Ian Fleming’s fictional hero James Bond was never shaken, but he was stirred into action if he discovered he was being followed. If you are an active participant in the social media world, like Bond, you too may soon have an unwelcome follower. The infiltration won’t be a henchman such as Odd Job in Goldfinger or Dr. No from the inaugural 007 film of the same name. Instead your latest followers on Twitter may be on the payroll of the United States Government. That was the plan suggested in a paper co-authored by the White House’s Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Professor Cass Sunstein. http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/inforeg_administrator/
As I was considering the implications of professor Sunstein’s 2008 academic paper (John Wiley & Sons ~ Journal of Political Philosophy) titled Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures, something quite strange struck me. I had the distinct feeling that Professor Sunstein’s list of ways to deal with much of the independent thought displayed on the social web may potentially backfire. Then I thought that I should make this post as quickly as possible considering the list of suggestions outlined under Professor Sunstein’s self-described plan of “cognitive infiltration.”
- Government might undertake tactics for breaking up the tight cognitive clusters of extremist theories.
- Government agents might enter chat rooms, online social networks, even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, casual logic or implications for political action.
If you have read much of my blog at TradeWithDave.com, you know that I am fascinated by concepts such as quantum mechanics, the impact of our personal choices on our lives and those around us, and our role as both observers and the observed. From a personal point of view, I believe these concepts support my personal belief and faith that we were made in God’s image with the unique power to choose. No doubt that President Obama’s choice for Administrator of the OIRA is highly intelligent and well respected in both academic and political circles. According to ForeignPolicy.com, Professor Sunstein (#7) and his wife Samantha Power (#80) are the only married couple to be named individually to this year’s Global Thinkers list. I was curious to know if my conclusion was the same as Professor Sunstein that his idea would actually destabilize the current government regime in the United States. Let me tell you why.
In my opinion, like all fields of study being a behavioral economist, has its shortcomings. Being able to predict and anticipate how people will respond is of great value in the business world. Whether you’re performing the Coke/Pepsi taste challenge, or running a focus group for the Apple Ipad name selection process, behavioral economics is big business, but there is a slight problem. When you observe people it has an effect on their behavior. No matter how much the observer may try to isolate their influence, scientifically there is no way to avoid affecting outcomes. If Sean Connery is administering the Pepsi challenge he will get slightly different results from a Roger Moore led test. Our impact, however slight, on outcomes is unavoidable.
This Call May Be Recorded For Quality Assurance
In the town where I live, they have red light cameras and as you approach the downtown area, there are signs clearly warning drivers of the presence of these cameras. Throughout our days we are continually warned that our activities are being observed. Why do we choose to use Gmail or drive through a town with red light cameras when we know that our actions will be observed and stored indefinitely along with every email, phone call and text message we have ever sent? Jeremy Bentham designed the proposal for the first panopticon prison. The design allowed for the inspector to see each of the prisoners at all times without being seen. This allowed for a utilitarian approach of very few guards in proportion to very many prisoners. Equally as important as the economic efficiency of the guard to prisoner ratio was the fact that the prisoners could not tell when they were being actively observed. Based on Bentham’s ingenious design, prisoners have no way of knowing if they were not being observed at all, because they could not see the observer. According to Bentham’s philosophy, in the mind of the prisoner they are always being observed and they act accordingly. Like many drugs that treat the sympton, this utilitarian solution based on behavioral economics also has unwanted side effects. The proposed initiative (i.e. cognitive infiltration) is designed to expose more truth and less “crippling” from erroneous theories formed within social groups both on the web and in your living room. The eventual side effects on the observer of being observed are not only a problem for the government, but also a big problem for Google and its $500 plus stock price.
Diminishing Returns is the Law in Economics
Once we enter what James Cascio called the “participatory panopticon” and the permanent record of our actions are stored away in the prison of social media archives such as Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, WordPress and the like, diminishing returns come into play. The ability of behavioral economists to accurately profile users and anticipate their actions declines proportionately to the increasing awareness of the observer in the life of the observed. If a young man is being administered the Pepsi Challenge by a young lady that he finds attractive and he modifies his answer to the one that he believes will be more likely to impress her, then that is considered a lie by behavioral scientists. Thus is life in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.
