Friday, February 26, 2021

The life cycle of a new social network

Kevin Roose does an interesting article on Clubhouse, the hot new audio social network, which has a nice chunk of writing I want to pass on:
Every successful social network has a life cycle that goes something like: Wow, this app sure is addictive! Look at all the funny and exciting ways people are using it! Oh, look, I can get my news and political commentary here, too! This is going to empower dissidents, promote free speech and topple authoritarian regimes! Hmm, why are trolls and racists getting millions of followers? And where did all these conspiracy theories come from? This platform should really hire some moderators and fix its algorithms. Wow, this place is a cesspool, I’m deleting my account.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Music and Medicine

Amy McDermott does an open source article on how music is increasingly being employed as a medical therapy. Here are some clips from the article:
...growing evidence points to a range of musical medical benefits for ailments from stroke to Parkinson’ mechanically ventilated ICU patients relaxing, slow-tempo classical music reduced patients’ number of delirium days... music has been part of medicine, in one way or another, from the earliest efforts to heal the sick...since some 35,000 years ago...around the time that humans began painting animal figures in ochre and black on cave walls, shamans used bone flutes and animal skin drums in healing and funerary rituals. Fast forward to the 20th century, and musicians took up the mantle of healers after the First World War by playing for wounded soldiers in veteran’s hospitals. Anecdotally, the soldiers responded so well that hospitals brought in musicians; the National Association for Music in Hospitals was born in 1926, according to the American Music Therapy Association. In the decades that followed, hospital musicians developed an accreditation system and became known as music therapists, as their work became increasingly tailored to patients experiencing a range of disorders. Today, music therapists work in settings from hospitals, to outpatient clinics, to nursing homes, where they are typically members of a patient’s interdisciplinary treatment team along with medical doctors, neurologists, and psychologists.
The article proceeds with McDermott's summary of a number of clinical trials attempting to rigorously investigate the therapeutic effects of music.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Real-time talking with dreamers during REM sleep

A fascinating new window for reserach on dreaming has been opened by four collaborating but independent laboratory groups. The summary of the open source article from Konkoly et al.:
Dreams take us to a different reality, a hallucinatory world that feels as real as any waking experience. These often-bizarre episodes are emblematic of human sleep but have yet to be adequately explained. Retrospective dream reports are subject to distortion and forgetting, presenting a fundamental challenge for neuroscientific studies of dreaming. Here we show that individuals who are asleep and in the midst of a lucid dream (aware of the fact that they are currently dreaming) can perceive questions from an experimenter and provide answers using electrophysiological signals. We implemented our procedures for two-way communication during polysomnographically verified rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep in 36 individuals. Some had minimal prior experience with lucid dreaming, others were frequent lucid dreamers, and one was a patient with narcolepsy who had frequent lucid dreams. During REM sleep, these individuals exhibited various capabilities, including performing veridical perceptual analysis of novel information, maintaining information in working memory, computing simple answers, and expressing volitional replies. Their responses included distinctive eye movements and selective facial muscle contractions, constituting correctly answered questions on 29 occasions across 6 of the individuals tested. These repeated observations of interactive dreaming, documented by four independent laboratory groups, demonstrate that phenomenological and cognitive characteristics of dreaming can be interrogated in real time. This relatively unexplored communication channel can enable a variety of practical applications and a new strategy for the empirical exploration of dreams.

Monday, February 22, 2021

So...whatcha gonna offer me for this cell phone I stole from you?

Macaque monkeys have learned how to drive a hard bargain.They have learned to barter for food with humans to return stolen possessions according to how highly an object is valued. Here is a brief description by Vignieri of work by Leca et al.:
The use of tokens as a bartering tool in nonhuman primate studies has taught us much about the willingness of nonhuman primates to engage in economic transactions. The question of whether it reflects a phenomenon that might emerge in natural conditions has received less attention. Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) living in a Balinese temple regularly steal visitors' possessions and then barter for food with humans anxious to regain their belongings. Leca et al. discovered that they preferentially steal items of high value (for example, digital devices and wallets) over those with low value (for example, empty bags or hairpins) because higher-value food rewards tend to be offered for items that humans value more. The ability to identify high-value objects increases with age and experience, as does the macaques' skill as thieves. The animals in this group have been stealing and trading for more than 30 years, suggesting that the practice is culturally transmitted.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Why cats like catnip...

