Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Algorithms

Tell Me No Lies

Today, more than ever, individuals are awash in a sea of information that swirls around us, invisible as it is inescapable. And yet, for people who exist solidly within an age of American history defined by our access to, and relationship with, information, we are surprisingly challenged by the overwhelming onslaught of data as we struggle to sort, filter, and conceptualize that which surrounds us. We lament the overbearing influence exerted by algorithms on the Internet on Wall Street (Pariser, 2011; Kaufman Jr. & Levin, 2011) while concurrently expressing concern over technological advances that allow for the manipulation of the genetic code—itself a type of information!—as we foresee a future the portends the elimination of disease while simultaneously raising issues of eugenics and bioethics (Reiss & Straughan, 1996; Lambrecht, 2001). Or, perhaps more frighteningly, we do not comment at all.

Information, in one sense, can then be understood to occupy a place in American culture that is fraught with tension. Concordantly, it may come as no surprise that society also exhibits a complex relationship with news outlets given that the press represents an industry whose primary function revolves around the dissemination of information.[1] Moreover, if we accept what Herbert J. Gans’ calls “bulwark theory” (2010)—the position that an informed populace is a crucial, if not sufficient, component for the operation of a functioning democracy—we see that the institution continues to perform a vital service in spite of its flaws and constraints.

Take, for example, the limitations that arise from the news media’s current reliance on credentialed sources:  while it might make intuitive and economic sense to obtain information directly from organizational spokespeople, the press has evolved in such a way as to become beholden to these establishments for their information, resulting in the ability of corporations, government, and industry to exert a larger measure of control over the narrative (Herman & Chmosky, 1988). Put another way, if we were to understand information flow as a pipeline that stretches between events and the public, certain institutions have managed to create a chokepoint by situating themselves as the sole providers of legitimate and/or official news with regard to a particular matter. Although this situation obviously puts the public and the press at a general disadvantage, this relationship becomes particularly problematic when organizations performing a gatekeeping function decide that withholding information is in the public interest.

In particular, the ongoing “war on terror” provides fertile ground to explore such practices with the government periodically claiming that the release of information may compromise ongoing efforts.[2] While government officials may in fact be correct about the repercussions of making knowledge public, such behavior also elicits a measure of frustration from the public and the press as noted in an editorial authored on October 9, 2011 by public editor Arthur S. Brisbane entitled “The Secrets of Government Killing.”[3]

Sparked by a lack of clarity surrounding the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki on September 30 of this year, Brisbane chastises the contradictory tactics employed by government officials with administrators refusing to provide information publically while simultaneously “leaking” information through anonymous sources. Such a strategy, also employed in areas like celebrity public relations, not only fosters a sentiment that the press has been duped into publicizing and legitimizing the government’s talking points but also prevents individual government officials from being accountable for their actions. Additionally, news media, for their part, cannot lean too heavily on their sources even if they feel an obligation to report on the inner workings of government for they are subject to the “shadow of the future” effect, which essentially posits that current actions facilitate the development of reputation systems and are affected by the anticipated impact that they will have on future interactions (Axelrod, 1984; Resnick, Zeckhauser, Friedman, & Kuwabara, 2000)—in other words, pressing their contacts might inhibit the ability of the press to access future information. This situation, characterized by Brisbane as “awkward,” is potentially detrimental and serves to expose the existent dysfunction in the relationship between the press and the government (2011).

Moreover, whether or not the withholding of information is justified by the government, this sort of behavior undoubtedly serves to breed conspiracy theorists and a general air of distrust regarding the current administration, for it implies that a divide between front stage and backstage knowledge exists.[4] In addition to encouraging feelings of paranoia, this practice also makes the hierarchy of access to privileged information salient, causing the public to become curious about that which is forbidden. A constant tension exists between the government, the press, and the public as the involved parties attempt to ascertain who knows what about whom (Goffman, 1959)—the public may become suspicious that the press is colluding with the government while the government may be trying to stay one step ahead of the press and the public.[5]

Lest we think that this phenomenon is confined to politics, another article from the New York Times articulates how the desire to know inside information is applicable to a wide range of endeavors. In “Inside Knowledge for All You Outsiders,” A. O. Scott notes similar thematic elements in films that range from the political Ides of March to the virulent Contagion and from the investment banking of Margin Call to the baseball statistics of Moneyball, all of which spoke to an exploration of inside knowledge in some manner (2011).[6] These forms of entertainment, Scott argues, hold an appeal for audiences in part because they afford us the sense that we are breaking through the insular barrier of professionals and finally allowed to join in on the conversations taking place behind closed doors (Scott, 2011; Didion, 1988).[7] For Goffman, possessing a more complete picture of the situation (i.e., a “working consensus”) allows one to better dictate the nature of the interaction and leads to more desirable outcomes, particularly when we are trying to manage our images and reputations.

