A Polarizing Diet of Engagement and Behaviorism

Since then, other employees have corroborated these findings. A former Facebook AI researcher who joined in 2018 says he and his team conducted “study after study” confirming the same basic idea: models that maximize engagement increase polarization. They could easily track how strongly users agreed or disagreed on different issues, what content they liked to engage with, and how their stances changed as a result. Regardless of the issue, the models learned to feed users increasingly extreme viewpoints. “Over time they measurably become more polarized,” he says.

Source: He got Facebook hooked on AI. Now he can’t fix its misinformation addiction | MIT Technology Review

The pigeon. The object of technological experimentation, manipulation, and control, weaponized.

Source: The Pigeons of Ed-Tech

The diet of engagement and behaviorism served by Facebook and big tech make for primitive moral development in both server and served.

Nolan’s inability to think about others, combined with his obvious self-interest certainly exemplify a primitive level of moral development… but, if the adults in his life subscribe to an equally primitive kind of character development, how can we come to expect anything more? How can we expect kids like Nolan to progress to a higher level of ethical behavior when our dependence on rewards and punishment is precisely what condemns kids to such primitive self-interest.

Source: for the love of learning: Primitive Moral Development: PBIS

Where were we radicalized? In a Skinner Box. (Skinner preferred the term “Operant Conditioning Chamber”.)

The beauty of the Internet is that by combining big data, behavioral targeting, wearable and mobile devices, and GPS, application developers can design more effective operant conditioning environments and keep us in virtual Skinner boxes as long as we have a smart phone in our pockets.

Source: Skinner Marketing: We’re the Rats, and Facebook Likes Are the Reward – The Atlantic

I would argue, in total seriousness, that one of the places that Skinnerism thrives today is in computing technologies, particularly in “social” technologies. This, despite the field’s insistence that its development is a result, in part, of the cognitive turn that supposedly displaced behaviorism.

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

We’ve constructed vast engines of confirmation bias that bubble many of us in bespoke Skinner box universes of misinformation, though we dress it all in cognitive science and AI.

These are “technologies of behavior” that we can trace back to Skinner – perhaps not directly, but certainly indirectly due to Skinner’s continual engagement with the popular press. His fame and his notoriety. Behavioral management – and specifically through operant conditioning – remains a staple of child rearing and pet training. It is at the core of one of the most popular ed-tech apps currently on the market, ClassDojo. Behaviorism also underscores the idea that how we behaveand data about how we behave when we click can give programmers insight into how to alter their software and into what we’re thinking.

If we look more broadly – and Skinner surely did – these sorts of technologies of behavior don’t simply work to train and condition individuals; many technologies of behavior are part of a broader attempt to reshape society. “For your own good,” the engineers try to reassure us. “For the good of the world.”

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

So frustrating, especially when the Internet can be used to the opposite effect.

Chance favors the connected mind. Opportunities for serendipity increase with bigger, more diverse networks. Build personal learning networks. Expose yourself to new perspectives. Listen in solidarity. Be in the space. When we seek perspectives different than our own, share hunches, and connect ideas, we participate in created serendipity.

Source: Created Serendipity: Chance Favors the Connected Mind – Ryan Boren

We can’t make ethical tech if we’re in the behaviorism business.

(It’s worth teasing out a little – but probably not in this talk, since I’ve rambled on so long already – the difference, if any, between “persuasion” and “operant conditioning” and how they imagine to leave space for freedom and dignity. Rhetorically and practically.)

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

It’s a hyper-evolutionary process that rewards the most extractive, most addictive, most viral strain from the cohort. The key measurement is ENGAGEMENT.

More engagement. More rage, more fake news, all resulting in more hours spent, more eyeballs fixated, more clicks and taps made.

Source: Exponential growth devours and corrupts – Signal v. Noise

See also:

Post-truth, Open Society, and the Business of Behaviorism

Never before in human history have objective facts been so readily available, and so ignored.

