Random finds (2018, week 12) — On Cambridge Analytica’s persuasion machine, our obsession with peak productivity, and beauty in art

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.

Cambridge Analytica’s persuasion machine

In 2017, the BBC aired a two-part documentary series, The Secrets of Silicon Valley, in which Jamie Bartlett tries to uncover the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. In part two, The Persuasion Machine, he tells the story of how Silicon Valley’s mission to connect all of us is plunging us into a world of political turbulence that no-one can control. Via Stanford University and San Antonio, Texas, he takes us to London, where he has a revealing talk with Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica.

Like Y Combinator’s President Sam Altman in part one, Nix seems to have a similar unshakeable faith in the inevitability of the future: “It’s going to be a revolution, and that is the way the world is moving. And, you know, I think, whether you like it or not, it is an inevitable fact.”

(The Secrets of Silicon Valley is currently unavailable on BBC iPlayer but you can find my transcripts here, Part 1: The Disruptors, and here, Part 2: The Persuasion Machine.)

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“It’s going to be a revolution, and that is the way the world is moving. And, you know, I think, whether you like it or not, it is an inevitable fact,” Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, told Jamie Bartlett, a British tech writer, who, in his latest book, The People Vs Tech, explores how the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it).

At Stanford University, Bartlett meets Michal Kosinski, a psychologist who is specialised in psychometrics (the science of predicting psychological traits, such as personality) and who is researching how revealing Facebook’s hoard of personal data could actually be. Kosinski explains how you can measure psychological traits using the digital footprints we leave behind on the internet. “An algorithm that can look at millions of people and […] hundreds of thousands […] of your likes can extract and utilise even those little pieces of information and combine it to a very accurate profile,” he tells Bartlett. “It can also use your digital footprint and turn it into a very accurate prediction of your intimate traits, like religiosity, political views, personality, intelligence, sexual orientation and a bunch of other psychological traits.”

This algorithm can also predict people’s political persuasions. People who score high on ‘openness to experience’ tend to be liberal; those who score low, more conservative. If you would then use another algorithm to adjust the messages those people will receive, this “obviously gives you a lot of power,” according to Kowinski.

It’s indeed a powerful way of understanding people, but Bartlett can’t help fearing that this might lead to “unprecedented possibilities of manipulating what people think, how they behave, what they see, whether that’s selling things to people or how people vote, and that’s pretty scary too.”

Enter Cambridge Analytica

First, Bartlett tries to uncover how its expertise in personality prediction has played a part in Donald Trump’s presidential win, and how his campaign has exploited Silicon Valley’s social networks. In San Antonio, Texas, he meets Theresa Hong, Trump’s former Digital Content Director, in the hope of getting an understanding of what they actually did — “who they were working with, who was helping them, what techniques they used.”

Bartlett tells us that, “Cambridge Analytica were using data on around 220 million Americans to target potential donors and voters. Armed with [its] revolutionary insights, the next step in the battle to win over millions of Americans was to shape the online messages they would see. Adverts were tailored to particular audiences, defined by data. Now the voters Cambridge Analytica had targeted, were bombarded with adverts” delivered through Silicon Valley’s vast social networks.

People from Facebook, YouTube and Google, who were working alongside Donald Trump’s digital campaign team, were “basically our kind of hands-on partners as far as being able to utilise the platform as effectively as possible,” Theresa Hong tells Bartlett. “When you’re pumping in millions and millions of dollars in these social platforms [The Trump campaign spent the lion share of its advertising budget, around 85 million, on Facebook], you’re going to get white-glove treatment, so they would send people […] to ensure that all our needs were being met.” Adding, “Without Facebook, we wouldn’t have won. I mean, Facebook really and truly put us over the edge. Facebook was the medium that proves most successful for this campaign.”

Trump’s digital strategy was built on Facebook’s effectiveness as advertising medium. “It’s become a powerful political tool that’s largely unregulated.” Facebook didn’t want to meet him but “made it clear that, like all advertisers on Facebook, also political campaigns must ensure their ads comply with all applicable laws and regulations.” Also saying that “no personally identifiable information can be shared with advertising, measurement or analytics partners unless people give permission.”