Interesting work from Uenoyama et al.:
Domestic cats and other felids rub their faces and heads against catnip (Nepeta cataria) and silver vine (Actinidia polygama) and roll on the ground as a characteristic response. While this response is well known, its biological function and underlying mechanism remain undetermined. Here, we uncover the neurophysiological mechanism and functional outcome of this feline response. We found that the iridoid nepetalactol is the major component of silver vine that elicits this potent response in cats and other felids. Nepetalactol increased plasma β-endorphin levels in cats, while pharmacological inhibition of μ-opioid receptors suppressed the classic rubbing response. Rubbing behavior transfers nepetalactol onto the faces and heads of respondents where it repels the mosquito, Aedes albopictus. Thus, self-anointing behavior helps to protect cats against mosquito bites. The characteristic response of cats to nepetalactol via the μ-opioid system provides an important example of chemical pest defense using plant metabolites in nonhuman mammals.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

MindBlog Outage

Greetings from Austin Texas, where I live. Winter storm Texas can't handle. Third day of massive power outage, looks like at least one more day to go. One working burner on kitchen gas stove keeping interior at about 50 degrees. No posts until power restored. Roads are solid ice this morning. No further posts until power returns.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The gut microbiome can instruct brain cells to fight neuroinflammation.

I perk up whenever I see a reference relevant to 'inflamaging,' the slow rise of cellular inflammation that accompanies - as I am too well aware in my own case - aging. Neuroflammation is an underlying component of dementias and alzheimer's disease. Sanmarco et al. at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston have now discovered a new subset of brain cells that fight inflammation with instructions from the gut microbiome. Here are excerpts from their research brief that are a bit easier to follow than the technical abstreact of the article:
Astrocytes are the most abundant type of cells within the central nervous system (CNS).. Researchers have long assumed that astrocytes’ primary function is to provide nutrients and support for the brain’s more closely scrutinized nerve cells; over the years, however, increasing evidence has shown that astrocytes can also actively promote neurodegeneration, inflammation, and neurological diseases. Now, a team led by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has shown that a specific astrocyte sub-population can do the opposite, instead serving a protective, anti-inflammatory function within the brain based on signals regulated by the bacteria that reside in the gut.
The researchers used refined gene- and protein-analysis tools to identify the novel astrocyte subset. The astrocyte population resides close to the meninges (the membrane enclosing the brain) and expresses a protein called LAMP1, along with a protein called TRAIL, which can induce the death of other cells. These features help the LAMP1+TRAIL+ astrocytes limit CNS inflammation by inducing cell death in T-cells that promote inflammation... They found that a particular signaling molecule, called interferon-gamma, regulates TRAIL expression. Moreover, they found that the gut microbiome induces the expression of interferon-gamma in cells that circulate through the body and ultimately reach the meninges, where they can promote astrocyte anti-inflammatory activities.
Understanding the mechanisms driving the anti-inflammatory functions of LAMP1+TRAIL+ astrocytes could enable researchers to develop therapeutic approaches to combat neurological diseases, like multiple sclerosis. For example, they are exploring probiotic candidates that can be used to regulate the astrocytes’ anti-inflammatory activity.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Personal experiences bridge moral and political divides better than facts

From Kubin et al. in PNAS: 