Diluting accurate information can be accomplished by polluting public consciousness with disinformation. By decreasing the signal to noise ratio in this manner, the ordinary public is unable to effectively differentiate what is objectively true and then the mind retreats to where it is most at ease: the seeking of information which confirms preconceived ideas.

Source: Combating Confirmation Bias: Defeating Disinformation Campaigns In The Future By Extending Information Security — The Future of Text

As vast engines of confirmation bias pollute the public consciousness with disinformation, I am reminded of George Soros’ caveat to Karl Popper’s Open Society.

Investor and philanthropist George Soros, a self-described follower of Karl Popper, argued that sophisticated use of powerful techniques of subtle deception borrowed from modern advertising and cognitive science by conservative political operatives such as Frank Luntz and Karl Rove casts doubt on Popper’s view of open society. Because the electorate’s perception of reality can easily be manipulated, democratic political discourse does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of reality. Soros argues that in addition to the need for separation of powers, free speech, and free elections, an explicit commitment to the pursuit of truth is imperative. “Politicians will respect, rather than manipulate, reality only if the public cares about the truth and punishes politicians when it catches them in deliberate deception.”

Source: Open society – Wikipedia

There is no respect for reality from Donald Trump and the GOP. Post-truth is pre-fascism and perhaps the greatest enemy of an open society.

Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. Truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around, and the era of Trump — like the era of Vladimir Putin in Russia — is one of the decline of local news. Social media is no substitute: It supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.

Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.

The claim that Trump was denied a win by fraud is a big lie not just because it mauls logic, misdescribes the present and demands belief in a conspiracy. It is a big lie, fundamentally, because it reverses the moral field of American politics and the basic structure of American history.

Source: The American Abyss – The New York Times

What to do? In 2007, Soros said:

What is needed is a concerted effort to identify the techniques of manipulation – and to name and shame those who use them.

Source: From Popper to Rove – and back | US news | The Guardian

Facebook has endured some, but not nearly enough, naming and shaming for merchandizing the tools of mass manipulation. Beyond shaming individual companies, let’s name and shame one of the techniques: behaviorism. For the sake of open society, we should all get out of the behaviorism business.

I would argue, in total seriousness, that one of the places that Skinnerism thrives today is in computing technologies, particularly in “social” technologies. This, despite the field’s insistence that its development is a result, in part, of the cognitive turn that supposedly displaced behaviorism.

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Blogging

I haven’t had the anxiety or pain budget to do much in-the-trenches advocacy and DEI work with y’all, but I manage to publish some neurodiversity and DEI related posts as I go about my reading. Here are a few months of highlights.


I particularly recommend the study I quote in “Neurominorities, Spiky Profiles, and the Biopsychosocial Model at Work” to all DEI and HR workers.

Neurominorities, Spiky Profiles, and the Biopsychosocial Model at Work

Selected quote:

The aim of occupational accommodations for neurominorities is to access the strengths of the spiky profile and palliate the struggles.


A “design for equity, inclusion, and pluralism” cheatsheet, of sorts, that I use to remind myself:

Just Sayin’

Selected quote:

There is no path to equity that does not involve a direct confrontation with inequity.

Inequities are primarily power and privilege problems.

Source: Basic Principles for Equity Literacy


Cognitive diversity exists for a reason. Selections on neurodiversity evolutionary history with dollops of positive niche construction, collaborative morality, and cultural evolution:

Cognitive diversity exists for a reason.

Selected quote:

Human cognitive diversity exists for a reason; our differences are the genius – and the conscience – of our species.

Source: A Thousand Rivers – Carol Black


The fidgets that got me through 2020:

Favorite Fidgets 2020


Image work diversity fails our realities.

Image Work Diversity vs. The Reality of Me

Selected quote:

“They wanted to have my presence, but not me exactly. They wanted to have the idea of me being at Google, but not the reality of me being at Google,” Gebru said.

Source: Researcher Timnit Gebru Says Google Wanted ‘My Presence, But Not Me Exactly’ : NPR


Are we using the right amount of strategic essentialism with our Employee Resource Groups?

