Design guru Don Norman’s shortlist of everything wrong with the internet

When usability pioneers have All the Feels about the nature of our creeping technological dystopia, how we got here, and what we might need to do to right the ship, it’s wise to pay attention. Don Norman’s preaching resonated with my choir, and they’ve asked me to sing a summary song of our people in bulleted list format:

  • What seemed like a virtuous thing at the time — building the internet with an ethos of trust and openness — has led to a travesty via lack of security, because no one took bad actors into account.
  • Google, Facebook, et al didn’t have the advertising business model in mind a priori, but sort of stumbled into it and got carried away giving advertisers what they wanted — more information about users — without really taking into consideration the boundary violations of appropriating people’s information. (see Shoshana Zuboff’s definitive new book on Surveillance Capitalism for a lot more on this topic)
  • Tech companies have mined the psychological sciences for techniques that — especially at scale — border on mass manipulation of fundamental human drives to be informed and to belong. Beyond the creepy Orwellian slant of information appropriation and emotional manipulation, the loss of productivity and mental focus from years of constant interruptions takes a toll on society at large.
  • We sign an interminable series of EULAs, ToS’s and other lengthy legalese-ridden agreements just to access the now basic utilities that enable our lives. Experts refer to these as “contracts of adhesion” or “click-wrap,” as a way of connoting the “obvious lack of meaningful consent.” (Zuboff)
  • The “bubble effect” — the internet allows one to surround oneself completely with like-minded opinions and avoid ever being exposed to alternative points of view. This has existential implications for being able to inhabit a shared reality, as well as a deleterious effect on public discourse, civility, and the democratic process itself.
  • The extreme commercialization of almost all of our information sources is problematic, especially in the age of the “Milton Friedman-ification” of the economic world and the skewing of values away from communities and individuals, towards a myopic view of shareholder value and all the attendant perverse incentives that accompany this philosophical business shift over the past 50 years. He notes that the original public-spiritedness of new communication technologies has historically been co-opted by corporate lobbyists via regulatory capture — a subject Tim Wu explores in-depth in his excellent 2011 book, “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.

Is it all bleak, Don?! His answer is clear: “yes, maybe, no.” He demurs on positing a definitive answer to all of these issues, but he doesn’t really mince words about a “hunch” that it may in fact involve burning it all down and starting over again.

Pointing to evolution, Norman notes that we cannot eke radical innovation out of incremental changes — and that when radical change does happen it is often imposed unexpectedly from the outside in the form of catastrophic events. Perhaps if we can’t manage to Marie Kondo our way to a more joyful internet, we’ll have to pray for Armageddon soon…?! 😱

Optimism and the Condorcet jury theorem

Is it possible the Condorcet jury theorem provides not just a mathematical basis for democracy and the justice system, but a model predictor of one’s political persuasion as well?

If you’re an optimist, you have no trouble believing that p > 1/2. You give people the benefit of the doubt that they will try their best and most often, succeed in tipping over the average even if just by a hair. That’s all it takes for the theorem to prove true: that the larger the number of voters, the closer the group gets to making the “correct” decision 100% of the time.

On the other hand, if you’re a pessimist, you might quibble with that — saying that people are low-information voters who you don’t think very highly of, and don’t find very capable. You might say that people will mostly get it wrong, in which case p < 1/2 and the theory feedback loops all the way in the other direction, to where the optimal number of voters is 1: the autocrat.

A political sorting hat of sorts

Optimists will tend to believe in the power of people to self-govern and to act out of compassion a fair amount of the time, thus leaning to the left: to the Democrats, social democrats, socialists, and the alt-Left. Pessimists will tend to favor a smaller, tighter cadre of wealthy elite rulers — often, such as themselves. They might be found in the GOP, Tea Party, Freedom Caucus, Libertarian, paleoconservative, John Birch Society, Kochtopus, anarcho-capitalist, alt-Right, and other right-wing groups including the KKK and other white militia groups around the country.

Granted the model is crude, but so was the original theorem — what is the “correct” choice in a political contest? Or does Condorcet’s political science theory imply that, like becoming Neo, whatever the majority chooses will by definition be The Right One for the job? 🤔

…if so, we definitively have the wrong President.

