News — At The Edge — 8/24

Civilization is in a unique historical epoch — limits on speech, mis/dis- information, evolution, decision-making — and surviving it will be an epoch challenge.


“Last year 25 governments imposed internet blackouts…[that] infuriates people and kneecaps economies…[but] autocrats think it worthwhile…to stop information from circulating during a crisis…prevent protesters from organizing…rig an election in the dark; and…to stay in power….

Free speech is hard won and easily lost….

Freedom House, a watchdog, free speech has declined globally over the past decade…[so] 28% have tightened the muzzle…14% have loosened it…..There are two main reasons….

  • First, ruling parties in many countries have found new tools for suppressing awkward facts and ideas.
  • Second, they feel emboldened to use such tools, partly because global support for free speech has faltered. Neither of the world’s superpowers is likely to stand up for it….

[Trump] words contribute to a global climate of contempt for independent journalism…[so] authoritarians elsewhere…cite Mr. Trump’s catchphrases, calling critical reporting ‘fake news’ and critical journalists ‘enemies of the people’….

The notion that certain views should be silenced is popular….At least 53 journalists were killed on the job in 2018…[and] more than 250 journalists in jail for their work: at least 68 in Turkey, 47 in China, 25 in Egypt and 16 in Eritrea. The true number is surely higher, since many journalists are held without charge or publicity….

Pakistan, when military officers ring up editors to complain about coverage, the editors typically buckle….In India journalists who criticize the ruling…Party receive torrents of threats on social media…[and] are often ‘doxed’ — pictures of their families are circulated, inviting others to harm them….

As the advertising revenues…dwindle, many governments have found it easier to distort the news…[or] pump it into state media…. China and Russia go further, sponsoring global media outlets that seek to undermine democracy everywhere….In many countries the government is now…biggest advertiser, so newspapers and television stations are terrified of annoying it….[Israel’s] Netanyahu, is accused of promising favorable regulation to a telecoms firm in exchange for positive coverage….‘It’s practically impossible to investigate even the major corruption stories, because there are so many….

Meanwhile, in mature democracies, support for free speech is ebbing, especially among the young…[with] 61% of American students said that their campus climate prevented people from saying what they believe, up from 54% the previous year…37% said it was ‘acceptable’ to shout down speakers they disapproved of to prevent them from being heard, and an incredible 10% approved of using violence to silence them….Some add that anyone who allows offensive speakers a platform is condoning their wicked ideas….

[Many] have started to divide the world simplistically into ‘good’ people (who agree with them) and ‘evil’ people (who don’t)….The habit of trying to silence opposing views, instead of rebutting them, has spread.”

“[Know] humans are wired to respond to emotional triggers and share misinformation if it reinforces existing beliefs and prejudices…[yet] designers of the social platforms…failed to see how technology would not change who we are fundamentally…only map onto existing human characteristics….

[2016] darker forces had emerged: automation, microtargeting and coordination were fueling information campaigns designed to manipulate public opinion at scale….

A complex web of societal shifts is making people more susceptible to misinformation and conspiracy. Trust in institutions is falling because of political and economic upheaval, most notably through ever widening income inequality…migration trends spark concern that communities will change irrevocably…[and] rise of automation makes people fear for their jobs and their privacy.

Bad actors…understand these societal trends, designing content…[to] anger or excite targeted users that the audience will become the messengerand give credibility to that original message….

[Most] content is designed not to persuade…but to cause confusion, to overwhelm and to undermine trust in democratic institutions from the electoral system to journalism….

As tools designed to manipulate and amplify content become cheaper and more accessible, it will be even easier to weaponize users as unwitting agents of disinformation….

[Using] phrase ‘fake news’…politicians around the world…attack a free press…[as] catchall to describe things that are not the same, including lies, rumors, hoaxes, misinformation, conspiracies and propaganda, but it also papers over nuance and complexity….

  1. Purveyors of disinformation — content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm — are motivated by three distinct goals: to make money; to have political influence, either foreign or domestic; and to cause trouble for the sake of it.
  2. Those who spread misinformation — false content shared by a person who does not realize it is false or misleading — are driven by socio-psychological factors….Crucially, disinformation can turn into misinformation when people share disinformation without realizing it is false….
  3. malinformation’ to describe genuine information that is shared with an intent to cause harm….

The most effective disinformation has always been that which has a kernel of truth to it, and indeed most of the content being disseminated now is not fake — it is misleading…reframing genuine content and using hyperbolic headlines…[or] relabeling emotive disinformation as satire so that it will not get picked up by fact-checking processes…

[so] context, rather than content, is being weaponized….

