I’m writing this at the end of our election season, and starting on Friday, November 6. For what it’s worth, it appears that Joe Biden has won the Presidency, Donald Trump is declaring victory and tantruming (as of course, a narcissistic psychopath would be expected to do) and the Senate seems to be in limbo. It does look like the Ds will hang onto the House. While it’s not clear there will be deep change, at least a tired nation can get a bit of a reprieve from chaos. The gangs, Antifa or Proud Boys, didn’t show up storming the polling stations. There were no crazy gangs in the streets. It’s November, for chrissakes, and cold across most of the country.
Donald Trump is busy ranting away, to the point where the various news organizations have decided to censor him. He’s claiming voter fraud (of course) and twisting small circumstances into vast conspiracies that have deprived him of key states, which are largely down to the wire as far as vote tallies. I understand this deeply — in a world of lower v-Meme knowledge structures, conspiracy, as I’ve explained before, is your friend. My retort is simple — if you were going to fix vote totals, couldn’t you have done a little better than just a 2000 vote total separation? How would any conspirator even guessed that things would have been that close? The pollsters once again vastly struck out in predicting election outcomes. Most Ds were talking about a “Blue Wave” that never materialized.
This now turns into a layered DeepOS conversation. Why didn’t the Blue Wave ever materialize? Or even better, why did people believe that it would? What has changed in public information aggregation directed toward popular opinion that has made the tools available so unreliable? And why are they not only unreliable, but invalid as well? What has happened to the information system that has destroyed reproducibility (the core of reliability) as well as whether the situations discussed are actually true? (Validity, and grounding of opinion.)
For us to understand this, I want to first disabuse you of the notion that this started with Donald Trump, and is a function of one person. There is credit, though — Trump actually was a pioneer in all of this, and his intrinsic mastery of Authoritarian v-Meme, low empathy, limbic-based fragmentation messages, harnessed to his Twitter account, is noteworthy. But Trump is just a disruptor, albeit a defective one, in a world ripe for disruption.
How is the world ripe for disruption? As much as anything, it is the structure of modern society that has basically disallowed time for anything but work. If you’re looking for formal studies about how much time people spend at work, they’re out there. But I will anecdotally report that I have lots of students in Seattle, but few students living in the Seattle area that have commute times less that 30 minutes. And most close in on an hour, with some outliers having commute times close to 1.5 hrs.
Such commute times, because of housing prices in the Bay Area, have been de rigueur even since the ’80s. I can remember working in Sunnyvale, CA, at NASA Ames, and taking weekdays off to kayak the Tuolumne River, outside of Modesto, CA, and watching the lines of “super-commuters” — driving sometimes 2.5 hrs. to work in the Bay Area, just so they could own an affordable house. That leaves very little time for friends and family, to say the least.
Even worse, as the late David Graeber reported in his book, Bullshit Jobs, much work in most jobs has no purpose. It’s more to establish status and authority, which inherently works through Authoritarian networks to establish control. Often using labyrinthine rules, some 38% of employees end up chasing their tails. That leads to fragmentation and depression of the workforce. No one can avoid breaking at least some rules, in which case they will live in fear of disciplinary action. That leads to a decline in employee conversation, save for bands of ostensible co-conspirators.
Into that fragmented mess of humanity, where more and more Americans lack meaningful pro-social connection, came social media. People can and will find ways to connect. And social media, with its inherently limited empathetic bandwidth (short messages with a handful of emojis,) filled in the void.
Let’s back up a bit and understand the prior assumptions used by polls in general. Underlying everything is the assumption that people’s opinions may be clustered (there are ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ geographic areas that are well-recognized, if not profoundly inaccurate) and somehow those opinions range along some Gaussian meta-distribution, with partisans on the tails, and the majority of the body politic in a hump in the middle. Politicians have used this characterization literally forever. Nixon and Reagan both talked about the “silent majority”, for example. Politicians have used in their verbiage some leverage to push the peak of the bell curve toward one side or another. But that idea of statistical independence, characterized by intrinsically isolated geographic clustering, has dominated the idea of how polling should be done. Washington is a Blue State, Idaho is a Red State, and never the twain shall meet.
I am not going to claim to be an expert on polling techniques — but the problem is that this is an enormous blind spot. Yet the evidence is there — with the simplistic notion of Red States/Blue States dominating. Even on the face of it, one could roll with a less incorrect paradigm of Urban/Rural geographic opinion propagation.
Yet other factors are profoundly in play. I can buy Italian mortadella at the Fred Meyer in Spokane, WA — a conservative city with strong Scandinavian roots. How did such a food get there, or the demand to stock it in a local grocery store? Certainly not from local culture. There are signals everywhere.
The implicit assumption in the polling is this — disposition is determined by nearest neighbors. And those nearest neighbors are a function of geography, and to a lesser extent, population density. And these clusters are isolated — statistically independent — from the whole.
Anyone reading this realizes that it is obviously false. The major news networks no longer dominate the 6:30 PM time slot in people’s lives for an uptake of what is happening in the world. Instead of geography connecting people, it’s social media. And in a world where you can stay in touch with your high school friends in Ohio, even if you move to Washington State, as well as expand your network to Swedish intellectuals, and talk to Italian chemistry profs on a regular basis. (I’m talking about myself here) the real characteristics of message development will now no longer be anything close to statistically independent. They will be a function of larger connection.
And how does that connection work? With Facebook, it’s the number of friends you have in your network, which has evolved from people you actually knew, to people around the world who join the same Facebook Groups you do. I have meaningful conversations with people in Italy or Ireland far more than I do in my own community. Though there are exceptions (hi Nils!), members of my own community, connected only through simplistic interpretations of localized reality, are far more likely to attack my viewpoints than support them. And trust me — they do.
