Scientific Vindication Of Classical Rhetoric Studies

Pain might actually have a pro-social function:

“Our findings show that pain is a particularly powerful ingredient in producing bonding and cooperation between those who share painful experiences,” says psychological scientist and lead researcher Brock Bastian of the University of New South Wales in Australia. “The findings shed light on why camaraderie may develop between soldiers or others who share difficult and painful experiences.”

Students of rhetoric might have already suspected that, however. Pathos, one of the traditional appeals set down by Aristotle, is usually translated as emotional appeal. But ancient Greek was a preliterate language that conserved words by attaching multiple meanings onto them. This helps to explain why arete is such an expansive term. Accordingly, pathos meant both to suffer and to experience. In a small way, this study supports this ancient line of thought.

Some Paradoxes Of Nostalgia

Svetlana Boym has a fascinating article on nostalgia. Here are some choice parts:

The nostalgia that interests me here is not merely an individual sickness but a symptom of our age, an historical emotion.

Nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. Hence the past of nostalgia, to paraphrase William Faulkner, is not even past. It could be merely better time, or slower time—time out of time, not encumbered by appointment books.

Nostalgia, in my view, is not always retrospective; it can be prospective as well. The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future.

Interesting essay throughout.

Saying “If You’re Not Paying, You Are The Product” Is Wrong

This week I heard the phrase that haunts tech policy. You know it. If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. 

Concise? Yes. But wrong.

The product is actually an ad, positioned on the site and tailored for you. Countless weeklies across the US run under a free model and have done so for decades. The New York Times has defrayed the expense of printing by ad supplement since its beginning. And the first newspapers, which popped up in the trading ports of Venice and Amsterdam, helped merchants sell excess to offset expensive parchment.

But it makes sense why the pithy phrase has staying power.

Mull it over again.

If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.

Naturally, we wonder next, wait, am I being violated? It is a tradeoff dripping with ethical accusations. Steven Pinker gives us one way to understand it in “Better Angels of Our Nature,” when he reviews the work of political psychologist Phillip Tetlock:

Tetlock distinguishes three kinds of tradeoffs. Routine tradeoffs are those that fall within a single relational model, such as choosing to be with one friend rather than another, or to purchase one car rather than another. Taboo tradeoffs pit a sacred value in one model against a secular value in another, such as selling out a friend, a loved one, an organ, or oneself for barter or cash. Tragic tradeoffs pit sacred values against each other, as in deciding which of two needy transplant patients should receive an organ, or the ultimate tragic tradeoff, Sophie’s choice between the lives of her two children.

Are we selling a kidney? No, we are giving a small part of our attention for an ad that won’t be remembered 60 percent of the time. Advertising ethically can be done, as Derek Powazek, who helped to build Technorati, points out:

There are ways to do [ad supported media] while still maintaining respect for the consumers. We’ve been doing it for years.

Saying that you are the product if you aren’t paying for it, disintegrates under just a minimum of scrutiny. It’s time to get rid of that phrase.

The Problem with Technological / Cultural Determinism

Alex Parrish begins “Adaptive Rhetoric: Evolution, Culture, and the Art of Persuasion” by recalling a story about one reaction to his book, and in doing so, helps to explain the problem of the technological/cultural determinism debate:

When I first began outlining this book, I explained to one of my colleagues what I wanted to do. I told him that I would be exploring the ways we can examine the influence of both biology and culture on the art of persuasion. After running through most of my stock examples demonstrating biology and culture cooperating or competing to guide human action, telling him about some of the intriguing work being done in the fields of ethology and evolutionary cognitive psychology, and referring some of the more popular ‘big idea’ books on the interplay between genes and culture, my fellow student thought for a moments and then, with a look of concerned semirevulsion on his face, replied, “Wow. Biological reductionism. That’s gonna be a hard sell!”

