Friday, August 19, 2022

Who Codes Whom?

@daily_barbarian (Geoff Shullenberger) describes René Girard as politically ambivalent.

He codes as right-wing in his insistence on the necessity of social order, but as left-wing in his insistence that any such order is founded on violence.

When I ask who is doing the coding here, and for what purpose, he replies 

People of all sorts who encounter his work and attempt to place it in the conventional categories. I’ve seen many on the left use the first point to call him a reactionary, and some on the right use the second to call him naïve about power.

Quite so. But the fact that other people don't know how to categorize Girard doesn't imply any contradiction or ambivalence on his part. What it does show is that the conventional categories (rightwing, leftwing) are becoming increasingly muddled. (There are several other arguments for moving away from this conventional way of framing politics - for example recent work by Latour.)

But what I want to talk about here is the elision. Instead of people of all sorts code him ..., we get simply he codes. As if Girard is somehow responsible for his own classification.

Classification is a political act, but categories are often treated as objective facts rather than subjective opinions (Bowker & Star). Hence my question about who and why. 

One domain in which the act of coding hasn't always received sufficient attention is in data and intelligence, but this is now changing thanks to great work by @abebab and others. See links to my other posts below.

And in the political domain, commentators are increasingly willing to challenge the coding that underpins certain alleged social facts. See for example Global Media Literacy. And those wishing to politicize the COVID pandemic can find more than enough complexity in the coding of health and pharma data that might support any given measure. (Politicizing such matters is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is itself a political choice.)

Anon, Opinion: Beware the data on American right-wing violence (Global Media Literacy, 23 May 2022)

Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out (MIT Press 1999)

Related posts: Framing a riot (August 2011), Limitations of Machine Learning (July 2020), Mapping out the entire world of objects (July 2020), Near Miss (April 2021), Purpose of Shame (April 2022)

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

The Dogs of WWW

@kkomaitis and @j2bryson discuss the anniversary of the New Yorker cartoon On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog.

Obviously this is no longer true. Konstantinos Komaitis raises the important topic of surveillance capitalism and government snooping. There is more than enough data to know how many dogs you have, what you call them, how often you take them for walks, which other dogs and dog-owners you meet in the park, and how much you spend on dog-food and veterinary bills.

Joanna Bryson also raises the topic of deep fakes. Does this mean that some of those cute dogs we see on the Internet don't even exist? Or perhaps shifting our understanding as what counts as existing?


The title of this post is a reference to the words Shakespeare gives to Mark Antony:

Cry Havoc!, and let slip the dogs of war.

In its original meaning, crying havoc is a signal for looting and plunder. On the internet, this would include stealing your data and stealing your identity. 

In its article on the dogs of war, Wikipedia reproduces a Punch cartoon from 1876, showing Russia threatening war against Turkey in revenge for its losses in the Crimean War twenty years previously. Isn't history interesting?

Wikipedia: On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog, The Dogs of War, Crimean War (1853-1856), Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878)

Wednesday, July 06, 2022

The Government Inspector

Around £550 million has been spent on purpose-built facilities to conduct post-Brexit checks. Most of this money came from UK taxpayers, with the remainder being covered by local authorities and other organizations. However, following a recent change in policy by the UK government, these facilities will no longer be required.

The one in Portsmouth cost £25 million. It is designed specifically for government inspections, nothing else, Mike Sellers, director of Portsmouth International Port, told the Guardian. The cheapest option would be to demolish it.

The Government Inspector was an 1836 play by Nikolai Gogol, described by Wikipedia as a comedy of errors, satirizing human greed, stupidity, and the extensive political corruption of Imperial Russia.

The main character, Khlestakov, personifies irresponsibility, light-mindedness, and absence of measure. Remind you of anyone?