All Americans are affected by rising political polarization, whether because of a gridlocked Congress or antagonistic holiday dinners. People believe that facts are essential for earning the respect of political adversaries, but our research shows that this belief is wrong. We find that sharing personal experiences about a political issue—especially experiences involving harm—help to foster respect via increased perceptions of rationality. This research provides a straightforward pathway for increasing moral understanding and decreasing political intolerance. These findings also raise questions about how science and society should understand the nature of truth in the era of “fake news.” In moral and political disagreements, everyday people treat subjective experiences as truer than objective facts.
Both liberals and conservatives believe that using facts in political discussions helps to foster mutual respect, but 15 studies—across multiple methodologies and issues—show that these beliefs are mistaken. Political opponents respect moral beliefs more when they are supported by personal experiences, not facts. The respect-inducing power of personal experiences is revealed by survey studies across various political topics, a field study of conversations about guns, an analysis of YouTube comments from abortion opinion videos, and an archival analysis of 137 interview transcripts from Fox News and CNN. The personal experiences most likely to encourage respect from opponents are issue-relevant and involve harm. Mediation analyses reveal that these harm-related personal experiences increase respect by increasing perceptions of rationality: everyone can appreciate that avoiding harm is rational, even in people who hold different beliefs about guns, taxes, immigration, and the environment. Studies show that people believe in the truth of both facts and personal experiences in nonmoral disagreement; however, in moral disagreements, subjective experiences seem truer (i.e., are doubted less) than objective facts. These results provide a concrete demonstration of how to bridge moral divides while also revealing how our intuitions can lead us astray. Stretching back to the Enlightenment, philosophers and scientists have privileged objective facts over experiences in the pursuit of truth. However, furnishing perceptions of truth within moral disagreements is better accomplished by sharing subjective experiences, not by providing facts.

Friday, February 12, 2021

You've gotta watch this - A billion year journey of Earth's tectonic plates

The article by Andrews in the New York Times describes the history of tectonic plate theory and brings into vivid focus how us humans are just a transient eye blink in the history of our planet. I pass on a YouTube version of the fascinating animation in the article:


Thursday, February 11, 2021

MindBlog keeps the blood pumping

Discussion of the therapeutic effects of exercise has been one of the topic threads in MindBlog since its beginning...reporting effects of different styles of exercise on metabolic health, gene expression, markers of aging, etc. Two recent fads have been the "7-minute exercise' and ever more brief forms of intense interval exercises. Parker-Pope now points out the perfect exercises for a 78 year old fart like myself who wants to get up from his computer every hour or so to move and get the blood stirring a bit, but doesn't want to be bouncing  up and down off the floor multiple times. Trainer Chris Jordan now offers the Standing 7- inute workout, suited to bodies of any age, size or fitness level. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Sensing the presence of gods and spirits across cultures and faiths

A fascinating open source article by Luhrmann et al. showing that what feels real to our senses is shaped by our culture.

The sensory presence of gods and spirits is central to many of the religions that have shaped human history—in fact, many people of faith report having experienced such events. But these experiences are poorly understood by social scientists and rarely studied empirically. We present a multiple-discipline, multiple-methods program of research involving thousands of people from diverse cultures and religions which demonstrates that two key factors—cultural models of the mind and personal orientations toward the mind—explain why some people are more likely than others to report vivid experiences of gods and spirits. These results demonstrate the power of culture, in combination with individual differences, to shape something as basic as what feels real to the senses.
Hearing the voice of God, feeling the presence of the dead, being possessed by a demonic spirit—such events are among the most remarkable human sensory experiences. They change lives and in turn shape history. Why do some people report experiencing such events while others do not? We argue that experiences of spiritual presence are facilitated by cultural models that represent the mind as “porous,” or permeable to the world, and by an immersive orientation toward inner life that allows a person to become “absorbed” in experiences. In four studies with over 2,000 participants from many religious traditions in the United States, Ghana, Thailand, China, and Vanuatu, porosity and absorption played distinct roles in determining which people, in which cultural settings, were most likely to report vivid sensory experiences of what they took to be gods and spirits.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

How LSD tweaks our brain synapses to promote social behavior.

