What do algorithms give us a reason to do?

Screen shot from BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video

I’m a modern guy, so when I read a title like “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video,” my first question is who came up with it. Shows you what I know. If I were a postmodern guy, I would realize nobody was behind the decision to call a video “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video.” Algorithms settled on those words, and the only human decision involved was the decision to follow the algorithms. Stop what you’re doing and read James Bridle’s essay about automatically-generated YouTube videos for small children. It is the directest look yet at what is wrong with the internet. Bridle uses these videos as a case study in how automation turns what everyone wants into things no one wants, e.g. hourlong videos of Peppa Pig getting her teeth pulled out or million-person conspiracy theories about pedophilia in a pizzeria. Here’s a quote:

Automated reward systems like YouTube algorithms necessitate exploitation in the same way that capitalism necessitates exploitation, and if you’re someone who bristles at the second half of that equation then maybe this should be what convinces you of its truth. Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building, making it harder to see, harder to think and explain, harder to counter and defend against.

The more we turn over the content of the internet to automated systems, the more we make the internet into the maximally effective version of something weird and disturbing to us. The things people want most are branded characters, certain screaming sounds, bright colors and simplistic violence, so here’s a video of Marvel villains burying people alive. It feels awful because few humans were involved in creating it, and those who were involved ceded their agency to an algorithm. Anyway, this essay seems like one of those ideas we’re going to refer to in the future, so I encourage you to read it. I’m glad I did.

Jeet Heer on Chapo Trap House and “dominance politics”

The dirtbag right

To clarify the heading of today’s post: Jeet Heer did not appear on the Chapo Trap House podcast. Although he seems like a natural fit for the show, he has criticized it, most recently in an essay in the New Republic this morning. My experience reading Heer is that he is a scrupulous thinker even when he’s wrong, and this essay upholds that rule. He pushes back early against the dirty argument that Chapo host Will Menaker meant something sexist when he said centrist Democrats would have to “bend the knee” to form a coalition with leftists. Such a reading seems opportunistic, and Heer dismisses it. But he also cites Chapo as an instance of the left using the same bullying tactics as Donald Trump—a practice he calls “dominance politics.” Quote:

This gendered analysis seems unwarranted because Menaker’s remarks weren’t aimed at women as a class, but at the centrist wing of the Democratic Party; Clinton wasn’t mentioned, and the phrase may even be an allusion to a common refrain in Game of Thrones. Yet if the remark wasn’t sexist in intent, it still suggests a troubling vision of politics as a contest in domination.

Heer argues that dominance politics is a dead end. Demanding that centrists bend the knee won’t work, because “you can’t really build a coalition of egalitarian politics by browbeating a key segment of that coalition.” That’s true. I think his central point is correct: the Clinton wing is not going to cede control of the party to democratic socialists, and demanding they do might thwart a winning coalition. I’m not sure that’s what Menaker meant, though, when he said bend the knee. It seems like he was talking less about submission and more about some kind of acknowledgement that the moderates were wrong, and their mistakes blew a winnable election.

Regardless, I like that Heer envisions a coalition of Democrats who are not actively vituperating one another. For the same reason I don’t think liberals should hold Trump voters in contempt, I don’t think leftists should ask liberals to confess. My main concern with Heer’s argument, though, is that it focuses on one form of dominance without acknowledging others that are more significant.

When Heer says that Trump or the hosts of Chapo Trap House are exercising dominance by mocking their political opponents, he means they’re exercising rhetorical dominance. Agreed the left is good at that—especially compared to the Clinton campaign, which pretty much ate sand in the area of messaging. But moderate Democrats and the Clinton network dominate the party in every other meaningful sense of the word. They control the DNC, as we saw last spring. They control fundraising. They set strategy in the last election. They drive the policy agenda, although Sanders et al have tickled the wheel lately. Still, in most important areas, centrists dominate the Democratic Party. The only area in which they don’t is rhetoric. The rhetoric of young, left-leaning Democrats is much more lively and contagious than anything moderates have come up with since Obama 2008.

That’s not to say Heer is mistaken to argue Chapo should be nice to them. On the contrary, it probably means that going easy on neoliberal complacency will be an important part of the left’s strategy moving forward. But that’s a claim about tactics. Heer also seems to be making a claim about the philosophy, or even ethics, of the Democratic party. Are Democrats too good for insult comedy? It’s a question worth considering, but only in the context of larger power dynamics. Civility is a luxury of the winning team.

Friday links! Triumph of the everyman edition

As recently as two months ago, this country was run by elites: latte-sipping, liberal arts degree-holding, pilates-skipping elites. Fortunately, the election of Donald Trump and meteoric re-ascendence of the Republican Party has solved all that. Now that the billionaire son of a millionaire is president, America is going to start working for ordinary people again. And you know who will be leading the charge? Conservative pundits. They’ve broken free of the oppression that confined them to think tanks and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, and now they’ve taken up the cry of the real American. Today is Friday, and we’re finally going to do something about the elitists who stopped tax cuts for the rich and saddled the country with burdensome welfare programs. Won’t you go sans culottes with me?

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Tim Kreider on the specious danger of Western art

The first cover of Charlie Hebdo since last week's attacks reads "all is forgiven."

The first cover of Charlie Hebdo since last week’s attacks reads “all is forgiven.”

Ben al-Fowlkes sent me this excellent essay by Tim Kreider, in which the former political cartoonist notes how much more dangerous art seems to be for Islamists and North Koreans than it is for anyone in the West. That’s good: most of the reason we’re not afraid of art is that our civil society is stable and well-developed, and we’re confident enough in our ideologies that we don’t have to silence anyone who suggests they’re flawed. But part of it, as Kreider points out, is that contemporary Western culture has made art frivolous and anodyne:

“In the mature democracies of the West, there’s no longer any need for purges or fatwas or book-burnings. Why waste bullets shooting artists when you can just not pay them? Why bother banning books when nobody reads anyway, and the national literature is so provincial, insular and narcissistic it poses no troublesome questions?”

Kreider is good at the relieved lament, and he finds in the international outrage at the Charlie Hebdo attacks “a small, irrational twinge of guilt that we’re not doing anything worth shooting us over.”

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