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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Robert Anton Wilson’ Category

Announcing new RAW blog

I’ve created a new blog RAW semantics with speculative, philosophical posts about semantics, themed around the writings of Robert Anton Wilson (who I’m a long-time admirer of).

For those interested, I’ve also set up a Twitter account for it – https://twitter.com/RAWsemantics – a basic affair, simply for posting links to new blog posts.

It’s in the early stages, so I’ll no doubt be changing and adding things as I go along.

Give it a look!



Written by NewsFrames

April 28, 2020 at 12:32 pm

Behaviour modification empires for rent

Of all the “what the hell is going on?” type books that I’ve read in the last few years, the one I enjoyed most was Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts.

The title undersells this book’s importance, to my mind. After all, it’s neither self-help nor “clickbait” – it’s not like “10 arguments for quitting sugar”. I regard it more as an absolutely essential collection of insights (from a Silicon Valley insider) about why basic democratic and progressive norms seem to be undermined as a consequence of how social media works.

“But for the moment we face a terrifying, sudden crisis…
Something is drawing young people away from democracy.”
(Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

Algorithm Politics & mass manipulation of humans

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.”
Former Facebook vice president of user growth (quoted by Lanier)

Jaron’s book argues that while we should generally embrace the internet, we need to urgently reject what he calls “BUMMER” (his acronym for the destructive core of social media, short for “Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent”).

BUMMER is a sort of high-level business plan in which the end-users of social media are the product, not the customer (that’s why social media is free to use). The real customers are those who want to modify your behaviour in some way. The basic argument is that, statistically, social media algorithms boost certain negative aspects of human communication, since that’s what maximises engagement with the platform (thus maximising profit for the social media companies).

The algorithms don’t care how they maximise user engagement – it happens automatically (continually “optimised”), and it just so happens that tribalism and nasty adversarial conflicts tend to engage people more efficiently than, say, pleasantly reasonable discourse does. Nor do the algorithms care if the result is user addiction (with its related mental health problems).

“Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward. The relative ease of using negative emotions for the purposes of addiction and manipulation makes it relatively easier to achieve undignified results. An unfortunate combination of biology and math favors degradation of the human world. Information warfare units sway elections, hate groups recruit, and nihilists get amazing bang for the buck when they try to bring society down.

“The unplanned nature of the transformation from advertising to direct behavior modification caused an explosive amplification of negativity in human affairs.” (Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

As the book frames it: “Social media is turning you into an asshole”. I’m reminded of the quote provided by Robert Anton Wilson at the beginning of his chapter on “The SNAFU principle” in Prometheus Rising:

“…the peculiar nature of the game…makes it impossible for [participants] to stop the game once it is under way. Such situations we label games without end.” (Watzlawick, Beavin, Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication – full quote here)

As for those who want to modify your behaviour, they range from advertisers to malign (and often secretive) parties seeking to amplify hatreds or swing elections. (Lanier doesn’t shy away from tackling emotive/controversial topics, such as Russian state exploitation of social media for disruptive purposes).

“Remember how it became cool in some liberal circles to cruelly ridicule Hillary, as if doing so were a religion? In the age of BUMMER you can’t tell what was organic and what was engineered.

“It’s random that BUMMER favored the Republicans over the Democrats in U.S. politics, but it isn’t random that BUMMER favored the most irritable, authoritarian, paranoid, and tribal Republicans. All those qualities are equally available on the left.” (Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

(Remember when Facebook promoted the “trending news” that “most doctors polled” had “serious concerns” about Hillary Clinton’s health, including the suggestion, in a poll question, that Hillary was a “flaming psychopath”? This “news” originally came from a rightwing group, AAPS, that promoted conspiracy theories, including that “vaccines cause autism“. It was also promoted by Trump and Wikileaks).

I found Lanier’s book to be an entertaining read, rich in insights (and in things you need to know about) – I recommend you read the whole thing for yourself. The bottom line is that the algorithms constantly monitor, via our online responses, preferences, framing, etc, the micro-level views/behaviours (you could call it the result of our “adaptive” unconsciouses) of hundreds of millions of people on an individual, targeted level (via their personalised social media feeds and searches), instantaneously in real time – modifying behaviour (so Lanier argues), in ways we’re not conscious of, and at the whim of parties who don’t have our best interests in mind.

