All the ghosts in the machine

Reading All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of immortality in the digital age by Elaine Kasket for New Scientist, 22 June 2019

Moving first-hand interviews and unnervingly honest recollections weave through psychologist Elaine Kasket’s first mainstream book, All the Ghosts in the Machine, an anatomy of mourning in the digital age. Unravelling that architecture turns up two distinct but complementary projects.

The first offers some support and practical guidance for people (and especially family members) who are blindsided by the practical and legal absurdities generated when people die in the flesh, while leaving their digital selves very much alive.

For some, the persistence of posthumous data, on Facebook, Instagram or some other corner of the social media landscape, is a source of “inestimable comfort”. For others, it brings “wracking emotional pain”. In neither case is it clear what actions are required, either to preserve, remove or manage that data. As a result, survivors usually oversee the profiles of the dead themselves – always assuming, of course, that they know their passwords. “In an effort to keep the profile ‘alive’ and to stay connected to their dead loved one,” Kasket writes, “a bereaved individual may essentially end up impersonating them.”

It used to be the family who had privileged access to the dead, to their personal effects, writings and photographs. Families are, as a consequence, disproportionately affected by the persistent failure of digital companies to distinguish between the dead and the living.

Who has control over a dead person’s legacy? What unspoken needs are being trammelled when their treasured photographs evaporate or, conversely, when their salacious post-divorce Tinder messages are disgorged? Can an individual’s digital legacy even be recognised for what it is in a medium that can’t distinguish between life and death?

Kasket’s other project is to explore this digital uncanny from a psychoanalytical perspective. Otherwise admirable 19th-century ideals of progress, hygiene and personal improvement have conned us into imagining that mourning is a more or less understood process of “letting go”. Kasket’s account of how this idea gained currency is a finely crafted comedy of intellectual errors.

In fact, grief doesn’t come in stages, and our relationships with the dead last far longer than we like to imagine. All the Ghosts in the Machine opens with an account of the author’s attempt to rehabilitate her grandmother’s bitchy reputation by posting her love letters on Instagram.

“I took a private correspondence that was not intended for me and transformed it from its original functions. I wanted it to challenge others’ ideas, and to affect their emotions… Ladies and gentlemen of today, I present to you the deep love my grandparents held for one another in 1945, ‘True romance’, heart emoticon.”

Eventually, Kasket realised that the version of her grandmother her post had created was no more truthful than the version that had existed before. And by then, of course, it was far too late.

The digital persistence of the dead is probably a good thing in these dissociated times. A culture of continuing bonds with the dead is much to be preferred over one in which we are all expected to “get over it”. But, as Kasket observes, there is much work to do, for “the digital age has made continuing bonds easier and harder all at the same time.”

Asking for it

Reading The Metric Society: On the Quantification of the Social by Steffen Mau (Polity Press) for the Times Literary Supplement, 30 April 2019 

Imagine Steffen Mau, a macrosociologist (he plays with numbers) at Humboldt University of Berlin, writing a book about information technology’s invasion of the social space. The very tools he uses are constantly interrupting him. His bibliographic software wants him to assign a star rating to every PDF he downloads. A paper-sharing site exhorts him repeatedly to improve his citation score (rather than his knowledge). In a manner that would be funny, were his underlying point not so serious, Mau records how his tools keep getting in the way of his job.

Why does Mau use these tools at all? Is he too good for a typewriter? Of course he is: the whole history of civilisation is the story of us getting as much information as possible out of our heads and onto other media. It’s why, nigh-on 5000 years ago, the Sumerians dreamt up the abacus. Thinking is expensive. How much easier to stop thinking, and rely on data records instead!

The Metric Society, is not a story of errors made, or of wrong paths taken. This is a story, superbly reduced to the chill essentials of an executive summary, of how human society is getting exactly what it’s always been asking for. The last couple of years have seen more than 100 US cities pledge to use evidence and data to improve their decision-making. In the UK, “What Works Centres”, first conceived in the 1990s, are now responsible for billions in funding. The acronyms grow more bellicose, the more obscure they become. In the UK, the Alliance for Useful Evidence (with funding from ESRC, Big Lottery and Nesta) champions the use of evidence in social policy and practice.

Mau describes the emergence of a society trapped in “data-driven perpetual stock-taking”, in which the new Juggernaut of auditability lays waste to creativity, production, and even simple efficiency. “The magic attraction of numbers and comparisons is simply irresistible,” Mau writes.

It’s understandable. Our first great system of digital abstraction, money, enabled a more efficient and less locally bound exchange of good and services, and introduced a certain level of rational competition into the world of work.

But look where money has led us! Capital is not the point here. Neither is capitalism. The point is our relationship with information. Amazon’s algorithms are sucking all the localism out of the retail system, to the point where whole high streets have vanished — and entire communities with them. Amazon is in part powered by the fatuous metricisation of social variety through systems of scores, rankings, likes, stars and grades, which are (not coincidentally) the methods by which social media structures — from clownish Twitter to China’s Orwellian Social Credit System — turn qualitative differences into quantitative inequalities.