As a result, repetition and familiarity are two of the most effective mechanisms for ingraining misleading narratives, even when viewers have received contextual information explaining why they should know a narrative is not true.

Bad actors know this…[yet] only 15 percent of U.S. journalists had been trained in how to report on misinformation more responsibly. A central challenge now for reporters and fact checkers…is how to untangle and debunk falsehoods…without giving the initial piece of content more oxygen….

This characteristic of implicit logic — a nod and wink to shared knowledge about an event or person — is what makes memes impactful. Enthymemes are rhetorical devices where the argument is made through the absence of the premise or conclusion….This extra work required of the viewer is a persuasive technique because it pulls an individual into the feeling of being connected….[If] poking fun or invoking outrage at the expense of another group, those associations are reinforced even furtherand memes tend to be much more shareable than text. The entire narrative is visible in your feed; there is no need to click….

[So] when people are fearful, oversimplified narratives, conspiratorial explanation, and messages that demonize others become far more effective….

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest play a significant role…because they are designed to be performative in nature. Slowing down to check whether content is true before sharing it is far less compelling than reinforcing to your ‘audience’….

No algorithmic tweak, update to the platforms’ content-moderation guidelines or regulatory fine will alone improve our information ecosystem at the level required….

In a healthy information commons, people would still be free to express what they want — but information that is designed to mislead, incite hatred, reinforce tribalism or cause physical harm would not be amplified by algorithms….

Until this amplification problem is resolved, it is precisely our willingness to share without thinking that agents of disinformation will use as a weapon….[So] online users would be better taught to develop cognitive ‘muscles’ in emotional skepticism and trained to withstand the onslaught of content designed to trigger base fears and prejudices….

[Suggest] that everyone try to buy an advertisement on Facebook at least once…[and] setting up a campaign helps to drive understanding of the granularity of information available…[and] test these ads in environments that allow you to fail privately. These ‘dark ads’ let organizations target posts at certain people, but they do not sit on that organization’s main page. This makes it difficult for researchers or journalists to track what posts are being targeted at different groups of people, which is particularly concerning

Facebook events are another conduit for manipulation….

[Term] ‘astroturfing’…was initially connected to people who wrote fake reviews for products online or tried to make it appear that a fan community was larger than it really was. Now automated campaigns use bots or the sophisticated coordination of passionate supporters and paid trolls, or a combination of both, to make it appear that a person or policy has considerable grassroots support…get picked up by the professional media and direct the amplification to bully specific people or organizations into silence….

[A] first step to fighting back…[is] accepting how vulnerable our society is to manufactured amplification….

Fearmongering will only fuel more conspiracy and…drive down trust in quality-information sources and…democracy.

There are no permanent solutions to weaponized narratives. Instead we need to adapt to this new normal…building resiliency against a disordered information environment.”

“International trade is complicated by the fact that most countries have their own currencies, which move in idiosyncratic ways and can be held down to boost competitiveness…[and] monetary order, which resolve these trade-offs…work until they do not…[e.g.,] America’s economic showdown with China is a system that worked once but no longer does….

The first great age of globalization…began in the late 19th century…built atop the gold standard…. Great Depression, when governments reneged on their monetary commitments….[1944] in Bretton Woods…countries fixed their currencies to the dollar (with some room for adjustment). The buck, in turn, was pegged to gold….1970s, faith in the dollar’s peg to gold waned….

The present system, often described as Bretton Woods II… dollar’s dominance did not end….Emerging-market dollar purchases kept the greenback overvalued and boosted the competitiveness of emerging-market exporters. America began running large, persistent current-account deficits….This flow of money…never looked particularly sustainable….

[In] past decade, investors have clung to the safety of dollar assets….Debt crises have undercut faith in the euro. Confidence in the renminbi’s inevitable rise has been dimmed by China’s slowing growth, and its diminished enthusiasm for reform….

[Current] system looks more vulnerable than ever…[with] Trump’s spiraling trade and currency wars….[Absent] coordinated adjustment to exchange rates and a peaceful end to trade hostilities, the world could stumble into a cycle of competitive devaluations and tariff rises…[and] countries may organize themselves into rival economic blocs. It is hard to imagine…repeating such an ugly era….But not as hard as it [was].”

“Evolutionary reasoning can help us make sense of [science]…[and] give us a hint of what is to come….

