Issue #23

Persuasion

Persuasion

The case against the case against Cambridge Analytica

The Great Hack is very well-made documentary, engaging, articulate and … persuasive. But the (unintended, perhaps) effect of such an intensive focus on People Being Misled focussed me on (mis)leading in general. To wit, that the makers of this film were themselves leading (however unconsciously or innocently), girded by the assumed benevolence of a moral high ground. The good and best thing about this film is that it led me to think deeply, about persuasion – what kind of problem it is, if it is indeed a problem, and if it is, what is to be done. I came to conclusions different than the authors on every point, and as an independent and critical thinker I thank them for the opportunity. The film is a service to the necessary and democratic dialogue about our responsibilities to ourselves and others. Here I make the point that the film does not explicitly make: as deciders in a democratic society, we are responsible for critique, evaluation, and reasoning on every issue. We cannot simply accept any information at face value, but rather must parse every bit. And so even The Great Hack.

I have to spoil the film’s main tenets and offerings to discuss them. In the spirit of my main thesis I recommend you to watch it before reading my take, so that you have your own, unframed by mine.

The film exposes Cambridge Analytica’s surreptitious – though not (yet) illegal – mining of personal data, and the company’s use of data so gathered to create profiles of individuals, in order to target them with messages specific to their frameworks, tendencies, proclivities, and assumptions. CA’s work was done on behalf of political organizations (Brexit and the Trump campaign among them). To the firm’s purpose, the profiles it compiles are psychological analyses that identify a subpopulation of voters deemed to be persuadable. Cambridge Analytica’s strategy went so far as to use these profiles to encourage, create, and suggest behaviors and ideas that furthered their clients’ interests, all of which were political. It is an important tenet of the film that people are vulnerable, indeed that some are more vulnerable than others – exactly those that are persuadable. For the filmmakers, persuadable equals gullible rather than undecided or openminded. It’s hard to assess CA’s assessment without knowing their criteria and algorithms. The filmmakers, though, and the investigative reporters and whistleblowers they champion, see these tactics as wickedly predatory and unprecedented. Cambridge Analytica’s strategies are easily categorized as attempts to convince and manipulate – made ridiculously easy by social media – but are such attempts anything new?

Over the past two thousand years human beings have been subject to many technologies of persuasion, even though they may be hidden, or discounted by the very fact that they are usual, engrained so tightly within culture that they are shrugged off, mislabeled, or unseen. But consider them now, from old to new: storytelling, myth, rhetoric, fable, debate, catechism, law, cartoon, hierarchy, pamphlet, fiction, journalism, memoir, essay, photography, film, advertising, peer pressure, Talk radio and TV, celebrity, wise children, fake news, memes. Consider them again, by category: narrative, indoctrination/education, seduction, authority. Consider them a third time: as appeals to reason, appeals to spirit, or as appeals to emotion that, by design, bypass reason.

Roland Barthes wrote about photography in his essay The Photographic Message (1961), and he identified photography as a medium inherently unframed. To mean, that the photographer’s point of view is unknown to a viewer, or better yet, that the fact that a photograph even contains a point of view is hidden. I use point-of-view here both figuratively and literally: you do not know the photographer’s intent – that he/she has an intent – nor do you know what surrounds the image he/she captured. The latter is true for every representative visual art, but in these other visual media the viewer sees the artist’s hand, and so records the work as an interpretation. A viewer of visual art therefore has an authorial role, to think about, and accept or reject the maker’s meaning and/or intent. A photograph, however, hides the fact that it is an interpretation. In its verisimilitude it signals reality, not artifice. It cannot show you its context, either, and so does not reveal itself as a choice. But in photography choice/selection is the interpretive act. Without a signal of mediation a viewer’s critical agency is short-circuited. I like to say, “A photograph is a lie.” Newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst said it most succinctly and aptly, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Many of the technologies of persuasion I listed above are likewise unframed, including documentary film. Documentaries exploit the verisimilitude of photography to distract the gatekeeper of reason. Appeals to reason are generally less unframed than emotional appeals. All unframed media used with persuasive intent rely on a fundamental psychological understanding of this kind of emotional seduction.