For the subset of MindBlog readers that is into the detailed Neuroscience of our behavior, I pass on an interesting article by De Gregorio et al. who use a mouse model to probe LSD's reported enhancement of empathy and social behavior in humans. Here is their significance statement, which is quite technical. If that's not enough for you, click on the link.
Social behavior (SB) is a fundamental hallmark of human interaction. Repeated administration of low doses of the 5-HT2A agonist lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in mice enhances SB by potentiating 5-HT2A and AMPA receptor neurotransmission in the mPFC via an increasing phosphorylation of the mTORC1, a protein involved in the modulation of SB. Moreover, the inactivation of mPFC glutamate neurotransmission impairs SB and nullifies the prosocial effects of LSD. Finally, LSD requires the integrity of mTORC1 in excitatory glutamatergic, but not in inhibitory neurons, to produce prosocial effects. This study unveils a mechanism contributing to the role of 5-HT2A agonism in the modulation of SB.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Timing matters when correcting fake news

 From Brashier et al.:

Countering misinformation can reduce belief in the moment, but corrective messages quickly fade from memory. We tested whether the longer-term impact of fact-checks depends on when people receive them. In two experiments (total N = 2,683), participants read true and false headlines taken from social media. In the treatment conditions, “true” and “false” tags appeared before, during, or after participants read each headline. Participants in a control condition received no information about veracity. One week later, participants in all conditions rated the same headlines’ accuracy. Providing fact-checks after headlines (debunking) improved subsequent truth discernment more than providing the same information during (labeling) or before (prebunking) exposure. This finding informs the cognitive science of belief revision and has practical implications for social media platform designers.

Friday, February 05, 2021

MindBlog's 15th birthday

Mindblog has been chugging along for 15 years, it's contents reflecting what I find interesting and am reading about at the moment. It seems a waste to not pass on stuff I like, in the hope that others find it interesting. A few of the posts are my own ruminations, but most are large re-tweets or clips from articles, sometimes with a few comments thrown in.

There have been 5,056 posts. I don't follow the analytics, but for the occasion of this post I've clicked "Stats" in the Blogger menu and see that ~1,000 people view MindBlog each day. Feedburner indicates ~1.8 million total views (but when I looked several years ago it said ~4 million, so go figure...). Every week I get several emails requesting advertisement, external article, or link placements -  to which I reply with my boilerplate 'no thank you' response.

In previous birthday posts I've occasionally gnashed my teeth over whether I should continue doing the blog, and focus my time on longer projects.  I realize, however, that even if readership dropped to zero I would probably continue to do postings, because this provides a disciplined and simple way to archive my thinking and reading over time.  I have found the search box in the left column to be an invaluable tool when I want to recall ideas or get background material relevant to starting up a new talk or project.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Moonstruck sleep: Synchronization of human sleep with the moon cycle

From Casiraghi et al.:
Before the availability of artificial light, moonlight was the only source of light sufficient to stimulate nighttime activity; still, evidence for the modulation of sleep timing by lunar phases is controversial. Here, we use wrist actimetry to show a clear synchronization of nocturnal sleep timing with the lunar cycle in participants living in environments that range from a rural setting with and without access to electricity in indigenous Toba/Qom communities in Argentina to a highly urbanized postindustrial setting in the United States. Our results show that sleep starts later and is shorter on the nights before the full moon when moonlight is available during the hours following dusk. Our data suggest that moonlight likely stimulated nocturnal activity and inhibited sleep in preindustrial communities and that access to artificial light may emulate the ancestral effect of early-night moonlight.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Underlying forces that are determining America's future governance.

I want to pass on clips from a few recent commentaries on current dissonances in U.S. politics and governance. I've collected these as background material for a meeting of the 'Austin Rainbow Forum' - a group that meets on the first Sunday afternoon of each month to discuss current topics and ideas. The discussion this Sunday is titled "So we've had the election. Now what?"  I'm hoping the discussion will focus on the underlying forces at play in determining our future style of governance. 