Whether it is fundamental part of the human nature to divide issues in half and only allow for one of those halves to be valid, good , or moral, this seems to be one of the tricks our brains use to navigate the world of idea. We also use this method of bifurcating topics to bring other around to our ways of thinking. The rhetorical term for this is dialysis: the presentation of an either/or figure to lead an audience to a certain conclusion (and in the case of biology and culture, it is also a false dilemma)

Parrish is right. The either/or presentation of culture and biology leads us to believe that one must take precedent in guiding behavior. The same kind of criticism can be heaped on the technological/cultural determinist deabate. Instead, a more robust conceptual way to approach technology is provided by Ian Hutchby’s “Technologies, Texts and Affordances”:

This involves seeing technologies neither in terms of their “interpretive textual” properties nor of their essential technical properties, but in terms of their affordances. I will argue that affordances are functional and relations aspects which frame, while not determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object. (Page 444)

I have a number of work projects that will be finished in the coming weeks, so I hope to explore the topic of affordances soon.

With Technology, the Past is No Longer a Foreign Country

Novelist L. P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Ironically, we may no longer live in his world:

This omnipresence of the past has weird effects on contemporary culture. Take any genre of music, from death metal to R&B to chillwave, and the cloud directs you not just to similar artists in the present but to deep wells of influence from the past. Yes, people still like new things. But the past gets as much preference as the present—Mozart, for example, has more than 100,000 followers on Spotify. In a history glut, the idea of fashionability in music erodes, because new songs sit on the same shelf as songs recorded five, 25, and 55 years ago, all of them waiting to be discovered. In this eternal present, everything can be made contemporary.

Perhaps the biggest result of the history glut is that managing all that history becomes the crucial act, both commercially and intellectually. Wikipedia is cataloging history, but to do so it needs to keep up an epic accounting of its own history—the billion-plus edits, each a record of human activity, that have built the encyclopedia over the years. Companies like Spotify and Netflix are mining the past as they host it, looking at their own enormous usage logs and analyzing that data to draw connections between types of people and types of music.

There’s an irony here: All of the data we’re collecting, all of the data points and metadata, is history itself. Much as we marvel at Babylonian clay tablets listing measures of grain, future generations will find just as much meaning in our log files as they will in the media we consume. Sure, Frank Sinatra sang a bunch of songs; sure, Jennifer Lawrence was a big star in 2014. But the log files tell you who listened, and when, and where they were on the planet. It’s these massive digital archives—and the records that show how we used them—that will be the defining historical objects of our era.

Famous Psychological Experiment Has Serious Flaws

As you might recall, the Stanford Prison Experiment pitted several student against each other as randomly chosen prison guards or prisoners. The end result was quite gruesome. Guards enforced authoritarian measures and even inflicted psychological torture on the prisoners. The experiment is a classic note in psychology texts and has often been used to explain the Nazis, Abu Ghraib, and other forms of inhumane practices.

Apparently, there are serious flaws with the study. This post at the British Psychological Society details some of the issues:

The SPE was criticised back in the 70s, but that criticism has noticeably escalated and widened in recent years. New details to emerge show that Zimbardo played a key role in encouraging his “guards” to behave in tyrannical fashion. Critics have pointed out that only one third of guards behaved sadistically (this argues against the overwhelming power of the situation). Question marks have also been raised about the self-selection of particular personality types into the study. Moreover, in 2002, the social psychologists Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam conducted the BBC Prison Study to test the conventional interpretation of the SPE. The researchers deliberately avoided directing their participants as Zimbardo had his, and this time it was the prisoners who initially formed a strong group identity and overthrew the guards.

Given that the SPE has been used to explain modern-day atrocities, such as at Abu Ghraib, and given that nearly two million students are enrolled in introductory psychology courses in the US, Richard Griggs, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, says “it is especially important that coverage of it in our texts be accurate.”

The Multistakeholder Meeting Illuminates Various Problems of Objectivity

At the NTIA Multistakeholder Meeting this week, it was suggested that all those studies submitted and funded by an outside source be disclosed. Later, when the issue of objectivity came up again, it was suggested that the group should rely on professors to provide objective views.  While I am for disclosure in practice and not necessarily against the academy, both of the suggestions belie a flawed, but pervasive, vision on the connection between objectivity and research.