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Joshua Bright/The Washington Post/Getty)

Off to London, where Bartlett meets Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, to find out how the company used psychographics to target voters for the Trump campaign.

When he asks Nix if he can understand why some people might find using big data and psychographics “a little bit creepy,” Nix replies, “No, I can’t. Quite possibly the opposite. I think the move away from blanket advertising towards ever more personalised communication, is a natural progression. I think it is only going to increase.” People should “understand the reciprocity that is going on here — you get points [in case of a supermarket loyalty card], and in return, they gather your data on your consumer behaviour.”

But Bartlett wonders whether shopping or politics are really the same thing.

“The technology is the same,” according to Nix. “In the next ten years, the sheer volumes of data that are going to be available, that are going to be driving all sorts of things, including marketing and communications, is going to be a paradigm shift from where we are now. It’s going to be a revolution, and that is the way the world is moving. And, you know, I think, whether you like it or not, it is an inevitable fact.”

Some six months after the BBC aired Bartlett’s documentary, Alexander Nix has been suspended from his position as CEO of Cambridge Analytica, after the U.K.’s Channel 4 published video footage of an undercover sting operation that it had conducted against Cambridge Analytica.

“The most unseemly revelation — and, in the context of the sting, the most ironic — comes when Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s C.E.O., seems to offer to entrap the client’s political rivals with secretly videotaped bribes and rendezvous with sex workers,” Adrian Chen writes in Cambridge Analytica and Our Lives Inside the Surveillance Machine.

“Like much of the best investigative journalism, the Channel 4 video gives viewers the queasy sense of a rock being overturned and sinister things being exposed to the light. It is difficult to watch the video without becoming at least a little suspicious of the entire business of democracy, given how large a role political consultants such as Nix play in it these days. […] But there was something shocking about the stark double identity of this posh ‘Old Etonian,’ as all the British papers call Nix, who presented himself as a big-data wizard at marketing events but proposed basic gangsterism to clients in private. And in the same spiffy suit.

Watching the video makes you understand that the ethical difference between outright electoral corruption and psychographics is largely a matter of degree. Both are shortcuts that warp the process into something small and dirty. You don’t need to believe Cambridge Analytica’s own hype about the persuasive power of its methods to worry about how data-obsessed political marketing can undermine democracy. The model of the voter as a bundle of psychological vulnerabilities to be carefully exploited reduces people to mathematical inputs. The big debates about values and policies that campaigns are supposed to facilitate and take part in are replaced by psychographically derived messages targeted to ever-tinier slivers of voters who are deemed by an algorithm to be persuadable. The organization of all of online life by data-mining operations makes this goal seem attainable, while an industry of data scientists and pollsters pitch it as inevitable. Candidates, voters, and pundits, enthralled with the geek’s promise of omniscience, rush to buy in — at least until it’s used by someone they don’t like. Cambridge Analytica is as much a symptom of democracy’s sickness as its cause.”

Not yet enough? Here’s my selection of last week’s articles, starting with The Cambridge Analytica files from The Guardian.

Our obsession with peak productivity

“How might we live if there were more to life than what we have been led to believe?,” Andrew Taggart wonders in Life hacks are part of a 200-year-old movement to destroy your humanity, in which he explores the origins of today’s quest for achieving peak productivity.

“What remains deeply puzzling about the obsession with personal productivity is that it is a rather uninteresting goal,” especially compared with “Achilles’ heroic feats, Solon’s excellence in statecraft, St. Thomas Aquinas’s holiness, Beethoven’s beautiful symphonies, and G.I. Gurdjieff’s spiritual search? How did it become such an ideal for us to aspire to? A more fundamental question than how we can ‘hack’ our productivity is why we place so much importance on doing so in the first place.”

According to Taggart, neither of the two explanations commonly given for our obsession with productivity — the pursuit for short-term satisfaction and the desire to lessen our everyday mental suffering — are satisfactory. Instead, our obsession is driven by “a 200-year-old movement toward making work the center of our lives,” he argues.