John Edsall collects numerous quotes from writers describing the Christian nationalism that drove the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol:

...It includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious. Understood in this light, Christian nationalism contends that America has been and should always be distinctively ‘Christian’ from top to bottom — in its self-identity, interpretations of its own history, sacred symbols, cherished values and public policies — and it aims to keep it this way.
...a certain narrative about American history. In rough outline: America was founded as a Christian nation; the Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians; the Nation’s laws and founding documents were indirectly based on “biblical” principles, or even directly inspired by God, Himself. America’s power and prosperity are due to its piety and obedience...Christian nationalists use a language of blood and apocalypse. They talk about blood conquest, blood sacrifice, and blood belonging, and also about cosmic battles between good and evil. The blood talk comes from the Old Testament; the apocalyptic talk from the Book of Revelation. members of the Christian right have become angrier and more adversarial, some to the point of violence, their decline from dominant to marginal status has bred a provocative resentment that is serving to spur the very secularization processes that so infuriates them. If the evidence of the Capitol attack and its aftermath is any guide, this vicious circle does not bode well for the future.

Another column by Edsall presents ideas of several political scientists on why millions of Americans continue to actively participate in multiple conspiracy theories.

...nearly a fifth of American adults, 17 percent, believe that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics.” Almost a third “believe that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election.” Even more, 39 percent, agree that “there is a deep state working to undermine President Trump.”...The spread of these beliefs has wrought havoc — as demonstrated by the Jan. 6 assault on Congress, as well as by the overwhelming support Republicans continue to offer to the former president.
It is fascinating reading, and I like the evolutionary rationale provided by Van Prooijen, that:
...conspiracy theories evolved among ancestral humans to prepare for, and hence protect against, potentially hostile groups. What we saw here, I think was an evolutionary mismatch: some mental faculties evolved to cope effectively with an ancestral environment, yet we now live in a different, modern environment where these same mechanisms can lead to detrimental outcomes. In an ancestral world with regular tribal warfare and coalitional conflict, in many situations it could have been rational and even lifesaving to respond with violence to the threat of a different group conspiring against one’s own group. Now in our modern world these mechanisms may sometimes misfire, and lead people to use violence toward the very democratic institutions that were designed to help and protect them.
Charles Blow does an Op-Ed piece on how population shifts mean more political might for relatively fewer people, with the influence of black people increasingly diminished:
...By 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 percent will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent...If you think it has been hard to get this Senate to embrace policies like reparations or voting rights that stand to benefit Black people, imagine how much harder that task will be before a Senate that continues to tilt toward smaller states...Furthermore, a Pew demographic analysis has found that by 2065, Hispanics in America will nearly double the population of Black people, and Asians will overtake Black people as the nation’s second-largest minority...if Hispanics and Asians vote then the way they vote now — a third of each group voted for Trump — their combined votes for Republicans will eclipse the Black vote for Democrats.
Goldstone and Turchin argue that the elites are committing three cardinal sins:
First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves, driving up inequality. Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny. For example, in an increasingly meritocratic society, elites could keep places at top universities limited and raise the entry requirements and costs in ways that favor the children of those who had already succeeded...Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues, leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services and fast-rising government debts....Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. They create simmering conditions of greater inequality and declining effectiveness of, and respect for, government.

An interview of Sen. Rob Portman by Steve Hayes has comments on the role of the media in making it hard to get things done in Washington:

...the media plays a big role in this. I have a hard time; I do a press call every week, and I get through my 15 minutes of talking about all the policy things we’ve done, and usually I’ve got two or three bills I’ve either gotten introduced or gotten passed into law in a week. And they don’t care. Their questions are all about Donald Trump, and all about putting me on the spot between the Republican Party and Donald Trump. I mean, honestly, that’s been our pattern for the last four years, is that we’re talking about substantive policy, and the media only wants to talk about the latest Trump tweet and how to put me in a tight spot...I don’t have an answer to it in terms of the business model; I do have an answer to it in terms of journalism school or wherever people learn how to be a reporter or an editorial writer, is that there is an accountability here that ought to go with the media, that they’re accountable for actually helping to correct this problem by actually reporting on policy, and who is doing what. This year I’m the fourth-most bipartisan member, last time I was the second-most bipartisan member—no one in Ohio knows that, because no media will report it, because that’s not considered interesting or good, I guess.

I also point back to Monday's post describing an article by Zuboff that argues that we can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both.

And finally, to end on a less pessimistic note, I point to David Brooks' column "The Case for Biden Optimism"

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

A brief afternoon nap is probably good for your brain.

On some days I feel midafternoon drowsyness that makes it difficult for me to think or write. I lie down and do "a 10 minute naplet." After zonking out, I then suddenly awaken to find my watch reading exactly 10 min later. Over the next 30 seconds or so I completely awaken and feel mentally fresh, like a brain scrub has happened. There is debate, however, on whether brief day time napping is beneficial or detrimental to our health, especially as we age. Rich Harrity now points to a study of 2014 elderly Chinese suggesting that an afternoon nap of more than 5 min and less than 2 hours duration correlates with better overall cognitive function including orientation, language, and memory. Other studies have shown that more than 2 hours of napping during the day is detrimental to cognitive function. One speculation is that brief sleep during the day might lower the level of brain inflammatory markers know to compromise cognitive function.

Monday, February 01, 2021

The Coup We Are Not Talking About - an article of foundational importance

In a long, heavy, and scary article Shoshana Zuboff argues, in concert with similar sentiments in Harari's books, that we can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both. I strongly urge MindBlog readers to get through his text, perhaps taking it in installments to prevent overload! Here is an attempt at some summary clips:
The epistemic coup proceeds in four stages.
The first is the appropriation of epistemic rights, which lays the foundation for all that follows. Surveillance capitalism originates in the discovery that companies can stake a claim to people’s lives as free raw material for the extraction of behavioral data, which they then declare their private property.
The second stage is marked by a sharp rise in epistemic inequality, defined as the difference between what I can know and what can be known about me. The third stage, which we are living through now, introduces epistemic chaos caused by the profit-driven algorithmic amplification, dissemination and microtargeting of corrupt information, much of it produced by coordinated schemes of disinformation. Its effects are felt in the real world, where they splinter shared reality, poison social discourse, paralyze democratic politics and sometimes instigate violence and death.
In the fourth stage, epistemic dominance is institutionalized, overriding democratic governance with computational governance by private surveillance capital. The machines know, and the systems decide, directed and sustained by the illegitimate authority and anti-democratic power of private surveillance capital. Each stage builds on the last. Epistemic chaos prepares the ground for epistemic dominance by weakening democratic society — all too plain in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
To understand the economics of epistemic chaos, it’s important to know that surveillance capitalism’s operations have no formal interest in facts. All data is welcomed as equivalent, though not all of it is equal. Extraction operations proceed with the discipline of the Cyclops, voraciously consuming everything it can see and radically indifferent to meaning, facts and truth.
In a leaked memo, a Facebook executive, Andrew Bosworth, describes this willful disregard for truth and meaning: “We connect people. That can be good if they make it positive. Maybe someone finds love. … That can be bad if they make it negative. … Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack. … The ugly truth is … anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”
In other words, asking a surveillance extractor to reject content is like asking a coal-mining operation to discard containers of coal because it’s too dirty. This is why content moderation is a last resort, a public-relations operation in the spirit of ExxonMobil’s social responsibility messaging. In Facebook’s case, data triage is undertaken either to minimize the risk of user withdrawal or to avoid political sanctions. Both aim to increase rather than diminish data flows. The extraction imperative combined with radical indifference to produce systems that ceaselessly escalate the scale of engagement but don’t care what engages you.
Principles for the Third Decade