Journalism has taken a turn from defining itself as a fact-based and objective report-making enterprise to one of story-telling. [reason v emotion] Narrative is now the journalistic means of persuasion, and so facts are curated, elided, and misrepresented in support of the/a story. As with visual art, the interpretive aspect of writing can be obvious, as in fiction, or hidden as in new journalism. All writers have technologies for hooking the reader, entraining him/her in a point of view (close-in and detailed descriptions, first person p.o.v., and adjectives, for a few examples). The difference is, in fiction, the reader chooses to go along for the ride, knowing it is a ride, while for new journalism the artifice is purposefully under the radar. Memoir sits somewhere in the middle, claiming truthfulness and disclosure, but relying too on craft and curation.

Another unframed technology of persuasion is the law. On the one hand fear of reprisal or punishment is the deterring ‘argument’ made by encoded community standards and consequences – a not so subtle play on emotion. On the other, law is educational, in so much as it outlines behaviors deemed healthy, protective, and sustaining for community members. Laws requiring seat belts, school attendance, vaccination etc. are some of these. They rest on reason for compliance, but still are a form of indoctrination, hard to question or change. Jury trials in the U.S. manifest hidden or unframed persuasive tactics, during jury selection and in the courtroom. The instant psychological profiles wrought by jury consultants, and the reliance on emotional ploys by both prosecution and defense are two obvious examples. These misleading attempts to persuade are evidenced as suspect by the well known caveat against having a case heard by a jury: ‘I wouldn’t have my fate decided by any twelve persons not smart enough to get out of jury duty.” The system relies on personalities deemed persuadable, here meaning gullible, emotional thinkers.

So, while the granularity central to Cambridge Analytica’s brand of profiling is certainly new (in both access and particularity), persuasive manipulation is not new, nor is exploiting human psychology. The outcry against Cambridge Analytica is really an objection is to the (assumed) superior effectiveness of The Opposition’s techniques. For the unacknowledged undercurrent of The Great Hack is that both electoral results –Trump elected, and Brexit passed – are wrong, and so therefore wrongly obtained. The claim of voter manipulation is also clouded by the very real fact that, although we know that CA’s clients’ goals were realized, we can never know the results that would have been without CA’s efforts. We simply do not know how many ‘persuadable’ voters’ minds were made or changed by any of Cambridge Analytica’s messaging. Neither do we know whether people who are at any point undecided are necessarily vulnerable. I am not sure either that persuasion is coercion, as The Great Hack implies. For these reasons I hesitate to brand CA’s work as interference in an election as the film does. As I see it the fix for the ‘problem’ of persuasive technologies is not legislative. The best defense against manipulation is capacity for critical reasoning. It is not suppression of technologies, which is tantamount to suppression of speech. Well-disciplined minds have no problem with all the noise; emotional thinkers do. As always, the solution to the problem of bad talk is more talk; likewise, the solution to bad thinking is better thinking. Rather than advocate for protections for mentally vulnerable persons (omg, how patronizing!), we should attend to educating critical thinkers. Use of the arts of persuasion is not a moral issue. Susceptibility to it is a human trait I see as a developmental lack, one that can and should be remedied.

To this exact purpose I once designed and taught a course in critical thinking, using scientific reasoning as a template. It is human nature to accept ideas and information that ‘fit’ preexisting mental models, but to live in a complex world one needs to have an open, flexible, questing mind. Yes, thinking is HARD, it takes a lot of energy and time.
Being yourself is hard. But who else can do it? The world thrives on, needs individuals, unique perspectives. It does not need sheep. (Copying is a constant irritant to me – I hate it. Be yourself, think for yourself! Authenticity, dammit!) The first exercise in my course was titled “How do you know what you know?” Some answers, good and bad: “what I’m told, what I read, what I’m taught, what I discover, what I teach myself, what I learn, what I research, what I vet. What I tear down, rebuild, invent, puzzle out, create”. I strove to develop a strong theory of mind in my students, to enable them to see their own frames, and to see and question the motives and frames of others.
In other words, to see the world unframed, with honesty.

The Great Hack leaves its viewers with a question:
“Can you be manipulated?”
Here’s mine:
How do you know what you know?


