Not yet Westworld: Do social media algorithms determine how we think?

wp-image-1430785659jpg.jpgIt was all quite innocuous, till it was not. Looking up crockpot chicken dinner recipes on YouTube would lead me to a puzzle at the heart of the modern world.

There is a theory doing the rounds that we all live in bubbles of our own making and this is supposedly behind the divisiveness of the present time. In an earlier post, I tried to work out the fundamental problems with the bubble theory. Social media is probably more responsible than we are for the bubbles of our own making. Although, it is true that we live in bubbles we fill with biased opinions and people that second these views, bubble-living isn’t unique to this or any other time period.

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The pernicious bubble theory and why the Truth is no longer self-evident

2016-12-19_11-43-02People lie all the time. For an intuitive reflex, a survival strategy, aided by something called unethical amnesia, it is irreparably damaging when the people around us indulge in disingenuousness. The truth; now that is a whole other quantity. A paradigm, a learned habit touching the boundaries of ideology, it helped secure civilisation against the delusions of tribalism. And we had it pedastaled, venerated as dear and sacred. Today as with all things sacred, the very idea of truth is under siege. So what is truth, and why is it so important? In the dawning age of post-truth, we feel the need now more than ever to try and outline the importance of being earnest.

When as children we were told repeatedly to speak the truth, what did we think it was? At that age all we could comprehend was that truth had an aura of righteousness and it was attached to that other abstract thing goodness. We didn’t examine anything too closely. For instance, were we telling the truth when we described an event as we experienced it? The problem is that everyone has a different impression of the same experience. Everyone has a different version. Truth will be nebulous if the actual mechanics of it escapes us even in adulthood.

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Gone is that pale blue dot

We have atavised. Once a globe, an earth. Now we are but a sum of our tribes. Vanished is that pale blue dot. Banished. Into the darkness.

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We the troll and the horror of a laterally inverted world

It’s the internet, stupid.

Horror became so quotidian, that when the trolls crawled out of their comment boxes and bayoneted away the experts and nerds, who had acquired their information through study, we didn’t blink. How did the ghost of uninformed opinion gain substantiation, corporalise and destroy nuanced perspective?

Perhaps we have always felt it, that slow, burning resentment against anyone who dares to know better, more than than us the average person. A troll is born in burning, silent resentment.

That resentful undercurrent ran through long-ago Friends episodes, where dumb Joey was always more popular than know-it-all Ross, it was why The Simpsons’ nerdy Lisa could never sell as many t-shirts as her prankster brother Bart. But whereas both Joey and Bart had heart, the troll is devoid of it.

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Hillary Clinton and the hysterical he

IMG_2509Hillary Clinton is no damsel in distress. Julia Gillard the former prime minister of Australia was called a witch during her tenure as that country’s leader. Listen to the former prime minister speaking in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. She talks of the gendered attack she faced while serving as the first woman prime minister of Australia. She famously called it out in the Australian parliament in what is now known as the ‘misogyny speech‘.

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General Indian English: Much ado about an accent

Something very complicated happens when we speak. Vocal cord vibrations are modulated by the snaky movements of a little appendage called the tongue. Twisting around the mouth cavity, tapping on the roof or on teeth-backs up front, it shapes sounds before they exit the mouth’s mini echo chamber. The hewed-out sounds have travelled a long way from cords to eardrums and then brain. When these sounds at long last go through the brain’s transliteration engine other connotations are spliced in, en route to final meaning. The way we speak reveals a lot about us. Read the transcript or listen to Meghan Sumner, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, speak in this Freakonomics podcast. The revelations that other people have about us can be biased. The accent of your speech may cause the person listening to reduce you to a stereotype.

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The strange case of the liberal conservative change-up

4865910730_6318dc195f_oHumans: we can be strange. Take for instance, how much we enjoy labelling ourselves then stage-managing our lives to adhere to chosen monikers. Clever, stupid, left-brained, right-brained, hindu, muslim, christian, brahmin, conservative, liberal. These labels like magical mantras possess subliminal powers of suggestion over us. But maintaining the personae suggested by said labeling is hard work, sometimes involving complex ritual and even violence. The reality is that we are a mix of so many changing characteristics it’s hard to adopt any one label at any given time.

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The skewed search for life’s meaning

2016-08-14_11-09-11When sentient beings search for meaning it often leads to gibberish. Markets and newspapers burgeon with spirituality columns, self-help books and religious cults that claim to tell you the meaning of life. Closer home, your own mainstream religious books claim to have an all-access pass to special meaning found nowhere else.

Extrapolating from religions, caste groups and race identities, individual humans will also find ways to explain whatever they do in the light of their own imagined virtue. Pattern-finding, an innate human faculty, can be employed in the cause of personal gain. We will extract seeming meaning from what appears to us as chaos. Ever watch a television show in a language you didn’t understand? Unable to translate as days pass you become familiar with the characters and a vague plot develops in your head. You find a way to understand what you really don’t mostly through inference. No proof is sought, most of any understanding arrived at is intuited. Literature has a kindred function with its allowance for interpretations, criticism and readings. Sometimes even a single line in a text of art can undergo myriad elucidations.

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Magic seeds lead to hibiscusland

IMG_2661A particular plant becomes the object of our affection and takes over the garden. But this devotion can lead to monoculture, bringing with it an absence of variety that only pests love, jeopardising a garden’s eco-system. Monoculture imperils the organic method, even the semi-organic method that I follow.

A devastating Indian summer this year produced a terrible drought in the hinterlands around Pune where I live. The unseasonably high temperatures brought a plague of mealybugs to my sky-high garden. The cotton-covered, plump little voracious vampires never tired and they multiplied ceaselessly in the scalding summer heat and my garden’s hibiscus culture. On cooler Summer mornings, their winged forms would take to the air flying off to parasitise yet more plants. Despite many thorough once-overs, brushing them off all reachable plant parts, they would reappear a few hours later relentlessly polka-dotting all those just-cleaned plants, irrevocably mutilating the leaves on which they fed.

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A tale of Goldilocks and a Zone

It’s like this. I am stuck to the face of the earth, like a tack on a noticeboard, gravitating together with its rocky bits, not being slingshot into space, as the terranean ball holding us down slowly wobbles, rotates and surfs the Goldilocks zone around its sun.

There’s a Goldilocks zone in everything. Not just out in space between Mercury and Mars, not too hot or too cold, just right for a distinct brand of life that the oceans gave birth to, after they themselves spewed out of comets or asteroids in the late heavy bombardment. An alien liquid was cradled around our inner rocky sphere, in a ribbon of space that would not allow it to freeze nor vaporously boil away into space, as it would have in the tail of an outer-comet boomeranging around the sun on a return trajectory to its Kuiperian home world.

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