Joanna Partridge, Portsmouth’s £25m border post stands empty after minister’s imports U-turn (The Guardian, 5 July 2022)

Wikipedia: The Government Inspector

Thursday, June 09, 2022

Progress Bar

There are algorithms whose primary purpose appears to be to generate affect - for example, to reduce the anxiety of those waiting. For example, the progress bar that is displayed when something is loading or downloading. Other examples include indicators at bus stops, on railway platforms or next to lifts, showing either the current location or the expected time of arrival.

Sometimes these indicators misbehave. The progress bar suddenly jumps from 60% to 90% and then gets stuck. One moment the bus is five minutes away, the next moment it is seven minutes away. These glitches reveal that the indicators are not unmediated truth but fictions functioning as truth.

The algorithm of the progress bar depends not only on the code generating it but the cultural calculus of waiting itself, on a user seeking feedback from the system, and on the opportunity - increasingly capitalized on - to show the user other messages, entertainments or advertising during the waiting phase. Finn p34

Jason Farman compares these indicators with earlier symbols, such as the spinning cursor, which provided no such feedback.

These symbols keep us from seeing how the system is actually working; we’re not given a behind-the-scenes view of how the process is actually progressing, so we are kept at arm’s length, spinning or twiddling our thumbs as we wait. Farman
In other contexts, such as digital games, progress bars are designed to motivate the players.

Feedback is a system that tells players how close they are to achieving a goal and can come from points, levels, a score or a progress bar; this provides motivation to keep playing. Pulos quoting McGonigal, 2011, p. 21
And if the progress bar gets stuck on 99%, what then? In her PhD thesis, Kate Starbird discusses a meme that circulated on Twitter during the 2011 political uprising in Egypt, with progress bars showing variations of installing freedom and uninstalling dictator, in some cases linked to messages encouraging patience and/or persistence.

As things turned out, President Mubarak was uninstalled, but many of the protesters were unhappy with subsequent events, and there was a further uprising in 2013. So how much progress has Egypt made in installing freedom and democracy? Unfortunately, democracy isn't something that was uploaded to the cloud by the ancient Greeks, just waiting to be downloaded into any country with sufficient memory.

Jason Farman, Delayed Response (Yale University Press 2018). Extract: Spinning in Place

Ed Finn, What Algorithms Want (MIT Press 2017)

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York, NY: Penguin Press


Kate Starbird, Crowdwork, Crisis and Convergence: How the Connected Crowd Organizes Information duringMass Disruption Events (Atlas Institute, PhD thesis 2012)

Wikipedia: Progress Bar, Progress Indicator, 2011 Egyptian revolution 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Arendt on Racism

Following yet another mass shooting in the United States, @DanielTorday quotes Hannah Arendt on the purpose of racism.

Arendt's legacy on the question of racism is complex and disputed, and there is much commentary on a controversial article she wrote in 1959, criticising some of the measures enacted by the Eisenhower administration to protect black students attending a white school in Little Rock, Arkensas, and affirming the right of white parents to send their children to all-white schools.

However, if we can overlook her naive and wrong-headed opinions about American racism, there is still a valid question about what kinds of anti-racist measures might be most effective in defusing the situation and reducing the risk of civil war. While I completely reject the argument that the victims of oppression should be encouraged to keep their heads down and avoid provoking their oppressors, there is still an important question about how best to achieve and maintain racial justice and social harmony, and how to challenge racist rhetoric without causing its supporters to double-down.

Meanwhile this is how news media presents the perpetrator of the Buffalo shooting. 

Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Little Rock (Dissent, 1959)

Connor Grubaugh, Hannah Arendt on Anti-Racism as a Totalitarian Ideology (Tablet, 18 November 2021)

Edward Helmore, It was by design: Black residents try to come to terms with horror of shooting (Guardian, 15 May 2022)

Julian Honkasalo, Hannah Arendt on the origins and consequences of ideological racism (Kone Foundation, 16 March 2017)

Kevin Miles, Anti-Black Racism in Arendt, and Philosophy’s Dangerous Commitment to Purity (APA Blog, 7 July 2016)

David Smith, Little Rock Nine: the day young students shattered racial segregation (Guardian, 24 September 2017)

Jason Stanley, Buffalo shooting: how white replacement theory keeps inspiring mass murder (Guardian, 15 May 2022)

Lynne Tirrell, Words matter. Trump bears a responsibility for El Paso (Guardian, 10 August 2019)

Michael Tomasky, The Buffalo Shooting Is the Latest White Rage Backlash, Brought to You by the GOP (New Republic, 16 May 2022)

Sunday, April 24, 2022

POSIWID - The Acronym

POSIWID stands for Purpose Of System Is What It Does

Although the phrase is associated with Stafford Beer, credit for the acronym is claimed by the engineer Bill Livingston.

I heard Stafford give a speech in Orlando in 1986 where he used 'The purpose of a system is what it does'. Using the concept so much I found the phrase ungainly I came up with POSIWID as a code word. In 1993 when I went to see Stafford in Toronto, I presented him with a pen I had engraved with POSIWID. He sort of chuckled and that was the end of it.

POSIWID is always used as an absolute. That is, no assignations about purpose are invented. What it does is, by definition, its purpose. I have never encountered a disconfirming example, nor have any of the thousands that have adopted the concept. Of course, it all started with Ashby.
Bill Livingstone

Following my post yesterday on Some Key Features of POSIWID, I received some suggested variations on the acronym.

William Livingston, Have Fun At Work (FES 1988). Review by James R Fisher (September 2006)

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Some Key Features of POSIWID

The Plurality of POSIWID

A system doesn't necessarily have a single purpose, and different observers may detect different purposes. Or even different systems.

POSIWID should be plural (January 2010) - with thanks to Chris Bird

Constructing POSIWID (April 2022) - with thanks to Harish Jose

What You Measure Is What You Get - WYMIWYG

Label: Target-Setting


Large organizations have strong feedback loops that maintain and restore the status quo against the most forceful and ingenious interventions.

Enterprise POSIWID (March 2012)

Corporate Grind (November 2014) 

And is the Aim of Human Society (September 2021) to maintain its equilibrium?


POSIWID appears to encourage the creation of conspiracy theories - looking for the hidden agenda that will explain actions - especially when the official story doesn't seem to add up.

But it is one thing to search open-mindedly for a hidden agenda, and another thing entirely to presume its existence without evidence. Sometimes it is not conspiracy theory but chaos (cock-up) theory that best explains some complex series of events.

Label: Conspiracy

Sometimes a dreadful event is so politically convenient for certain parties or interest groups that they may be accused (by their opponents or by conspiracy theorists) of having engineered the event themselves. 

See Visible Problems (June 2010), The Value of Chaos (December 2021)

Invisible Hand

Economists and Marxists may regard the whole sociopolitical system as having a higher purpose, beyond the control of individual actors.

Are Markets Tools? (January 2012), Culture War - What is it Good For? (July 2021)


Biological determinism (e.g. evolutionary biology). As I see it, one of the main problems of evolutionary biology is that for any plausible hypothesis, one can invent any number of equally plausible alternatives. Explaining Bodies (February 2013)

Technological determinism (December 2020)

Labels: Determinism, Indeterminacy

Delayed reaction

Sometimes it takes a while for another purpose of a complex system to emerge.

Example: Walter Wolfgang Returns (August 2006)

Or perhaps purposes are tacked on afterwards (October 2006)

Absence of purpose

Absence-of-purpose at one level may be sustained by a deeper purpose. POSIWID helps us to search for a purpose, but doesn't reveal what kind of purpose we might find.

Example: Pact with the Devil (June 2006)

Whole system

There is an interesting relationship between the purpose (effect) of the individual and the purpose (effect) of the system. We cannot infer a strong purpose for an individual based on a very low probability effect. But the aggregate effect of the whole population may have a reasonably high probability.