Strategic Essentialism and Employee Resource Groups


We all need some digital sociology if we’re gonna be in the platform business.

The need for digital sociology is now.


“Nothing about us without us” is an ethical prime directive.

Dr. Gebru, NAUWU, and DEI

Selected quote:

I first heard the expression “Nothing About Us Without Us” in South Africa in 1993. Michael Masutha and William Rowland, two leaders ofDisabled People South Africa, separately invoked the slo- gan, which they had heard used by someone from Eastern Europe at an international disability rights conference. The slogan’s power derives from its location of the source of many types of (disability) oppression and its simultaneous opposition to such oppression in the context of control and voice.

Source: NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US: Disability Oppression and Empowerment


“Do not be the oppressor” is another guiding star. Check this talk for how to do more than image work diversity.

Do Not Be the Oppressor: Unlocking the Power of Employee Resource Groups

Selected quotes:

“Show me the money, and I’ll show you the outcome.”

“How are you gonna drive a DEI strategy with absolutely nobody in place to maintain continuity and accountability?”

“If you don’t have a dedicated person, how do you further this work?”

Obviously and exactly, yet so many companies lack a DEI head, including my own.


None of us should be in the behaviorism business.

The Problem with Behaviorism

Selected quote:

Skinner won; Papert lost. Thorndike won; Dewey lost. Behaviorism won.

https://rnbn.blog/2020/10/10/2121/


A reflection on past iterations of me:

Tech Ethics, Roaming Autodidacts, and the White-Male Effect

Selected quote:

I very much resemble the roaming autodidact. Tech and open source are full of us. It took longer than I’d like to admit for me to recognize the white-male effect in my own thinking. “A form of cognition that protects status” is an apt summary, especially for roaming autodidacts who’ve lived and believe the meritocracy myth.


So much whelm.

Titrating the Whelm: Perceptual Capacity and Autistic Burnout

Selected quote:

The divergent ways in which we process the world around us can also leave us fatigued and sapped of energy, as autistic people have “higher perceptual capacity” than our neurotypical counterparts, meaning that we process greater volumes of information from our environment. Autistic people commonly use the concept of ‘spoon theory‘ to conceptualize this experience of having limited energy resources.

Source: Doing More by Doing Less: Reducing Autistic Burnout | Psychology Today


So much stress.

Autism, Trauma, and Stress

Selected quote:

Recently it has been suggested that individuals with ASD are at an increased risk of experiencing potentially traumatic events and being significantly affected by them (Haruvi-Lamdan et al., 2018; Kerns et al., 2015).

Source: Autism Spectrum Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: An unexplored co-occurrence of conditions – Nirit Haruvi-Lamdan, Danny Horesh, Shani Zohar, Meital Kraus, Ofer Golan, 2020


Hannah Gadsby on social anxiety, social exhaustion, routine, masking, autism and gender norms, being perceived as angry, getting feedback, observing patterns, competition, autistic stereotypes, processing time, autistic appreciation of comedy, diagnosis and misdiagnosis, functioning labels, toxic masculinity, thinking in terms of neurobiology instead of gender, eugenics, patriarchal devices, storytelling, comedy and trauma, neurodivergence in comedy, cruelty in comedy, fitting in, shame, failure and success, and religion:

https://rnbn.blog/2020/12/19/2165/

Selected quote:

What is yourself? It’s a way of being in the world that doesn’t feel exhausting.


I discovered “Uncomfortable Labels: My Life as a Gay Autistic Trans Woman” through the Queer ERG at work. Here’s a selection on internet socialization:

https://rnbn.blog/2020/12/19/2169/

I added that to my “Written communication is the great social equalizer” post:

https://rnbn.blog/2020/12/21/2173/

And another relatable quote, this one on isolation and sensory overwhelm:

Overwhelm and Isolation: It’s pretty hard to feel alone in a world this constantly loud.

The whole book is full of relatable moments.


Currently reading:

Selected quotes.


What DEI stuff are y’all reading and blogging?