Coming to HBO here in America. Already aired on Britain’s Channel 4.
Brexit. Most Americans have no idea WTF is going on over there in Europe, why it matters, or, most importantly, how it came about.
The subject matter itself might turn people away. However, the trailer with Benedict Cumberbatch is sure to lure many in.
When I saw that, I was all Hell Yeah Want!
And now I have seen it. So should you?
This is a wonderful production.
Even though it’s filled with names most viewers will never have heard of, everyone can understand the underlying conflict of an outsider facing up against the Establishment. In this specific instance, an Establishment that rejected him as an insider and then slandered him.
I was just seventeen minutes in when I had to pause and look up Cumberbatch’s character, Dominic Cummings. That enticed me to get and peek at his PDF about education [direct link]. Just the first page of it was a WOW! Here is a guy who understands what’s going on.
Even though he was put in charge of driving the Leave campaign, even though he was smart as hell, even though his presence in a room immediately elevated the room’s IQ temperature, even he was surprised by what technology could accomplish. That comes about a half hour in.
And that’s when the shit gets scary. I mean real scary.
It was back in 1987 when Chris Boucher’s Star Cops series off-handedly mentioned that algorithms would alter the profession of police detective. Those were still young days for technology. The toddler years.
Then along came the Internet and all of us and suddenly technology is in its teen years. And behaving just as badly as one.
Those postulated fictional algorithms we couldn’t really fathom back in 1987? Well, they’re here. They’re real. And they’re worse. And they can nail us.
Because every day we’re feeding them billions and billions of times. The algorithms can see patterns. The algorithms can link those patterns to behaviors. Those algorithms can then predict behavior.
Look at it this way. We’ve been through decades witnessing the hostile takeovers of corporations. We, everyday people, see a corporation that exists as a business that sells a product or provides a service. A takeover pirate sees it differently: As a machine that makes money. That’s all.
In the same way, the algorithms don’t see us as we like to think of ourselves: Sovereign, unique individuals. Having fed them jillions of data points, the algorithms see us as things that lead to outcomes. And having witnessed god knows how many trillions of patterns, which all inevitably lead to certain behavioral ends, the algorithm can predict what we will do.
Psychohistory is a fictional science in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation universe which combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people, such as the Galactic Empire. It was first introduced in the four short stories (1942–1944) which would later be collected as the 1951 novel Foundation.
And even before Asimov, there was Edward Bernays. It all always goes back to Bernays, the master manipulator, the Moriarty of the Masses. (See the documentary series, The Century of the Self. Available at the Internet Archive.)
But what’s new here, what’s extraordinarily dangerous, is that we’ve managed to take those things and encase them in a box via software.
And those algorithms will eventually fall out of our control. Too many of them are already impenetrable. (Anyone who says otherwise is a goddammed liar. Go read The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It by Scott Patterson. And that’s just for starters.)
Put those algorithms in service of a human with a goal and you wind up with Brexit.
And here is why Americans need to watch this: Because you also wind up with a Donald Trump as President!
Steve Bannon, as a character, is seen in a glimpse in this. He was running the same game as the Brexit machine!
Now do you care? Now do want to see it as something beyond its surface appearance as compelling entertainment?
I hope so!
Because all of this has serious ramifications for our freedom. You might think you wanted Trump in office. But did you? Are you certain you weren’t played like a game piece by someone else? By someone’s algorithm? How could you even tell? And what other things about you have algorithms learned that they can prompt you into doing? People are susceptible to clickbait titles devised by humans. The right algorithm can turn that title into mind heroin. Where you need — although you think you just want — more and more.
After that perilous sidebar, back to the drama itself.
This is key, Dominic Cummings trying to devise the strategy for the Leave campaign:
What’s our message? What’s our message? What’s our message? It can’t just be a slogan. We need to capture a feeling. What’s the feeling?
It’s the same feeling Trump tapped into, which everyone says is the ugly side of America. That’s Trump’s own fault — and does a disservice to many of his voters — for entering the contest the way he did, slandering Mexicans (and many others along the way, to this day!).
This, from the drama, is the feeling:
That’s the moment the pro-EU Remain side knew they were going to lose. They were clueless that such feelings existed.
If that’s true in real life, I give them a lot of credit over there. Hillary’s campaign thought she was a shoo-in as they settled-in to watch the election results! Trump himself was shocked that he won! The only one not surprised was mastermind Steve Bannon.
However, in the drama, even after seeing they’ll lose, they still misunderstand why. “Hate” is an allegation used against the Leave voters. Hate, thrown about by politicians describing their nation’s population. How many of them ever used the word love for their own country, their own people? How many of them even have an ounce of affection for their nation and people? How many of them even understand what a country is? They’re as bad as the algorithms, seeing human beings as means to an end: As things that make votes.
In the drama, the Remain campaign manager watches a shouting Brexit supporter on TV and says, “So this is what we’ve been reduced to. This is who we are.”
As if that came about without cause! As if decades of their policies that fleeced and took advantage of a population they secretly held in contempt couldn’t possibly, couldn’t have ever, led to that! Look upon your creation!
In the drama, Cummings and his opposite, the Remain campaign manager, meet for an impromptu drink. And Cummings says it like it has been:
You and your lot have dominated politics, political discourse, for decades, Craig. And what have you done with it? What?
Moments later, he says:
You’re right. There is a new politics in town. One that you cannot control.
Craig, the Remain manager, retorts:
Be careful what you wish for. You won’t be able to control it, either.
We all know how it turned out. But the numbers must speak:
Remain Votes 16,141,241
Leave Votes 17,410,742
Turnout was 72.2%
That’s a not-insignificant difference of 1,269,501 votes. But it’s less than half of the three million potential hidden voters a data analytics company claimed they found. And with turnout being 72.2%, it’s debatable what would have happened with a full turnout.
Even so, the threat of algorithmic manipulation of the populace — and let’s face it, that happens with the main conduit being Facebook — looms.
And even though I’ve stacked the deck for a bleak future, let’s return to Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory. Because human beings are not algorithmic (despite today’s earlier post featuring an Alex Becker video that posits such). We’re wild cards. In Asimov’s Foundation series, there’s such a wild card:
A century later, an unknown outsider called the Mule has begun taking over planets belonging to the Foundation at a rapid pace. The Foundation comes to realize the Mule is a mutant, unforeseen in Seldon’s plan, and that the plan cannot have predicted any certainty of defeating him.
Things remain the same until they don’t. To use an example everyone can relate to, phones remained the same until the iPhone. In the trajectory of the cellphone business, it was the Mule; a mutant.
Despite algorithms beating humans in Chess, in Go, despite having a higher degree of accuracy than humans in reading X-rays, I strongly disagree with Cummings himself, who sees algorithms overthrowing human beings in creative fields:
Intuition and creativity and novelty are not algorithmic. Until we have an actual AI comedian that is funnier than any human being in comedy history, we will remain the summit of intelligence.
Our John Henry moment remains in the future. And it might not ever even arrive.
In the meantime, the algorithms will proliferate, become more clever, and we had better educate ourselves and gird ourselves against their manipulative strategies.
And as for Brexit the drama, it’s an exciting ride. For those who have complained that Cumberbatch “always plays the same character,” this will be proof that he does not.
Everything in this hour and a half is wonderful. Don’t miss it.