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Sunday, April 18, 2021

On People

I'm going to write a bunch about people and, probably, media. But this post isn't super-photo centric. I read Jonathan Blaustein's column on aPhotoEditor pretty regularly, and his most recent is more or less the same kind of thing this week (usually he's talking more about photos) and it's a good read: "How We Got Here." My remarks here are something of a response, and something of a summary of a bunch of things I've been thinking over the last year or so.

We humans have a lot of conflicting impulses in us. We want to fight, we want to flee. We want to approach, to back away. We want to follow, we want to lead. We want to give up, we want to build. We want to build, we want to destroy. And so on, on and on. At the same time we're constantly subjected to a near infinity of stimuli, external and internal. We're hungry, there's a muffin on the counter, we know our wife wants that muffin to eat later. What do we do?

A stimulus that produces one response now can produce the opposite response later, even in circumstances that appear the same. We grow, we learn, subtle changes occur, and the whole system is extremely unstable. We are, more often that not, balanced on a knife's edge between one response and another.

A science fiction novelist named C.J. Cherryh wrote a series of books referred to as the Chanur Saga, the details of which do not matter here. In it, there is an alien race called the Kif. The dominant factor in their society is a thing call sfik which is kind of like honor. You earn it through your actions, high-sfik people can "give" it to you through their actions, and so on. It is like honor, but stripped down to a basic quality of winning. The Kif seem to have a near-biological sensitivity to sfik and a nearly insurmountable compulsion to follow the shifts. If the leaders of a faction are perceived to lose sfik, the Kif of that faction will butcher them wholesale and join the other side. This is normal and expected.

Naturally, this is a slightly jazzed up version of what actual humans actually do. We love strong leaders, and follow them willingly, because they're winners.

Note this: one the major stimuli for both Kif and humans is our perception of what the people around us think, and will do. Whether it's sfik or election momentum, we want to throw our lot in with whoever everyone else is backing. We want to be on the winning team, the team all our friends are on.

Donald Trump, O.J. Simpson, and the leaders of whatever dictatorship you choose to name, all have sfik. Whether they earned it, or whether it is granted to them by circumstance, luck, cronies who surround them, by the junta, it doesn't matter. They have it. They have the property of perceived winningness that makes some, many, people follow them no matter who absurd the story is.

Set these ideas aside and think of the same things in a different way:

We humans are not logical, we are not reasoning animals. We are capable of reason, but as a rule we do not reason. What we are is inspiration machines.

We exist in our environment, and constantly integrate a million subtle cues into some kind of worldview. Every now and then we get an inspiration. We're integrating clues, and by some poorly (albeit partly) understood mechanism, answers pop out seemingly spontaneously:

There are grubs in that log, we should turn it over.
Water behind that hill, half a day's walk.
Lions nearby.

And so on and so forth. I dare say that in our hunter-gatherer origins this integration/inspiration engine worked tolerably well. Not perfectly, I am sure, but well enough, which is all evolution demands. In the present day it is frankly a mess. The same machine is operating, but the inputs make no sense to the machine. We're looking at screens. We hearing people say things that mean nothing to the hunter-gatherer brain, about "Russia" and "the economy" whatever those are. We live inside buildings, inside cities, where none of the stimuli make any sense. Our brain is still trying to figure out whether there are grubs around, but what we need are answers to "who should I vote for?" and "should I invest in cryptocurrency?"

To be quite fair, the inspiration machine is not specific to grub-and-water finding. It's a general purpose inspiration machine. Nevertheless, the modern world rather taxes the thing.  

Mindfulness in the western-Buddhism sense, as well as inductive logic, strike me as related. These are formalisms that attempt to capture the way we normally operate, in much the same way deductive logic is a formalism that attempts to capture another aspect of how we think. None of these things actually reflects the complexity of what's going on in our heads, though.

At the end of the day, our brains are ferociously complex chaotic dynamical systems which contain state, which absorb stimuli, and which spit out actions and responses from time to time. Trying to truly characterize its operation in simple terms is doomed to failure.

This doesn't mean that we're helpless, of course. Simplified models (like mindfulness, or deductive logic) are not worthless. What they are is unreliable. You can't say "well, look, logically its in your best interest to.." and expect anyone to follow your suggestions. That's not how people work. But you can build nice bridges and guns with deductive logic, and you can form hypotheses about human behavior based on ideas around mindfulness and some related concepts.

Systems that are too complex to understand (i.e. practically everything interesting) can be successfully manipulated. Medicines work. Marketing works. Economies, um, kind of work.

The method, though, is to form hypotheses based on simplified models, to experiment, and to closely observe results. What you do next is based on how well the last thing you did worked out.

