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Jul. 28 2010 — 10:02 pm | 95 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Yet another other good-bye

Here we are at my last True/Slant post. Someone once said “Saying good-bye is what starts the next new thing” and that seems like just the right sentiment for this moment, even though I can’t say what that next new thing might be.

What I can say is that True/Slant has been an absolute blast. The management team  (Lewis Dvorkin, Coates Bateman, Michael Roston, Andrea Spiegel, and Steve McNally) created a place where even a full-time clinician like me could write what he thought about the issues of the day.

Readers may not know that various T/S contributors became friends, frenemies, colleagues, pen-pals, admirerers, and readers. Sometimes the really interesting action was off the screen at farm-to-table dinners, business lunches, and collaborations. I think it’s safe to say that any project from which one leaves with new friends is a success; T/S has been a huge success.

And those of you who took the time to read (and comment!) actually made me think my clumsy attempts to bring some clarity might actually have worked here and there: Thank you!

Oh, I remember who made that comment about saying good-bye. Me. It was something I posted here and on my Psychology Today blog. So, if you want to continue reading what I have to say, please take a look over at Psychology Today.

And I hope there will be good news come September about my continuing to work with the T/S crew at the next venture. After all, there’s lots more to say (and new friends to make).

Jul. 27 2010 — 3:27 pm | 172 views | 1 recommendations | 3 comments

The stupidity of crowds helps kill a planet

Climate Emergency - Families facing Climate Change

Image by Takver via Flickr

Passing climate-change legislation should have been a no-brainer. If our broken political system blocked a carbon-tax (even something as sensible as a carbon tax made revenue-neutral by tax swapping with something like reduced payroll taxes) then a market-based cap-and-trade system should have been a near unanimous choice. The science and economics are that clear.

Imagine it: conservative and progressive standing together and cheering; Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid joining hands surrounded by all the Senate grandchildren saying thank you. What a photo-op that would have been! America at it’s best.

Instead, we learned last week there won’t be any climate-change legislation getting through the Senate. Instead, we are going to continue slow-cooking the planet while falling further behind other nations who are moving towards sustainable energy futures.

This is an American failure so astoundingly stupid that it rendered the usually loquacious and sustainably optimistic Thomas Friedman speechless; he interrupted his own column titled “We’re going to be sorry” that had been bemoaning our inaction to say “I don’t have anything else to say.”

With a collective national failure as large and consequential as this we need to ask what the hell happened.

So it wasn’t the science, the scientists, or the economics that killed action on climate change. What was it?

The answer is, the usual suspects: greed and cowardice

via Op-Ed Columnist – Who Cooked the Planet? – NYTimes.com.

True. Even forget the lunacy of climate-change deniers, perhaps the most pernicious example of greed and cowardice is the ridiculous conservative notion that global warming is good because it will lower GDP marginally less than will a conversion to a sustainable energy economy.

But in addition to such greed and cowardice, planetary post-moterms can also find blame in the way our increasingly networked world can makes us, well, stupid. Networks magnify regardless of truth. Republican nay-sayers and their supporters are not all greedy cowards, many are simply victims. The unfortunate fact is that both the wisdom and the stupidity of crowds gets support from the content-apathy of networks: crap flows as freely as gold.

Every technology has unintended, and negative, consequences. Name a technology—internal combustion engines? nuclear power? genetic engineering? pharmacology?—and there are realized and potential downsides commensurate with the power to do good. No technology serves a free lunch. And magnified stupidity is a downside of a networked world.

For example, social network researchers like Christakis and Fowler have shown that networks are as good transmitting obesity, depression, and divorce as they are at distributing generosity, achievement, and empathy. Or consider last week’s story about Shirley Sherrod and Fox “News” racism. Content—crap or gold—doesn’t matter that much.

There are two main ways climate-crap has been made to flow through our information systems—including our connected brains.

The first is to pump a ton of crap into the network, and the oil companies have been pumping lots of it into our information systems. They pump crap as well as the oil we so greedily drink.