Mau leaves us thoroughly in the lurch. He’s a diagnostician, not a snake-oil salesman, and his bedside manner is distinctly chilly. Dazzled by data, which have relieved us of the need to dream and imagine, we fight for space on the foothills of known territory. The peaks our imaginations might have trod — as a society, and as a species — tower above us, ignored.

Choose-your-own adventure

Reading The Importance of Small Decisions by Michael O’Brien, R. Alexander Bentley and William Brock for New Scientist, 13 April 2019

What if you could map all kinds of human decision-making and use it to chart society’s evolution?

This is what academics Michael O’Brien, Alexander Bentley and William Brock try to do in The Importance of Small Decisions. It is an attempt to expand on a 2014 paper, “Mapping collective behavior in the big-data era”, that they wrote in Behavioral and Brain Sciences . While contriving to be somehow both too short and rambling, it bites off more than it can chew, nearly chokes to death on the ins and outs of group selection, and coughs up its best ideas in the last 40 pages.

Draw a graph. The horizontal axis maps decisions according to how socially influenced they are. The vertical axis tells you how clear the costs and pay-offs are for each decision. Rational choices sit in the north-western quadrant of the map. To the north-east, bearded capuchins teach each other how to break into palm nuts in a charming example of social learning (pictured). Twitter storms generated by fake news swirl about the south-east.

The more choices you face, the greater the cognitive load. The authors cite economist Eric Beinhocker, who in The Origin of Wealth calculated that human choices had multiplied a hundred million-fold in the past 10,000 years. Small and insignificant decisions now consume us.

Worse, costs and pay-offs are increasingly hidden in an ocean of informational white noise, so that it is easier to follow a trend than find an expert. “Why worry about the underlying causes of global warming when we can see what tens of millions of our closest friends think?” ask the authors, building to a fine, satirical climax.

In an effort to communicate widely, the authors have, I think, left out a few too many details from their original paper. And a mid-period novel by Philip K. Dick would paint a more visceral picture of a world created by too much information. Still, there is much fun to be had reading the garrulous banter of these three extremely smart academics.

The toughest job

First ice cream of the year

Parentology: Everything you wanted to know about the science of raising children but were too exhausted to ask by Dalton Conley
and
It’s Complicated: The social lives of networked teens by Danah Boyd
reviewed for New Scientist

 

As early as page 14 of Parentology, a neonatologist explains to Conley that his sure-to-be-premature daughter should stay in her mother’s womb as long as possible, since “each week is ten more points of IQ”. Conley was furious. “A spark of rage landed on my sleeve. An urge to grab the doctor’s head and bash it against the sharp corner of the sonogram machine seized hold… I wanted to smash his head one time for every IQ point,” he recalls.

For all its insightful, funny, fully researched, conscientiously cited, Freakonomics approach to science and statistics, what really powers Parentology is a species of loving rage. The numbers teach us a great deal about what parents cannot do, cannot change and cannot help. However, we learn something quite different and very valuable from Conley. Love, care, interest and empathy won’t change a child’s chances, but they render most of the measures discussed in this book profoundly unimportant.

By all means keep score – it’s a tough world out there, and your kids need all the help they can get. But if you measure your worth as a parent by the numbers, you’ve missed the point of the enterprise.

If parenting is about learning how little influence we have over people and events, then pity also the youths interviewed by Boyd for It’s Complicated. Patronised, legally marginalised and even subject to curfew, US teenagers – to hear Boyd tell it – have but one means to engage with the outside world: via the imperfect medium of the computer screen. “Obsessed” with social media, they are simply trying to recreate, for themselves and each other, a social space denied to them by anxious parents, hostile civic authorities and a mass media bent on exaggerating every conceivable outdoor danger.

Of course, a life online is not simply a life lived behind glass. There are serious problems with social media: chiefly, the obstacle they present to self-reinvention, and the ease with which bullies can weaponise them.

But Boyd has little time for technological determinism. Her fieldwork with worried-well parents and their kids reveals the fault is not in our computers but in ourselves, that we scare our kids into their bedrooms, then spy on them constantly once they’re there. And she marshals a huge body of sociological evidence, anecdotal and statistical, to support this.

Parents, you’ve had your chance. Of course you blew it. Now leave the kids alone.

Forced entry

 

Michelle Terry in Privacy. Image swiped from The Times

Michelle Terry in Privacy. Image swiped from The Times.

James Graham (@mrJamesGraham) writes plays for fringe venues that quickly transfer to huge auditoriums. This House, which began life in 2012 in the Cottesloe Theatre in London, sold out the flagship Olivier when it moved. Will something similar happen to Privacy, James’s almost-autobiographical journey through the internet? Probably. The version I saw at London’s Donmar Warehouse was witty, very accessible (ideal for school trips and citizenship classes), and turns the internet in general – and social media in particular – into a sort of politically chilling stage magic act. Right now the core of the piece – the disintegration of a personality when it’s continually second-guessed by all-seeing but unthinking machines – lies buried under a lot of stage business. (Much is made of a super-secret dramatic reversal that does not work at all.) But James means to keep the play abreast of current events so there’ll be plenty of time to iron out the wrinkles. Here’s the booking page, if you’re tempted: Privacy deserves a public.