A Trumpless Twitter (and a Twitterless Trump)

A few days ago, the US President’s Twitter account was suddenly deleted. And I can’t have been the only one who found it amusing.

The first thought that struck me was that the tech titan had suddenly grown some cojones. Finally deciding that enough was enough, the company had taken the ultimate stance, showing strong moral leadership in respect of an account that many view as broadcasting a range of offensive and confusing (covfefe anyone?) content. This would qualify as a strident political statement by the tech sector, no doubt of that, and one to dwarf the great SOPA/PIPA protests of 2012.

“Good on ’em”, I thought. And I doubt I was alone.

But before I’d even heard the echo of my chuckle bouncing back off the opposite wall, I realised how unlikely it was that a major US tech company had actually decided to arbitrarily delete the official account of its own President. There might be well-known tensions between the tech industry and the state-sponsored powers of surveillance. But to see Twitter actively remove the chosen mouthpiece of its own President really would be an unbelievable story – even during the onslaught of unbelievable political stories that we’ve seen from across the pond in recent months.

Of course, as we now know, the reality of the situation is that this was nothing more than a failure of company procedure, as opposed to the opening shots of revolution. It turned out that a departing Twitter employee had been unable to resist that big flashing red button and took that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a story to share in pubs for a lifetime, deleting Trump’s account on the way out of the building. Indeed, the reports of the incident took more time to write up in the press than the incident itself. It took Twitter all of 11 minutes to restore the account and put it back online.

But the point here is not the fact that the account went offline. Believe it or not, I do have more interesting exciting things to do than to spend my time commenting on the failings of internal corporate procedures. No, the reason that I found this interesting is simple: I realised that in my initial reaction, I was being two-faced about the whole thing. And, more worryingly perhaps, if I’d been more active on Twitter myself at that time, it’s that initial – and wrong – reaction that I would have shared with the world.

Let me explain. I’m a believer in the principles of decentralisation where technology makes this both safe and possible. I also believe that we’re currently in the midst of a mostly silent (and technical) fight to ensure that we as individuals don’t lose our human rights to freedom of expression online in modern society. I think as individuals, we’re sleepwalking together into a ever tightening web where our views, data and identities are increasingly owned by other organisations (for good or evil, it matters little) and that unless we actively work to find a better way, the chance to find a better way forward will soon be gone.

The web was invented as an open platform to enable greater collaboration between individuals regardless of national boundaries. But in the internet that we all use today, we’ve moved far away from that ideal. Don’t take my word for it – listen to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web itself, for whom this has become a lifelong campaign.

It’s precisely because of these reasons that I support movements such as the SAFE Network and I’m fascinated by attempts to create decentralised versions of identity (see uPort and Civic) and social media/content platforms (see Steemit and DECENT).

So how come in this case my gut instinct was to enjoy this story when it cuts across so many of my beliefs? After reading Daniel Kahneman’s classic ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ earlier this year, one of the explanations might simply be the fact that when you revisit the decisions that you make, it’s often the case that your first, automatic reaction is rarely correct. I’ve been pondering how I took the story here as a result because to me at least, it shows the level of bias – unconscious, unintentional – that can exist. And when you end up finding yourself supporting something, no matter how briefly, that directly contradicts an area that you thought of as non-negotiable, it’s a good a time as any to take note and challenge yourself.

As you move through life, I increasingly think that one of the most important (and underrated) skills to learn is how to avoid becoming fixed in your beliefs and approaches. Whether they’re right or not often depends on the context – but in that case, why not try changing your context? Read a book. Listen to a talk. Meet up with people whose opinions you disagree with. When I suggest changing your context, I’m not saying that you should just give up and change your opinion. After all, it can be just as hard to genuinely connect with someone who holds no opinions as it can be to like someone who refuses to accept feedback about his own (looking at you POTUS). But don’t stop checking whether the context you have today changes the opinions that you formed yesterday. Many people think that it’s a weakness to change your mind. Yet it’s often a strength.

Bias. We all have it. But to my mind, rigidity of thinking and inflexibility must surely be the much greater crime.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

    (Winston Churchill. Or John Maynard Keynes. Or someone else entirely.)

Speaking of which, in the aftermath of The Great SegWit 2X-Hardfork-That-Never-Was Battle of 2017, I think it’s important that we all remember that within the Bitcoin community in particular. Dogmatic opinions – both ways – generally help no one.

 

The Naivety of Expertise

We all have them. Those books that just sit on your bookshelf, unbroken spines catching your eye from across the room. Berating you, each one a silent personal challenge – a demand that you prove that no, you weren’t so naive enough as to believe that by simply buying a book you’d also somehow be purchasing the time required to read it.

For me, one of those books was ‘The Black Swan‘ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Like many, I picked it up in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. And it’s only taken about 9 years for me to determinedly take it down from its shelf for the purpose for which it was intended.

As is often the case, once you’ve committed to read something, by the time you actually get between the covers, you remember why you bought it in the first place. It would be wrong to claim that there aren’t disappointments on occasion – and life’s too short for bad books of any genre – but not this time. I was immediately sucked in by Taleb’s original (and surprisingly witty) style.

I’ve read many books that hurt my brain. It’s not hard after all. And this one definitely falls into this category – in places. But stick in – the payoff is huge.