…look at the think tanks claiming that any effort to limit emissions would cripple the economy. Again and again, you’ll find that they’re on the receiving end of a pipeline of funding that starts with big energy companies, like Exxon Mobil, which has spent tens of millions of dollars promoting climate-change denial, or Koch Industries, which has been sponsoring anti-environmental organizations for two decades.

via Op-Ed Columnist – Who Cooked the Planet? – NYTimes.com.

Have you read about so-called “global cooling?” Or been made to question the scientific integrity of climate-change scientists but then not been given equal access to the eventual reports clearing them of any substantive wrong doing other than bad email manners? If yes, then you too are a victim of big energy companies spamming our networks.

The second way climate-crap efficiently enters our information systems is by exploiting so-called “super-connected” network nodes. A feature of a robust network is having some nodes with vastly more connections than average. These “super-connectors” are able to distribute information quickly and widely. Can you say Ashton Kushner? Regardless of quality, if you get yourself connected to a super-connector then regardless of what you have to say your voice will be heard. For good or bad.

WikiLeaks wisely dropped their cache of battle reports in the lap of the super-connected NY Times. But remember, a network doesn’t care if the information is crap or gold, even at the Times.  Consider the way conservative idealogues are able to exploit super-connected NY Times columnist Ross Douthat, someone already exposed as shamelessly trafficking in pseudo-science when it supports his conservative agenda. He again cherry-picks questionable data to conclude that the best course of action when it comes to global warming is to “wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through.”

The fact he’s spouting ideological nonsense will not diminish his super-connected influence. And nonsense is what he’s spouting. The idea that doing what we’ve always been doing is the same as wisely doing nothing is just stupid. Similarly, the Amercian conservative solution he trumpets is basically a decision to enslave millions of third-world workers living in climates that no longer support life as we know it so we can continue to live in excessively air-conditioned desert homes next to lavishly irrigated golf courses. Way to go American conservatives, you’ve helped kill the planet that nurtured civilization.

Maybe it’s time for an Iced Tea Party, or a Green Tea Party? We could have a very simple platform: no support for any candidate who doesn’t enthusiastically support simple, unadorned climate-change legislation. It’s past time we took back not just our country but our planet and our future.

Jul. 16 2010 — 11:57 am | 730 views | 1 recommendations | 9 comments

‘The Hatred of the Gibson’: Lessons from Mel Gibson’s Rage

Mel Gibson's mugshot from his 28 July 2006 arr...

Image via Wikipedia

Hatred is corrosive, it almost always hurts the hater. While you don’t always see it, sometimes the foundation of someone’s character can get so worn away that the person’s facade cracks and falls: like Mel Gibson. The story of his well-documented flame-out into a hate-filled, abusive former movie-star would benefit from understanding more about how hatred can destroy a hater.

His abusive behavior didn’t start with current money troubles and stresses. Nor is it simply a narcissist running amok. It comes from hate.  Hate that was amply foreshadowed by the virulent anti-Semitism about which we all worked so hard not to know we knew. Four years ago at the time of Gibson’s anti-Semetic rant during a DUI arrest, Christopher Hitchens didn’t work not to know the obvious, he shoved it in our face:

And it has been obvious for some time to the most meager intelligence that he is sick to his empty core with Jew-hatred.

This is not just proved by his twistedly homoerotic spank-movie The Passion of the Christ, even though that ghastly production did focus obsessively on the one passage in the one of the four Gospels that tries to convict the Jewish people en masse of the hysterical charge of Christ-killing or “deicide.” It is validated by his fealty to his earthly father, a crackpot who belongs to a Catholic splinter group of which our Mel is a member. This group more or less lives off the stench of medieval anti-Semitism.

via Is Mel Gibson an anti-Semite? – By Christopher Hitchens – Slate Magazine.

Empty core? That is hopefully just Hitchens’ rhetorical excess; if Gibson’s core was empty we’d have little useful to learn from him. He’s a person not a monster, even though he acts monstrously. Gibson has inside of him the same all-too human unconscious processes through which we all live our lives.