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The Bourgeois Era — “Where the aristocrats lauded heroes and Christians venerated saints, we bourgeoisie honor the savvy dealer and, most of all, the visionary entrepreneur — once Steve Jobs and now Elon Musk.”

“Ask enough people whom they admire most, and many […] will say, ‘Elon Musk.’ What is admirable about him, they’ll say, is that he is a visionary entrepreneur. Why, it’s worth asking, would this be the first thought that comes to mind? Because this is the Bourgeois Era and we’re all bourgeois now.”

Taggart borrows the term ‘Bourgeois Era’ from the economic historian Deidre McCloskey, who uses it to refer to an incremental, yet massive, shift in world view dating to around 1800, when the aristocratic and priestly values started to make way for merchant values. “The pagan aristocratic virtues of honor, leisureliness, and pride as well as the Christian peasant virtues of charity and reverence were supplanted by the bourgeois virtues of prudence, temperance, trustworthiness, and pride in fair dealing,” Taggart writes.

If we look at the Bourgeois Era as a four-act drama, we are on the verge of the fourth act, AI and the Threat of Technological Unemployment (Our Potential Future), “the result of which could be technological unemployment in the trucking industry, manufacturing, the service industry, and elsewhere. If this does come to pass, will we be facing what the futurist and historian Yuval Harari sees as the emergence of a ‘useless class’? It is Elon Musk no less who, insisting on the centrality of ‘meaningful work,’ fears the threat of AI to ordinary people: ‘[The] much harder challenge,’ he says, ‘is: How will people then have meaning? A lot of people derive meaning from their employment. If you’re not needed, what is the meaning? Do you feel useless?’”

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“I speak daily with individuals working in the tech industry, those whose ‘spiritual battle’ is between falling prey to the ‘slot machine in their pockets’ and implementing life hacks that will enable them to optimize their personal productivity,” Andrew Taggart writes. (Photography by Hugh Han/Unsplash)

Taggart speaks “daily with individuals working in the tech industry, those whose ‘spiritual battle’ is between falling prey to the ‘slot machine in their pockets’ and implementing life hacks that will enable them to optimize their personal productivity.” What he notices “is that we’ve taken the bourgeois virtue of hard work, or productivity, and applied it to ourselves with ruthless persistence.”

The reason is threefold. First, unlike aristocrats, we have “no wars to fight, honors to defend, courts to attend, leisurely hunts to go on, or liberal arts to pursue. Nor, unlike devout Christians of the medieval period, do we have inner spiritual struggles over which we can rend our souls. Rather, in the work society we have small betterments to make, tasks to complete, daily problems to solve, minor burdens to carry, modest marks to leave on the world before our time has come. Given this background, it makes some sense to throw ourselves into how we could improve on our bettering, especially our self-bettering.”

Second, the work society (Act 3, 1945 to today) actually requires productive bodies to persist in its existence.

And finally, “we have the voiceless void to avoid” — a ‘Godshaped vacuum’ left by the collapse of a Christian metaphysic, one that unleashed nihilism into the modern world. Life-hacking is probably so seductive because it is much easier than asking some bigger, harder, more important questions about where your time and attention go, John Pavlus argues. Those questions “are philosophical in nature: Who am I? Why am I here? What is life ultimately about? Is there stillness beyond hustling? The work society, by promoting ceaseless busyness and ever greater productivity, prevents us from even asking ourselves these questions.”

Taggart believes it is time to revalue the 200-year old concept of the Bourgeois Era and its ideas about work. “Which of [these] ideas […] are causing us needless suffering? Must the chief aim of a formal education be gainful employment? Need the career be the central organizing concept of a good life? Must a week be divided into a ‘workweek’ and ‘weekend,’ much of life into ‘work’ and ‘vacation’? Is the lack of productivity necessarily laziness? Is busyness really a badge of honor […]? Is it true that we know ourselves and others when we know what we and they do, or is this instead a canard? And, not the least, were there some vital spiritual ideas — for instance, transcendence, sacredness, and neighborliness — lost when Christianity was largely forgotten, and are there some inspiriting aristocratic ideas such as courage, grace, and leisureliness that merit revisiting?,” Taggart wonders.