Let’s begin with a thought experiment: Imagine a 20th century with no federal laws to regulate child labor or assert standards for workers’ wages, hours and safety; no workers’ rights to join a union, strike or bargain collectively; no consumer rights; and no governmental institutions to oversee laws and policies intended to make the industrial century safe for democracy. Instead, each company was left to decide for itself what rights it would recognize, what policies and practices it would employ and how its profits would be distributed. Fortunately, those rights, laws and institutions did exist, invented by people over decades across the world’s democracies. As important as those extraordinary inventions remain, they do not protect us from the epistemic coup and its anti-democratic effects.
The deficit reflects a larger pattern: The United States and the world’s other liberal democracies have thus far failed to construct a coherent political vision of a digital century that advances democratic values, principles and government. While the Chinese have designed and deployed digital technologies to advance their system of authoritarian rule, the West has remained compromised and ambivalent.
Unprecedented harms demand unprecedented solutions
Just as new conditions of life reveal the need for new rights, the harms of the epistemic coup require purpose-built solutions. This is how law evolves, growing and adapting from one era to the next.
When it comes to the new conditions imposed by surveillance capitalism, most discussions about law and regulation focus downstream on arguments about data, including its privacy, accessibility, transparency and portability, or on schemes to buy our acquiescence with (minimal) payments for data. Downstream is where we argue about content moderation and filter bubbles, where lawmakers and citizens stamp their feet at recalcitrant executives.
Downstream is where the companies want us to be, so consumed in the details of the property contract that we forget the real issue, which is that their property claim itself is illegitimate.
What unprecedented solutions can address the unprecedented harms of the epistemic coup? First, we go upstream to supply, and we end the data collection operations of commercial surveillance. Upstream, the license to steal works its relentless miracles, employing surveillance strategies to spin the straw of human experience — my fear, their breakfast conversation, your walk in the park — into the gold of proprietary data supplies. We need legal frameworks that interrupt and outlaw the massive-scale extraction of human experience. Laws that stop data collection would end surveillance capitalism’s illegitimate supply chains. The algorithms that recommend, microtarget and manipulate, and the millions of behavioral predictions pushed out by the second cannot exist without the trillions of data points fed to them each day.
Next, we need laws that tie data collection to fundamental rights and data use to public service, addressing the genuine needs of people and communities. Data is no longer the means of information warfare waged on the innocent.
Third, we disrupt the financial incentives that reward surveillance economics. We can prohibit commercial practices that exert demand for rapacious data collection. Democratic societies have outlawed markets that trade in human organs and babies. Markets that trade in human beings were outlawed, even when they supported whole economies.
These principles are already shaping democratic action. The Federal Trade Commission initiated a study of social media and video-streaming companies less than a week after filing its case against Facebook and said it intended to “lift the hood” of internal operations “to carefully study their engines.” A statement by three commissioners took aim at tech companies “capable of surveilling and monetizing … our personal lives,” adding that “too much about the industry remains dangerously opaque.”
Groundbreaking legislative proposals in the European Union and Britain will, if passed, begin to institutionalize the three principles. The E.U. framework would assert democratic governance over the largest platforms’ black boxes of internal operations, including comprehensive audit and enforcement authority. Fundamental rights and the rule of law would no longer vaporize at the cyberborder, as lawmakers insist on “a safe, predictable, and trusted online environment.” In Britain the Online Harms Bill would establish a legal “duty of care” that would hold the tech companies responsible for public harms and include broad new authorities and enforcement powers.
Two sentences often attributed to Justice Brandeis feature in the congressional subcommittee’s impressive antitrust report. “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” The statement so relevant to Brandeis’s time remains a pungent commentary on the old capitalism we know, but it ignores the new capitalism that knows us. Unless democracy revokes the license to steal and challenges the fundamental economics and operations of commercial surveillance, the epistemic coup will weaken and eventually transform democracy itself. We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have surveillance society, but we cannot have both. We have a democratic information civilization to build, and there is no time to waste.