We learn from Queens University Professor, David Lyons, author of Theorizing Surveillance: the Panopticon and Beyond, once we start monitoring an individual’s behavior that behavior gradually becomes disingenuous and less predictable. Individuals who would never consider speaking an untruth will lie without hesitation when they discover that they are being observed against their wishes. Duke University professor Timur Kuran in his book, Private Truths, Public Lies, shows how individuals modify their choices and opinions based on what appears socially acceptable. He argues that our willingness to hide our true feelings in exchange for being socially acceptable has huge consequences, particularly in the realm of the build up prior to social unrest and political revolution. Kuran labels this phenomenon “preference falsification” and it is particularly relevant in light of the explosive popularity of social media.
Well known French philosopher Michel Foucault said, “visibility is a trap. It is through this visibility that modern society exercises its controlling system of power and knowledge.” I would agree with Monsieur Foucault’s claim if not for one thing. He is assuming that wherever the body is trapped, in this example Blenheim’s panoptic prison architecture, that within that same prison also trapped is the soul. That is probably a question better suited for Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi or even John the Baptist who lost his head in prison, rather than Mr. Foucault or me.
Foucault’s conclusion is that the observed effectively polices himself because the observed never knows when he is being watched, so he basically acts if he is being watched all the time. It’s the equivalent of not yelling “BOMB!” when on a crowded airplane. Everyone understands the ramifications of being observed. When I consider Professor Sunstein’s suggestion for cognitive infiltration of the social web, I see this as much more of a prison for those who perform the “gazing upon” rather than those who are visible to the observers. For you see, the gaze is with the eye that can take in everything that it can see, but no more. Whether the gaze is as harsh as that of a real life prison guard, or as subtle as social media database profiling, it is still observation and has consequences.
Just as the TSA inspector at the airport goes through your bags and scans your body, does he have any idea what’s on your mind? The one thing that the eye cannot interpret of the observed is that which is occurring within the heart and mind of the observed. Therefore it is those that are participating in cognitive infiltration and their masters who will find themselves trapped within the tower in the center of their own panopticon. With only their database to comfort them as they stare at their profiling x-ray screens scrutinizing the life luggage of others who are heading off into new frontiers. Their own lives and the lives of their handlers diminish with each passing suitcase of information. They may scan the web tracks, but never the mind and its power to choose between good or evil. They can only look back in history and apply their algorithms while even the most powerful software is yet to predict the future.
If you study revolutions and revolutionaries what you will discover is that the monitoring (i. e. cognitive infiltration) actually results in the opposite of the intended effect. The observed begin to exhibit traits of disinformation rather than information. Not only does this devalue the quality of the information and its ability to predict future performance based on past result, in the case of revolutions and revolutionaries it actually creates a false sense of security on the part of the observers charged with maintaining security. Those doing the monitoring would be led to believe simply that “nothing is up.” This only increases the chances of an unexpected attack, revolution or other disruptive insurgency.
Disinformation and counterintelligence are nothing new and although George Orwell’s classic social science fiction novel Nineteen Eighty-Four introduced us to the concept of Big Brother watching over us, it’s purpose was to serve as a “show-up of the perversions.” Orwell closely predicted today’s internet with his telescreen and the panopticon prison that it created within the community. How different is today than the Orwellian prophesy under the cognitive infiltration plan when our essential conveniences of email, facebook, twitter, texting and search are actively infiltrated as Professor Sunstein clearly proposes?
“Don’t Start the Revolution Without Me!”
Jesse Ventura – Former Governor of Minnesota, Professional Wrestler and TV Host of “Conspiracy Theory”
Professor Kuran outlines in his book “Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolutions” a series of examples of revolutions that arose with shockingly fast speed and very little anticipation. Kuran suggests that revolutions will continue to catch political leaders with their pants down due to people’s willingness to conceal their true beliefs under public pressures such as those found in today’s social media. In their jointly authored article “Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation”, Professors Sunstein and Kuran suggest several measures the government implement in an effort to manage public opinion and avoid these types of unexpected revolutions.
In my opinion, these cascades are essentially what occur when the dam breaks from a build up of preference falsification. Professors Sunstein and Kuran describe the activists that attempt to capitalize on these swells and use them to drive the public discourse as “availability entrepreneurs.” In the Stanford Law Review publication of the article, the authors suggest a series of ways that the government can suppress any potential harm that may be caused by quick shifts in public perception that could trigger unanticipated actions. The co-author’s suggestions listed below would seem to be designed to minimize the influence that one person’s outspoken opinions might have on the formation of another person’s beliefs.