In defence of beauty in art

“Art critics and historians have a difficult time dealing with beauty,” Robert Wellington writes in The Conversation’s Friday Essay, In Defence of Beauty in Art, in which he defends our felt experience of beauty as way of knowing and navigating the world around us.

“To call something beautiful is not a critical assertion, so it’s deemed of little value to an argument that attempts to understand the morals, politics, and ideals of human cultures past and present. To call something beautiful is not the same as calling it an important work of art. As a philosopher might say, beauty is not a necessary condition of the art object.

And yet, it is often the beauty we perceive in works of art from the past or from another culture that makes them so compelling. When we recognise the beauty of an object made or selected by another person we understand that maker/selector as a feeling subject who shared with us an ineffable aesthetic experience. When we find something beautiful we become aware of our mutual humanity.”

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Le golfe de Marseille vu de l’Estaque, by French impressionist Paul Cézanne (1878–1879), who, in a letter to Camille Pissarro, wrote, “It’s like a playing card. Red roofs above the blue sea … The sun is so fierce that objects seem to be silhouetted, not only in black or white, but in blue, red, brown, violet.” (Paul Cézanne/Art Gallery of South Australia)

The aesthete — a much-maligned figure of late-19th and early-20th century provides us with a fascinating insight, Wellington writes. Despite their bad rap, Wellington “would like to reposition aesthetes as radical, transgressive figures, who challenged the very foundations of the conservative culture in which they lived, though an all-consuming love of beautiful things.”

Oscar Wilde was, perhaps, the consummate Aesthete. “For Wilde and his followers, the work of art — whether it be a poem, a book, a play, a piece of music, a painting, a dinner plate, or a carpet — should only be judged on the grounds of beauty.”

His “legacy was continued by a new generation of young aristocrats at a time of cultural crises between the two World Wars. The Bright Young Things, as they were called, were the last bloom of a dying plant — the last generation of British aristocrats to lead a life of unfettered leisure before so many were cut down in their prime by the war that permanently altered the economic structure of Britain.”

Stephen Tennant, whom Evelyn Waugh immortalised as Lord Sebastian Flyte in his 1945-novel, Brideshead Revisited, probably was the brightest of them all. But it was through the character of Charles Ryder, that Waugh grappled with the dilemma of beauty vs erudition. Visiting Brideshead, the country estate of Sebastian’s family, “Charles is keen to learn its history and to train his eye. He asks his host, ‘Is the dome by Inigo Jones, too? It looks later.’ Sebastian replies: ‘Oh, Charles, don’t be such a tourist. What does it matter when it was built, if it’s pretty?’ Sebastian gives the aesthete’s response, that a work of art or architecture should be judged on aesthetic merit alone,” Wellington writes.

Jackson Pollock’s Number 19 (1948) is one of the great ‘drip’ paintings made in a legendary three-year burst of creativity between 1947 and 1950. The painting was featured in Christie’s New York Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale on 15 May 2013. (Video by Christie’s)

“How, then, should the art critic proceed today when beauty counts for so little in the judgement of works of art? The unsettling times in which we live lead us to question the ethics of aesthetics. What happens when we find an object beautiful that was produced by a person or in a culture that we judge to be immoral or unjust?,” Wellington wonders.

“Works of art don’t have to be beautiful, but we must acknowledge that aesthetic judgement plays a large part in the reception of art. Beauty might not be an objective quality in the work of art, nor is it a rational way for us to argue for the cultural importance of an object. It’s not something we can teach, and perhaps it’s not something you can learn.

But when it comes down to it, our ability to perceive beauty is often what makes a work of art compelling. It is a feeling that reveals a pure moment of humanity that we share with the maker, transcending time and place.”

And also this …

In Fresh blood: why everyone fell for Theranos, Andrew Hill writes about the cautionary tale of Elizabeth Holmes and her healthtech vision.

According to Hill, “Trouble often hits […] when leaders stick to their story after it has diverged from reality, swerving into embellishment, mythmaking and, in Ms Holmes’s case, apparently fraud.”

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Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, in 2014, when many still saw her the female Mark Zuckerberg.

