Thumbs Up, America

Sorry, friends. I am going to be a downer today. I mean, I’m a downer every day but I try to take measures to conceal that from others. Those closest to me are aware of the fact that my life is a perpetual existential crisis, and that tends to bum other people.

Philosophically, I am completely at peace with the idea. If you want to shove it into a category to make it more palatable it would either be existentialism or, more specifically, absurdism. It just is. I get the impulse to question whether one would be okay with a chronic state of existential crisis, but that’s an emotionally inarticulate question. Upsetting situations make people upset and it’s right to feel upset about that. Upset is also just a thing we all feel sometimes.

It’s okay to be upset. It’s okay even to be upset that one is upset or that someone else is upset. There comes a time though where the intellectual attitude towards it is indifference. Upsetting situations are just logical. Even the wildest mood swings are truthful about the subjective state of the subject.

To begin, I return to a quote from 2015’s The Big Short:

We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball… What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice or that fraud is mean; for fifteen thousand years, fraud and short-sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught; things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.

~Steve Carell as Mark Baum

Socially, everything is shit. I know it can feel like “worst of times” stuff, but this is not a right now thing. This is a “long time in the making and worsening” thing.

I should also say before launching into this that I believe people are generally good. Even some of the people engaged in the horrible things are good people who lack the macro understanding of the thing to see how horrible it is. They are good people with semi-rose-coloured glasses who focus on the good of what they do (or at least the good of their understanding of what they do).

As I have sought out a career path and purpose in my life though, I find horrible at every turn. Part of that is my nature. I’m sceptical, morally rigid, and conceptual about all things. Think “Chidi in The Good Place”.

So while for any one of these particular areas one might say, “Yes, but they also [insert something necessary and good]”, I personally am of the mindset that, “None of that matters if it’s also doing the horrible thing. We must, at the very least, be revising the system to mitigate, if not eliminate, the horrible thing.”

This is where the problem begins. Because in every single area of society we have people with their thumb on the scale. Some of them are greedy and some of them are stupid. Worse yet, some of them are both greedy and stupid. They see an opportunity for personal gain and they take it, perhaps reasoning that the good outweighs the harm or that harm is itself inevitable so they may as well get theirs.

The trouble is that this thumb on the scale misrepresents the current situation. It also shorts the other part of the transaction. For both parties to the given transaction they must hedge their losses/gains by pushing them onto something else. The further away from the origin point one gets, the more pronounced the distortion of reality. Compound this over time and everything gets worse.

We all of us continue to have at least some faith in our systems. Some. Some have total faith while others have little, but everyone has at least some faith that the system will work. As one with less faith, I still understand that impulse. The academic nature of the systems are often rather robust. When one takes an academic look at how the system should operate it makes sense.

The trouble is, people put their thumbs on the scale and use system integration to cheat systems. They justify their horrible behaviour with simplicities like, “It’s not illegal – if this is such a bad thing, the system should be set up to prevent it” with no regard for personal, moral responsibility to avoid the horrible thing simply because it’s horrible.

The 2008 American housing crisis, as covered perhaps most relatably in The Big Short, describes the level of fraud in housing, banking, and the economy in general. Someone found a way to make more money (legally) off mortgages (still greed). Over time, that thumb on the scale made the mortgage instruments increasingly instable while the system, now built to incorporate those mortgage instruments (the thumb on the scale), made allowances to perpetuate it rather than exorcise it.

Economics (and greed plus stupidity) compelled ratings agencies to grant unjustified ratings to mortgages so that institutions would not go to competitors ratings agencies. People allowed to sell mortgages and these instruments (CDOs) sold them to people who could not afford them because it was allowed and increased their personal returns. Other people saw the system and found ways to put their thumbs on the scales (synthetic CDOs) rather than call out the bad course – again, partially greed but mostly a lack of macro understanding.

The average person? Good during this. I would never have caught this in a million years and only understand it post hoc because others explained it. Who reads their own mortgage let alone the details of thousands? We don’t read user agreements. They’re boiler plate and life is too short.

And when the system finally imploded on itself, responsible parties moved to mitigate their exposure. They did not correct the system. They did not reset back to before the thumb went on the scale. More thumbs went on more scales to stop losses, to recoup losses, or to push losses to others.

The people with the most access to and control of the system treated the situation as an anomaly rather than the natural result of fraudulent tampering.

I completed college around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, graduating with a comparatively manageable student debt (another system thumbed into chaos). Watching the people who called BS on the system use data to identity it, I thought the future of big data might be a career path.

As I got into the early stages of big data though, I found another loose thread. Companies already figured out how to use big data to improve their margins by taking marketing to a new level.

People will say things like, “Change is always this way. There were concerns when print media, then radio, and then television came into society.” True, but this is also different. With everything prior to this point it did give organisations and systems access to communicate straight to consumers, but it did so at a mass level. Put something on television and anyone watching television receives the same message.

A college professor once asked my class why subliminal messaging does not work well with most marketing. My answer, which was right according to the professor, was that people have different levels of perception and that means what is subliminal to one person might be obvious to another or go unnoticed by yet another.

For example, I could play a subliminal audio message in a television commercial. Factors like the volume at which it’s played and the aural capacity of the viewer would mean that the message registers subliminally for some listeners. Others would just hear the message plain as day and others would not hear it at all.