- Creation of new institutions to give policy makers better insulation against sudden mass demands for new market restrictions.
- Implementation of product disparagement laws and the creation of an easily accessible scientific database to reduce people’s dependence on popular perceptions for information on risks whose accurate measurement requires advanced scientific techniques.
So what happens based on the research of Professors Lyon and Kuran and the proposal of Professor Sunstein that we monitor groups that engage in conspiracy theory propoganda? The answer is obvious in my opinion. The observed will modify their behavior in such a way as to make their surveillance data of little or no value. From a security or intelligence standpoint, the unwarranted observation (in absence of probable cause) could even potentially reduce national security since the observation of web-based social media is essentially panoptic ~ ever-present for everyone. In the same way that prisoners in the panoptic designed prisons develop sophisticated techniques for communication and apply continuous pressure to the efficiencies of the few-observing-many model, the same could be said of the internet. Rather than set up a government agency to handle the monitoring, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs could simply run an advertising campaign suggesting the people call in to a tip line if they run across anything on the internet that appears to be theoretical conspiracy based on potentially “crippled epistemology.”
As people realize that they are being monitored, the personal behavioral data currently being monetized and leveraged back against their freedom of choice will continue to diminish in accuracy and value. To address the problem of diminishing returns, in yet another recent book titled Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein introduce the concept of “choice architects.” According to the authors, these designers know what is best for you just like your parents did when you were a child. They label political orientation as “libertarian paternalism.” It is fundamentally when someone else knows what is best for you whether you like it or not. It may pertain to your health care choices, or in the case of one of Professor Sunstein’s proposals, the rightful ownership of your vital organs regardless of whether you have opted in as an organ donor or not.
What will happen to the value of the behavioral economics data from the cognitive infiltration and also to the stock price of behavioral advertising optimization tools such as Google’s relevant search? It has the potential of evaporating just like the $30 billion worth of frequent flier miles that will disappear this year for people who either don’t know of, or consciously don’t choose to, follow the rules. Many Americans place a high value on their life, liberty and pursuits. When the cost of surveillance exceeds the benefit (air travel included), they will abandon the value proposition and find another solution, even if it means starting another nation from scratch or replacing the entire governmental regime – lock, stock and barrel. Does nation building or revolution sound like an extreme response?
This is cause for concern in both Cary, North Carolina, home of SAS Analytics recently named as Fortune’s #1 slot as America’s Best Place To Work as we all Mountain Valley California, Google’s hometown. What’s a big brother to do when doing evil isn’t an option? In light of Sunstein’s suggestion of cognitive infiltration, then let’s apply the concept to our knowledge that everything we do and say on the internet and in social media context is being saved or recorded, and takes the form of a permanent web footprint. Under this scheme, the government is monitoring someone to see if that individual is a conspiracy theorist, revolutionary, insurgent or just a crippled epistemologist (not a well-rounded/well-informed learner) as described by Professor Sunstein.
Introducing Google Social Search
From Google’s Site: Google Social Search is a feature designed to help you discover relevant publicly-accessible content from your social circle, a set of online friends and contacts. The idea is that content from your friends and social contacts is often more relevant to you than content from strangers. For example, a movie review from an expert is useful, but a movie review from your best friend can be even better.
What are the implications to social search if your social circle happens to be tea party revolutionaries or members of the militia of the several states? If the observer-expectancy effect (i.e. Rosenthal Effect) is real and the government is monitoring you because it fears that you may be conspiring theoretically, would it not be the case that through spying on you the government is essentially nudging you towards revolution? If so, wouldn’t the action of spying on you be technologically driven treason from within? Is it possible that the ultimate conspiracy theory of them all is that the government is trying to overthrow itself?
To make things worse, if the goal of the government was to improve security, wouldn’t the exact opposite be the case? Wouldn’t guarding against investigations in absence of probable cause be crucial to maintaining security? If it is true, what Professor Kuran has shown, is that in recording someone’s behavior the observer causes the observed to modify that behavior. If the U.S. Government follows Professor Sunstein’s outline of how to infiltrate social media groups and this causes the group’s participants to modify their behavior, then how is someone hired for cognitive infiltration supposed to deliver on their mission if that mission is to protect and defend. If a more secure nation is the goal, then what’s a spy to do? An even tougher question for Google is; what’s a spy to do if the spy’s mission statement is “DON’T BE EVIL?” The Washington Post article of February 4th discusses the relationship between Google and the NSA.
