The Other Question Google Can’t Yet Answer

“Do intelligent beings inevitably develop an attitude problem?” – Steven Pinker

In an article at, “Google Just Found the One Question It Can’t Yet Answer,” Jeremy Kahn discussed a recently published blog post by DeepMind, the Google artificial intelligence (AI) unit, in which they presented the results of their investigations into the conditions under which “reward-optimizing beings,” that is, you, me, or a robot, would choose to cooperate, rather than compete.

A default and snarky response to this type of research is apparently the question, ”When our robot overlords arrive, will they decide to kill us or cooperate with us?” Snarky because besides the three obvious assumptions (that they are robots, that they are smarter than we are, and that they will arrive), there are also two hidden assumptions behind the question:

First, we will have no option in the outcome, and, secondly and more importantly,

We will have no ability in preventing it from occurring.

It is the latter two assumptions that I think are more intriguing.

But before we get to these, we will first have to chase down what the studies were (and their own assumptions) in order to address the two hidden assumptions behind the snarky question.

Kahn writes, “DeepMind’s paper describes how researchers used two different games to investigate how software agents learn to compete or cooperate.” Important here is that games were used, a topic we’ve touched upon earlier in how humans engage in interactions with one another.1 Because the agents in both games could interact with one another, the games were actually a progression of sequential social dilemmas.

In Gathering, the first DeepMind game, two “agents” had to maximize the number of apples they could gather while researchers could vary how frequently the apples would appear. The results showed that when apples were scarce, the agents quickly learned to attack one another – zapping, or tagging their opponent with a ray that temporarily immobilized them (i.e., prevented apple gathering). When apples were abundant, the agents preferred to co-exist more peacefully.

In a variation, when the same game was played but with more “intelligent” agents that draw on larger neural networks that mimic how certain parts of the human brain work, the agents would try to tag the other agent more frequently, i.e., behave less cooperatively, no matter how the supply of apples was varied. Interesting.

This sounds remarkably similar to how humans interact under the same or similar conditions for survival (or food foraging), which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise because DeepMind used humans to write the Artificial Intelligence (AI) code.

In a second game, Wolfpack, the AI agents were wolves that had to learn to capture “prey.” Success resulted in a reward not just for the wolf making the capture (like the apples in the first game above), but also for all wolves present within a certain distance from the capture. In addition, the more wolves present in this area, the more points all the wolves received. In this game, the agents generally learned to cooperate, and the more “cognitively advanced” the agent was (with greater capacity to implement complex strategies), the better it learned to cooperate. Also interesting.

(As the researchers note, their research builds upon the foundations of Game Theory. The article then goes on to describe how DeepMind speculates on what was happening. That I will leave to very brave readers to forage out for themselves on the DeepMind blog.)

What are more interesting to me are the subtle nuances of the games and behaviors described, which resonate with what has been presented here previously.

In the first game when the apples are more abundant, the agents’ behavior tracks very nicely with a Zero Sum Game2 (if someone wins, someone else loses). There is less fear of “losing out” on an apple since they are more abundant, so agents are more focused on easily meeting their needs in this period of abundance (the coexistence phase). However, when the apples become scarce (apparently due to programming by human “overlords”), their behavior changes and indicates a shift in the game to a more Negative Sum Game3 (lose, lose), where one agent takes steps to Tag and Take Apples before the other agent is able to, in order to remove some of the scarce resources from the field of play. These two games seem to correspond well with the most common games we humans play under similar circumstances.

In the second game, however, there are additional factors at play, factors that are not recognized in the article. The game has been shifted to a Positive Sum Game4 (win, win) in two ways.

First, the game became Positive by the fact that when a wolf captures a “prey,” it also creates Added Value for the community (those wolves within the “capture radius”) by rewarding them through its successful action.

Secondly, the game becomes even more Positive because the more wolves that are present in the capture radius, the more points all the wolves receive. Not only is there an Added Value determined by each capture, that Added Value apparently is increased by with each additional wolf in the capture area. Thus the game becomes geometrically more Positive by further rewarding the wolves for intentionally increasing the chances of a capture.

The DeepMind authors note that in this game, the greater capacity to implement complex strategies leads to more cooperation between agents, the opposite of the finding with Gathering. Even more interesting.

So, with these nuances in mind, let’s return to the hidden assumptions.

Will they kill us or cooperate with us?” The emphasis here is on “they,” which leaves us supposedly in a wait and see position, a crisis limbo so to speak. We’ve already seen in an earlier post that given a significant challenging situation or crisis, about 80% of people respond immediately and defensively with a “Who did this to me?” question followed by a Fix the Blame attitude. We would not be incorrect in recognizing that this attitude is one that leads to “non-cooperative” behavior. With that kind of behavior, who could blame a reward-seeking agent, human or properly coded robot, from reacting offensively? In this case we’re probably going to see the question self-fulfilled with the least desirable option.

But with the other 20% of mankind the deliberate response to a challenging situation or crisis is the question, “What can I make of this situation?” This response is probably less often observed because of two factors. First, it’s recessive because a survival response has been selected in us individually and reinforced over time (think Fight or Flight, two near instantaneous reactions. A time consuming third option isn’t going to have a high survival rate). Second, societal groups will have also enforced development of this response by Regression (or Coercion) to the Cultural Mean for the group’s own survival. This would result in a tendency to exclude those who demonstrated a keener interest in taking time to think through or out maneuver a situation. Think “Cooperation” within the social group being reinforced, while “cooperation” outside the group is not, or even punished.

The biggest differences between these two responses are that the first is a dominant part of our DNA, so it is more easily expressed and it can therefore be more easily directed or reinforced socially.

However, the second response, although no doubt recessive and which requires more time to bear fruit, can be identified and developed. To learn to first ask, “What can I make of this situation?” can be taught.

Now for the important question that we should be able to draw from the DeepMind paper and these subtle nuances, the other question Google can’t yet answer:

IF we are indeed able to program AI computers, which have a limited neural network capacity, to pick cooperation over competition in a complicated game, why can’t we as humans, with a much more extensive neural network, do the same thing in real life?

With even greater cognitive capacity to choose cooperation over competition, why do we default to competition 80% of the time? Why do we act reactively instead of proactively? If the other 80% made it a priority to choose to value and develop predominantly cooperative behavior under stress, we could establish a culture that is very much greater than the sum of its various parts. That could apply to marriage, family, clan, tribes, organizations, nations, as well as civilization.  And for a civilization, that might just possibly discourage anyone (or anything) from “arriving.”

The answer to the question posed above, I think, boils down to two strong human attributes that we ignore or disregard in spite of their constant presence.

The first is, simply, greed. It’s tough to detect greed when it underlies behavior designed to simply survive. We rationalize it away in the face of extreme duress, either our own or someone else’s. But in times of relative plenty, or at least when the opportunity presents itself to extend a bit of effort, i.e., work, to create or achieve something rather than take what someone else has created, greed is still there. While it becomes far more obvious and pervasive, it still easy for us to ignore. “We want it all and we want it now” (only in the US could a modern song with those lyrics be used in an advertisement to induce its audience to acquire more of something, here).