See Purpose and Probability (September 2005)

There are also interesting questions about the purpose of diversity, which can only be addressed relative to the whole system.

Label: Diversity

Reframing purpose

From failure to success, from stalemate to victory - see Political Theatre (May 2012), Culture War - What is it Good For? (July 2021)

Label: Framing

Symmetrical POSIWID

For gardeners, the worm's purpose is to chew up grass cuttings and vegetable peelings and torn-up cardboard and produce compost.

For worms, the main purpose of the gardener is to provide a regular supply of grass cuttings and vegetable peelings and torn-up cardboard.

So there is a pleasing symmetry between the purpose of the gardener and the purpose of the worm. For religious folk, both the worm and the gardener are fulfilling God's purpose.

The Mirror of POSIWID (July 2008)

Identity versus viability

The primary purpose (POSIWID) of closed systems is to maintain their identity, and to resist all challenges to this identity. However, in complex dynamic environemnts, viability often requires responding creatively to change. Identity is therefore often in conflict with viability.

Example: Tribal Identity (October 2005)

Simplicity and complexity

If things seem unnecessarily complicated, this may be the result of some conscious or unconscious motive. Gagan Saxena notes that sometimes bad websites, phone-trees and policies have a dark purpose.

See Badly Designed Websites (August 2010)

Sometimes a corporate bureaucracy appears to be designed to make life difficult for employees and customers; even if such a design is not consciously planned, it may be sustained by the short-term benefits it confers (such as cost-saving or corporate convenience).

See Contradiction and Ambivalence (June 2011), Enterprise POSIWID (March 2012)


This is not who we are (September 2021) - yeah, right

What is the purpose of denial, and what does it achieve? For example, climate change denial. When a famous scientist stakes his reputation on denying some widely accepted environmental belief. Is this akin to other forms of denial, such as AIDS denial or Holocaust denial? Given that a given belief is a basis for collective support for a given position, denial appears to have the effect (and therefore the implicit purpose) of undermining this position.

Purpose of Denial (May 2005)

Label: Denial


If you know the effect that your actions are likely to have, and you go ahead anyway, this only makes sense if the alternative is far worse. Or if you imagine you won't get caught. For example, concealing or destroying evidence. POSIWID thinking therefore acts as an amplifier, accentuating the whisper of suspicion into a bawl of accusation.

Example: Erasing the tapes (September 2007)

Communication and Rhetoric

If a communication has diverse effects, how shall we determine the underlying purpose of the communication? Who is the real audience?

Real Audience (November 2006)

There is also a question as to whether the effects can be attributed to the rhetoric or to something behind the rhetoric.

Scarcity and Poverty (January 2011)

Are the effects of a communication more important than whether it is true or not? (Note Foucault's notion of Fiction Functioning in Truth)

Discourse Wars (June 2020)

And if a communication causes people to be upset or angry, can we assume this was the purpose all along?

Label: Outrage

Adam Curtis

Finally, let me put in a plug for Adam Curtis, whose documentary films provide a huge wealth of material on this subject. I still need to post something on his latest series.


See also POSIWID - the Acronym (April 2022)

Saturday, April 09, 2022

The Purpose of Shame

Weapons expert @mathbabedotorg Cathy O'Neil is best known for her account of algorithms as weapons (of math destruction). Her new book tackles a related topic, the use of shame as a weapon. 

Many people have written about the psychology and sociology of shame. O'Neil's focus is on how shame is manufactured and mined, how organizations gain commercial and sociopolitical benefit from propagating shame, how individuals are coopted into circuits of shame, and (to quote her subtitle) who profits in the new age of humiliation.

One use of the shame machine is to persuade people to buy products and services. O'Neil describes her own experience being targetted with fat-shaming advertisements. Such advertisements are designed to make people feel ashamed, and to believe that the advertised product will somehow help. She also notes how shame can undermine a person's capacity for rational evaluation, and trigger impulsive actions. 