The research says, if people are considering revolution, but they think they may be monitored, they will modify behavior to avoid detection(essentially exhibiting disinformation). What happens under such a scenario is revolutionary tendencies build up and boil over in unanticipated and unexpected ways with very little warning. Professor Kuran’s book shows several examples of these surprise revolutions. You go from a situation where everything appears fine on the surface to some strange tipping point where within a couple of days an entire country is engulfed in riots and mayhem that no one was expecting. There are more benign scenarios where suddenly a huge percentage of the population refuses to pay their taxes for example or show up on street corners holding up protest signs by the millions or they vote out the entire sitting government and the two-party system.
To me what is most interesting about Professor Sunstein’s recommendations for cognitive infiltration is the irony of it. He is suggesting that we sell out on the liberty guaranteed in the constitution in exchange for security, only to find out that by focusing on possible security risks (think future crimes and Tom Cruise in the movie Minority Report), we actually decrease our security. This is all brought about by the process of observing We the People with preconceived ideas or fears about our theories. In a failed attempt by the government to guide or nudge our choices with “choice architects” or to arbitrate like a court what would be considered a reasonable level of education on a topic (i. e. anti-crippled epistemology) rather than allowing individuals to merely engage in their own level of free thought. It’s the moral menu equivalent of requiring every person to use the government’s food pyramid before partaking of their next meal.
A Chicken in Every Pot and a Court Summons In Every Mailbox
Truett Cathy, the founder of Chic-fil-A has always said, he didn’t invent the chicken, just the chicken sandwich. Professor Sunstein can’t claim inventing the chicken sandwich either, but he did invent the idea of being sued by your chicken-sandwich.
“We could even grant animals a right to bring suit without insisting that animals are persons, or that they are not property. A state could certainly confer rights on a pristine area, or a painting, and allow people to bring suit on its behalf, without therefore saying that that area and that painting may not be owned. It might, in these circumstances, seem puzzling that so many people are focusing on the question of whether animals are property. We could retain the idea of property but also give animals far more protection against injury or neglect of their interests.”
–Cass R. Sunstein, Martha C. Nussbaum. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004). P. 11
After watching the video The Meatrix (www.themeatrix.com) you might tend to agree with Professor Sunstein’s suggestion about an animal’s injury or neglect. Although I can’t say that I can imagine how an animal would ever possess an interest as Professor Sunstein claims. Then again you could choose to un-cripple your epistemology (also known as wake up and inform yourself) and find out whose food you are eating and how they run their business. You may even choose to cut down on your consumption of animal products and choose more fruits and vegetables without guidance from the Supreme Court, the USDA or the FDA. I know my dog has a strong case against me for not being willing to throw him a Frisbee more than fifteen minutes per day, or the fact that I discriminate by not throwing it in the rain thereby denying him exercise. As a well-bred male Portuguese water dog, his stud fee is $1,000. He could certainly afford his own attorney.
We can rely on the government to protect us from ourselves, or we can rely on one of my favorite lines from the movie Ghost Town. Ricky Gervais plays the socially awkward dentist Dr. Bertram Pincus. Dr. Pincus can be heard calling out to his patients as they leave his office; “Just floss the ones you want to keep!” He was simply reminding them of their personal responsibility for their own dental care, a pleasing appearance, and the reality that a complete smile is composed of individual teeth that the owner can choose to floss selectively. I guess the same goes for our elected officials. Just vote for the ones you want to keep.
I probably would not have even written the above paragraph if I had agreed with Professor Sunstein’s proposal for mandatory “electronic sidewalks” for the internet. These sidewalks would display links to opposing viewpoints and also would require a 24-hour cooling off period for angry emails. Thankfully he rethought his original proposal and later on acknowledged it was “almost certainly unconstitutional.” To me it sounded like the equivalent of the opposing party’s response following a State of the Union address, but this time it was for every email.
I just went ahead and wrote down what I was thinking and posted it to my website. If I have offended anyone, I would suggest they stop reading and not come back because it could get worse. As Professor Sunstein suggests, I agree that certain aspects of my epistemology are crippled since I went to UPenn and not Harvard, but thankfully I can still type ninety words per minute and WordPress made it easy for me to blog without tech support and still get this posted in time to shovel snow before dark.