And the increased facility with image management is an important point to consider when framing our heightened awareness of the relationship between news sources, news outlets, and the public; perhaps our increased sensitivity hasn’t come about solely through violations of the public’s trust but also because we are also increasingly engaged in deceptive practices that revolve around the manipulation of knowledge. Using the popularity of social media as a pertinent example, we might engage in small deceptions on our online profiles as we attempt to lessen the rejection that we so desperately seek to avoid in real life or we might alter a personal characteristic in order to test the waters of a new identity in an environment that dampens anxiety and judgment. Here, in a fashion, we have assumed the role of those we would protest against—the news sources.[8] The question, then, is how our personal experiences in these endeavors might impact our attitudes regarding the news industry. Has the more digestible system of information management present on social networks helped us to become more aware of the implications of information flow, more blasé, or both?

Technological innovations like social media have allowed us, as individuals, to connect over vast differences and afforded us many opportunities that we might not otherwise have; yet, in some ways, it has also left us disconnected from the things that (arguably) matter the most. However, before we begin blaming our societal woes on technology, we should consider how negotiating these new forms of social relations represent but one factor in a complex network of behaviors that help to account for the manifestation and reinforcement of the industry/press/public phenomenon outlined earlier.

For example, perhaps this development is not so surprising if we consider the increasing commodification of knowledge in postmodern culture. If we ascribe to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s argument regarding the closely intertwined relationship between knowledge and production in late 20th century society—specifically that the cultivation of new knowledge in order to further production—and therefore that information sets are a means to an end and not an end in and of themselves, we witness a startling change in the relationship between society and knowledge (1979). In opposition to the idealistic pursuit of knowledge for its own sake that occurred during the Enlightenment period, modern perspectives seem to understand knowledge in terms of leverage—in other words, we, like all good consumers, perennially ask the question, “What can you do for me?” Notably, this cultural shift does not disavow the value of knowledge but does change how such worth is determined and classified.

Lyotard’s ideas also hold resonance for modern culture as he acknowledges the danger posed by the (then) newly-formed entity of the multinational corporation as a body that could potentially supersede or subvert the authority of the nation-state (1979). Although we might be inclined to focus on the mechanisms by which institutions like the government, military, or finance, control and regulate knowledge, businesses like Facebook and Google also deserve attention as entities that accumulate enormous amounts of information (often with our willing, if unwitting, participation) and therefore amass incredible power, with the genius of these organizations residing in their ability to facilitate access to our own information! Without judging such companies—although some assuredly do—we can readily glimpse similarities between these establishments’ penchant for controlling the dissemination of information and the practices of government officials outlined earlier in this article. In spite of the current fervor surrounding the defense of rights outlined in the Constitution, we largely continue to ignore how companies like Google and Facebook have also gained the potential to impact concepts like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of information; algorithms designed to act as filters allow us to cut through the noise but also severely reduce our ability to conceptualize what is missing. These potential problems underscore the need to revisit Francis Bacon’s assertion that knowledge is power—power, in some ways, no longer solely resides in knowledge but increasingly in access to it.


[1] Of course, this should not suggest that the only function of the press is to inform the public as one might argue that the very act of information exchange helps to support the development of community. For a counterpoint that features the positive results of this process and its perversion by the mass media, see Jürgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

[2] For more information about the Supreme Court case that established such precedent, see United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953).

[3] From the New York Times website: “Arthur S. Brisbane is the fourth public editor appointed by The Times. The public editor works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about articles published in the paper.  His opinions and conclusions are his own.” (The New York Times, 2010).

[4] Here I refer to the terms as used by Erving Goffman.

[5] Adapted from my reading response for August 30.

[6] This is, of course, in addition to the perennial popularity of procedural shows on television that explore the inner workings of police forces, hospitals and/or medical professionals, and the judicial system. A recent trend in reality television has also endeavored to showcase niche occupations (and the lives of) truckers, loggers, crabbers, innkeepers, and gold prospectors—I suspect that, to some degree, these docu-soaps attempt to capitalize on the same impulses as their mainstream network counterparts.

[7] See also Herbert J. Gans’ “News and the News Media in the Digital Age:  Implications for Democracy.”