Shame is also used socially, to reinforce social norms. In some cases this is centrally planned - for example, in China where people are publicly shamed for acts that are officially disapproved, such as jaywalking. In other cases, this can be the result of what O'Neil calls Networked Shame, where people feel empowered to shame strangers, supposedly for their own good. As if pointing out the health risks of obesity to a fat person is somehow being kind and helpful to them.

Immediately following the 2020 US presidential election, Judith Butler noted how Trump and his supporters saw the left as a shame machine.

Shame occupied a permanent and necessary place in the Trumpian scenario insofar as it was externalized and lodged in the left: the left seek to shame you for your guns, your racism, your sexual assault, your xenophobia! The excited fantasy of his supporters was that, with Trump, shame could be overcome.

Of course shame was not really overcome, it was merely redirected onto others, using a version of the Shame Machine that Geoff Shullenberger calls the Scapegoating Machine, tracing back to René Girard. (O'Neil also references Girard.)

So shaming the Other becomes a political tool. Making people feel ashamed that they need help is a lot cheaper and more convenient than actually helping them, so politicians make unfortunate circumstances shameful (addiction, homelessness, single parenthood, etc) as a way of signalling that people in such circumstances don't deserve our help. And by creating a sense of Us and Them, it reinforces loyalty to populist politicians. Shullenberger credits Peter Thiel, a former student of Girard, for helping to plan Trump's successful 2016 campaign, and notes that like the social media platforms on which it has thrived, Trumpism channels violence mainly toward victims it wishes to marginalize.

While there is nothing new about public humiliation and scapegoating, the Internet and social media clearly provide new affordance to those wishing to shame others. Is that merely an unfortunate side-effect of an otherwise beneficial and beneficent technology? Not surprisingly, O'Neil doesn't think so.

Digital titans, led by Facebook and Google, not only profit from shame events but are engineered to exploit and diffuse them. In their massive research labs, mathematicians work closely with psychologists and anthropologists, using our behavioral data to train their machines. Their objective is to spur customer participation and to mine advertising gold. When it comes to this type of intense engagement, shame is one of the most potent motivators. ... It spurs traffic and boosts revenue.

One possible remedy, suggests O'Neil, is to redirect shame back towards the powerful, or what she calls punching up. She notes how Google could itself be shamed, for example in relation to its treatment of Timnit Gebru, and notes at least the possibility of what she calls healthy shame. She ends, not with a plan to end all shame, but with some recommendations for detoxifying shame.

Judith Butler, Is the show finally over for Donald Trump? (The Guardian, 5 November 2020)

Cathy O'Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction (New York: Crown, 2016)

Cathy O'Neil, The Shame Machine (New York: Crown, 2022)

Geoff Shullenberger, Mimesis, Violence, and Facebook: Peter Thiel’s French Connection (Cyborgology, 13 August 2016) The Scapegoating Machine (The New Inquiry, 30 November 2016)

Related posts: Weapons of Math Destruction (October 2016), Ethical Communication in a Digital Age (November 2018), Dark Data and the US Election (November 2020)

Sunday, April 03, 2022

The Lipstick Effect

In November 2001, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Emily Nelson noted a correlation between economic downturn and lipstick sales.

Lipstick sales are red hot. So why is no one smiling? The reason is that women traditionally turn to lipstick when they cutback on life's other luxuries. They see lipstick, which sells for as little as $1.99 at a supermarket to $20-plus at a department store, as a reasonable indulgence and pick-me-up when they feel they can't afford a whole new outfit. "When lipstick sales go up, people don't want to buy dresses," says Leonard Lauder, chairman of EstéeLauder Cos.

Psychologists may think this has something to do with sex, arguing that the only reason women wear lipstick is to get laid. For example, Hill et all argue that "conditions of economic resource scarcity should prompt individuals to increase effort directed toward attracting mates, particularly for women".  

