The Internet Judgement Machine

Remember this Reddit news item, wherein a bunch of people pushed their morality on someone?

At one point Mori asked “do you think the Internet should perch like an angel of conscience on your shoulder?” My response is — sure, why not? The internet is just other people…

Noah Berlatsky

To which I noted,

in no way want to get comfortable with the suggestion that listening to what other people claim to think is “the right thing” on an Internet forum necessarily bears the slightest resemblance to the best course of action.


Well, now we have a real crime for Reddit to react to, and the “mainstream press” like The Atlantic are gleefully skewering it for its reaction:

The amateur investigators from the site — having served as a kind of unofficial proving ground for theories that made their way to the mainstream media, jumping on the clear photo, despite the Post story that had also spread on Reddit — were tying the FBI photos to a 22-year-old Brown student and this ABC News report about his having gone missing last month. There was pushback, even on Reddit — “Leave the missing guy alone” — but it was too late; the trolls on Reddit had fed an army of all-nighter trolls in the media.

Indeed the Internet is just other people – and this is what other people do. They are undisciplined, they jump on a quick solution to a complex social problem, and they find it easy to blame those who stick out – those not like them – because it feels right.  By and large, people do not serve the truth because it is hard to serve the truth.  They would much rather believe that the truth exists to serve them.

If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. – Anatole France

For those who were not misled by the hoopla, I applaud you.

And for those of you affected by the bombing, particularly those who lost friends and loved ones, you have my deepest sympathies.

Published in: on April 20, 2013 at 7:56 PM  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , ,

The Basis of Morality

Noah (@hoodedu) linked me to his thoughts on morality.  Thanks, Noah. Twitter is indeed a very awkward platform for nuance.

This discussion started with reference to the loss of a Neil Gaiman script for Dr. Who.  Thousands of users posted on reddit to pressure the person who found it (or rather, their roommate) to “do the right thing,” and the subsequent trumpeting by some that this somehow “vindicated” the moral authority of the Internet was sickening.  Let me be clear – I do think that in this case returning the item happened to be the right thing to do. But that is a happy coincidence.  I in no way want to get comfortable with the suggestion that listening to what other people claim to think is “the right thing” on an Internet forum necessarily bears the slightest resemblance to the best course of action.  I find equating the right thing to do and the popular thing to do to be morally dangerous. (Cf. slavery, the oppression of minority religions and minority ethnicities, violent homophobia, the cutting of the rose, etc. – all popularly accepted by society for thousands of years, but to me, morally unacceptable.)

If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. – Anatole France

Now, with respect to the comments at Noah’s site:

Peter is right in that my statement is not about the generation of moral principles but rather in the idea that one should not ascribe a higher moral authority to the government, to the state, to the corporation, to a board of directors, or indeed to any man-made amalgamation of individual moral actors. Having numbers does not make them automatically more morally correct than an individual making a moral decision. (The critique of modern law as judicial shamanism, for instance, is a structural observation based upon how the ritual of law is constructed around making it appear more impressive, as if that spectacle makes it more morally correct.)

If we say that the state does not properly have the authority to tell you which god to worship, then I take a half-step further and posit that neither does it have the right to dictate your ideals, to tell you good or evil. Of necessity, it makes purely practical judgements like, “People are not permitted to steal things or we will lock them up,” which are to some degree useful for the functioning of society, but we should not confuse them with moral judgements.

Peter also says,

We simply try to muddle through, creating the best world we can — deploying not principles, but what Charles Taylor called “inspired adhoccery.”

I would restate Peter’s “ad hoc” statements thus: there exists a moral axis and a pragmatic axis, and as moral agents we are perpetually brokering an uneasy peace between the two. To be perfectly moral would require infinite resources, or at least the ability to act as if there were infinite resources – a disregard for the pragmatic side of things. To be perfectly pragmatic would require infinite moral flexibility, or effectively an outright lack of morality.  (This level of abstraction, incidentally, derives from the “postmodern” half of my explanation of my stance as “postmodernist-existentialist.”  Peter notes correctly that I differ from Sartre in at least one significant place despite calling my reasoning existentialist.  I believe even Sartre used meta-level principles for moral reasoning in No Exit, but that is a discussion for another time.) I submit that to not perfectly cleave to abstract principles is a different order of things from never attempting to stick to principles in the first place.  That, I believe, is where the real danger of doing what is most comfortable rather than what is moral lies.  Call it a throwback to my days in science: that which is never measured is never properly observed, and that which is not observed, we cannot really make clear statements about. How can you monitor your own moral progress without having some kind of measure?

In the end I suspect my differences with Noah might be theological more than descriptive: is there such a thing as morality, independent of social feedback and pragmatic goals? I say yes, as long as we believe and set it apart; law, for instance, is not morality. Noah, if I read him correctly above, says no. If you don’t allow that morality exists as a separate conceptual thing, then perhaps the distinctions I am drawing become meaningless.

I believe they have meaning, though.

Wield your Klout

Apparently my Klout score is higher than Craig Venter’s.  That’s hilarious.

Fear my arbitrarily high numbers!