In trying to learn something from Gibson’s behavior I am not some sort of pollyanna closing his eyes or trying to make lemonade from an oil slick. I slow down to rubberneck at car-crashes as much as anyone, and if I see something I end up feeling the same fascinated horror I felt reading about Gibson’s catastrophic crash. And the truth is that there is no bigger celebrity crash out there than Gibson (sorry LeBron and Lindsay, but Mel journeyed alone into the realm of the unredeemable: all you need LeBron is a championship—or two—to be a hero again and Lindsay, well, you’ll be America’s sweetheart as soon as you get sober and make a good movie—or two).

So, what can we learn about ourselves from Gibson’s hatred more interesting than the soporific tautology, “people are people.” Can we learn anything useful?

Ken Eisold, a friend and colleague, has written a terrific new book What You Don’t Know Your Know. He pulls together a story about a “new unconscious” from research done in a variety of different fields. What he says about prejudice is helpful. He writes that “prejudice is a universal process rooted in normal development” that come from “how our brains create categories as part of our adaption to reality.” Furthermore, these prejudices and stereotypes can become malignant when we start to protect our identity by putting all the crap into other groups. They—whoever “they” may be—are the ones who are lazy, cheap, avaricious, or devious; we’re not, we’re fine!

But prejudice gets worse, much worse; ordinary bigotry is still pretty far from Gibson’s behavior. Our unconscious process of creating categories and attaching identity-protective values to those categories can degrade further to the level of rape and abuse, genocide, and ethnic cleansing when we dehumanize other people. That’s how a neighbor becomes vermin to be extinguished, a President becomes an anti-American Muslim/socialist/noncitizen, or a woman gets attacked for being nothing more than a “bitch” or a “cunt” (to use two of the more unsavory terms from Gibson’s latest taped rage).

Unconscious dehumanization drives much that we call evil and understanding how it operates in each of our lives is the lesson from ”The Hatred of the Gibson.”

Staring with his hatred of Jews and ending with recordings of verbal abuse and allegations of much worse, we can see that when you nurture processes of dehumanization instead of fighting them you end up dehumanizing yourself. Out of control dehumanization is like a cancer that needs to be caught early and aggressively fought. Luckily, traffic with the new unconscious moves in both directions. So, when what you don’t know you know sends up a flare—be it in a dream, a confusing feeling, an out of character behavior, or a train of thought arriving at a perplexing station—pay attention. You’re trying to tell yourself something important you don’t know you know.

And if you think you’re immune to dehumanization, that it is something you would never ever do, that it is something “they”—the evil others—do but not you, think again. It is something that happens inside our unconscious all the time. We couldn’t get through a day without it, full human awareness would just be too painful. We adaptively dehumanize others when we blind ourselves to the homeless guy sleeping by the train station, to events in Darfur, or even to the suffering of future generations because of our addiction to burning fossil fuels. In fact, we even entertain ourselves with it by putting the LeBrons and Lindsays of the world up on celebrity pedestals.

Like rubberneckers at the highway crash relieved that what could have happened to them happened to someone else, our fascination with Gibson’s hatred includes some relief that he was the one that crashed, not us. What we don’t know we know is that any of us could have been Mel, it’s all a matter of degree. He’s not “other,” he’s us.

Jul. 9 2010 — 8:20 pm | 207 views | 3 recommendations | 4 comments

Read a book, surf the web: You don’t have to choose

Cropped screenshot of Jimmy Durante from the t...

Image via Wikipedia

When it comes to asking how the Internet is changing us, Jimmy Durante, the old vaudvillian with the prodigious schnoozola, has it right, “Everybody wants ta get inta da act!”

The latest voice in the growing chorus of Google versus Gutenberg is NY Times columnist David Brooks whose morning column considered questions of whether Internet culture is good for kids and learning. He concludes that “Internet culture may produce better conversationalists … literary culture still produces better students.”