The second attribute is very different. It is something that we cherish, we defend, we fear losing, what we support others in reaching, and we relish in exercising everyday, but without recognizing that when mismanaged it can push us into dangerous territory.

That attribute is choice, our freedom to choose something, or not.

We can choose to deliberately take time to fill the information Gap by pursuing the better truth, or we can choose to react quickly and emotionally to the events or incomplete information we think we know.

We can choose to remain calm, or panic.

We can choose to confirm reports, or pass on “fake news.”

We can choose to dig deeper, or to assume.

We can choose to listen, or to confront.

But we are going to choose, one way or another.

Better to deliberately choose to choose, than to unknowingly choose not to choose and then deal with the unintended consequences.

Either way, it’s about Choice.

And not forgetting the Fundamental Principle that Attitudes become Behaviors by this same Choice.  Steven Pinker was right.


1 Games People Play – Introduction
2 Games People Play I – The Zero Sum Game
3 Games People Play II – The Negative Sum Game
4 Games People Play III – The Positive Sum Game

Posted in 04: Games People Play, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gap Theory 4 – And Another Stupid Thing We Do

“One of the poets, whose name I cannot recall, has a passage, which I am unable at the moment to remember, in one of his works, which for the time being has slipped my mind, which hits off admirably this age-old situation.” ― P. G. Wodehouse

It never fails to amaze me, though possibly it shouldn’t, that as soon as I post my thoughts, within days there appear multiple confirmations of the same phenomena. Here are at least two,

1      How To Get Smart is Jessica Hagy’s recent post on Forbes that beautifully paints a simple picture and strategy of pursuing this path to Wisdom, and

2      “Serial Killers Should Fear This Algorithm from BloombergBusinessweek. A perfect example of what happens when organizations stop pursuing process and practice and slide back into the Place of Little Effort. The overall picture of police departments landing there is not encouraging. It’s also probably not fair. Perhaps here we should call theirs the Place of Such Highly Focused Effort That We Reached the Point of Blindness (reading the article will help).

Nice to have the confirmations and additional instances that support believing we’re on the right track, but let’s press on.

So, What Other Stupid Stuff Do We Do?

Here’s the picture as we left it last post, call it our Wisdom Path,entry-113-data-7-wisdom-to-knowledge-to-data-crop

It appears fairly predictable that without continuing to pay attention in an area where we have reached some measure of Understanding and/or Wisdom, our detailed understanding will begin to fade bit by bit, like P. G. Wodehouse. This I called The Understanding Erosion, and by which we eventually can end up in the Place of Little Effort. Here we first begin to feel Comfortable, then Complacent, and then pretty soon Firmly Ensconced. We become Cognitive Couch Potatoes.

In organizations we would call these places Silos. We don’t think of them as Places of Little Effort because we’re very busy with well-developed skills and specific information, like police departments and “linkage blindness.” But this is still an Information Trap, because there can be insufficient interaction with other Departments that have the needed missing yet pertinent information.

While that sketch is a simplified slice through reality, it’s not quite the whole picture.

In a previous post I also addressed another aspect of this Ascent Towards Wisdom. It again involved Fundamental Principle 6, Missing or Incomplete Information, and was visually described as follows,Entry 85 - What zThe Missing Information Is - 3 Three Blobs

This is, so to speak, a conceptual snapshot in time where three individuals might have landed while on their ascents along a Wisdom Path. Not surprisingly, experience suggests that these Wisdom Paths (colored arrows below) can be quite different and might now resemble the following,

entry-114-wisdom-pathsPredictable differences include not only starting and ending points, but also length, direction, and steepness (which can’t be pictured here because we’re stuck in two dimensions), and the obvious one of height or altitude (the “peak” of Wisdom, so to speak. Sorry.).

I imagine these Wisdom Paths as more like climbs up and along a mountain crest, well above any valleys below. Thanks to the realities of too much information coming too fast and the way our minds process stuff into memory, the inevitable Understanding Erosion can be pictured as the result of mental gravity pulling us down towards or into a valley somewhere.

Thus we arrive at the Stupid Things about the Stupid Things we do: since we worked our way up along a Wisdom crest in one arena, we believe that we can simply redirect our attention and arrive (or have already arrived) at the same level of Wisdom in some other arena. (Partially true. It’s not an incorrect assumption, but it is an incomplete assumption: Stupid omission #1).

Now, since we don’t notice that we can be sliding down the slippery slope into the Place of Little Effort, we are also unaware of how much more effort it will take to ascend along another Wisdom Path in a different arena: Stupid omission #2. Somehow we think Scotty will beam us across.

In addition, the situation is worsened by believing that since we sufficiently mastered the process to get to Wisdom in one arena and since we continue to feel comfortable with the lower level of available information that “maintains” this Wisdom level (the Availability Heuristic and Confirmation Bias at work), we easily assume that the same process coupled with a similar but lower level of incoming but different information will get us to Wisdom in the next arena: Stupid omission #3 – not recognizing that the lower level of new information in the new arena by its nature must be incomplete (Fundamental Principle 6).

Thus we arrive at yet another Self-Fulfilling Fallacy: having processed our way to Wisdom in some arena, we lose this Wisdom by slipping back into the Place of Little Effort while simultaneously believing we still have it (Wisdom), and to top it off, we do not realize we’ve also lost the Other Wisdom that is the actual act of Processing Stuff To Get There.

In other words, Use it or Lose it. In this case it really is more about the Journey (Process), not the Destination (Wisdom).

As a result, what we as individuals typically observe in action is Fundamental Principle 5, the Three Types of People: those who climb rocks (they progress ascending up Wisdom Paths in multiple arenas); those who stumble over rocks (those who hit obstacles and struggle with the process along the path); and those who throw rocks (those who, unknowingly, have succumbed to The Understanding Erosion and end up in a valley, but still think they’re on a high crest, probably in more than one arena. They don’t “get” that they don’t “get” something, but think they do (Fundamental Principle 7)).

We come across people like this everyday in organizations and nations, especially in leadership. It was recognizing this that led me to decide to take with a grain of salt various highly publicized position statements (pontifications), for example, from a number of people in the entertainment industry.

Think of it this way, with few exceptions, why should we take seriously strong statements in a non-entertainment arena by someone who makes their living by pretending to be someone else in a fictitious story contrived to fit into a limited timeframe by a second party who condensed and significantly modified a fantasy story written by a third party? (Recall our earlier picture of information degradation by applying too many filters. Also consider here certain examples that are specifically called “Documentaries.”)

The few exceptions in any arena, I think, are those people who have demonstrated the effort to go through the process of working their way up another Wisdom Path and are openly transparent about it. Scrutiny, or peer review, can then be applied to any cross-discipline pursuits and competency seen in both process and the filtering of information.

First, The Problem

We have to recognize and accept that the above description of The Understanding Erosion is actually operating in us. We need to become more self-aware. If we can be transparent and honest with ourselves, this should be possible. At least to a degree. For most of us.

Then, The Solutions

There are options for dealing with it. Surprisingly, I think a number of these have been in existence for quite a while, just not adequately understood or applied (drat, another confirmation).