Unspoken Libertarian assumption

How do you prevent monopoly capitalism under a minimalist state?

The answer is: you don’t — which is “working as intended” to a libertarian. Both because their contempt for the government is so great they would sacrifice our very national treasures if it meant squeezing another cent out of the public coffers, and because they are fans of monopoly capitalism. Greed is good — so what if the invisible hand must be made to slap around the little guy? Money is a religion, and these people are True Believers.

Theory: Libertarians are the Narcissists of the Far-Right

I’ve been reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” and reminded of the quintessential liberal definition of the term:

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
(emphasis mine)

It seems to me that Libertarian proponents tend to make a systematic error in portraying liberty as only commensurate with the first part of Mill’s description: essentially interpreting it as, “I should be able to do whatever I want, and have no constraints placed upon my person by the government whatsoever.”

This misses completely the essential boundary established by the second part: that doing what one wants has limits attached, and that those limits are a proscription on engaging in activities which either harm others, or deprive others of their own rights in pursuit of liberty.

Being fixated with avoiding taxation, the Libertarian will proclaim that the government is coercing him out of his hard-earned monies — but this fails to recognize the real harm being done to the lower classes by the deprivation of funds to support the basic level of public goods required to preserve life at a subsistence level as well as social mobility: the essence of the American dream.

In short, Libertarian dogma tends to be singularly focused on the self-interest of the upper classes without any attendant regard to the rights of others that may be trampled on by either class oppression or the capturing and consolidation of political power in the hands of the wealthy. It fails systematically to recognize the perspective of the “other side,” i.e. those who are harmed by the enactment of the Libertarian ideology — much as a narcissist lacks the capability of seeing others’ perspectives.

Palmer Luckey and Peter Thiel: Welfare queens

Luckey and Thiel are a particularly toxic breed of billionaire welfare queen, who outwardly revile government with every chance they get while having both sucked at its teat to make their fortunes, and currently making a luxe living on taxpayer largesse.

Thiel’s Paypal and Facebook-induced riches rode the coattails of the DARPA-created internet, while Luckey had his an exit to internet giant Facebook. Now Thiel helms creepy-AF data mining company Palantir, whose tentacles are wrapped all the way around the intelligence community’s various agencies, while Luckey’s Thiel-funded new startup Anduril is bidding for lucrative defense contracts to build Trump’s border wall.

If we’re lucky, Luckey will create some sort of VR seasteading community that sucks them both right in and traps them in a sort of Libertarian Matrix forever.

Inequality and the Creep of Fascism

Some people like to argue that more economic inequality is a good thing, because it is a “natural” byproduct of capitalism in a world of “makers and takers,” “winners and losers,” “wolves and sheep,” [insert your favorite Manichaean metaphor here]. However, too much inequality is deleterious for both economics and politics — for reasons that are intertwined.

Those who amass exorbitant wealth often increasingly use a portion of their gains to capture politics. While the mythological promise of trickle-down economics is that we must not have progressive taxation, because giving more money to the already wealthy is the only way to spur economic investment and innovation and create jobs — in actual fact the majority of tax cut windfalls go to stock buybacks, offshore tax havens, regulatory capture, political lobbying, and campaign donations. All this is a runaway amplifying feedback loop that tilts the playing field further away from equal opportunity, social mobility, and democratic process.

Wealthy elites seek to preserve the power structures that have benefitted them, and keep them (and their descendants) in the ruling class. It is a slow recreation of the aristocratic societies of old Europe that we fought a bloody war of independence to separate ourselves from. Yet the erosion of civil values, public engagement, and collective will — largely as fomented by the conservative elite over the past 50 years in America — and the ascendancy of the myth of “rugged individualism” have conspired to create a perilous condition in which corruption operates so openly in today’s White House and Wall Street that democracy itself is in great danger.

Moreover, we have learned these lessons once, not quite a century ago, yet have forgotten them:

“Where there is a crisis, the ruling classes take refuge in fascism as a safeguard against the revolution of the proletariat… The bourgeoisie rules through demagoguery, which in practice means that prominent positions are filled by irresponsible people who commit follies in moments of decision.”

— Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind