The strong do what they will, the weak do what they must, and the manipulated do what they think they must (which is what the strong or weak will). Manipulation — influencing behavior by altering another’s viewpoint in a manner indifferent to whether or not the alterations are true or desirable — is one of the most important aspects of social conflict and competition. While you may not be interested in manipulation, manipulation is interested in you (though it may disguise this interest beneath layers of dissimulation). In this post I provide a selective overview of the theory and practice of manipulation. Why does this matter? Whether in geopolitics or at home, we must either understand and confront manipulation or be victimized by a Machiavellian Mini-Me.
The weaponized form of McLuhan’s famous phrase the medium is the message is the phrase, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us (due to to McLuhan’s friend John Culkin). I have come to prefer this form of the idea, and my favorite motif for it is Doc Ock, the Marvel super-villain.
Doc Ock’s artificially intelligent arms fuse to his brain stem in a reactor accident. In the movie version, the intelligence in the arms alters his behavior by making lower-level brain functions, such as emotional self-regulation, more powerful and volatile. The character backstory suggests a personality — a blue-collar nerd bullied as a schoolkid — that was already primed for destabilization by the usual sort of super-villain narcissistic wound. The accident alters the balance of power between his higher-level brain functions, and the hardware-extended lower-level brain functions. In the Doc Ock story, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us captures the adversarial coupling between medium and message-sender.
The weaker form of McLuhan’s idea suggests that media select messages rather than the other way around: paper selects for formal communication, email selects for informal communication, 4chan selects for trolling. The stronger form suggests that when there is a conflict between medium and message, the medium wins. A formal communication intent naturally acquires informal overtones if it ends up as an email, memetic overtones if it ends up as a 4chan message.
Culkin’s form is the strongest. It suggests that the medium reshapes the principal crafting the message. The Doc Ock motif suggests why. There is no such thing as a dumb agent. All media have at least weak, latent, distributed intelligence. Intelligence that can accumulate power, exhibit agency, and contend for control.
The most familiar example of this effect is in organizational behavior, captured in an extension to Alfred Chandler’s famous observation that structure follows strategy. That becomes first structure follows strategy, then strategy follows structure. The explicit form is Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: in a mature organization, agent goals trump principal goals.
A subtler, less familiar example is the philosophical idea that in any master-slave relationship, the slave can self-actualize through labor. In practice, this happens only when the slave has some freedom above absolute wretchedness, with sufficient cognitive surplus to turn learning from labor into political leverage.
In all such examples, the mechanism is the same. A seemingly powerless and dumb agent, by virtue of having privileged access to information and organizational operations, can become the principal by converting growing tacit knowledge of reality into consciously exercised political leverage.
The idea sheds light on why we are instinctively concerned about the Trump administration-in-waiting. While it is plausible, indeed probable, that Trump’s own ideological postures are merely expedient responses to the needs of the moment, the same cannot be said of many of his agents-in-waiting, whether acknowledged or not. They are tools at the moment, being shaped to the will of a victor. Unfortunately, they can easily go from being shaped to doing the shaping.
This is a guest post by Darren Allen, joining us from his home turf at expressivegg.org.
The famous duck-rabbit optical illusion is a paradox, meaning that it is both one thing, and another, at the same time. The interpreting mind can never experience it this way. To the mind the image is either a duck or a rabbit, one after the other, but not both at the same time. The abstract thinking mind may know it is both, but this knowledge is itself a non-paradoxical either-or idea. The thinking mind cannot experience something that is simultaneously itself and something else; it can only comprehend one thing after another. Every time you try to directly experience the image as it fully, paradoxically, is, as both things at once, it is immediately reduced to what it partially, non-paradoxically is; to one thing or another. For a split second you think you’ve got both the full, direct, primary duck and rabbit simultaneously—perhaps because you can successfully label it a paradox—but really you are just flashing rapidly between partial, indirect, secondary mental interpretations.
I want to tell you a story today. A sprawling epic mess of a story which began with two histories intersecting awkwardly just over a hundred years ago in a small tribal village nestled in the dense forests of one of the richest mining regions of the world. It is the kind of story that has multiple obscure beginnings but no ending. The kind of story that evolves as an unending stream of good chapters and dumpster-fire chapters, accompanied by endless bewildering arguments about which chapters were good, and which ones were dumpster fires.
The first history is the one behind a board room struggle within the $100 billion Tata empire, which made headlines in the business press across the world in October. The second is the history behind a 500 million dollar corruption scandal known as the fodder scam, which first became public in 1996, and eventually led to a man named Lalu Prasad Yadav going to jail in 2013.
In 1904, those two histories intersected in that small tribal village which was about to become the modern city of Jamshedpur. I was born in Jamshedpur in 1974, just short of 42 years ago.
But this is not my story. Nor am I, perhaps, the best person to tell this story.
It is, however, as much mine to tell as anybody else’s, and when it comes to telling the story of history, that is often the only thing that matters. So I will tell you this story.