Meanwhile, management scientists think it may have something to do with work, because of course women will wish to create a favorable impression of themselves in the workplace. For example, Netchaeva and Rees argue that "women with high economic concern elect to improve their professional appearance more frequently than their romantic attractiveness".

Both of these explanations see lipstick in instrumental terms, as a means to an end. Whereas economists may see lipstick simply as a consumer product, whose purpose may be as much to enhance the mood of the woman herself as to enhance the way she is treated by other people. As Elliot notes, "rather than lose the spending habit consumers simply trade down to cheaper items to cheer themselves up".  And Murgea notes how quickly the lipstick can change the person's image, therefore serving as a rapid mood enhancer.

What exactly is the consumer behaviour that economists (and cosmetic executives) are interested in? Zurawski notes that when shoppers stop buying high-end luxury, "a well-documented side effect is the tendency to compensate by buying more high-end versions of lower-priced items".

If a relatively expensive lipstick is still cheaper than even a relatively cheap pair of shoes, then switching from one product to another may be a clue that the two products perform a similar function for the purchaser. Economists call this substitution.

So what exactly is the purpose of the lipstick? Is it to enhance the body image? Or is it to enhance what philosophers call the body without image?


Larry Elliott, Into the red: 'lipstick effect' reveals the true face of the recession (Guardian 22 December 2008)

Mike Featherstone, Body Image / Body Without Image (Theory, Culture and Society, 23/2-3, 2006)

Sarah E Hill et al, Boosting Beauty in an Economic Decline: Mating, Spending, and the Lipstick Effect (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2012, Vol. 103, No. 2, 275–291)

Aurora Murgea, Lipstick Effect in Romania (Annales Universitatis Apulensis Series Oeconomica, 14(2), 2012)

Emily Nelson, Rising Lipstick Sales May Mean Pouting Economy and Few Smiles (Wall Street Journal, 26 November 2001). See also John J Xenakis, Is the Lipstick Debate a Sign of the Times? (Web Log, 11 September 2008)

Ekaterina Netchaeva and McKenzie Rees, Strategically Stunning: The Professional Motivations Behind the Lipstick Effect (Psychological Science, Vol. 27, No. 8, AUGUST 2016, pp. 1157-1168)

Lu Zurawski, The Lipstick Effect And The Epidemiology Of Payments (Forbes, 16 May 2020)

Related post: Playboy models and economic crisis (October 2008)

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Value of Chaos

In a recent article on Vladimir Putin, continuing a line of argument to be found in his 2018 book, Bruno Maçães summarized something Joseph Brodsky wrote in 1990 about the relationship between power and chaos, particularly in relation to Russia.

What Brodsky identified was the connection between power and chaos, Since power needs the presence of chaos as a source of legitimacy, then chaos itself is legitimised and may even be celebrated. ... Brodsky recognised that power and chaos feed each other and grow together. Power is born from the act of bringing order to chaos. If there is no chaos then power itself must be used to create it. ... Chaos is never completely pacified, It continues to exist beneath the veneer of civilisation and the role of the sovereign consists in its management, so that it does not erupt to the surface.

Accusations of this kind have been directed at different regimes at different times, with varying degrees of justice. Paul Robinson, a professor at the University of Ottawa, disputes the relevance of this model to President Putin, and suggests that the model might be more relevant to Western foreign policy instead.

Two entirely different narratives, with entirely different things labelled as chaos, and different notions of Putin's responsibility for anything. So before we can ask who benefits from chaos in a given situation, we have to ask what even counts as chaos.

Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia: On the trail of the New World Order (Penguin 2018)

Bruno Maçães, Agent of Chaos (New Statesman, 24 November 2021). 

Paul Robinson, Putin mentions Gandhi: proof he loves Hitler! (29 November 2021)

Related posts Don't Waste a Crisis (November 2008), Political Theatre (May 2012 updated January 2013), Culture War (July 2021)