His rationale? Well, he waves in the direction of research. But as is always the case with research about the psycho-social consequences of the Internet, by the time a study is planned, the data collected and analyzed, the report written, submitted to peer review, and then published the technology has moved on; the world is no longer what it was when the study was planned. Brooks version of this inevitable not knowing, what I’ve tongue-in-cheek—but only a little—called the Essig Uncertainty Principle, was to cite a study  showing “broadband access is not necessarily good for kids” that is from “2000 to 2005 before Twitter and Facebook took off.” Does it still apply today? Who knows. All we have is uncertainty.

But I’m not being fair. Brooks is not offering a scientific review article. His is not really a research-grounded point of view. Instead, all he’s really doing is presenting a familiar conservative mind-set in which respect for traditional authority is good, undermining authority bad. Ultimately, his column is not at all about the Internet. It was merely another protest that they way things were, the hierarchies of knowledge and privilege that landed him on his lofty perch, is the way things should be; dammit, the world works better my way!

Lets look closer. Beneath his erudition is a rather simple dichotomy.

the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Medium Is the Medium – NYTimes.com.

In contrast,

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference


The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.

Smashes hierarchy? I guess when you write on the opinion page of the Times you never have to worry about page view counts, or count the number of FB friends you have, or at how many follow you on Twitter. When you actually spend time using the thing, you realize the Internet does not smash hierarchy nor is it disrespectful or antiauthority. It creates different hierarchies and authorities,”emergent” ones built from the billions of decisions the hive makes each day. Today’s Internet is about opportunity not revenge as Brooks would have it. Brooks and others with button-down white-male privilege—like me—have the same chance but no better than anyone else. The fact is that no one really confuses “icanhazcheezburger” with “Arts & Letters Daily” and it’s somewhat disingenuine to complain that they do.

Going further, his entire either-or premise is wrong:

A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Medium Is the Medium – NYTimes.com.

In a word, no. I’m sitting here, like I assume you are with dual citizenship. I’m writing this piece referencing lots of windows and both an e-book version of Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” and a paper copy (hardback no less!) of Maggie Jackson’s too often ignored and arguably superior “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.” The question is not which is better, Internet or book culture. Rather, the question is how to develop a flexibility of mind that will allow one to exploit and enjoy both.

Brooks project of preserving the human core of that which is old and traditional is just not helped by denigrating and misunderstanding that which is new. If our emerging post-human future is going to be more -human than post- we need to do better, whether the domain is attention, concentration, literacy, or, closer to my interests, love and relationships.

And finally, to show that the pre-Internet golden age that is the object of Brooks’s nostalgic lust was just as irreverent as any college humor web-site, I turn again to the Schnozzola, Mr. Inka Dinka Doo himself with his 1947 classic commentary on the literary world:

Jun. 20 2010 — 5:12 pm | 490 views | 1 recommendations | 9 comments

Jeopardy! gets a computer champion: Does it put our humanity in the form of a question?

A really interesting techno-cultural milestone is about to be passed; an IBM supercomputer named Watson will soon be crowned champion of our favorite TV trivia game where your response has to be in the form of a question. That’s right, a cleverly programmed and very powerful machine is on the cusp of becoming Jeopardy! champion.

What makes this worth the hype in the following videos, hype also found in today’s NY Times Magazine article by Clive Thompson “Smarter Than You Think: What Is I.B.M.’s Watson?” and on the Singularity Hub, is the truly deep psychological challenge presented by the often clever, even pun-y, clues Alex Trebek reads to contestants.

Understanding “natural language” is no small thing. IBM is well within its rights to crow about the achievement.

One step in determining a correct response is they very “computer-y” process of accessing and searching a huge database of cultural knowledge. And we all have experiences with, even take for granted, this step in a machine answering a trivia question—you have used that google thing haven’t you? But our experience with computers trying to simulate an actual conversation—what the IBM spokesperson calls a “a question-answering system”—is very different. In fact we’ve all had experience with what terrible conversationalists computers are. Consider what frequently happens when you call an insurance company or utility and get one of those infernal voice-only telephone response systems; they are terrible. That is what makes IBM’s achievement so amazing. It really is a triumph.