The first that I was exposed to and is still around but just not as “in” at the moment, arises from the work of Hersey and Blanchard. This is the concept of Situational Leadership, where the leader recognizes that different types of leading (Telling, Selling, Collaborating, or Delegating) depend upon what style is best for a person in whatever situation that person currently is. The breakthrough here is recognizing that different styles can be needed during the same day in different arenas of responsibility.

We can think of the primary objective of Situational Leadership, then, as employing differing styles of leadership in the process of developing the subordinate to reach and maintain a place of “Wisdom,” a place where they are both self-motivated and self-directed in an area of responsibility. But this does not seem to place enough or any emphasis on developing the subordinate’s understanding of the process by which he/she is being developed. The objective is still more on developing people to the point where they fit nicely into maintaining the organization’s goals and objectives (products and services). Perhaps that’s a Place of Adequate Effort. Nice additional consequences are the people who are self-starters and “get” the process. But people development is neither the main or supplemental objective. And many leaders are not gifted or equipped to increase their focus and time on this specific aspect of people development.

That’s where the concept of Mentoring comes in. This is the increasing organizational emphasis on finding and/or providing a mentor, an experienced person to guide a less-experienced one. Typically this is just for a short career related season.

I think, however, that Mentoring would have far greater impact if considered as a long-term relationship focused on life as well as career whose objective is developing the ultimate powerful but intangible Wisdom:

Learning to Understand and Practice the Process of reaching and maintaining Wisdom.

What we need, then, is a Sherpa or two to keep us up on the Wisdom crest. For the rest of life. That would be brilliant.

Posted in 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, Career, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gap Theory 3 – This Is Why We Do Stupid Things

“A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”
Bertrand Russell

The next obvious question from the last post about doing stupid things is, I think, ‘Why?’ Why do we continue to wound ourselves with stupid, self-inflicted behaviors?

Being one of those curious people, I prepared myself to go down the rabbit hole.

Then, in yet another early morning state of sleeplessness, there I was. Down the rabbit hole. Juggling various bright shiny things from my teaching and learning past, such as

“Raw Data must be filtered to become useable Information,” and

“Wisdom is Knowledge applied.”

As I was trying to fit these and other various shiny bon mots together, I began to recall such additional tidbits as the following:

Data, the fairly raw stuff we are inundated with, only become useful Information if we properly apply the right filter(s);

Filters, while designed to reduce unwanted noise, must also by their very nature reduce some useful content; and

Pure Information, on its own, is not very useful until it is organized.

Organized Information we can then call Knowledge.

I put them together in the following way,entry-113-data-1-data-to-knowledge-crop

Good so far, but it felt incomplete. I picked out the bright shiny thing of Knowledge and chased it around the rabbit’s hole further, figuring the path to wisdom certainly must be generally upward…entry-113-data-1-data-to-wisdom-cropped

Now it looked promising enough for a test or two. I first came up with the following,screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-9-29-31-pm

Well, that worked great didn’t it? And, of course, these Opinions are an exact representation of the Truth, aren’t they?

For those of us who know better than to stop there, we realize that these Opinions are Not Exactly True, because of two important things are invariably forgotten:

First, we can’t have access to all News Reports. The Availability Heuristic limits what is available for us to organize; and

Second, what we process is strongly directed by our Confirmation Bias. That is, we emphasize information that further adds validity to our preexisting values, beliefs, and hypotheses, our World View.

In other words, if your news filter is either Rush Limbaugh or Joe Scarborough you are going to land on two entirely different, yet incomplete, ‘truths.’

In seeking a simpler (and possibly more obscure) context to test this idea, the following came to mind as we had just relocated. In investigating a new grocery store we discover there is an overwhelming amount of stuff (data) in unknown places. We filter what we see to decide what’s available. We organize that and mentally compare it to what we need (The List), and process that, along with any substitutions, to conclude (understand) what we will purchase. Getting home, we (or actually, she) put the selections into action (practice, i.e., cook) and then we (or at least I) reach the ultimate wisdom, which is EATING!

I must admit, there also is a subtle visual joke that appeared in the sketches above. Unintentionally, I might add.

It is based on recognizing that every time you apply a filter you remove not only unwanted noise, but some desirable information as well. The filtered information becomes the data for the next filter, and so on. That sketch looks like this,entry-113-data-3-to-data-to-data-raw-cropped

While we believe we are improving the usability of the resulting information, we have to be careful. Every time we apply some sort of filter the quality of the information goes down, a bit or a lot. If we are applying our own filters (as above), we can usually judge when the information becomes less reliable, less useful.

However, if we are letting other people apply their own filters and we are at the end of the ‘filtering’ line, we cannot judge if the result is completely useful or not. We can end up with unmitigated garbage. This sketch then looks more like this,entry-113-data-5-data-to-opinion-crop1

Here, rather than Wisdom being reached with effort at the top of a hill, the quality decreases downhill and the result (“…..”) becomes nothing more than marginally informed OPINION! (Thus the visual joke above: Events spiraling “downwards” to OPINIONS). A Cognitive Death Spiral.

Bertrand Russell was right. This filtering inadvertently becomes the unconscious translation of what one hears into something one can understand.

Now that we’ve identified the ‘filtering’ minefield, can we carefully cross it?

Another scenario came to mind, one that addresses the aforementioned question of ‘Why?’ It is how we approach Education, the process whereby we are intentionally developed into thinking organisms, and its overall (and hopefully continuing) part in our lives.

Consider a slight modification to the second sketch above (Data >> Wisdom) and recognize that the filters along our path in education are teachers and textbooks (or teachers in absentia). The sketch now looks like this,entry-113-data-4-teachers-wisdom-crop

I think we could all agree that this sketch represents what we think the mission and goal of an education system is and an individual’s takeaway from it. An upward and continuous climb to reach Wisdom.

But it doesn’t work that way in reality for a number of reasons and actual practices that have a lot to do with the answer to our question of, ‘Why?’

I think there are two parts to this. The first is Getting to Knowledge, and the second is the effort in Getting to Wisdom.

Getting to Knowledge

Schooling, as we’ve all experienced it, exposes us to new Information (thanks to teachers who help filter out most of what’s not important), which we then wrestle with in learning how to organize it. Often the amount of information and the organization process is challenging enough that the way many of us respond is through memorization. Flash cards. Drills. Repeat.

Because there’s a test coming. While a test should be a means of getting useful feedback along the way to Knowledge and Wisdom, it often becomes the end goal of demonstrating what’s been successfully acquired.

Thus arises the problem of teaching to standardized tests. These tests, while nobly conceived, risk simply reinforcing playback as the proof of Knowledge (and progress), and thus significantly influence establishing Knowledge itself as the end goal.