People who sell cake mixes watch daily sales performance obsessively. They correlate sales performance with advertising and other marketing efforts, and constantly tweak those inputs while watching the outputs. They're pretty good at selling cake mixes.

Social media sites constantly A/B test features: showing a new feature (A) to a randomly selected fraction of their users, and comparing behavior with the users who see (B) the old version (or a different version of the new thing.). This is automated. They do it live, minute by minute. Their algorithms rapidly evolve to produce whatever the desired behavior is. It's not even AI, it's just stupid automated testing. It is savagely effective.

Now come back to our conflicting responses. If we're often balanced on a knife's edge between flight or fight, or whatever, a subtle change in an algorithm, running under the aegis of an automated A/B test framework, can tip us (and by extension a bunch of the population) one way or the other almost by accident. A minor, subtle, change in the media we're seeing and suddenly everyone's voting for Donald Trump because our sfik sensors are ringing off the hook.

But at the same time, an equally subtle change can tip the world back. It's not hopeless. The impulse to follow the authoritarian is just an impulse, and it's a knife-blade's width away from a liberal spirit of generosity and kindness.

Fascists are just really good at marketing. O.J. Simpson doesn't try to reason anyone into thinking he's innocent, that he's a good guy. He's got this voice, and this set of mannerisms, a bunch of stuff that simply works. So he does that. And it works. Donald Trump and his team know how sfik works, they know it's a social construct, and they know how to construct it. They don't fuck around with white papers and deductive logic and programs on how we're going to defeat poverty, they focus on photographing Trump from down low, against the sky, so he looks Imperial. So he looks like a winner.

As humans one of our impulses is to follow, to be led by someone strong. It's not very hard to sell us a Great Leader story. You just gotta hit the right emotional notes, and then logic goes right out the window. We're not reasoning creatures.

Media, specifically photography, is my point of entry here. It's what I am interested in.

Sfik and its analogs are socially constructed, they are, really, a social consensus. To have sfik is identical to be believed, perceived, to have it. The perception is literally the thing, here. Media is about creating, shaping, destroying, beliefs. Photographs, taken en masse, as part of a campaign, can at least in theory shape ideas and opinions. Why did we think Trump was a successful, powerful, winner-type? Because he made sure that we were told so over and over, because the media around him realized they could sell ads around that story, because in the end the Republican Party realized they could extract power from selling that story.

Many millions of people, balanced on a knife's edge between compassionate liberalism and blindly following authoritarian power, were tipped to the latter by a combination of circumstance (economic stress? worries about immigration? who the hell knows, it's fractally complicated) and a well-operated (and lucky) media campaign.

Try some shit out, see how it works. Monitor your results. We can't meaningfully understand these systems, but we can manipulate them pretty well with the right methods.

Humanity can manifest any number of behaviors, one-by-one, and as a society. Those skilled in the art can and do steer it, with a little luck. Media is more or less by definition the tool that does it. If you can use it to steer society, it's media by definition. Nearly.

So, yeah, Jonathan's not wrong. There is an impulse to power and control. There is something like sfik that people can acquire, can have, and once they have it they seem to want to wield it. It is in the nature of sfik that wielding it works — it is, by its very nature, that which causes us to follow.


  1. Here's what I don't get: why do so many people write about photography? I've even heard of this guy Geoff Dyer, he's some kind of critic, amirite?

    Seriously, though. These people approach photography like it's some kind of literary rubics cube, and if they write enough words, all the colored bits will pop into perfect little rows. BORING!

    There's a reason for, 'a picture is worth a thousand words.' Well, there's already a kajillion pictures, so keep on writing motherfuckers, because that's the sisyphean hell you signed up for.

    I like what you write though. Mostly.

  2. You may be interested in this NPR Hidden Brain podcast about honor codes and how they affect behaviour (not sure how to include a link here or even if I'm allowed to: https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/made-of-honor/).

  3. E.g.: "Highest recommendation[:]" "the repeated photographic investigation of its roadside vending machines [...] expertly designed, edited, and published in this beautifully bound and slipcased edition."

    No one in their right mind would even contemplate foisting this thing, without the anticipation of a boundlessly inane, free promotional apparatus.

    1. What horrible sin are you doing penance for, obsessively reading ASX?

      Also, aren't those picture pretty obvious photoshops?

    2. My horrible sins aren't that easily penanced. Photoshopped. I dunno, does it even matter?

    3. Not really. They look 'shopped and that's what matters.

      Is it just me, or is this thing *way* more "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" than it is Becher? It feels almost like a mashup of "37 Views of Mount Fuji" and "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" (which I dare say have been themselves compared, making this a kind of metamashup)

    4. Whatever, it turned Brad's crank.