Cambridge Analytica – Another Threat to Democracy

On Wikipedia 21st March 2018:

“Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual […] So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.” — Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, October 2016. (Suspended on 21st March)

As the discussion hots up about the role Cambridge Analytica (founded by conservatives Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer) and its parent company SCL (founded by Nigel John Oakes ) what does this say about democracy?

Youtube video, Cambridge Analytica: Undercover Secrets of Trump’s Data Firm, Channel 4 News, Published on Mar 20, 2018

It beggars belief that, in a ‘democracy’, the supporters of particular interests can get away with this kind of unethical behaviour. It is unethical because, on the face of what is now emerging, Cambridge Analytica are not only prepared to lie and deceive, but will use every available strategy, including the application of science and technology, to do so. It appears that they will take money to influence elections throughout the world (including the BREXIT referendum), using the emotional manipulation of voters as their method. And, of course, they would not exist without their clients, who are at the top of the pyramid of culpability.

We have known since Freud separated the mind into the id, the ego and the super-ego, that we are each engaged in a personal battle to overcome our immediate emotional impulses and do what seems moral and reasonable. Therefore the Cambridge Analytica approach towards politics that is designed to play on emotions rather than reason is a direct affront to ethics and reason.

The overwhelming feeling I get is that the average citizen is letting these things happen and then living in the wake of the consequences, rather than pro-actively making sure they do not happen in the first place. This opens the door to entrepreneurs of all sorts to knowingly and deliberately exploit the system, then escape before any regulatory mechanisms come into play. It happens again and again on both a large (e.g. the 2008 financial crisis) and a small (industry specific) scale. Society is playing catch-up, instead of leading with a set of sound ethical principles that will hold to account anybody who is later found to have transgressed them.

Before you argue that the term ‘unethical’ is relative or that this account is only one of many alternative truths, let’s be clear that this is not a matter of what is right or wrong in any absolute sense. It is a matter of, given your interpretation of the evidence, what world you want to live in. This is only a point of view, but hopefully one that captures the reaction of many.

Democracy is usually defined as ‘rule by the people’, as opposed to any élite group. There are two big problems with the current form of democracy. First, if money can buy votes then we re back to a situation where (increasingly) a small number of people make the rules. Secondly, we do not really have democracy at all – rather we have what is called ‘representative democracy’ where a small number of people put themselves up for election (or are selected by political parties). This is not true democracy because there is no way that this selected or self-selected group of people is representative.

True democracy would pick people at random from the population so that they were representative in exactly the same way as a statistical sample is representative. As technology enables people to better have a say, we should be moving towards direct democracy. Sortition is a system of representative democracy. Also see Digital democracy and Direct Democracy.

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Rod Rivers' passions include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.