While in the classroom (both learning and later teaching), I experienced a significant percentage of students whose concept of their ongoing education looked like this,entry-113-data-6-data-to-knowledge-wall-crop

Their perception of Knowledge (and by inference the Purpose of Education) was to identify what the teacher said was important, to memorize it, and then play back what the teacher wanted. And stop when they hit that wall, the Thick Red Line. They didn’t reach Understanding, and/or probably showed little sign of trying, and/or simply gave up. As a consequence, in trying to deliver what the teacher wanted, they often resorted to plagiarism from classmates, from published sources, or cut-and-paste from the Internet. The objective had simply slipped backwards to become the homework assignment turned in or the right Information delivered on the test.

Because of the way the human mind works, new Information doesn’t quickly move from short-term memory to long-term memory and can be quickly overwritten by later activity (or distractions, or, more often the case, by activities that are important to our World View).

I’d call this process Understanding Erosion, where one loses the skills to organize Information into Knowledge and simply relies on the available but incomplete Information as the Truth (Fundamental Principle 6). The ultimate destination is the Information Trap.

What is disturbing is that this acquired ignorance, this loss of skills, is so commonplace that it has skipped over simply being taken for granted, to becoming ignored. The ultimate self-fulfilling fallacy.

This Information Trap will return a bit later.

Side Bar: Moving On

One of the underlying issues is in the semantics of ‘Why Education?’

Granted, we claim education is required for everyone to reach his or her full potential, and an educated public is necessary for the proper if not best operation of a democracy.

But, if the truth were told, here it is:

While everyone is entitled to the best education they can obtain, not everyone is suited or well prepared for a college education.

Some are not gifted (that’s due to DNA, their nature);
Some are gifted (DNA) but not motivated (some DNA, but more family or cultural environment, their nurture);
Some are not gifted (DNA) but are motivated (DNA and environment); and
Some are both gifted and motivated.

As we will see in a later post, it is not Nature OR Nurture; it is actually Nature AND Nurture.

Bottom line is that everyone should have the opportunity to pursue a college education at the best institution suited to optimize his or her progress ascending up the education path (Malcolm Gladwell cites an excellent example of this in his book David and Goliath).

Now, moving on to better things takes getting past the Thick Red Line, past the Knowledge “Wall.”

Getting to Wisdom

There is an old story that demonstrates a key insight. A young girl is watching her mother preparing food for Thanksgiving dinner, and asks,

“Why are you cutting off the end of the ham?”

“Because I learned that from my mother, your grandmother, so we’ve always done it that way.”

“Why did she do that?”

“I don’t remember. We’ll have to ask her later today when we’re at her house.”

Later, at the meal, the little girl asks grandmother why she cuts off the end of the ham.

“I learned it from my mother, your great-grandmother.”

“Why did she do it?”

“I’ve forgotten. Maybe it is written on her recipe card.”

Great Grandmother locates the faded recipe card and, with the little girl, reads through it.

“Oh, look at this. In parenthesis she’s written,

(Cut off butt end of ham so it fits into pot.)’ “

This, humorously, illustrates a key characteristic of human behavior:

At some time, someone put Data and Information together to reach Knowledge, and an Understanding of ‘Why we should do Something,’ and then put it into Practice;

They instructed someone in the next generation, but Understanding Erosion began to occur, although they still understood ‘What to Practice;’

Eventually, after a number of generations, Understanding Erosion was complete and all that remained was the Knowledge of ‘What to Practice;’

And when asked, ‘Why Are You Doing That,’ the reply became simply,

‘Because We’ve Always Done It That Way.’

It’s easy to see this repeated in the rituals and liturgies that we practice as nations, organizations, religions (especially), families, and individuals.

A fresh but important insight about this ascent from Knowledge up to Wisdom is to realize that, due to human nature, it is not a hike uphill on solid ground. It’s more like climbing Up the Down Escalator.

As a consequence, man eventually took to writing down his Wisdom, hoping that it would not be lost. This, of course entailed discovering writing as well as paper to write stuff on. But that, in reality, did not eliminate Understanding Erosion, it just slowed it down.

We still lose stuff, especially Understanding and Wisdom. Or we forget where we put it. Or that it’s there. Or how to find it. Or fail to nurture it if we do know where it is.

It takes Continuous Learning, a conscious effort to ascend this descending escalator. Stop or relax, and you slowly move backwards, without knowing it. It is not for nothing that one of my favorite quotes is from George Santayana, “Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.” A little heavy, but accurate.

Historians have long remarked that the arc of human civilization has been one of very slow developments over a long period, increasing more rapidly up to the Industrial Revolution, and then increasing very rapidly since then.

Another insight: moving up this Down Escalator isn’t a consistent climb. It is getting steeper with time. Not only is new stuff being developed faster, Information is available more quickly and it is it is getting more complex. Thus, it takes more effort to keep up and to maintain Wisdom, much less to make progress.

This is one of the reasons certain professions are required to undergo continuing education.

So, Why Do We Do Stupid Stuff?

Here’s the picture now,entry-113-data-7-wisdom-to-knowledge-to-data-crop

When we inadvertently or intentionally fail to put our Knowledge and Understanding into Practice, we succumb to Understanding Erosion and slide down to the Place of Little Effort where we only rely on what little and incomplete Information and Knowledge we have.

Earlier we referred to this as the Information Trap. Without due diligence, it will be occupied only with filtered, incomplete information (Fundamental Principle 6) obtained through the Availability Heuristic, and organized conveniently by our Confirmation Bias into a stronger World View, incomplete as it will be.

In the Place of Little Effort, we feel quite comfortable and justified in quickly and emotionally reacting to events and crises. To heck with the Gap between Something Happening and Mystery Solved. To heck with the effort to press through to better Understanding and Wisdom.

And then We Do Stupid Stuff.

The Final Insight

Back to one of our earlier sketches.

I think an issue that now becomes a bit clearer is that a self-reinforcing part of our very important educational approach has developed a historical focus much like the following,entry-113-data-8-education-inanimate-to-wisdom

It puts heavy emphasis on inanimate, inactive things such as Data, Information, and Knowledge, and less on achieving Understanding, and Wisdom.

What should receive heavier and earlier emphasis is openly developing more of the dynamic and active behaviors, that is, reliable Filters, Organizing skills, Processing, and Practice. These are the catalysts that move us Up the Down Escalator,entry-113-data-8-education-active-to-wisdom

If one can understand these as behaviors, the critical skills and objectives of an education, it becomes much easier to understand why a broad Liberal Arts curriculum is not only essential, it is foundational. History, Languages, Art, Music, Philosophy are all included and essential. Not just the study of What Happened; it is the study of Why Did It Happen, What Conditions and Forces Were Present, Why Did People Do What They Did, and What Do We Learn From This. It is the intentional study of their Filters, Organization, Processing, and Practices. And of their Outcomes, good or bad.

“Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

Emphasis on developing these behaviors and skills is not just a responsibility of an education system, it should be an emphasis of every parent, family, clan, tribe, organization, and nation so that individuals can more readily reach their best potential, so that families, clans, tribes, organizations, and nations can also.

The Self-Fulfilling Fallacy

So, the answer to our question of ‘Why do we do stupid stuff?’ is, ironically, Education. Exactly what we decided we needed to prevent doing Stupid stuff. Yet another self-fulfilling fallacy.

