Sunday, March 5, 2017

‘Guided Democracy,’ Governed by Those Who Can Manufacture Consent

Cambridge Analytica is said to be negotiating “two potentially lucrative new contracts, one to boost the incoming Trump White House's policy messaging and the other to help the Trump Organization expand its sales.” Those who question President Trump’s conflict of interest in maintaining control of the Trump Brand may find that rumor worth chasing down. Not so sure I want a ‘guided’ democracy.

Cambridge Analytica's web site says
“We bring together a 25 year experience in behavioral change, pioneering data science, and cutting-edge technology to offer unparalleled audience insight and engagement services and products … We collect up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans, and use it to model target audience groups and predict the behavior of like-minded people.”

That’s cool. There are any number of companies collecting personal data across various media and internet searches. How do you suppose Facebook and Google are able to feed you and me specific ads related to our search history? Just click on an article relating to climbing boots or eyeglasses and watch the ads for those products follow you around your surfing experience.

No harm, no foul.

Mostly free access to the Internet and all its charms is predicated upon collecting our personal data and, for the most part, we’re comfortable with that. Polling firms have called supposedly representative slices of society on the telephone (particularly at dinner time) for decades to give us—and those who feed off us—an idea of what we like and don’t like. Of course we knew the rules of pollsters and took what they told us with however many grains of salt we felt appropriate.

But there is harm and is a foul when the purpose of data-mining is to separate us politically by finding out, without asking, what we might be reluctant to share even with neighbors, close friends or business associates. There is harm and is a foul when that information targets us individually with fake news or even the outright lies that we find easy to believe, whether on the left or right. There is harm and is a foul to our beloved sense of democracy (or fading memory of democracy) when we are sold candidates like consumer goods—this message will appeal to the 19-35 group and this to the over 40 empty-nesters.

Of course political rhetoric has always had a very high bullshit coefficient. A damned good case can be made that this year’s political climate across America, Britain and the European Union is simply a wake-up call for decades of governmental neglect. I would personally buy into that point of view because I’ve been ranting about it for decades, but there’s something else going on, something darker and more sinister.

Those who would do us harm (on either the right or left) have gotten hold of the tools to actually get inside our heads and monkey around in there.

Half a century ago, when we were sold the absolute total fucking lie of trickle-down economics, we responded by “well, maybe we ought to give that a try.” At least, to some degree, it was a conversation. The same can be said for privatizing every governmental responsibility for which a willing buyer could be found—“Well, I dunno, but maybe selling off our parking meters and state prisons to investors might actually work.

Obviously it didn’t work, but what it did accomplish was to create an electorate that was so pissed off and had so little trust in anything government had done over the past four decades that we threw it all down the toilet and held the flush button. Good for us or bad for us depending upon how much attention you paid, but we thought it was the end of lies.

Well, it’s not. Instead, we have customizable lies—tailor made for aspects of our subconscious minds we don’t even know about ourselves. Half-truths that sound like they may be true in order to plant the seeds of doubt and, repeated often enough, those seeds of doubt sprout and grow and become our truths. All of this mind-fuck is made possible by the new tribes we joined on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and Twitter.

Our tribe was once made up of friends and associates—the people whose kids were our kids age, who we went out with on weekends before we even had kids and came over for dinner a couple times a month. The men played golf or duck-hunted and the women worked-out or served on boards of charities. Spending time together kept us in touch with reality. Face-time is a reliable bullshit filter.

But with busier and busier lives, growing families and corporate transfers to other cities, that all broke down and face-time became Facebook. Facebook is a reliable bullshit enabler because it seems like and substitutes for relationships in lives that are lived more and more at a distance. And so here we are—Brits leaving the reality of the European Union and Americans, choking down a reality-show president—neither of us knowing exactly what happened.

I suspect we will survive it on both sides of the Atlantic, but politics will never be the same again.

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