And here’s the rub. Strongly connected networks lead to power law dynamics, whether it be “the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer” or “vaccines are deadly.” One can find enough connection, with people of enough status (Robert F. Kennedy Jr., anyone?) to temporarily validate whatever opinion they need.
And when people are mostly functioning in the status-driven, belief-based, limbic v-Memes of Authoritarianism and Legalism, grounding to the truth doesn’t happen through individual, data-driven self-experience. It happens through following higher and higher status individuals, who now have ranking systems to show their number of followers. Though Roger Martin was talking about the phenomenon in terms of economics in his latest book, When More is Not Better — Overcoming America’s Obsession with Economic Efficiency, with America’s tendencies toward economic monopolies, the reality is that one sees the same emergent behavior in public opinion monopolies, controlled by fewer and fewer people as well. Your Twitter followers tell you thus.
That means instead of the benefits of a distributed, sensing, high empathy collective intelligence, working through that empathy to converge multiple signals toward a more broadly applicable, nuanced truth, one gets a monolithic presentation of what is very likely the product of distorted, dichotomous, thinking. And if that thought leader who is responsible for pronouncing the truth is empathy-disordered, it’s likely to be layered with splitting — the tendency to see things only in distorted black-and-white. And biased for their own egocentric ends. I’ve written about Trump’s pathological narcissism multiple times. But if you think it’s only extant with Trump, or existing only on the Right, you’re dead wrong.
Those viewpoints come about with power-law, or Pareto dynamics. For those that have forgotten what a Pareto distribution looks like, it’s the old 80/20 rule (80 percent of the problems are caused by 20 percent of root causes.) Now rinse and repeat.
Opinion inherently ends up concentrated on one side, or the other of the political spectrum. No longer geographically bound, the intensity is subject only to the power of the Internet.
How do we end up with two sides, both distorted in their own ways? Entering the stage is now the news media. With a lower-development level population, media stars accumulate tremendous power through their respective channels. Though media actors may portray themselves as absolutists seeking only the truth, the reality is that journalists exist in a status-driven hierarchical stack. That means they, too, are also fundamentally belief-based, and prone to distortion. There are indeed some that are worse than others, but status as a journalist is directly connected to access to higher and higher status sources. You’re not going to become particularly famous in the political world if your only source is Ben down at the local hardware store. You, too, have to compete in a status-driven arena to land that career-making interview with a Cabinet official. And considering the stakes to your own success, you had better mind your Ps and Qs, until it finally becomes status in and of itself to cast yourself as the antithesis of a potential target. Judith Miller, anyone?
And so, in that process of antithesis, one starts another side of the Pareto distribution. With the same, incumbent social physics multipliers — lower v-Meme, fragmented messages, designed to be emotionally resonant, and typically fear-based. Happiness tends not to reinforce the Authoritarian v-Meme from whence they have sprung.
Don’t believe? Look at the reportage on COVID-19 deaths. COVID-19 is super-complex, with a virus likely driven by immunodeficiency issues, even in the primary death cohort of people over 70. The minute a virus starts messing with the immune system, all sorts of scientific construction problems start popping up in understanding it, in that other causal factors will likely amplify the effects of the virus.
Yet when reporters report on COVID deaths during this pandemic, they tend to only do this on a day when numbers are particularly bad. I’ve been tracking the Montana data for a while now, in part of a friendly disagreement about COVID lethality and its effects with friends in Bozeman. Even recently (like last week) there has been one day with only 1 death in Montana (Nov. 1.) Yet The Missoulian, the paper of record in Missoula, is more than happy to beat the fear drum when they have a day of excess deaths — such as the previous day, when deaths numbered 29. One might argue “well the day with 1 death wasn’t newsworthy.” Why would that be true, in a pandemic where intensity of the pandemic matters greatly?
And what does that say about the various arguments someone in the media might make about such reporting? “Well we need to keep the general public following health guidelines,” might be a typical argument. The implication is that the population is inherently low-responsibility, incapable of making decisions themselves, and should not be allow to express their agency. It’s just Authoritarian v-Meme turtles all the way down.
So here we are. There’s no question that the country is divided, and there is inherently bimodal power law dynamics in play. There’s also no question that having Donald Trump as President both exacerbated and accelerated the situation, in that he took a languishing press corps, and through full-frontal attacks on it, fertilized the seeds of divided rhetoric that were already present. I do lay some blame at his feet. But the consequence is that we have a memetically broken information system in our country, where it’s literally impossible to know what to believe. Let’s hope moving Donald Trump off the main stage can start the process of opinion differentiation again.
At the same time, we have to address the deep, root cause of the division in our country. If we do, empathy, in the absence of a relational disruptor, can grow again.
But any expectation that we are going to return to a public opinion evenly spread on a Gaussian distribution seems woefully naive. The networks are there already, and the allegiances have shifted.
But there is hope. I’ll confess that I’ve always been a Bernie Sanders supporter. And while I do find Sanders to be the most charismatic grumpy man in recent memory, I think his vision for progress, based primarily on economic wellbeing, is the way back from the brink. As I started this piece, I’ll end it. We have enormous problem in this country with the meaning of work. Our economic system is simply not working in providing either life meaning, or basic well-being for the majority of its citizens, which then starts the original Power Law behavior. And people will find ways to aggregate and tell their stories to each other, connected across this nation. Because social media isn’t going anywhere — no matter how much people think they can regulate it.
Postscript — in that they simply can’t get enough
In the absence of any really bad news regarding Biden’s election, other than Trump’s tantruming, CNN continues to practice Power Law narrowing and fear propagation. Look at the right side — in a list of people’s comments largely dedicated to being happy over a Biden win, CNN chooses the most provocative as a headline.