Fortunately, I think there is a small core of people who, if they didn’t “get it” during high school or college, awoke a few years later and are trying, albeit quietly, to put things together later in life and continue to move up the down escalator. There’s just too few of us, and we are too quiet and not visible enough.

Enough said.

Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 09: Doing, 11: Growth, 14: Behavior, Gap Theory, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gap Theory 2 – Why Does AT&T Do Stupid Things?

“Stupid is as Stupid does.” – Forrest Gump

I was feeling somewhat relaxed after posting the last piece on Gap Theory. At least until about 3:00 am the next morning.

I thought the next obvious question about the Gap would be “Why?” Why do we continue to wound ourselves with stupid, self-inflicted behaviors? And then my subconscious rudely awakened me to the suitability of the following very close-to-home example.

It began simply enough when my wife remarked to me one morning this week during her reading time,

“My phone just died!”

Not completely, but “going dark and cold” in the middle of an activity was unappreciated. Being the nerd of the family, I knew it fell to me to form an appropriate response,

“Does it turn back on?”

After a few moments, she responded,

“Yes, but this is getting more and more irritating.”

It wasn’t the first time the phone did this. It had happened intermittently, even with a new battery, but it was now getting more frequent and more obnoxious. As if an inanimate device can be obnoxious.

To be honest, this was an Apple iPhone 4s over four years old which had served her well for a long, long time. Since my iPhone 4s was continuing to chirp along seemingly unaffected by age, it was becoming clear, Time to Upgrade.

But it wasn’t as easy as that.

We are the “hangers-on” on an AT&T Family plan. Actually on our second Family plan, as we got bumped off of our first. (Transparency note: we, the parents, are actually the “child” phone numbers on our son’s “parent” account.  I hope this avoids any confusion, )

Presuming we might also be subject to getting bumped off of this Family plan, as well as needing permission to upgrade (“child” numbers, you know), we checked in with our “parent.” Upgrade eligible and okay! (four years is pretty long-in-the-tooth, cell phone wise). We decide the easiest way is for our son to order the upgrade online, drop ship to us, and we will activate while the current phone stays active. He placed the order and emailed us a copy of the order information so we could track it. Simple, eh?


The next day he sent us another email that AT&T had cancelled the order as they couldn’t validate his identity. It seems somewhere in their order processing, his billing address was substituted with our ship-to address.

Discussion ensued. We figured since there was a backorder on the phone my wife wanted, rather than further inconvenience our son, we should just go into a store to see if one was available and upgrade. To do that, our son needed to update the account to give me “authorized user” status and the passcode. Done. Off to see the AT&T Wizards of Wireless.

AT&T: “Sorry sir, placing your upgrade order isn’t going to work.”

Me: “Why not?”

AT&T: “The “authorized user” name on the account is ‘Jim.’ Your driver’s license says ‘James.’ Our order software will reject it. I know.”

Me: (inaudible mumbling)

AT&T: “Have your son edit the account and change the name to ‘James.’”

Somewhat amazed, our son made the changes as well as added my wife as an “authorized user,” just in case. The next day, both my wife and I go into the AT&T store. Having been in sales, I recognize the courtesy of dealing with the same sales person. Nice, and solved, eh?


AT&T:  “The ‘authorized users’ include ‘Jim,’ James,’ and your wife. Which one do you want to use?

Me: “Let’s use my wife’s name.”

He is accessing two computers simultaneously, and one device for scanning driver’s license and credit card. Fingers move as fast as the screens fly by. Much time passes. He engages in conversation,

AT&T: “What cable provider are you using?”

Me: “Verizon.”

AT&T: “Are you happy with it?”

Me: “Yes.”

AT&T: “How many channels do you have?”

Me: “Too many.”

AT&T: “I can get you cable for $50.” (Screens continue to fly by)

Me: “We also have internet and land line.”

AT&T: “How much are you paying?”

Me: I give him a figure.

AT&T: “I can get it for you for $xx” (a figure which is $5/month higher than what I said. I am puzzled).

Me: “No thanks” (more screens, then a pause)

AT&T: “There’s a problem with your credit card.”

Me: “What?”

AT&T: “It’s been rejected. Do you have a daily limit?”

Me: “No. And the credit limit is well beyond the order amount.”

AT&T: “Are you sure?”

Me: (more inaudible mumbling) “Let’s try with my card.” (short pause)

AT&T: “That’s been rejected also.”

Me: (now concerned about identity theft) “Let’s cancel the order.”

AT&T (indifferently): “Okay.”

Besides a rather perfunctory and indifferent attitude on behalf of the sales person (Note to Author: the heck with honoring the Sales Mantra of Right of First Capture), the oddity of rejection was a burden. Better to pursue at home.

Once home, there’s a text message from the credit card fraud unit, “Was this a valid charge by you, or not?” followed by a voice mail on our home phone. Very strange, as this has not happened in about 20 years and we just returned from Asia with no issues. Talking to them cleared the block and also revealed that the charge was originating, not from Central PA, but from AT&T in Atlanta, GA.

And it made sense. If credit card information is stolen, the typical thing that someone would buy would be small expensive electronics that can be fenced easily. And the easiest place to acquire these? A wireless phone store comes to mind.

Then I ask myself, why wasn’t the sales person somewhat aware of this possible situation? The credit card block could have been cleared on the spot (the text had come in fairly quickly).

An hour after the store experience, at home I’m ready to spend, again. I get on the phone to talk to a representative and go through the whole account, authorizations, and phone number identification.

AT&T: “Sir, that phone’s already been upgraded and is not eligible for another upgrade.”

Me: (after inaudible mumbling) “I’m sorry, as I said earlier, we tried to upgrade but cancelled the order. It still should be eligible.”

AT&T (after long discussion and being on hold while she talked to a supervisor): “Sir, I can upgrade that phone for you by using the upgrade for your other phone.”

Me: “NO! I intend on using that sometime later. Can’t you simply clear that upgrade flag?”

AT&T: “No sir. You will have to talk to AT&T Fraud. I’ll transfer you.”

So, here’s the rest of the story:

AT&T Fraud cannot clear the upgrade block because 1) they cannot clear blocks, and 2) there’s no fraud. They say Sales can clear the block, and send me there again to speak with a different rep.

AT&T Sales cannot clear the block even through a supervisor. The rep says, since he worked in a store, that the store sales software (not his online sales software – they’re “different”) has probably put a hold on the phone number upgrade until the “upgraded equipment” is returned.

There is no upgraded equipment. Unless I am missing something, one cannot walk out of a store with unavailable equipment put on backorder, especially when the order has been cancelled.

He suggests I contact the store and have it cleared. We do.

24 hours later, they still hadn’t called back.

The next day, on our drive to Boston, my wife receives an email thanking us for our order (?) and asking if we would like to respond to a customer satisfaction survey.


We relate, in short form, the experiences above. And then call the retail store again, relating the situation with another representative and asking for the manager. No manager.

Later, we do get a return phone call, with a proposed solution.

We need to bring in the existing phone and they will outfit it with a new SIM card (?), because as soon as they alter the upgrade block the phone number will be deactivated (??!) and we will have to wait until a new phone comes in (????!).