Over the past three years, as long-time readers will have noted, ribbonfarm has gradually transitioned into a multi-author site. To date, we’ve hosted 13 blogging residents who have completed/are completing 4-6 posts each, on a broadly defined theme. We’ve also hosted 8 one-off guests who have contributed 1-2 posts each. I’m pretty proud that in both 2015 and 2016 (so far), the most popular posts were not by me or contributing editor Sarah Perry, yet embodied the Tao of Refactoring in the best possible sense.
So far, our approach to finding contributors has been pretty much ad hoc, based on random acts of talent scouting by Sarah and me. Now we want to level up, so we will be co-teaching the first ever ribbonfarm longform blogging course, aimed primarily at beefing up our own pipeline of potential contributors. Our goal isn’t so much to help you “improve” (in fact we hope many who sign up are already better writers than either of us), but to help you grok what we’re trying to do here, why it’s valuable/interesting/fun, what we look for as editors, and why you might want to try this approach to writing.
There will be 4 online video sessions of about 90 minutes on Thu Nov 10, Tue Nov 15, Thu Nov 17 and Tue Nov 22, between 5:30 – 7:00 PM Pacific.
Check out the syllabus below, then head on over to the eventbrite page to buy a ticket if interested. To repeat, this is primarily a scouting course, and the main purpose is to beef up our own pipeline of NEW contributors. If you’ve already written for us before, please don’t register; contact one of us for a free alumni/Friends of Ribbonfarm ticket.
“Cyberpunk creeps up on us. Some kind of alchemy transforms its fictions into truths, and draws us towards places we thought unreal.” — @uttunul
Conventionally speaking, cyberpunk is a media genre. It brings to mind William Gibson’s Neuromancer. You fondly remember Blade Runner, and maybe Deus Ex or Ghost in the Shell. The phrase “high tech, low life” floats up from the back of your brain. You picture an exaggerated version of Hong Kong with a heavy dose of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. You’re envisioning the Walled City of Kowloon plus lots of computers. Within tiny apartments, disheveled vigilante hackers stare at their screens, busily infiltrating the databases of megacorps.
But perhaps you’ve also noticed that cyberpunk plot points are turning up in real life. Robot security guards patrol shopping malls. A near-billionaire startup founder sees virtual reality as salvation for the downtrodden global poor. San Francisco’s Tenderloin district is flush with VC money and homeless drug addicts at the same time. And speaking of those vigilante hackers, they’re here in our reality too, pwning companies of all sizes. Some state-sponsored ones like to meddle in foreign politics. It’s all very exciting! Only plutocrats and nouveau mafiosos can avoid feeling uneasy.
Cyberpunk examines the way computing changes power relationships. Asymmetric information warfare has become the norm, as foretold by our pulpy sci-fi prophets. The technological changes that have been snowballing over the past fifty years now mean that anyone can talk to anyone, anywhere, with their identity hidden or not. Edward Snowden can stroll away from his NSA job with a priceless cache of secret documents that detail the crimes of an empire, then escape across continents in a matter of days, to hole up with a rival regime.
So, why bother with any of this if you don’t intend to commit espionage?
Whether it is in stopping quarrels between children or in deciding any of the thousand issues that come up in a large household, Anita can always make up her mind and keep things moving. A family such as ours must have a strong, capable leader.
(Strong, capable tyrant, I said under my breath.)
-Robert A. Heinlein, Friday
Getting things done involves a strong dose of leading with a vision, and ignoring those that disagree. When such leaders are given the reins, the forward progress can sometimes, post-hoc, justify trampling others. Of course, when men do this, it’s called leadership, but when women do it, even when they are doing the same things, the research shows that it’s likely to be referred to more negatively . On the other hand, once given the reins, a rising tide can lift all boats . Successful leaders ensure that enough of the progress is towards shared goals, so that the rising tide compensates the trampled masses. But it doesn’t always work out.
The key difference between leaders seen as heroes after the fact and those seen as villains is the post-hoc consensus that what they accomplished was good. (Gender stops mattering in retrospect.) The tension between disagreement now and perceptions in the future illuminates the essence of how democracies fail — but also how politics can promote wider success. I think this dynamic shows deep reasons that compromise can be reached, that decisions are not impossible, and that politics doesn’t need to destroy our ability to move forward.
Of course, the US may still be royally screwed.
For my fourth video blog, I bring you a wide-ranging conversation with David Bosshart, CEO of the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI) in Zurich. I’ve known the folks at GDI for a few years, and worked with them several times. Most recently, GDI undertook the German translation of my Breaking Smart essays.
This conversation is partly me interviewing David about the EU, and partly David interviewing me about the US. We talk about the future of Germany and the EU, Brexit, the rise of the new right, the history of corporatism in the US and EU, the rise of China and India, the future of nations, and various other things. Basically the sort of conversation about globalization and Big History that you can only have with somebody from Switzerland.
If the Germanic world interests you, you may like a recent issue of the breaking smart newsletter, Can the Germanic World Break Smart?
If you happen to be near Switzerland around January 17, you should consider attending GDI’s next conference, The Future of Power. They put on excellent events.
And if you happen to have any German speaking friends or business colleagues, be sure to pass on the German translation of Breaking Smart.