Polarization

On Classified E-mails

On Classified E-mails

With the election cycle nearing its conclusion, you have undoubtedly heard a lot about Hilary Clinton (henceforth referred to as her honorary "Secretary") and her damned e-mail scandal.  In fact, you have probably heard about it far more than you would have liked; because, to put it bluntly, if Republicans aren't talking about Benghazi, then they're probably rambling on about this damned scandal.

The problem is, not many people really understand what the scandal is about, or why it's important in the first place. So, I endeavored to read through a few articles on the Internet, and - more importantly - the FBI documents released on the investigation, in an effort to build a primer on the issue and its relevance to the American Citizen.

This is not a political post; it is a technical primer, and as a result, my conclusions at the end of the post will be focused primarily on the ways in which technicians and engineers, like many of the people who read this blog, can learn from this cluster fuck.

The Attention Economy and Marketing Warfare

The Attention Economy and Marketing Warfare

Patent and Trademark Law has been engrossed in the rise of e-commerce over the last several years and through a few recent cases (particularly  Allen v. IM Solutions, Inc.), has finally determined what we netizens have always known:  Websites and pop-up advertisements are a numbers game.

Unfortunately, this "numbers game" approach to advertising isn't isolated to just pop-up advertisements, but also spam e-mail, junk mail, and even the advertisements you see plastered throughout our nation's busiest airports.  In order to sell their products, marketers must determine a cheap way to reach tens of thousands of potential customers to find that 1% who fall for their hook.

Matthew Crawford recently wrote a op-ed on New York Times about the effect that the rise in advertising has on society during what is referred to as the Attention Economy. This faux economy is the attempt to explain the finite ability of modern humanity to focus our attention on specific items.  We can only focus on so many things, and in today's world we are increasingly being confronted with uncomfortable choices on what is and is not important enough to warrant our attention.

Arguing on the Internet

Every now and then, a peer of mine will ask me why I spend so much time "Arguing on the Internet" and they usually follow it up with a quip about how it's futile and how arguing on the Internet has never changed anyone's mind. I've always found this question to be a little misguided, but never quite knew how to articulate my misgivings.

You see, I'm a humanist - meaning that I believe in the inherent worth of every human, regardless of their race, gender, orientation, or religion - and I've been a fairly passionate advocate for it since I was old enough to string two sentences together. Plus, as anyone in my family will be quick to tell you, I like arguing - on the Internet or otherwise.

Historical Context: Investing in Education, In Spite of Economic Woes

We have seen the importance of education time and time again: from preventing polarization in politics and combating the over reliance on authority figures whom we deem infallible through the Halo Effect, to improving political engagement and increasing the lifespan of the educated.  However, in today's world with soaring tuition costs it can be difficult for many people to accept the insurmountable burden that obtaining a college degree can place on a family; especially when it's no golden ticket to employment after graduation.

Add to this the fact that we exist, in a world where congressmen believe that wind is a finite resource, homeopathic remedies are touted on a daily basis in lieu of medicine, and junk science has become an international export - can we really afford to have a polarized political environment that's too busy fighting over the existence of evolution (in the House Committee of Science no less) to enact meaningful change? If increasing education reduces the number of believers in an absurd theory (e.g. astrology), even without specifically addressing that theory - then an increased number of educated members in our society leads to a healthier, more engaged, and less susceptible to junk science populace.

So when graduating seniors are faced with the inability to go to college without taking on an unsustainable amount of debt, it affects the country in far more ways than just the job market. In fact, as the former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, points out it may start a self-fulfilling prophecy where an underemployed workforce hurts the economy, which affects tax revenue, which drives down government programs.  A lack of government programs drives up tuition in schools and drives down political engagement, polarizes the political spectrum, and causes future generations to be underemployed as well. 

Linguistics, Education, and Polarization

Linguistics, Education, and Polarization
The Deffuant-Weisbuch (DW) model describes how interconnected individuals can influence one another's beliefs. The less certain someone is about their belief, the more that individual could be swayed towards the belief of a more confident individual with whom they interact. Under the DW model, "extremists" are defined as a minority of people who are very confident about and unlikely to change their beliefs. As a result, if an individual is uncertain about their belief, they are more likely to be swayed by an extremist.

The Halo Effect, Polarization, and Modern Politics

The Halo Effect, Polarization, and Modern Politics

There's a psychological concept known as the Halo Effect in which an object, person, or ideology (OPI) in which you find positive is assumed to have no negatives and an OPI in which you find negative is assumed to have no positives.  This effect can be illustrated through some very simple thought processes: 
 

  • I like Jill, she is nice. 
  • I think donating to charity is nice. 
  • Therefore, I assume that Jill donates to charity. 


This assumption is based on no outside information.  I have never spoken to the hypothetical character named Jill, but I have a predisposition to assume that Jill would be "the kind of person who would" donate to charity.  If we step back and think, we would realize the fallacy here, but until we actively engage in that thought processes, or until we receive information which contradicts this (e.g. "Jill is especially tight fisted with her finances"), we will operate on the assumption that Jill donates to charity as if it were a fact. 

This assumption of fact is more powerful than just the Halo Effect. When we receive information, we immediately categorize it into one of two different sets:  True and False.  As a result, it's increasingly difficult to reach informed, unbiased positions with simple things (crop yield statistics), and almost impossible with complex issues. When news agencies lost their journalistic integrity, they helped set the stage for the polarization of the American public.