[8] Although it should be noted that after the 2008 election campaigns presidential hopefuls seem to be embracing this technology to a greater degree and such actions are surely part of a particular candidate’s image management plan. For further reading on implementation of social media in the current campaign cycle, please see Ashley Parker’s “A Presidential Candidate’s Special Team.”

Works Cited

Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.

Brisbane, A. S. (2011, October 9). The Secrets of Government Killing. The New York Times, p. SR.12.

Didion, J. (1988, October 27). Insider Baseball. The New York Review of Books, p. 19.

Gans, H. J. (2010). News and the News Media in the Digital Age: Implications for Democracy. Daedalus, Spring, 8-17.

Goffman, E. (1959). Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New york: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. (T. Burger, & F. Lawrence, Trans.) Cambridge: Polity.

Herman, E. S., & Chmosky, N. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Kaufman Jr., E. E., & Levin, C. M. (2011, May 6). Preventing the Next Flash Crash. The New York Times, p. A.27.

Lambrecht, B. (2001). Dinner at the New Gene Cafe: How Genetic Engineering Is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Pariser, E. (2011). The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: The Penguin Press.

Parker, A. (2011, October 9). A Presidential Candidate’s Special Team. The New York Times, p. ST.6.

Reiss, M. J., & Straughan, R. (1996). Improving Nature?: The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Resnick, P., Zeckhauser, R., Friedman, E., & Kuwabara, K. (2000). Reputation Systems. Association for Computing Machinery, 43(12), 45-48.

Scott, A. O. (2011, October 9). Inside Knowledge for All You Outsiders. The New York Times, p. AR.1.

The New York Times. (2010, June). The Opinion Pages. Retrieved October 20, 2011, from The New York Times: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/opinion/thepubliceditor/index.html


Question Authority

When I was younger, I distinctly remember being amazed by feats of mathemagic. I would sit for hours and watch individuals (mostly men) perform incredible feats of mental gymnastics as they manipulated numbers in a whole host of ways. It was only later that I would come to see that what these individuals were doing was not “magic” (at least not in the traditional sense of the term, although the feats were no less amazing because of this) but instead employing a heretofore invisible set of rules that instructed them on how to proceed.

Interest in heuristics, then, was a natural progression for as I came to study Social Psychology. Here, in front of me was an entire set of rules—mental shortcuts to be specific—that governed behavior. Not just content to understand how we interacted with our world, I was driven to understand why. Why did we make mental leaps that sometimes led to errors in judgment? Why did we draw the correlations that we did? Why was some information thought of as more pertinent in certain situations than others? Sure, Evolutionary Psychology provided some answers but I had been schooled in a diathesis-stress model and was never satisfied to attribute the phenomena that I observed to biology (although I certainly did not discount it as a factor, either).

Popularized in books like Blink, heuristics have again entered into our consciousness as we have increasingly come to examine rapid decision-making processes and judgment under pressure (or lack of it). The answer to “What were they thinking?!” might very well be that “they” might not have been thinking anything—well, at least not consciously. More accurately, subjects were engaged in cognitive processes but simply not aware of it.

And we are seeing a close cousin of this thought process play out in the world of technology, computing, and algorithms. Although the execution is not entirely the same, we witness a scenario in which machines follow a set of rules (as they are wont to do) without regard for the implications of their actions as they realize a more sophisticated form of Turing machine, for code is law. Ultimately, as Science Fiction occasionally comments, our creations outlast us, running amok as they continue to abide by instructions intended for a world that has long since passed. In these worst-case scenarios, action has become divorced from meaning.

But it is not only machines that are subject to this fallacy, for humans are equally susceptible to over-reliance on stable structures like laws. Although usually pro-social, we tend to encounter problems when we fail to continually evaluate ordinances in the context of an ever-changing world:  just because things have always done a certain way does not necessarily mean that they should be. Our refusal to engage in the various processes that act to shape our worldviews—of which television/media is just one—means that we allow someone else to dictate our reality to us. I believe that heuristics play a valuable role in our lives as they reduce cognitive processing time and perhaps allow us to react in time to save our lives, but also that the absence of critical reflection on these structures leads to things like the formation of stereotypes, susceptibility to manipulative advertising, and inflexible adherence to religious doctrine. Ultimately, we need to re-engage with our world and be willing to puzzle over the ways in which it affects us and in which we affect it, for it is unacceptable to play the victim card and say that media like television corrupt our minds if we are unwilling or unable to demand better from it. Education in the form of media literacy is not sufficient to prevent processes like Cultivation Theory from having an effect on us (even theorists are subject to it!), but it is a crucial first step.