 

Hypotheosis III

Hypotheosis III

Neuroscience news – Researchers in Norway, England, and the U.S. have established by several experiments that at least some abstract knowledge is represented in the brain spatially. The essential idea is that many kinds of cognition – perceptions, experiences, and abstractions – are stored in cell grids of varying sizes and orientations, relative directions and distances among them standing in for relational and conceptual aspects. In doing so they co-opt the very mechanisms used to record location and navigational data. Our thoughts and understandings are mapped. Such a correlation between our mental and physical worlds will be intuitive to anyone who is familiar with or has ever used a Memory Palace as an aid to remembering. The Greeks and Romans were among the first to have employed this device, imagining the items to be remembered in locations along a path. I remember using a version of this in school, calling up answers to exams by mentally turning the pages of my textbooks to the one that held the answer, and finding it in its spot on that page.

This latest study is of special interest to me because my MLA thesis investigated collage as a representational medium for landscape design, and relied on cognitive science research into navigation strategies/modes. A key insight from that work is that people represent navigational information, like paths, distances, landmarks schematically, rather than accurately. Which is to say our mental models of the places we know and traverse ‘look’ like subway maps. We preserve spatial relationships between navigational data, but approximately.

What this leads me (back) to is a comment Deepak Chopra made once, on a television show. (Oprah?) I’ll paraphrase it here, as I cannot remember exactly the quote, but the idea he offered then is that everything human beings do is a projection or externalization of how we are made, how we operate – built on our blueprints, if you will. Subway maps, and memory palaces mimic and reveal deep mind structure; other facets of our being can be similarly illuminated. Here are a few human inventions that bear out Chopra’s novel thought.

I see automotive transport as a simulacram for the womb. Think about it: In a car you glide/flow through space, suspended, cushioned (oh, those heated leather seats), in a temperature-regulated environment, protected and tethered (frame, airbag, belts), passively connected to the outer world by sound (talk show, music, audiobook) and similarly nourished (sippy cups and straws, cup-holders, drive-thru’s and window deliveries). All the while supervised, directed, and tended to by SiriMom. What life-sustaining need is unmet? The one real difference is an addictive upgrade – in a car you get to steer.

In no small way libraries are physical models of memory, as are computers and the Cloud, however more abstractly. Search engines and card catalogs mimic the neurological paths we take through our minds to retrieve remembered information.

I wonder too what photoshop betrays about us – maybe that we mentally concatenate, and configure knowledge in a collage-like mode, appending (amending) cognitive maps with multi-dimensional callouts, like those affixed to landscape or architectural drawings. Or maybe photoshop reflects the way we layer, edit, and intermix memories over time.

Contemporary dance replicates visual perception in an almost freaky way. The hip/hop animation dance style is a slowed-down breakdown of the actual way we see, taking in discrete ordered bits of visual information so quickly we smooth the observations into a continuum. CD’s too are digital data, the gaps so small that we are told we hear their successive bits of sound just the same as we do analog recordings. Of this I am not so sure, based on the resurgence in the popularity of LP recordings, and the universal preference for live music. Could our hearing be a continual perception, even while sight is not?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAr1g_dGhDE

Such an interesting way to look at the human world, that we are telling on ourselves at every turn. I wonder what other insights are hidden in plain sight?


 

a la carte

a la carte

I find it hard to consider photography as art, because it is so often used as a technology of persuasion. By this I mean it is used to seduce the viewer, into a purchase (advertising), an author’s point of view (illustration), or an idea (Sketch-up). In these cases the emotions triggered are not any intrinsic to the promoted product/belief/idea and so the images are false, presented in bad faith. I use photographs in MUSE, employing covers and preview images to entice you to read. But I take great care when choosing images to ensure that they contain the emotion or meaning of the writing they accompany. They are representational even as they add another dimension or layer to the piece, and are therefore true.

While photography can be conceived as an artful undertaking and product in its own right, I find many attempts frivolous and superficial – aestheticizing the subject, rather than exploring the subject, or color and line and pattern and light, or composition, or the medium itself. For me photography is most successful when it conveys the experience of landscape, and when it captures people authentically, in portrait. Whether these last are Art, or arts I am undecided.

The issue was front and center for me recently when I received an invitation to a book launch. The book is a collaborative effort by a graphic designer and photographer, and purports to record the authors’ memories of cooking with their mothers. As a writer, I find memoirs illustrative, informative, and engaging as they bring to light (life) small scenes and details that usually go unremarked, or as they record journeys, lessons, becomings. Humility is at the center of memoir, as is vulnerability – it is a sharing that the author hopes/thinks will console, inspire, educate, enlarge, redeem, or otherwise be meaningful to a reader. Yes, some memoirs are vanity and self-service, attention- and money-seeking. But a good memoir lets you know another person, another path, another life and pauses you, in reflection.

