to Ulmer, are “those circumstances already in place and into which we are thrown at birth, providing the default moods enforcing in us the institutional construction of identity.” Marshall McLuhan captures a similar point in characteristically pithy fashion when he observes that, “Environments are invisible. Their groundrules, pervasive structure and overall patterns elude easy perception.”

In the concluding chapter of Electronic Monuments, Ulmer further clarifies the concept of ATH with reference to Jacques Lacan’s exposition of Antigone:  “Lacan is interested in ATH as showing that exterior that is at the heart of me, the intersubjective nature of human identity.” Ulmer also refers to the intersubjective nature of human identity in describing the Internet as a “prosthesis of the unconscious (intersubjective) mind.” On more than one occasion, Ulmer identifies this metaphor – the Internet as prosthesis of the unconscious – as one of the key assumptions informing his development of the apparatus of electracy.

Taking Ulmer’s discussions of ATH, intersubjectivity, and the unconscious together, the following picture emerges:  For Ulmer the unconscious is not necessarily a realm of repressed trauma or libidinal desire, but rather is shorthand for the countless, unarticulated ways in which subjectivity is constructed by the social world it inhabits.  From one angle, Ulmer has given Freud, not a semiotic spin as Lacan had done, but a sociological spin.  The unconscious names the group subject – the exteriority at the heart of me.

The Internet is a prosthesis of this unconscious in the sense that it is a virtually limitless digital repository of all of the features of the social world that have imprinted themselves on the subject.  On Youtube, to take one example, a viewer can locate the toy commercial from their childhood that is still vaguely remembered, and then have links provided for a multitude of other more forgotten commercials, themes songs, and cartoons that, once seen, are remembered, and whose significance can be startling. Like T. S. Eliot’s “unknown, unremembered gate” in “Little Gidding,” the Internet operating as a prosthesis of the unconscious allows the user to “arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

This collective element of group subjectivity, until it is made accessible through the practices of electracy Ulmer develops, functions as a blind spot (ATH).  It is a source of judgment and action that remains hidden from conscious thought analogously to the traditional psychoanalytic unconscious.  This blindness, therefore, presents a powerful obstacle to Arendt’s plea, that we think what we are doing.  Ulmer’s project, then, may be understood as an attempt to employ the Internet in an effort to make conscious thought aware of the way in which it has been constructed by the social.