Rethinking institutions

...more clues can be found in the extensive literature on irrationality. People tend, for example, to rate longer explanations as being more similar to ‘experts’ explanations’. There is also the ‘seductive details’ effect: if you present related (but logically irrelevant) details to people as part of an argument, this seems to make it more difficult for them to encode, and later recall, the main argument of a text, because their attention is diverted.

Another from Bad Science.

I often wonder how our world, our institutions would differ if we had a better understanding of our own foibles and deficiencies a few hundred years ago.

For instance, would the modern press conference exist if we understood how easy it is to derail critical thinking and shape narratives? Would they be similarly designed - with the stages, lecturns, flags and other signalling of authority or group dynamics?

It takes a village

I finally finished Steven Naifeh's insanely long biography of Vincent van Gogh. I'm now far less taken by the "genius" of Vincent. Rather, I'm enamoured with his brother.

The book is a brilliant illustration of the importance of family. Vincent appears to have been a loner, but defies the lone genius trope.

Theo knew better than anyone the trials of living with his brother: the insecurity and defensiveness, the alternating currents of guileless optimism and abyssal depression, the inner war of grand ambition and easy frustration.

The family were prolific letter writers, and so the story is largely constructed around surviving correspondence. Mainly that between the brothers, but also of their family and contemporaries. Looking through my notes, however, much of it is taken with harangues, tantrums, feuds and demands.

He wrote Theo, too, unapologetically detailing his new life (“I have a real studio of my own, and I am so glad”) and hinting darkly that he might be forced to borrow again from Mauve if Theo did not replenish his empty pockets—or even go to Tersteeg for money. Fearing another family embarrassment, Theo sent the money, but not without blistering his brother for behaving so badly toward their parents. “What the devil made you so childish and so shameless?” he scolded. “One day you will be extremely sorry for having been so callous in this matter.” Vincent exploded at the rebuke, responding to his brother’s accusations in a long and furious rebuttal. “I offer no apology,” he declared. To Theo’s charge that such bickering threatened their aging father’s health, Vincent replied acidly: “The murderer has left the house.” Instead of softening his demands, he complained that Theo had not sent enough money, and insisted that Theo guarantee further payments because “I must know with some certainty what to expect.”

The book charts Vincent's slow spiral, from an upper middle class upbringing, through repeated failures in numerous fields. Vincent appears to have lived with mental illness most of his life, and only really started to gain fame after his suicide.

Along the way Vincent seemed to alienate almost everybody, including his parents, uncles, bosses, co-workers, landlords, art suppliers, fellow students, siblings, and entire towns and villages.

But not his brother. Theo supported him throughout, financially and emotionally. For most of his time as an artist Theo paid his bills. He offered encouragement and advice, and acted as a go-between to important contacts or people Vincent had already antagonised.

For someone who dreamed of family and a place in the world, Theo was it.

That any of us know of Vincent van Gogh is due to Theo and his wife, Johanna. Theo even saved his paintings and letters, stashing them in drawers and under his bed. But he died shortly after Vincent. It was Johanna who organised exhibitions of, and curated, Vincent's work. Johanna was even the first to publish the brothers' correspondence.

Vincent was a genius but he didn't do it alone. It took a village.

Why I’m uneasy about Facebook as arbiter of acceptable

Moderating on Facebook sounds like a nightmare. Casey Newton had an explosive story last year of panic attacks and high turnover. But the problem isn’t just for the moderators themselves, but in aggregate. As a philosophical problem.

Moderation sets the bounds on reality and acceptableness for billions of people. Across cultures and contexts. Across time. Will a private organisation ever be equipped for this? Could anything, really?

I was thinking about this as I finished up Steven Levy’s new book on Facebook. It’s a sweeping account of Facebook’s rise and recent bout with internal territorialism. But there were really interesting digressions on moderating content at scale.

Levy describes intense debates over what is and isn’t kosher. I use the word deliberately as the image of ever expanding notes and commentary strikes as a quasi religious one. A guide that is first quite narrow and absolute but must be argued over, reinterpreted and contextualised to new situations. Interpreted. At scale.

The rules can venture into confounding, Jesuitical flights of logic. Some things are fairly straightforward. There are attempts to define levels of offensiveness in subjects like exposure to human viscera. Some exposure is okay. Other varieties require an “interstitial,” a warning on the screen like the one before a television show that might show a glimpse of buttocks. Outright gore is banned. It takes a judgment call to fit a given bloodbath into the right box. “If you rewind to Facebook’s early, early days, I don’t think many people would have realized that we’d have entire teams debating the nuances of how we define what is nudity, or what exactly is graphic violence,” says Guy Rosen of the Integrity team… Facebook has created a vast number of non-public supplementary documents that drill on specific examples. These are the Talmudic commentaries shedding light on Facebook’s Torah, the official Community Standards. A New York Times reporter said he had collected 1,400 pages of these interpretations

As an abstract problem, sure, Facebook needs to crackdown on abuse and misinformation etc. etc. But in practice they are dealing with oceans of grey.

And there is no average set of values. Give my grandma and me the same stack of posts and we’d whittle them down to different subsets.

This is why the word interpret is important. Not just of the rules but the posts themselves. And layered on top of all this is that it apparently takes place at such speed as to make the nuances moot.

Facebook expects moderators to make about 400 “jumps” a day, which means an “average handle time” of around 40 seconds for them to determine whether a questionable video or post must remain, be taken down, or in rare cases, escalated to a manager, who might send the most baffling decision to the policy-crats at Menlo Park. Facebook says that there is no set time limit on each decision, but reporting by journalists and several academics who have done deep dives on the process all indicate that pondering existential questions on each piece of content would put one’s low-paying moderation career at risk.

The scale and speed, maybe more than anything else, is what concerns me. At least for now it doesn’t seem like a technological solution is in the offing. The incentive of those tasked with interpreting marginal content is to be restrictive. Better over than underdo it. And recourse is opaque and minimal.

Even given good will among everyone involved, top to bottom, this isn’t a great recipe. This isn’t how we should be determining reality for billions of people.

What is natural?

What does it mean for something to be “natural”? The concept is all over the place. As branding it is something to aspire to. A state that must be protected. Something distinct from humans.

It’s especially jarring in discussions of nutrition and health. The absence of chemicals is ipso facto better for you. The diets of generations past something sacrosanct.

But it’s often an arbitrary distinction.

These orange carrots may not have been sprayed or grown with chemicals, but they’ve been altered by generations of farming. This slice of land may not have any obvious human alterations, no buildings or roads. But our presence in and around it has changed it. We’ve thinned it with our steps and diets. We’ve changed the climate, macro and micro.

Our perceptions of nature are almost always skin deep. Our recognised impact only the most brutal. I’m halfway through a Quarterly Essay on the Murray-Darling Basin, where much of Australia’s agriculture is located and water politics is fierce.

But right now I’m gripped by a contested state of nature:

These stories of the river are increasingly contested, as the engineers attempt to model and restore some portion of “natural” flows. The irrigators on the Lachlan, in their interviews with me, posed the question of what the Water Holder thought the “natural” state of the Cumbung Swamp would have been, and what “sustainable” might look like. What is natural? What people remember from their childhood, what the traditional owners have recorded in stories, or what the water engineers’ models tell us would once have happened before we built dams and locks and weirs and drew away so much of the water for our own use? And how to account for climate change?

The natural state lies outside living memory, in the realm of dreaming and anecdote. In both the real and the political landscape of the Murray–Darling Basin, nature is often referred to, used as a justification for action, but increasingly it is out of reach, a concept rather than a reality.

Put aside that natural appears to be conflated with “healthy”. It’s temporal.

The question seems to be about the baseline. At what point was the river system “natural”? And, if we pick a time when humans were present, why is it any more natural than it is now?