“This path from self-belief to outright deception is well-trodden. In the 1841 classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay profiles the 16th-century alchemist and occultist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, who was said to go everywhere with the devil, in the shape of a large black dog. ‘Some men, by dint of excessive egotism, manage to persuade their contemporaries that they are very great men indeed,’ he wrote. ‘They publish their acquirements so loudly in people’s ears, and keep up their own praises so incessantly, that the world’s applause is actually taken by storm.’

What is novel is the speed with which today’s cover stars rise and fall. In their haste to expand, companies cut corners or exaggerate advances. ‘Fast growth stresses processes, controls and the leadership itself,’ says Matt Nixon, author of Pariahs, a book about hubris and organisational crises.

The boring basics — open culture, good governance, a commitment to root out hubristic personalities, sceptical media scrutiny — don’t make much of a movie. The absence of such measures, though, will script many more sequels to the cautionary tale of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.”

The New Yorker published an article about the German cultural theorist and philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who has spent decades railing against the pieties of liberal democracy. “Now his ideas seem prophetic,” Thomas Meaney writes.

“In the academy, [Sloterdijk] is still regarded with suspicion. The English philosopher John Gray argued, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books [Blowing Bubbles, October 2017; paywall], that, sentence by sentence, much of his output is simply incomprehensible. It’s a common reaction among Anglophone readers, who are often baffled by the scale of his reputation. This is in part because his metaphorical, image-addicted style of philosophy has been in short supply in English since Coleridge. But in Europe it finds a ready audience. His writings, abstruse yet popularizing, have made him an uplifting guru for some and a convenient devil for others — the crucial fact being that he is never ignored. ‘The most interesting thing about Sloterdijk may not be anything particular he has written,’ the Berkeley intellectual historian Martin Jay told me, ‘but simply the fact that he exists.’”

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German cultural theorist and philosopher, (Illustration by Mikkel Sommer for The New Yorker)

“[Sloterdijk] is known not for a single grand thesis but for a shrapnel-burst of impressionistic coinages — ‘anthropotechnics,’ ‘negative gynecology,’ ‘co-immunism’ — that occasionally suggest the lurking presence of some larger system. Yet his prominence as a public intellectual comes from a career-long rebellion against the pieties of liberal democracy, which, now that liberal democracy is in crisis worldwide, seems prophetic. A signature theme of his work is the persistence of ancient urges in supposedly advanced societies. In 2006, he published a book arguing that the contemporary revolt against globalization can be seen as a misguided expression of ‘noble’ sentiments, which, rather than being curbed, should be redirected in ways that left-liberals cannot imagine. He has described the Presidential race between Clinton and Trump as a choice ‘between two helplessly gesticulating models of normality, one of which appeared to be delegitimatized, the other unproven,’ and is unsurprised that so many people preferred the latter. Few philosophers are as fixated on the current moment or as gleefully ready to explain it.”

Thomas Meaney’s A Celebrity Philosopher Explains the Populist Insurgency is a ‘must read’ (the written article is accompanied by an audio version) about a man whose “comfort with social rupture has made him a contentious figure in Germany, where stability, prosperity, and a robust welfare state are seen as central to the country’s postwar achievement.”

To celebrate his 333rd on March 21, 2018, here is the wonderfully energetic Holland Baroque performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 (BWV 1048).

Holland Baroque performs Johann Sebastian Bach ‘s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 (BWV 1048).

Located in Kyoto, Japan, this 100-year old house has been redesigned as guest house by B.L.U.E. Architecture Design Studio. The modern entrance connects the street with the courtyard at the rear of the house, and serves as exhibiting hall. The architects have done a great job at preserving traditional Japanese elements and materials, while at the same time creating a house which meets the demands of modern life.

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“Organizations are social constructs. They are nothing but constructs to which people are drawn in pursuit of some purpose. Healthy organizations are a concept of relationships to which people are drawn by beauty, values and meaning, along with the freedom to pursue them cooperatively. Healthy organizations enable more than they constrain. Unhealthy organizations are a concept of relationships into which people are forced by birth, necessity or manipulation. Unhealthy organizations constrain more than they enable.” — Esko Kilpi in Products as art and the manager as an artist (2015)

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