Fear my arbitrarily high numbers!

On a more serious note, this is always the problem society faces: how do we rank people? We’ve moved past concepts of inherited nobility and so forth, but this just means we’ve adopted new metrics.  GPA, college admissions test scores, GREs, and everything all boil down to the excuse of having a numerical reason people can point to to justify their decisions to accept or reject.
You are not your bank account. You are not the clothes you wear. You are not the contents of your wallet.”  And no, neither are you your test performance or Klout score.
But for 90% of your daily interactions, you might as well be.
Published in: on April 30, 2012 at 10:41 PM  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , , , ,


The possibilities we are concerned with tell us a lot about our priorities.

Published in: on March 26, 2012 at 3:26 PM  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

On the Gervais Study

I don’t think the Gervais study is saying precisely what Jezebel seems to conclude it is.

In a new study, the only group participants found as untrustworthy as nonbelievers were rapists.

One of the main issues in studies of behavior and stereotype is the desire to avoid telegraphing to the subject what he or she is “supposed” to do. But in explicitly selecting “religious” people from the USA via an internet survey company, Gervais – a foreigner – may have been unconsciously prompting them to act more in accordance with common stereotypes of religious Americans.

Furthermore, the way in which the questions were asked is definitely not as it was explained on JezebelJezebel would have the reader believe that the test subjects, for no particular reason, homed in on atheism to explain immoral or selfish behavior.  But that isn’t exactly what happened; read the study setup and you may find that the participants were, well, set up:

Across subjects, we manipulated the target groups to which the man might belong by asking participants whether they thought it more probable that the man was a teacher or a teacher and (a) a Christian, (b) a Muslim, (c) a rapist, and (d) an atheist. In this way, we evaluated the degree to which people find an untrustworthy description to be representative of atheists, relative to a majority religious ingroup (Christians), a religious outgroup (Muslims), and an unambiguously distrusted group (rapists).

Let us presume that the average person, knowing both positive and negative examples of Christians, is willing to consider being religious a positive, negative, or neutral matter.  Being asked how “strongly religious” they are by the very terms of the study, Christians, who consider being Christian at least neutral, are primed to consider being atheist not a neutral matter, but a negative matter: it clashes with their avowed identity, and they feel an obligation to act out that identity.  (Studies have shown that reminding people of cultural, ethnic, or other stereotypes produces a similar reversion to type, even if that stereotype is seen as negative.)

Further, we already have one positive piece of information – the character is a teacher, generally a fairly selfless role in society.  There must be some negative element to counterbalance this given positive, or the result is essentially, “this man is a jerk for no explainable reason.”  It’s sort of a game of “which of these is not like the other?”  Being a rapist is categorically not like any of the others.  Being an atheist is not like being a religious believer, and so also not like the others (or at least, more dissimilar than being a Christian and being a Muslim.)  The pressure on the respondent is to pick something to account for the behavior.  It’s at least equally valid to look at this study and say that the respondents are surprisingly free of bias against Muslims as it is to say that they are astonishingly biased against atheists.

As an aside, I question whether rapists truly constitute a proper “unambiguously distrusted group:” while we all consciously say we don’t accept rape and abhor it, as a population this is simply not true.  Feminist studies assert that men often have mental blind spots that cause them to effectively downplay the likelihood or severity of it.  According to the more cynical of these sociological studies, this is what enables men to bond with other men and work together on matters that do not touch their personal histories.  In other words, it’s more that men are wired to mute their outrage over rape than that America morally equates atheism with violent crime.  This is a hidden cognitive bias that, if present but not accounted for, could easily skew interpretation of the results.

When deciding whether it is more probable that Linda is a bank teller, or that Linda is a bank teller and a feminist, most participants incorrectly choose the latter option—that is, they commit the conjunction fallacy— because they heuristically judge that the description sounds representative of a feminist, even though logic dictates this option is necessarily less probable. People only commit the conjunction fallacy when the target’s description (single, outspoken, and liberal) is deemed representative of the target’s potential group membership (feminist).

Well, certainly.  According to models of how our minds make sense of the world, we wish to tell tales that account for the given facts.  If making Linda a feminist makes the whole story more plausible and easier to remember, then it is unsurprising that we are willing to believe it.  If “atheist” implies “not dedicated to a fixed moral code” (falsely, in many cases, but widely believed) then it may be invoked to make a story of opportunistic actions easier to rationalize and believe.  Also, the conjunction fallacy is easy to commit where there is no penalty for guessing wrong; I would be interested to see an economic study where the participants are asked if they are willing to bet $20 on the bank teller being a feminist with no supporting evidence, or similarly on the selfish man being an atheist with no supporting evidence.

A far better study design would be to take reactions from thousands of people, and only mine the data later for the relevant reactions.  This avoids the issue of prompting people to behave like stereotypical fundamentalist Christians.  It would also be best to even out the response options so that rapist and atheist are not two options that might be perceived as too strongly dissimilar to the other options, or rather, to eliminate options which are too similar.  If testing distrust, why use “rapist” and not “used car salesman” or “telemarketer”?  Finer gradations would more precisely pinpoint the level of bias the public has against atheists without necessarily throwing everything to the apparent level of violent crime.

Published in: on December 4, 2011 at 5:48 AM  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Neojaponisme’s Economic Review

Over at Neojaponisme W. D. Marx has begun a systematic, economic overview of Japan of the sort that I have been urging people to do for years. While he surely didn’t hear the idea from me, he does a credible job of examining the links between the flow or absence of money and the resultant cultural void.

I really wish we could see some data on the effects of international reactions to Japanese culture.  For example, China and Korea, long customers to Japanese anime and manga, have repeatedly exhorted their own artists to match or exceed Japanese artists.  How much money went into that?  Was it successful in drawing off some of the demand?  Can we say this sort of thing actually affected the Japanese industry significantly?  In short, was it money well spent?

When we discuss the fact that sales in mens’ suits fell since 1997, does that mean there are fewer jobs, or just fewer white-collar jobs?  If the latter, what parallels can we draw with the US, where after 9/11 a lot of white collar jobs were replaced with blue collar jobs?  How well does that correlate with spending money?

Consumers were once engaged with pop culture most actively through the act of consumption — buying a CD, book, or video game — but not only have they ceased buying goods, they are increasingly not even participating passively when media is virtually free, like in the case of TV.

I wonder: is this a long-term strategic flaw?  Is it unique to the culture, or is it something that happens every time there is an economic depression and consumers have been taught to equate consumption with participation?

Anyone with a computer may publicly speculate on anime and society, but for doing research and raising all these important questions, I salute Neojaponisme.

Published in: on December 1, 2011 at 3:25 PM  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

Judgement on Otaku

How should we judge other people?

In the past it was generally accepted in Western society that anyone not in your own group was a fair target for generalized criticism. Thus, jokes about blacks, Jews, Poles, Asians, Mexicans, etc. became commonplace – as did jokes about blondes, redheads, Catholics, Italians, and so forth.

Eventually we wised up to the fact that the butts of these jokes were actually people, and it was hurtful, cruel, or just downright counterproductive to continually bludgeon our neighbors with negative stereotypes. This may or may not have been assisted by a healthy dose of political mobilization on their parts, which brings me to the term “political correctness.” It is possible to avoid evoking damaging stereotypes for two different reasons. The first is purely pragmatic – not insulting minorities because the NAACP or the Anti-Defamation League will be after you – while the second is because you genuinely believe it’s not a good thing to judge people on what social identity group they belong to.


NEETs in the Hood

With thanks to Wah and ExecutiveOtaku
(and apologies to Eazy-E:)

Woke up quick, at about noon.
Just thought that I had to be in Warcraft soon
Gotta get drunk, before the raid begins,
before my mom starts talkin’ about my friends.

About to go and damn near went blind,
young nightelves on the path thrown’ up guild signs…
I went in the hall to take count
with my epic on the side of my mount

Bailed outside and I pointed my weapon –
just as I thought, the noobs kept steppin
I jumped in the fray, hit the juice on my ride;
I got front and back, side to side.

Then I let the Dranei dance!
I was spamming out spells in a healing trance
I put, ‘Greyfoo, Greyfoo’ at the top of the list
Then I played my own shit, it went somethin’ like this . . .

Published in: on December 11, 2010 at 7:04 PM  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Das Kapital

Fasalina revealed the secrets of business to an exclusive audience recently:


In England the process of social disintegration is palpable.

-Karl Marx

Published in: on December 1, 2010 at 3:55 PM  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The rise and fall of halcy

Halcy, then. What’s he all about? The German demoscene king-cum-blogger has been a fixture of the anime twittersphere in recent months, his wit, unassuming personality, and quest for a galactic bishounen transformation sequence combining to net him many friends. (Asked how he would spend prize money from an award, halcy replied, “Booze.”)

Recent events, however, have left him looking less like a pilot and more like a refugee from a soap opera. The Moritheil Review promised records of his flirtation with his mother-in-law, and we were in a unique position to deliver them.

On October 25, halcy joined the ranks of the objectum-sexuals, marrying Foobar in an impromptu ceremony.

The blushing bride:

halcy @mefloraine M-may I marry your music player? *w*

Assent was rapidly given.  This made mefloraine his mother-in-law.

mefloraine Please be kind to it!
halcy I will treat it with utmost kindness~

The proceedings did not, unfortunately, curb his legendary sexual appetite.  Within a month he was flirting with other women, including his mother-in-law, dropping pickup lines and innuendos with the best of them.

halcy @mefloraine Hey girl, why settle for a 5¼ inch floppy when you could have my… *shades* hard drive?

halcy @moritheil Expect self-cest slash to appear soon!

halcy @mefloraine If it was a cellphone, I could now make a super dirty joke about vibration alarm motors.

What is it that drives successful men to this behavior?  Is it the allure of risk?  Is it that we as a society enable them?  Are all men Tiger Woods, deep down inside?

Remember, all Men would be tyrants if they could.
– Abigail Adams

Published in: on November 19, 2010 at 11:01 PM  Comments (5)  
Tags: , , , , , , , ,