But not this book. The announcement featured a photograph in the style of the worst cookbook food porn, a graphic design positioning itself as art, but intended to sell, to convince you of the importance, relevance, worthiness of the effort it represents. It irritated me to no end. While I love to cook, and am always interested in new recipes, techniques, and cuisines, I find the photographic illustrations in cookbooks (and blogs and newspaper columns) false, especially when they claim to be the finished product, yet showing all the vibrant colors of uncooked ingredients. Really? As if a real cook doesn’t know the difference? The blatant aestheticization of a life-giving, soul-nourishing craft annoys me no end. The meaning of home-cooked meals, of recipes passed down through generations lies elsewhere, and deeper. These are topics worth writing about, and they need no decorative fluff, no beguilement to hold a reader.

So I didn’t go to the launch, and I will not buy the book. Instead I’ll share a food memoir of another sort – my favorite and (very well used) cookbooks. Most are illustrated simply with drawings: Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, Anna Thomas’ The Vegetarian Epicure (I and II), The Best of Shaker Cooking, The Mennonite Community Cookbook, and the American classics Fannie Farmer and Betty Crocker. I learned to cook Chinese meals from a paperback (The Wok), and Greek favorites from another (Classic Greek Cooking) in the same series.

Some of my favorite recipes of the last forty years, (that we have figured out how to make gluten-free!):


  • betty crocker book
  • betty crocker page_half
  • Veggie 1
  • Veggie 1-title
  • Veggie 1-page
  • Veggie 2
  • greek book
  • greek page
  • wok book
  • wok page


 

 

Quiche Lorraine (BCC, p 218) “This continental classic is pictured on page 214. Serve as a first course or as the main dish.”
Old-Fashioned Macaroni and Cheese (BCC, p 218)
Cranberry Jelly (FFC, p 282) “This is a tart, soft-textured jelly, very unlike its canned counterpart.”
Sarsoon ka Saag (IVAGC, pp 304-305) “Every community in the world has a basic food it refers to as its soul food. For the Punjabi Sikhs of Amritsar, the home of the Golden Temple, it is mustard greens cooked to a velvety puree and laced with ginger shreds, garlic slivers, and sweet creamy butter.”
Cheese Blintzes (VEI, pp 208-209) (And liptauer cheese: a variation, p 208)
Corn and Cheddar Cheese Chowder (VEI, p 58)
Tomato-Apple Chutney (VEII, p 373))
Cabbage and Dill Pierogi (VEII, pp 220-221)
Apple Bread Pudding (SH, pp 286-287)
French Tomato Pickle (Old) (MCC, p,400)
Catsup (Tomato) (MCC p 410)
Eggplant Moussaka (CGC, pp 50-51)
All manner of Stir-fry (TW)

I have used photographs to illustrate my love for these books, but genuinely. Now you know a little more of me.


 

Mustard and Meat

Mustard and Meat

I have been watching the Netflix series Rasa, Rasoi aur Kahaniyan, which translates to Kings, Kitchens and their Stories. The series is about the astoundingly varied cuisines of India. The filmmakers weave a beautiful tapestry out of India’s regional histories and eating traditions. The dishes featured are always created from foods available locally and seasonally, and all are imprinted by the preferences, technologies, and customs of the successive waves of traders, warriors, regents and holy people who conquered, settled, or passed through. It is too complex and rich a story to easily summarize – I will have to watch it again, if I am to coherently absorb and remember the themes and threads – and anyway, it should be lingered over, savored as all of the depictions entice you to do with the food itself. The episodes move quickly and while ingredients and techniques are shared, recipes are not. It will take many close viewings and research to suss out the makings of the dishes presented. Oh, but I want to! I am tempted and tantalized even in my confusion. Notwithstanding the sensory and mental overburdens, a few ideas stick: that Persian traders reinvented the buried earth-bound ovens of their homeland into portable tandoors; that Kashmir is paradise on Earth and threatened; that Partition, despite the many reasons for it, forever changed the Punjab, its easy and free intermixing, coexistence, sharing, and accommodation undone by an imaginary line, nonsensical in every geographic sense.