And that’s where it stands, as of now.

Yes, why do we keep wounding ourselves with avoidable, self-inflicted behaviors?

Because there’s a Gap between the Emotional Response to an Event and Discovering the Truth (or enough of it to feel confident). Or at least until we expend the effort to close the Gap.

It’s bad enough when an organization creates a Programmed Response to a particular Event, either by policy or by coding, without sufficient scenario testing (e.g., if you cancelled the order, or didn’t take the equipment, the phone hasn’t been upgraded.)

It gets worse, however, if the organization inadvertently programs obstacles to closing the Gap. Such as running a Customer Satisfaction procedure to close the Gap, but not creating an adequate escalation procedure and the authorities to implement it.

Or not providing permission levels and the authority to react to an unexpected “Event.”

Or by refusing to admit that the obstacles are even there.

Now, perhaps I can get a good night’s sleep.


Posted in Gap Theory, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Gap Theory

“Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.” – Robert Heinlein


Behaviors and Consequences

No, this is not what you might think it is about. This is about something much less hypothetical and much more practical. And very real, in an odd way. So real, in fact, that there is widespread, adamant denial about it. It begins with a simple question –

Ever wonder why people do stupid things?

Let’s be be clear, we do stupid things. Often. And, for what it’s worth, for very good reasons.

So we say.

To pursue this we need to start, actually, in a seemingly unrelated place. Literature.

One of the most popular forms of literature, at least in English if not in many other languages, is the genre of mysteries. Murder mysteries, Who-Done-It’s, crime novels, and spy novels come to mind. Invariably these follow a basic pattern of

Something Happens; Investigation ensues; new information surfaces; mystery solved.

One can trace this pattern back through Shakespeare and even early Greek literature, Homer for instance. Often, the discovery of missing information (or misinterpretation of existing information) is the driving force behind comedy.

It seems that ever since we can remember, or write down or relate orally, mankind has been intrigued with recognizing and finding missing information.

Except when we’re not.

Ironically, there is missing information in the pattern above. Something important needs to be added:

Suddenly Something Happens;
Over Time Investigation ensues;
Eventually new information surfaces; Then mystery solved.

There is in reality a Gap in Time between the Event and its Resolution.

As long as we’re being entertained, the Gap in Time is part of the entertainment and events look something like this,


But if we are emotionally involved with or in the Something That Happened,

There is no time for the Gap in Time, because there is no entertainment! It has been replaced with loss aversion!

Unfortunately, events now look more like this,


We react to the Something (a crisis?) with a reaction based upon what we know regardless of whether it is complete or accurate. This “knowledge” has become our basis of “truth.”

Court cases are based upon “discovering the truth” so that a verdict can be rendered. The event occurred quickly, but the investigations, interrogations, depositions, and witness testimonies take time and are often conflicting. It is well recognized that eyewitnesses are often notoriously undependable, but it is nearly all that we have. Sorting out the inconsistencies is time consuming.

What most often results is not the “Truth,” but whichever “truth” is most believable (this is, alas, a reality not fully recognized except by Lawyers and Other Reptiles).

All the while, there is pressure to close the Gap, to get to the “truth” so that a verdict can be reached and closure, restitution, or revenge can be obtained.

At the time of the Emotional Reaction to a Something, everyone has their own version of what happened, their own “truth.” And in the heat of the moment, this “truth” becomes the only one that counts.

The search for the Missing Information then becomes the next casualty.

In a fit of insomnia one night, the following “explanation” (or distorted understanding; take your pick) came to mind:

  • At some moment, an Event, Crisis, or Something occurs;
  • This triggers a (near immediate) Emotional Reaction, based upon
    1. ~What we Actually Saw (which means we were there)
      The impact is, of course, dependent upon how close we were. Thus, like sound or light (pardon the analogy, but follow me here), the relationship (or reliability) of what we saw (our “data”) to what actually happened is
          ≈ (that is, proportional to) k1/r2
      where r is how far we were from the event and k1 (for our individual observational skills) is very much less than 1 (because eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, for the most part);
    2. ~What we Heard (which doesn’t necessarily mean we were there)
      Similar to the above, the relationship (or reliability) of what we heard (our additional “data”) to what actually happened is
           ≈ k’1/r2
      where r is how far we were from the event, and k’1 (for our individual listening skills) is also very much less than 1.
      Now, if we weren’t at the event and we heard about it later from others, then the relationship is better described as,
          ≈ k’n/rn2 … k’3/r32 × k’2/r22 × k’1/r12
      where we multiply each person’s “data reliability” together to get an overall reliability. Since each of the k’n/rn2 factors is much less than 1, overall “data reliability” rapidly drops to near zero. In my fit of insomnia I realized this is a very good description of multi-person gossip and the game of Telephone. As happened before with the Behavior Curve (here), I quickly succumbed to a fit of laughter);
    3. ~Missing Information (especially for participants) reduces the value of every kn, and k’n, because we will never have all the information (Fundamental Principle 6); and
    4. ~Attitudes and Values.
      Our Values, vi, determine what is important to us, and are the foundation for:
      Our Attitudes, ai, which lead us to respond with one of Two Questions about the

      1. “Who Did This To Me (or Us, or Them)?”
        This most often leads to Fix The Blame (destructive) actions and a Victim Mentality, based on presuming the information we have is complete or at least adequate; or
      2. “What Can I (or We) Make of this Opportunity?” (a constructive response), or
        “How Does One Respond to Adversity?” (neutral, gaining time).
        These two responses imply a presumed understanding of what happened or a motivation to identify Missing Information, either in the short term or long term, in order to control a better outcome.
        Statistically, and according to the Behavior Curve, ~80% of people react with the first question, Question A.

All of which lead me to two conclusions.

First, depending upon or reacting immediately to Social Media or other Internet sources to supply us with our primary attitude and decision-forming information is a fool’s game. It is admitting there is No Time to Mind the Gap. It can only lead to frittering away any positives about a situation, because very few people are cognizant of the filters that have been applied in putting the information on the internet, or are cognizant of the motives of the posters, or are cognizant of the time and effort that is needed to peel away these filters, or are unwilling to invest the time. Or all of the preceding. Think Fake News.

This will become even more problematic with the growing popularity of “live-feeds.”

Our Human nature makes us rely heavily on the Availability Heuristic (responding to the information most available to us) and our Confirmational Bias (the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing theories and beliefs). It takes a conscious effort to overcome these and get to a better “Truth.” To step into the Gap.

Second, as irrational as it seems, the conscious effort to overcome both the Availability Heuristic and Confirmation Bias and gather as much eyewitness evidence or crowd opinions as possible does not always lead to the “Truth.”

Take the scatter plot at the beginning of this post. I intentionally left off the labels so as not to distract you until now.

The plot is actually a chart of Historical Rankings of US Presidents1, vertically (worst at the bottom, to best at the top), versus Popular Vote Election Margin2, horizontally.

There is no correlation between ranked effectiveness in office (granted, after the fact) and the magnitude of the winning margin in the popular vote (before the fact). Zip. Nada.