  1. evolution is a progression of form and function, but it is not purposeful….[In] biology…if it works, you keep it; if it doesn’t, you get rid of it’…[but] now witnessing the most revolutionary stage of evolution, when we give up evolving by biology alone…[and] tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing…[can] reshape genomes and alter biological form and function…has already begun…[and] raises further questions, the most urgent of which is how to manage collateral changes to the environment….
  2. When massive volcanoes erupted 252 million years ago…a mass extinction event…wiped out 96 percent of all marine life and 70 percent of all vertebrates on land….186 million years later, a giant asteroid hit the Earth…[ending] era of the dinosaurs….Anthropocene’s climate and environment are thought to be predominantly influenced by human activity…[and] may also bring Earth to…a non-linear change…where the effects are not proportionate to the cause….[T]he ocean is expected to contain more plastic than fish by 2050, with untold effects on the fish themselves and the humans who eat them…[plus] new evidence that there could be a slowdown in the ocean’s great conveyor belt that is responsible for moving heat and nutrients on a planetary scale. Rapid urbanization might…dwarf the impacts of climate change and the acidification of our oceans….
  3. It was only from the middle of the 18th century that people came to realize that the future could be different from the past, and that their destiny could lie in their hands…[and] had much to do with science and technology….The more technological innovations we create, the more social innovations we need to accompany them….Advances in our ability to exploit expansive data has brought us into the realm of smart devices and artificial intelligence, but at the same time, has changed our outlook on privacy and security….

[W]e should be careful to avoid hubris — the over-estimation of our capacity and our over-reliance on a single solution…that does not take into consideration the complexity of societal systems…[and] that technology, science and culture must evolve together, and that life will continue to change in unpredictable ways that we cannot entirely control….

[As] only species…able to see evolution…obliges us to reflect on what we are doing…[since] choices that will guide our evolutionary destiny.”

“Intuition can be thought of as insight that arises spontaneously without conscious reasoning….

Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize…for his work on human judgment and decision-making…[says] we have two different thought systems: system 1 is fast and intuitive; system 2 is slower and relies on reasoning.

  • The fast system…is more prone to error…[yet] may increase the chance of survival by enabling us to anticipate serious threats and recognize promising opportunities.
  • [T]he slower thought system, by engaging critical thinking and analysis, is less susceptible to producing bad decisions….

[But] the intuitive system can cloud judgment….When choices are framed in terms of gains, people often become risk-averse, whereas…[choices] framed in terms of losses, people often became more willing to take risks….

[But] people rarely make decisions on the basis of reason alone, especially when the problems faced are complex…[using] a form of unconscious intelligence… grounded in…simple rules of thumb…[to] screen out large amounts of information, thereby limiting how much needs to be processed…[or] what they called the ‘deliberation without attention’ hypothesis….

[Many] highly experienced individuals tend to compare patterns when making decisions…[and] recognize regularities, repetitions and similarities between the information available to them and their past experiences…then imagine how a given situation might play out. This combination enables them to make relevant decisions quickly and competently…[and] too much information can prove detrimental….

[Some] called pattern matching ‘the intuitive part’ and mental simulation ‘the conscious, deliberate and analytical part….

A purely intuitive strategy relying only on pattern matching would be too risky because sometimes the pattern matching generates flawed options. A completely deliberative and analytic strategy would be too slow’….

[So] more upper-level managers tended more toward intuition…[as] a quicker and more automatic process that plumbs the many deep resources of experience and knowledge that people have gathered over the course of their lives…[and] can be trainedhowever, a purely experience-based and a purely emotional approach did not work well….

[So] whether it is better to rely more on rational assessments or intuition depends both on the complexity of a particular problem and on the prior knowledge and cognitive abilities of the person.

Rational decisions are more precise but entail higher costs than intuitive ones — for example…effort spent gathering and then analyzing information….The cost may be worth it if the problem is multifaceted and the decision maker gains a lot of useful information quickly (if the decision maker’s ‘learning curve is steep’)….

One thing is clear: intuition and rationality are not necessarily opposites…[and] advantageous to master both.”

“[This] would allow for real-time sea temperature and marine life monitoring, without requiring regular equipment and power swaps…[and] would even be possible to set up networks of underwater sensors in the seas of distant planets….

[System] uses a transmitter that sends out sound waves underwater, which then hit sensors with embedded receivers, transmitting a tiny amount of energy in the process. The sensor then either uses that energy to answer back — or doesn’t….The only energy required…is the power stored in the sound wave sent by the transmitter….

[Next] show that this can work at longer distances, and in concert with other sensors for simultaneous transmission. Eventually, it might even be able to transmit sound and…low-res images, which would be huge.”

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May you live long and prosper!
Doc Huston

Consultant & Speaker on future nexus of technology-economics-politics, PhD Nested System Evolution, MA Alternative Futures, Patent Holder —