Salmon Rushdie wrote eloquently of India in Midnight’s Children, and brings the country’s dense, intricate, and long history into understanding, however incompletely. (For no single text could ever plumb the depths.) Language is a revelation, too, in Rushdie’s work, the surnames and place names are as powerful, as aromatic and pungent, as the spices the Indies have long been famous for. I remarked upon this to a friend of Indian heritage – that it is no wonder the cuisines features every spice known to man, when every possible sound and combination of sounds is heard in the languages there. She recommended another author to me, Amitav Ghosh. Having read the second book in his Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke, I can enthusiastically recommend it to you, for another broadening excursion into a fascinating world.

Episode five of the series covers the Punjab, and it is within this episode I came to a better understanding of Hindu vegetarianism. Two important particulars underlie the (small) epiphany. The first is that caste is yet an important social stricture, especially in rural India. The second is that the ancient texts of India – the Veda – pre- and proscribe foods for health of body, mind, and spirit. Many cookery and eating practices are ultimately sourced in the directives of the Veda. Within the texts, foods are assigned properties, such as warming or cooling, and these properties suit them for varied seasons, situations – and people.

As Raja Rasoi tells it, mustard grows prolifically in the Punjab, and it is the base of a recipe familiar to worldly eaters and beloved by the Sikhs of Amritsar, Sarsoon ka Saag. Mustard greens are considered a warming food by the Vedic texts and so appropriate only in cool weather and climates, and for farmers and others who labor physically. Likewise, meat and poultry are foods suited for hard laborers, who coincidentally comprise the lower castes. Because the upper castes (especially Brahmin priests) don’t do such work, meat (and foods with similar properties) are off the menu for them. Accordingly, vegetarianism is not simply a spiritual practice (if it is one at all), it is a social distinction. Eating meat is a larger cultural brand that marks and reinforces status. It is, quite actually, beneath the upper classes.

India is so complex a country in its myriad regions, peoples, and histories, it can’t be revealed in several hundred of my words. Every idea I’ve mentioned here is abstruse and intertwined with a multitude of other understandings and knowledge. I can only hope to represent small bits fairly, and inspire you to investigate and explore a little on your own …


 

The Artist’s Eye-Hand-Heart

The Artist’s Eye-Hand-Heart

A few weeks ago we took Printha to Vermont, a Birthday in Brattleboro excursion. The premier event was a Domino toppling extravaganza at the local museum (BMAC). When Printha was younger she and Bruce used to build domino constructions just to knock them over, and later, would watch professional topplings online. We thought it would be fun for her (and us) to see one live. And it was! The domino artists – all engineers or former engineering students – created a marvelous set. It’s hard for me to explain the peculiar satisfaction of seeing and hearing it all come down, ritualistically. I guess the design, progression, and destruction all align with our idiosyncratic fascinations with pattern and sequence and rhythm. The artist’s eye …

… The artist’s hand
The domino event didn’t take place until five-thirty in the evening so to fill the day we planned a picnic and a visit to the Etsey Organ Museum (which we never got to before it closed), and another to the Grafton Nature Museum’s Fairy House Festival. What I expected to be a short look-see turned into a trip to another world, in which we were entranced and reluctant to leave. The fairy houses are built of found natural materials, most of them local to the museum’s grounds. We saw over fifty creations, some made by student groups, but most by adults, who spend up to a year designing and building them. The Fairy houses, and camp, medical center, spa, farm, garden, and more were scattered throughout the woods, along a winding path. At every stop each of us found something to marvel at – an ingenious use of material, or a novel concept, or an inventive construction technology. We spent a long time at each site, examining, discovering and appreciating. Really, it consumed us, and we barely noticed how hungry we were, (or how badly we needed the facilities, lol) until we were through. The Fairy Queen and her helpers welcomed us and bade us farewell, all resplendent in their dress and demeanor. Everything at the festival spoke to the artists we three are, and inspired us; Bruce and I are determined to contribute our own fairy construction for next year’s event. I will be sure to report, if we manage it.

Printha had a wonderful, long day (she slept almost the whole ride home), as did we. Spending time with her in the unique world we share is one of the great blessings of our life. I am already thinking about next year’s birthday and those beyond: Birthday in Bath, Birthday in Boquerón, Birthday in Barcelona –

Here is the thank you card she made … The Artist’s Heart.



 

error: Content is protected !!