But, as one of the researchers said in the second video, is it really fair to say it is “capable of understanding your question”? Isn’t it better to use the more accurate description and say the computer successfully simulated understanding your question? This is not just a semantic trick nor an exercise in academic wordiness. It changes the meaning of Watson’s championship from being one more piece of lost human uniqueness into a celebration of a fascinating human-made technology that just might be able to be used for human purposes. In other words, feeling the awe this technology deserves is possible only if we ignore it’s capacity for simulation entrapment, i.e., getting so caught-up in the technologically-mediated simulation that you forget you’re interacting with a machine. The best way to enjoy Watson’s win is to be both in it and out of it at the same time.

Part of the problem is that our psychology leads us to see human qualities whenever possible; we’re tuned to experience empathy. Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel were mid-century psychologists who asked subjects to watch the following film:

Like I’m pretty sure you just did, their subjects saw a story, complete with intentions, attraction, and maybe even feelings of love present.  We saw that little triangle have feelings for the little circle even though we know it is impossible; it’s just a geometric shape that was made to move in a particular pattern by the film-maker. But we see humanity nonetheless. Same thing with Watson. Just like the Heider-Simmel triangles Watson looks like it’s “understanding”—even “playing”— even when all it is doing is quickly (really really quickly) obeying a set of mathematical instructions put there by a team of really smart people.

When we watch Watson respond correctly in the form of a question we attribute human qualities not because the machine actually is human-like but because we are.

Let me tell a quick story illustrating how not everything that looks like understanding is understanding. 25 years ago I worked on an inpatient unit with college-age schizophrenics. I was giving a series of psychological tests to a young man tragically going through his first psychotic break with reality. He was chaotic and confused. During a test of intellectual capacities I asked him a question he should have failed because he had gotten the previous, and easier items, wrong: “A man drives 275 miles in 5 hours, how fast was he going in miles per hour?” But he quickly and correctly replied “55.” I was kind of shocked. He should not have ben able to understand this question nor the division involved. So, I asked him how he figured out the answer and he got angry. He said “my father, my father, my father is a good man, a good man, he always drives the speed limit.”

Can we say he understood the problem and the arithmetic required for it’s solution? I don’t think so. The process is just too different. And the same goes with Watson responding to a Jeopardy! clue. It works by statistically associating the co-0ccurance of terms across a vast database. It’s a really, really clever way to simulate natural language understanding. Bravo to the programmers! But Watson does not “understand” the clues anymore than that suffering young man understood the arithmetic problem with which he was presented.

We can become entrapped by the simulation and ignore what we know about the processess involved in something like Watson winning at Jeopardy!.  But that diminishes our humanity by incorrectly attributing to a machine a rich inner life like ours complete with longing and understanding. The other possibility is to embrace the differences thereby letting the human acheivement that is technology like Watson enhance our humanity.

If we’re going to live in a world in which we’re forced to talk with cost-saving customer service computers instead of other people, they should at least work as well as Watson. But we shouldn’t let ourselves become so enthralled by the experience that we lose sight of where machines stop and people begin.

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    About Me

    I'm a psychologist and psychoanalyst with a full-time therapy practice. Over the last 20 years I've noticed how the NEXT BIG THING, or the one after that, sometimes leaves people feeling more miserable than before; life in the "future" doesn't always feel very good by the time it gets here. But sometimes it does. We just don't know how the future will feel.

    I have been writing and lecturing to professional audiences about how our emerging technologies can change how we feel about and relate to each other, ourselves, and our bodies. Now it's time to go public.

    In case you're wondering, my clinical office is like Vegas; what's said there, stays there. How could it be otherwise? So rather than writing about individual patients, I'll be writing in general about the perils and promise we all confront as we try to build a good life in our increasingly over-simulated world. While no one knows what's coming next nor how it will make life feel, one thing I do know is that for us to thrive as individuals and a society, for us to hold on to our humanity as we become post-human, we're going to have to do it together.

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    Even just therapy by phone or SKYPE?

    Would you be willing to talk with me about your experience?  I want stories from the “consumer” point-of view for a professional workshop about the ethics of providing care at a distance. No information will be used without your permission.

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