But with digital technology and big data – now we can target the ads and experience to the individual. I know what time of day you might be most receptive to my pitch, and which things hold your attention.

On the surface that is fine. You get things that are most relevant to you and these firms spend their money better. Rather than throwing countless dollars away on broad campaigns they get higher returns on targeted campaigns.

We also know from science that observation changes the context of the experiment. People today are the result of their lived experience and collective societal experience to this point. The addition of targeted ads to our lives changes that experience and therefore how we experience the world moving forward. It places a thumb on the scale.

Whether intended or not (again, a sceptic and not a cynic – this could mostly be unintended), the act of gathering that level of data and targeting user experience also manipulates user experience. That data point becomes one in the algorithm of other experiences.

If I gather a thousand people together from diverse backgrounds and ask them a simple question, “What kind of duck is fastest?”, they will all have different experiences when they search for their answer. All of the searching and all of the data collected up to that point determines what results the search yields and in what order.

Rather than attempting to find objective answer (a scientific consensus, for example), the search results will show each person the results most likely to engage them. Big data took the already present phenomenon of confirmation bias and amplified it to problematic levels.

I wish I could say the problem was as easy as scientific literacy. Indeed, I have said that in the past. The truth is that people have their thumbs on those scales as well. They identify with the legitimacy of publications and sources, pressuring them to present marketing as scientific findings. These results are misrepresentations of the science at best, total fabrications at worst. But they appear almost indistinguishable from the real deal and the average person, not reading their mortgage and blindly accepting terms and conditions updates, will not recognise the difference.

That doesn’t make one stupid People cannot be experts in all things all of the time. The people with their thumbs on the scales rely on that.

It’s not the systems with the problems, per se. It’s the thumbs on the scale. That’s why we have such a hard time detecting it. The thumbers point to the legitimacy of the system to conceal their actions.

Look at our electoral process. It’s robust. It survived COVID-19 and a conspiracy theorist President. Voter fraud is almost non-existent. It’s completely reasonable to point at our voting system and say, “This is robust and works well” (let’s put aside debates about ranked voting and the electoral college for the moment).

At the same time, we have voter registration laws designed to disenfranchise people. We have gerrymandered voting districts. The voting system works well, but people put their thumbs on the scale to keep people from that voting system and all of it is 100% legal, because within the context of what they’re doing it is legal. Only the intersectionality of the contexts reveals the macro reality of what is at stake.

Unlike Mark Baum in that quote, I don’t see this as an “era of fraud” though. That implies to me that we live in a time when people engaged in fraud at high levels. Rather, I think we live in the same societal fraud that existed for generations but the cumulative effects are now more visible. We have better access to data, but some, like the 2008 financial crisis, also got so big that it was impossible to miss.

These are not new thumbs on the scales – the scales are breaking under the prolonged pressure while people create new scales on which to put their thumbs.

It’s been on my mind a lot because the news just broke that Pennsylvania voted for Biden and therefore gives him the electoral votes necessary to win the election.

I expected that in the sense that I expected this election to be close. A Trump victory would not have surprised me with a small margin either, and I prepared the weekend before the election for the possibility that it might go to a very conservative Supreme Court to decide.

What bothers me is the happiness of so many. Trump is a piece of garbage who has put his tiny orange thumbs on scales his entire life, but he’s a symptom as much as one of the guilty parties. Larger Republican plans for control, especially under a unitary executive theory, existed for decades and Democrats have been no Cracker Jack prize themselves. The idea that the country became horrible under a Trump presidency and that is now gone scares me because the thumbs are still on the scales.

The benefit to a Trump presidency (and many Republican ones) is that the thumbs can be a little bolder, press a little harder. Their policies champion small government, less regulation, and all sorts of other things beneficial to “scale thumbers”.

That’s not to say the Democrats are champions of fair play. I think the Democrat position for the last century is one of idealistic thinking that often results in total inaction. They posit ideas about how things could work better and then fail to execute because the plans lack a necessary practicality and/or enough of the gerrymandered, disenfranchised country has enabled a disproportionate level of red control of the federal government and policies.

Yes, the country is mostly blue. Most issues in the United States lean towards the liberal position with at least a simple majority that things like gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, other voter suppression efforts, general turnout (the fault of the citizens alone), and the electoral college system enabled.

It’s also why the departure of Trump from the White House is not the relieving, celebratory moment in my mind that it seems to be for so many others. They appointed judges. They made policy. That work will continue after January with Biden in the White House. And my problem is less with those two individual men than with people around the world putting their thumbs on the scales. Decisions from the last four years have made that easier at the expense of the average person. It will take time to undo that if they bother to undo it at all.

Every facet of our lives faces increasing pressure, intended or unintended, from people in the right position to squeeze a system for personal gain and none of that is going away because of an election.

I get the impulse to want to stay positive or focus on the positive. The reality is we face threats though and we are going to have to confront them before they do permanent damage. The damage may not even in our lifetimes, and I know that makes it that much harder for some people – let the future people deal with the future problems.

All of these thumbs on the scales for this long are eventually going to bring about catastrophe, and we cannot expect those in charge of the systems to police that. We need bipartisan efforts as a global community to identify these thumbs and hold them accountable, and we need it now.

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