Sure, corporate funded research has lead to foibles in the past, but there is nothing to suggest the mere connection to a company delegitimizes it; nor are researchers swayed by the intentions of the companies they work with, despite what some of the most vociferous commenters might say. The reason why an individual would engage in research or advocacy of this sort is because their interests are aligned beforehand. Furthermore, companies are able to give researchers the kinds of technical and financial resources that cannot be found in the academy. Corporate labs like Bells Labs, PARC, and from an even earlier time, Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park helped to invent and bring to market the carbon microphone, the lightbulb, the transistor, the laser, the personal computer, the laser printer, Ethernet, and the graphical user interface, just to name a few. Each of these were hugely expensive inventions that might not have been pursued had it not been for the freedom of their arrangement.

Moreover, scientific work is not value-free. As the Nobel Prize winning economist Gunnar Myrdal pointed out,

There is an inescapable a priori element in all scientific work. Questions must be asked before answers can be given. The questions are an expression of our interest in the world, they are at bottom valuations.

The values of a person will affect the range of problems that they are willing to analyze, as well as the choice of variables to be included, which in turn determines the grounds on which a study will be judged. This helps to explain why objectivity in research of society and business is more complex than physics or biology. These features, however, are not magically down away with when you get funded by the National Science Foundation.

Even the NSF funded work is not foolproof. Just last week, the blog Neurobonkers posted a lecture by Prof. Dorothy Bishop, a highly respect professor of developmental neuropsychology, who detailed how brain scans and other typical neuroscientific methods attaches gavitas to hypotheses that are just wrong. As she went on to explain, studies like this are rife in her field. In other words, people love to believe a wrong conclusion back up by “neuroscience,” especially when graphs and charts seem scientific but can hardly be deciphered.

All of this is to say that funding sources do not necessarily separate out the objective from the subjective.

Privacy policy is especially troublesome, but for other reasons related to objectivity. Most of the research that is trotted out in favor of stricter privacy regulations comes from polling data. However, a poll does not actually express risk, but the public’s perception of it. There is a fundamental disconnect then between actual harm and the perception of harm.

In a classic study on the concept of risk, participants were first asked to consider two causes of death and then estimate the rate of each and ratios between the two. When compared against recent statistics, the estimations were off by factors. Participants said that both disease and accidents were about as likely to cause death even though death by disease is 18 times more frequent. Strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined, but 80% of respondents judged accidental death to be more likely. Tornados were seen as more likely to kill than asthma, even though the latter causes 20 times more deaths.

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel prize for his work on the subject, later said,

The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.

This is why during the Multistakeholder Meeting my colleague Berin Szoka asked that we rely upon experimental data and not polling data. He is correct in wanting a level headed approach because there is a lot of hyperbole effectively swaying the range of debate. He hopes, as well as I do, that calmer voices will prevail in the debate because there are tradeoffs inherent in restricting the use of personal data in the name of privacy.

The Conflict of Visions Does Not Align Well With Parties

Charles Murray’s review of Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles” begins:

One mark of a great book is a thesis so powerful that after a few years people take it for granted. Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions (1987) is such a book. Its thesis: The policy arguments between liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, do not arise just from differences in priorities regarding freedom, equality, and security. At root, they draw from different conceptions of the nature of man. The Left holds an unconstrained vision: Given the right political and economic arrangements, human beings can be improved, even perfected. Success is defined by what people have the potential of becoming, not by people as they are. The Right holds a constrained vision: People come to society with innate characteristics that cannot be reshaped and must instead be accommodated. Success in political and economic policy must be defined in light of those innate characteristics.

While I tend to think Sowell’s thesis explains a lot for the libertarian/non-libertarian divide, it is not so clear that the left/right divide aligns as well. Both parties use the government to enact their preferred area of concern. It just happens that the traditional Right tends to concern itself with social issues while the Left does so with economic ones.

A Great Paragraph from Henry Jenkins

From this article:

History teaches us that old media never die. And before you say, “What about the eight-track,” let’s distinguish among media, genres and delivery technologies. Recorded sound is a  medium. Radio drama is a genre. CDs, MP3 files and eight-track cassettes are delivery technologies. Genres and delivery technologies come and go, but media persist as layers within an ever more complicated information and entertainment system. A medium’s content may shift, its audience may change and its social status may rise or fall, but once a medium establishes itself it continues to be part of the media ecosystem. No one medium is going to “win” the battle for our ears and eyeballs.