What does all this cognitive infiltration mean for Google, especially in light of social search? The team in Mountain View had long since organized, monetized and handed over our extremist information to the advertising industry, prior to Professor Sunstein’s published article. From the perspective of behavioral economics, it means that the law of diminishing returns applies to Google as well. Google may be capable of competing in the office automation, wireless phone, tablet computer, or telecom markets with products such as Google Voice and Docs. Google’s evolution into social search along with the introduction of feedback loops such as www.vark.com were central to my decision to launch this blog and to become the observed rather than the observer as I outlined in my early posts. If you want to predict the future of Google’s stock price, you need to remember that the great breakthrough technology that forged their value proposition was based on the power of relevant search. They were the first, the best and it shows in their stock price and is particularly evident when contrasted with all of the bankruptcies in the daily newspaper industry. Relevant search is quite a different animal than automatically routed social feedback loops as the folks at The Mechanical Zoo in San Francisco are showing with their powerful routing and feedback solution known as Aardvark.
Will Google somehow be able to leverage their leadership in relevant search to be the best in mobile phone, email, office automation, and social media search? Google has the catbird seat and is able to observe most of us and follow our conversations more quickly and accurately than the White House Administrator of the Office of Information & Regulatory Affairs. That position as observer would seem to give Google a head start on innovation? We all know the fable about the tortoise and the hare. If you agree with Professor Lyons, then you would reach the conclusion that Google’s cognitive infiltration will gradually diminish into a liability. As humans realize they are being observed, their behavior changes in the same way that a light particle becomes a wave and vice versa. Therefore Google will become the first and earliest recipient of the corrupted data fed to them through the increasingly clogged filter of behavioral economics.
You see, if you deconstruct behavioral economics, it is essentially based on the patterns of human behavior based on the perceptions of scarce resources and their allocation and distribution within society. The fundamental problem with the field of study is that it does not recognize the limitless potential of the human mind to not only outsmart Google and the OIRA, but to overthrow entire paradigms in the process through its power of choice. President Obama should consider thoughtfully how he pursues the current holy grail of national security. If not, any plan may be overshadowed by a tree called liberty.
Then again, if “change” is what you’re looking for, transforming the social web into an insurgency by spying on citizens will require ever-complex and sophisticated “choice architects” as described by Professor Sunstein. Participants in the social media may be faced with the ultimate survey question of all; selecting between initiating a new movement or being nudged along with the masses.
If you believe in the observer-expectancy effect, then you would conclude that Professor Sunstein’s proposal to infiltrate conspiracy groups is because they are a threat to our nation. Can it not be argued that from the perspective of national security, the outcome will actually be the opposite of Sunstein’s stated goal? It’s quite simple. If you spy on people, everyone for that matter, because you believe they may be extremists or revolutionaries, the laws of quantum mechanics, economics and human psychology say that you actually transform those you choose to observe into the revolutionaries you feared.
One of Those Unexpected Endings
Therefore, the conclusion is that if you want to witness the overthrow of a standing government, then one surefire way to nudge the citizenry towards insurgency is to spy on them without cause. As far as Google is concerned, they may be an unwilling participant as their commercial aspirations and innovations become a tool of the government’s nudge of the citizenry to their breaking points http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90ELleCQvew.
If you believed that your country needed a complete overhaul and remodeling of it’s Constitution and you were in the seat of power, the only safe way to deliver on that revolution would be to manipulate the citizenry. The idea would be to structure it in such a way as that the citizenry overturn their own Constitution all the while believing it was their own idea. I must admit I wasn’t the person who came up with the idea. You probably recognize this totalitarian leader’s quote.
“The best way to control opposition is to lead it ourselves.” Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
When you consider the implications of Professor Sunstein’s work, the natural extension of it would be for the hosts of social media sites and blogs to be liable for the content of their sites if it did not fit within the acceptable framework of the administration’s Choice Architects. Imagine Blogger.com being held liable for the theories of its writers. I couldn’t help but consider why Ian Flemming’s James Bond film franchise is the most successful in the history of motion pictures. Although 007 had the substantial support of the United Kingdom’s Crown behind him, not to mention his quartermaster “Q”, essentially Bond worked alone. I think I know why.
For links to all things Sunstein: http://tradewithdave.com/?s=sunstein