Popularly elected Presidents have been ranked as very effective, or abysmal. Presidents with minimal margin (or negative margin) have been ranked as very effective, or abysmal.

Thus, the ultimate Crowdsource for information (an Either/Or election with 100 million plus participants) is incapable of predicting long lasting outcomes.

Apparently, however, it is an Event that triggered (is still triggering?) Behaviors and Consequences that are not all that constructive in the short term.

The lessons:

Ignoring The Gap: A time-honored fool’s game;

Leaping over The Gap: Announcing you’re a fool;

Becoming a Gap Archeologist: smart, and well worth the effort.

1 Historical Ranking of US Presidents (average results from 14 surveys)

2 Historical Popular Vote Election Margins

Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, Career, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Thought Provoking but Obscure Articles (and Not So Obscure Books) from 2016

So little time, so many books, so many articles, so many blogs…

I missed posting a compilation last year as we were in the throes of relocating, but have reoriented myself (almost) in time to put together this collection.

Here then, in no particular order, are the following pieces for that helped make my reading year most enjoyable, informative, and often challenging. Remember: I read; I do; I become…

1: Singularly Unique

The 2016 Jealousy List” (BloombergBusinessweek, December 2016). This is the selection of favorite articles that the Bloomberg staff wished that they had written. A wide variety of stuff here, all well written, including the reasons why Bloomberg writers were jealous someone else had written them.

Especially intriguing were the following:

How Teens in the Balkans are Duping Trump Supporters with Fake News (ok, they might be proxies for the Russian government, but they’re still useful idiots (thank you, Karl Marx));
An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right;
The Obama Doctrine (I was surprised. There was much revealed here that I liked. If it were once a political platform, I would have voted for it. But it wasn’t, and I didn’t. It seems, after “eight years of Mr. Obama’s weakness, indecision, disarmament and appeasement,” not much made it into an action plan. But it’s a tender, heartwarming, and transparent, soul bearing story. By a politician);
-F**k Everything and Blame Everyone (Don’t take my word for it, read the BloombergBusinesseek journalist’s reasons for selecting it. But be prepared);
-Seriously? (We need to be having healthy conversations, right? “But too often it feels as if we aren’t having these kinds of conversations because we can’t even agree on what’s true.” Bingo. Chosen by Claire Suddath. Can’t miss).

Jamie Dimon on Trump, Taxes, and a U.S. Renaissance” (BloombergBusinessweek, 22 December 2016). A more balanced perspective on the renaissance in Detroit (who knew), and conditions that led to it, and the responsible role of business in the immediate future for infrastructure, education, and not just ‘throwing money at it.’

Why bees could be the secret to superhuman intelligence” (BBC, 15 December 2017). How to capture the intelligent from the dumb that crowdsourcing produces (that is, recognizing where it fills in the missing information, rather than piling up wrong information (like political polls)).

Putin’s Revenge” (Politico, December 2016), and Putin’s Real Long Game” (Politico, January 2017). Ok, so I snuck one in from January, but they are so closely aligned in time and topic that it made sense. Besides, a year from now you’d wished you knew.

These hark back to earlier posts here and here about the culture of Russia as a nation. We’ve had ample time to pay attention and prepare, but the problem seems to be once again, complacency. While The Obama Doctrine above reads really well and has some admirable points in it (i.e., foreign policy and America’s role in the world), it still seems to be more thunder than lightening, like stopping before the finish line.

The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs” (The Atlantic, November 2016).

Very interesting review of Jane Jacob’s work on cities and American culture and four books on her work. Why did Higgins, North Carolina, collapse socially and economically between the 1700s and the 1930s? External forces, ritualization of thinking, and the elimination of diverse thinking all contributed. Not only had people forgotten how to build with stone, they had lost the knowledge that such a thing was possible. (Missing Information coupled with lack of motivation).

In her words, “I was brought up to believe that there is no virtue in conforming meekly to the dominant opinion of the moment. I was encouraged to believe that simple conformity results in stagnation for a society, and that American progress has been largely owing to the opportunity for experimentation, the leeway given initiative, and to a gusto and a freedom for chewing over odd ideas. I was taught that the American’s right to be a free individual, not at the mercy of the state, was hard-won and that its price was eternal vigilance, that I too would have to be vigilant.”

Vigilance to maintain values; Diversity, of more than just thought; and no slipping into complacency.

We’re in danger of more deeply believing our own sub-culturally generated auto-mythopoeia (Coercion-to-the-Cultural Mean). One of the signs is, as Jacobs identified, a developing “cultural xenophobia.”

For the sheer fun of it, the following:

’Duck Dynasty’ vs. ‘Modern Family.’ 50 Maps of the US Cultural Divide” (NYT, 26 December 2016). Who watches what, where.  Diversity vs. Taste. No wonder it’s so hard being a TV producer.

The Best Worst Restaurant Reviews of the Past Decade” (Bloomberg, 29 December 2016).

Truly, with lines like,

-“… like King Midas had psoriasis over your dinner”;
-“I’m taking it on faith that they were potatoes. That’s what they visually suggested, those desiccated yellow-beige coins that had somehow acquired the texture of Brillo and could almost have been used to scrub whatever pan they had emerged from”;
-(Gruyère and goat cheese sandwiches) “Two tiny halves, for $14, boast more grease than a lube job”;

what’s not to enjoy. Except the food. And the bill.

How to Tell If You’re a Jerk” (Nautilus, 15 September 2016).
Statistics show that if you’re a jerk, you have no interest in reading this. If you’re not a jerk, you will. Otherwise, no comment.

For sheer perspective, the following:

El Empleo” (The Creator’s Project, 7 December 2016). “The Employment.” A seven-minute, award winning animated short. Should help us maintain our perspective on why we do what we do (if we actually do anything), regardless of our work roles.

The Mistrust of Science” (New Yorker, 10 June 2016).
Why I do what I do. Goes along with the above.

Really Important Books:

The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee. A must read. The story of the millennia-long search to identify and understand the human genome, by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies (also a must read). Inspiring and full of revelations, some of which will appear here in the future.

David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell. A peek at unusual human behaviors and why, while they seem out of whack and counter-productive, are actually logical and beneficial. The stories related are not only inspiring but also confirming of many thoughts that have appeared in these posts earlier. No doubt this will result in more posts, too.

Read. Enjoy. It is good for you.

It’s also good for your organization, and good for civilization as well. As long as we put good lessons into practice.

Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 16: Culture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Perfect Storms – 3 – Fake News

“Those who do not remember the past and fail to learn from it are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana (tweaked by me)

It must be that time of year. December, I’m traveling, and all sorts of articles begin to appear seeming to rush to meet an end-of-year deadlines, filled with endless confirmations of the Fundamental Principles. So I must clip and squirrel away (or bookmark) for use before my own last-minute deadline arrives (i.e., now).

The following passed through my hands in a copy of USA Today while on a 2-day layover and deals with a topic of newly anointed interest: Fake News. With permission, I’ve incorporated it here and added some thoughts in italics. Don’t focus on the stage, the performance, the actors or even the costumes, but look for the patterns that lie behind the author’s (and our own) observations.