Those algorithms? Lanier remarks that they’re among the best kept secrets on the planet – more carefully guarded than NSA or CIA state secrets. It’s worth quoting at length one example of how the book describes them as working:

“Black activists and sympathizers were carefully cataloged and studied. What wording got them excited? What annoyed them? What little things, stories, videos, anything, kept them glued to BUMMER? What would snowflake-ify them enough to isolate them, bit by bit, from the rest of society? What made them shift to be more targetable by behavior modification messages over time? The purpose was not to repress the movement but to earn money. The process was automatic, routine, sterile, and ruthless.

“Meanwhile, automatically, black activism was tested for its ability to preoccupy, annoy, even transfix other populations, who themselves were then automatically cataloged, prodded, and studied. A slice of latent white supremacists and racists who had previously not been well identified, connected, or empowered was blindly, mechanically discovered and cultivated, initially only for automatic, unknowing commercial gain – but that would have been impossible without first cultivating a slice of BUMMER black activism and algorithmically figuring out how to frame it as a provocation.

“BUMMER was gradually separating people into bins and promoting assholes by its nature, before Russians or any other client showed up to take advantage. When the Russians did show up, they benefited from a user interface designed to help ‘advertisers’ target populations with tested messages to gain attention. All the Russian agents had to do was pay BUMMER for what came to BUMMER naturally.” (Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments…)

Update: I recommend watching The Great Hack (a new Netflix documentary), as it makes some of the same points that Lanier does about the urgency of the situation. It covers the threat to democracy posed by the new kind of “weapons grade” psychological propaganda that’s researched (and used) by entities such as Cambridge Analytica and SCL, using social media data mining, etc.

By the way, I’m aware that descriptions of this material (including my own, probably) sometimes sound a bit like paranoid sci-fi melodrama. Even the more sober reports often add to that effect. Read about the interventions of SCL Group (Cambridge Analytica’s parent company) in the 2010 elections in Trinidad and Tobago, for instance.

Written by NewsFrames

November 15, 2019 at 2:05 pm

UPDATES – Overweening Generalist, ‘Degrowth’, RAW, ‘ego depletion’

I’ve combined a couple of “Updates” posts into one here (as the menu was getting a bit messy).

April 18, 2016:-

1. A new piece from one of my favourite websites, the Overweening Generalist blog, which comments on (among other things) an article I wrote about Robert Anton Wilson and George Lakoff (the longer version of the piece published at Disinfo.com).

It contains some brilliant observations and comments – give it a read: George Lakoff and Robert Anton Wilson and the Primacy of Metaphors (Overweening Generalist)

2. I’ve just seen a new paper from Ecological Economics journal (April 2016), from Stefan Drews and Miklós Antal, titled Degrowth: A “missile word” that backfires? It discusses the “degrowth” campaign/slogan from the perspective of cognitive framing, and references a piece that I wrote on the subject. Full text (PDF) here.

April 8, 2016:-

1. My Disinfo.com article about Robert Anton Wilson was originally much longer than the one I submitted to Disinfo. I’ve posted the original, longer piece (over 2,000 words) right here, along with a much bigger image.

2. I’ve previously written about “ego depletion”, a seemingly well-supported phenomenon in psychological studies (Daniel Kahnemen cites the work in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow). But as this fascinating new article claims, “An influential psychological theory, borne out in hundreds of experiments, may have just been debunked”.

Nassim Taleb commented on Twitter, ‘Fortune tellers are about 50% right. With psychology it seems worse. Hypocritical to call this “science”‘. That seems an interesting debate in its own right. Input/feedback welcome, as always…

Rather than leave you hanging on that question of whether psychology should be considered science, I’ll give you a few links with some quality input:

  1. A discussion on BBC Radio 3 between Rupert Read and Keith Laws, which tackles this question. Starts 35 minutes in, and I found it fascinating (the debate continued on Twitter, and Rupert made some interesting comments on that debate here).
  2. Since this debate brings up figures such as Popper and Kuhn, why not invite the whole party, to get an idea of what’s going on – Feyerabend, Lakatos and others are here at this Overweening Generalist piece. (It even includes a reference to Robert Anton Wilson, making it more topical with regard to my other update, above. Not bad, considering.)