For me, there’s a few things that I still find myself mulling over the day after finishing it:-

Narrative Fallacy

Humans have a weakness (stop the press…). We’re unable to see data and accept it for what it is without rushing to create an explanation. Why? Because stories help us to remember and it’s always possible to build a narrative when looking back. However all stories are inevitably simplified – very much a case of inserting a fiction after the fact. As a result, after major events, we humans are great at agreeing that we now understand things – when really, we still have no clue and no ability were we to face a similar situation in the future.

Predictions and Experts

For proof, take a look at predictions made by those that we pay (in terms of salary, time or attention) to be experts. In many areas (say politics or economics, to name a couple), the reality is that these predictions are often totally wrong. Indeed, the evidence shows that experts often get no better results than the rest of us.

The Grateful Turkey

Say you run a farm in which you breed turkeys. You keep them for 99 days and ship them to the butcher on the 100th day. If you asked any of those turkeys how they felt their lives were going on Day 99 and also to predict the future, I suspect you’d get pretty positive feedback (in turkey-speak of course). Nice food, well-looked after, big social circle…

But then ask the last one standing the following day. He’d be (understandably) shocked at the day’s events (no doubt pyschologically scarred also). After a great life, the slaughter came from nowhere, there was no advance warning.

A true Black Swan event. An unknown unknown (for turkeys).

To grossly oversimplify his point: Taleb points out that the more we continue to predict the future from a position in society of being on the 99th day (our standard method of prediction, through reliance which is what we’ve grown accustomed to over the years, by a lazy reliance on such models as the standard Gaussian (Bell) Curve, the more we’re going to have problems.

Speaking Without The Full Knowledge

The final thought that struck me was that I’ve been using the term ‘Black Swan’ to describe an unforseen significant event for a number of years now. Yet it took me until this week to actually read the book. So at what point did the terminology actually cross that tipping point and make it into the popular lexicon?

And more importantly, how many other concepts and points of view are inadequately wielded by others with less than complete knowledge of what it is that they’re talking about across many different fields of society?

Thankfully, plenty of people have written plenty of words about Taleb’s Black Swan theory. Indeed, amazingly Mark Suster released a blog post (‘Don’t Be Fooled By Your Own Expertise‘) on this ‘old’ book yesterday on the day that I finished reading it.

A recent article told of the books that so many of us have claimed to have read but never ploughed through. When it comes to fiction, I don’t think I’d be too bothered if you’d claimed to have read ‘War & Peace’ because you felt it made you sound erudite. Whatever. But as the General Election approaches and once again the country considers appointing representatives, some of whom you would hope to be ‘experts’, perhaps our standards need to be higher.

Or expectations lower.

Because this is a narrative in which we accept individuals expounding on concepts that they may have never fully (or partially) digested. And in a modern world, where knowledge is becoming increasingly specialised and the possibility of Black Swans is increasing, not reducing, that has to give us all some food for thought.

Turkey sandwich anyone?

 

 

Picking On Small Birds

When I was young, I thought that being ostracised was when you picked on someone because they were small (like a bird, see?). But it was only today that I came across the true origin of the word.

Back in the fifth century BC, Athenian democracy had a concept of Ostracism where the Greek citizenry could banish for 10 years a person that they didn’t like from society. Once a year, they’d have the option to do so by writing a name on a broken piece of pottery (ostracon, plural ostraka). Any individual who polled more than 6,000 votes was deemed the ‘winner’ and given 10 days to leave the city.

Seems pretty harsh by today’s standards – although preferable to the death sentences that weren’t uncommon back in those days. It doesn’t appear to have been invoked too frequently either (the last recorded incident involved the superbly-named Hyperbolus). Interestingly, it didn’t actually result in a loss of status or confiscation of assets for the individual either. They could return after a decade and pick up where they left off (in theory at least).

Which made me think: what if we still did this today? For politicians (albeit with a goalpost set higher than 6,000 votes I suspect….)? Work colleagues? Even extended family members?

It’s often said that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If you found yourself writing the name of a member of your inner sanctum on that piece of pottery, what impact would that have on your life?

How would you alter your daily behaviour if you knew these rules were in play? Would you (or could you) consistently modify the hundreds of daily interactions to minimise your chances of being the centre of attention on that single day each year?

I suspect our collective egos permit few of us think that we’d be the ones chosen. But then again most of us tend to ascribe success to our own abilities and efforts but ascribe failure to external factors (the self-serving bias).

Perhaps one impact might be to normalise some of the extremes of negative, emotional behaviour within society. I doubt it though. Most of us would find it hard to associate this distant result with their daily actions. I suspect actions would alter most markedly with the proximity of the vote.

Interestingly, this isn’t just some random ancient story from a past civilisation either. Ostracism remains alive and well in today’s society as we know. The effects might have changed but social psychologist Kipling Williams who specialises in the subject has pointed out that it finds its modern-day equivalent when we refuse to communicate with somebody – the so-called cyber-ostracism of ignoring emails.

Williams has done some interesting work in the area, including the Cyberball experiment. It’s an open-source ball toss game which involves three players who choose to throw a virtual ball randomly amongst each other on a screen. After a couple of minutes, two of the players throw it only to each other, excluding the third (the human). It’s shown that he or she then experiences feelings of rejection, anger and sadness – all despite knowing it’s a computer that’s ‘picking on them’.

So here’s a thought experiment: it’s real and voting starts tomorrow. What are you going to do?