Fake news is a real Pawn in claims of media bias
Michael Wolff (@MichealWolffNYC)
December 12, 2016

New genre targets an unsuspecting, susceptible audience

Fake news is in many ways a fake news story.

It is not that there isn’t more or less deliberately deceptive news. But the “fake news” notion has become part of the epistemological phenomenon offered by liberal media to explain why Donald Trump was elected and, therefore, to discredit that election. In this, fake news becomes part of a broader conspiracy theory of unseen forces manipulating a gullible public.

(Blog: Fake news can easily be traced back to “Yellow Journalism” with its primary objective to sell newspapers, and lesser secondary objective to sway public opinion. In between “fake news” and “true news” lies a huge Gap, a grey area of “partially true news” or “incomplete news.” In all cases, Fundamental Principle 6, There Will Always Be Missing Information, is a behind the scenes driving force.)

Fake news is in itself a semantic slight of hand. A decent part of the news output by both reputable and marginal news organizations has always been phony. Gossip items, celebrity profiles, PR news releases that have not been carefully vetted, statements from politicians, reports based on court filings, almost anything from a war zone, and all Hollywood dramatizations of actual events contain a certain quotient of the inaccurate and untruthful, if not the entirely pretend and simulated.

True, the new fake news is supposedly of a higher order of fakery than most run-of-the-mill fake news. This new fake stuff is supposed to involve the deliberate creation of false stories meant to benefit Trump and right-wing conservatives and to target an unsuspecting and susceptible uneducated audience.

In other words, the new fake news is specifically for conservatives. Indeed, in this sudden news crisis, a recent article in The Washington Post cited studies – from liberal-leaning Buzzfeed and from a “robust body of academic research” – arguing that conservatives were more receptive to fake news than liberals. This, of course, largely confirmed the basic liberal view that the electorate is divided between smarts and stupids. And indeed, Edgar Welch, the 28-year old man who read about fake news accounts of a Hillary Clinton-directed pedophile ring operating out of a Washington pizzeria and showed up with his semi-automatic weapon to investigate for himself, does not, for sure, seem to be the brightest bulb.

(Blog: Recent findings (from the aforementioned Buzzfeed site) have verified that a significant amount of the “fake news designed to benefit Trump” originated in Macedonia by bored, unemployed, politically naïve teenage hackers creating “clickbait” so they could earn money via their Google AdSense accounts, online here, and additionally, from the WSJ, here. Rather demonstrates the tactics of bored, unemployed, and armed with a computer hackers attempting to transfer something from our pockets to theirs – this time Fundamental Principle 4b, The Negative-Sum Game in action.)

But even that particular high-drama fake-news moment is not technically about fake news – at least not of the wholly cynical variety. Pizzapedo-gate is another genre, conspiracy news. Conspiracy news is not real, but it is not fake either – or at least not intended to deceive. Rather it expresses quite a passionate if bizarre belief. But however unreal and off the wall, it is not news, or a view of the world, or even of the inner reality of the miss-wired, that has anything uniquely to do with Donald Trump. There have always been conspiracy theories and conspiracy nuts. For conservatives it might be Hillary Clinton fantasies, for liberals, an Oliver Stone movie – conspiracy with higher production values, but conspiracy theory nevertheless.

(Stone’s movie about the John F. Kennedy assassination takes as truth the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison discredited by virtually everyone as entirely fraudulent.)

Fake news has undoubtedly become a Trump-related meme in part because his own statements have so often been exaggerated, grandiose, and inaccurate.

Also, he was a reality television star. There are few higher orders of faking the truth than reality television, which purports to present something real but which is, of course, made up. Everybody knows that. Or do they?

(Blog: I so appreciate when others sense something real even thought they haven’t been able to put their finger on it, exactly. The statement “Everybody knows that. Or do they?” I take to be rhetorical, a realistic and admirably subtle attempt to point out to people who don’t get that they don’t get something, that they should try to get what they don’t get. Hopefully. Fundamental Principles 7a, b, and c.)

Of course, while liberals believe conservatives are especially receptive to fake news, many conservatives and Trump supporters believe there is no bigger faker than Hillary Clinton and no bigger chumps than the liberals who are blind to what they see as her quarter-century of obvious public perfidy.

(Blog: (sigh) Same Fundamental Principles 7a, b, and c applying, both ways.)

In some sense, fake news is the liberal retort to the conservative charge of media bias.

In this, each side uses media for its own political agenda, a belief that, on both sides, is widespread enough to support the notions of both rampant fakery and rampant bias.

Of course, the right does not believe in fakers, and the left does not believe in bias.

Even if you believe that the news media has always sold a large amount of baloney, the problems of deceptive and inaccurate and entirely fabricated information has become, in the current thinking, all the more serious because of social media. The news media may have made up a lot of stuff, but at least it did it within certain limits and conventions, save, perhaps, for the National Enquirer and other marginal tabloids. Social media, on the other hand, has no standards or rules. Anybody can make this stuff up. In fact, the more outrageous it is the more page views it gets.

(Blog: Bingo! and with a rub. Social media, as fun as it may be for relationships, has also provided a forum in which Everyman, in an attempt to fill in his subconscious sense of Incomplete and Missing Information (FP 6), has an open door to publish his opinions and viewpoints as “facts” without the obligatory self-imposed “limits and conventions” to at least make an attempt to validate them. And, of course, Everybody Else, the intended audience, presumes these to be exactly the “facts” needed to fill out their own perceived Incomplete Information. Much of this years ago has been explained first by our internal human characteristic known as the Confirmation Bias, where we tend to collect “facts” and “news” that reinforces what we already believe, thus not filling in the missing information holes but actually building higher the towers of incomplete information we already have. And second by the externally learned Availability Heuristic, where we tend to react only to “news” and “facts” that are conveniently available to us. Sort of an inanimate  Dunbar Group, where our limited source of influences is made up of “news” items rather than people.)

In that sense, this isn’t really political. It just reflects the economics of online publishing.

The truth, or at least the standard version of the news has been commoditized, so you need to make up a new version if you have any hope of getting any attention. If there’s any consolation here, in the manner that digital media tends to work, this means that soon everybody will be producing fake news to get more traffic, hence fake news too will be commonplace, and get no attention, if that’s consolation.

But it should also be noted that fake news is an issue that has largely been argued by traditional media, which has seen its market and long-time gatekeeper function eroded by social media.

In this, implicitly, the antidote to fake news is traditional media.

Is there now more inaccurate information and do more people believe it? Despite some instant studies, an authoritative answer, as opposed to a fake answer, is yet unavailable.

(Blog: Of course, having fake news become so common place that it no longer gets any attention presumes that the social media audience places a higher value on limited, accurate, truthful “news facts” than it does on a volume of “stuff” that will satisfy its need to fill in the Gaps in its Missing or Incomplete Information.

If history is a good teacher, that won’t happen by a corporate or individual Eureka moment, or a spontaneous Cerebral Illumination. It has to be intentionally taught and intentionally caught. For a supporting view, see the WSJ, here.)

Posted in 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, Lessons from History, The Fundamental Principles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments