“I always say: when there are two sides to an argument, both are wrong. So there isn’t much of a value to debate in my opinion — no one’s going to get persuaded, and both sides are wrong anyway, so your premise is wrong that one side is wrong and one side is right.”

-Horace Dediu (podcast)

Divisive algorithms

From the Wall Street Journal (via John Gruber), “Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive”:

A 2016 presentation that names as author a Facebook researcher and sociologist, Monica Lee, found [that] “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools” and that most of the activity came from the platform’s “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover” algorithms.

Gruber noted:

In the old days, on, say, Usenet, there were plenty of groups for extremists. There were private email lists for extremists. But there was no recommendation algorithm promoting those groups.

This crystalized in my mind the extent to which recommendation algorithms are central to both the successes and failures of social media. “Success” in terms of reach: the algorithms pick the most addictive posts to keep people hooked on the site, leading to massive engagement; “failure” in terms of the human cost: the most addictive posts are not only addictive but also often divisive, distressing, and untrue. The algorithms are widely and directly boosting extremely problematic content!

And this isn’t new to social media — human editors at tabloids and cable news have been using similar “recommendation algorithms” in their heads as they pick stories and headlines to keep people watching.

How do we make alternate recommendation algorithms available that optimize for other qualities, such as well-being, empathy, and trust?

The opposite of racism is admitting when we’re being racist

“Historically, the heartbeat of racism has been denial — to deny that one’s ideas are racist, one’s policies are racist, and certainly that oneself, and one’s nation, is racist. By contrast, the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession, admission, acknowledgement, the willingness to be vulnerable, the willingness to identify the times in which we are being racist, being willing to diagnose ourselves and our country and our ideas and our policies. …

“To grow up in America is to grow up with racist ideas constantly raining down on your head — and you have no umbrella, and you don’t even know that you’re wet with those racist ideas, because those racist ideas themselves cause you to imagine that you’re dry. And then someone comes along and says, you’re wet, and these ideas are still raining on your head — here’s an umbrella. You can be like, thank you! I didn’t even realize I was drenched!

“[So] essentially, to be anti-racist is to admit when we’re being racist. [In my book] I had to basically admit and chronicle some of the most shameful moments of my life. … It took me almost a year to write the first few chapters.”

-Ibram X. Kendi, via Unlocking Us (Brené Brown)

Racism as a scam

“If you’re a white American who has racist ideas, and you’ve perpetuated those ideas… you were simultaneously a victim and a victimizer.

“[Throughout history] you had so many powerful Americans trying to convince [everyone] that black people were inferior, [because this belief served] their own self-interest. … Poor whites whose poverty was directly the result of the riches of white slave-holders became [convinced that] it should be this way! And so then those people [in power] were able to get richer and richer.

“People have been tricked, they’ve been manipulated, they’ve been hoodwinked, and that’s what I want people to realize.”

-Ibram X. Kendi, via Unlocking Us (Brené Brown)