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April 18, 2016 at 11:21 am

RAW: new article for Disinfo

22 March 2016 I’ve written an article for disinfo.com about the resurgence of interest in Robert Anton Wilson’s ideas. As well as looking at a couple of new RAW-related books, it continues the theme I’ve already written (briefly) about – on the harmoniousness between RAW’s mutiple-model neurosemantics and Lakoff’s Frame Semantics.

I shortened it from my original 2,000 words to 1,200 (which is Disinfo’s preferred maximum article length), but I’m pleased with the result, and think you’ll enjoy it. (The accompanying photo is of my Robert Anton Wilson “stash”). Here is the article:

http://disinfo.com/2016/03/raw-resurgence/  (Link is now dead – see below*)

*Web Archive copy of above disinfo.com page here.

*UPDATE (Aug 2019): Disinfo.com seems to have closed down, so the original link above is now dead. There’s a longer version of the article here.


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March 22, 2016 at 11:11 am

Robert Anton Wilson & framing – a few notes

robert-anton-wilson-framingWilson was heavily influenced by General Semantics – in particular, Alfred Korzybski’s book: Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Several writers who I find important or interesting in various ways (William Burroughs, Neil Postman, Robert A. Heinlein, etc) were influenced by Korzybski, although General Semantics seems to have picked up a reputation as “pseudoscience” in some circles, perhaps partly because of misrepresentations by some of its critics (or the fact that it seemed to have appeal for L. Ron Hubbard).

Most often when Wilson cites Korzybski, he’s making a point about how common prejudices and bigotries arise from – and are perpetuated by – confusions inherent in the structure of everyday language. These confusions of the map (symbolic language) with the territory (“reality”) manifest as over-generalisation, various logical fallacies, etc – but they’re difficult to spot unless you go looking for them. There’s an article here, from ETC: a review of general semantics, which discusses George Lakoff’s work on framing from the perspective of General Semantics.

Another theme that repeatedly comes up in Wilson’s writing is metaphor. For example, in the chapter, Models, Metaphors and Idols, from The New Inquisition, he writes that to want something is, metaphorically, to be empty – “want” and “vacant” coming from the same root – and that talking of desires as “appetites”, etc, expresses the same metaphor. He goes on to write that even the word, “the”, is a metaphor which assumes the world really is divided up according to the categories we assign to it.

This approach to metaphor, not as something peripheral, a mere flourish of language – but as central to thought, a fundamental mechanism of mind, strikes me as similar to that of Lakoff, et al, in the field of cognitive linguistics. In other words, it seems to me that Wilson is talking about conceptual metaphor, although the more precise work in that field is probably too recent to be referenced in Wilson’s books (Wilson had been thinking about Korzybski’s ideas since the 1950s, whereas the earliest work on conceptual metaphor from Lakoff was published in 1980: Metaphors We Live By). Still, there are some references to “framing” in its wider sense scattered throughout Wilson’s work – for example this excerpt from Cosmic Trigger volume 2 (scanned from p236-7 of my copy). [“Huge Berserk Rebel Warthog” is an anagram of George Herbert Walker Bush, aka Bush senior]:


The aspects of Robert Anton Wilson’s writings which he called “guerilla ontology” or “model agnosticism” intersect and dovetail in very interesting ways with the frames-based view of cognition and language, particularly in the area I’ve labelled metaphoric pluralism. This is something I’ll write about in more depth in the future (possibly in book form, with respect to Robert Anton Wilson’s ideas).

“The Western World has been brainwashed by Aristotle for the last 2,500 years. The unconscious, not quite articulate, belief of most Occidentals is that there is one map which adequately represents reality. By sheer good luck, every Occidental thinks he or she has the map that fits. Guerrilla ontology, to me, involves shaking up that certainty. I use what in modern physics is called the “multi-model” approach, which is the idea that there is more than one model to cover a given set of facts. As I’ve said, novel writing involves learning to think like other people. My novels are written so as to force the reader to see things through different reality grids rather than through a single grid. It’s important to abolish the unconscious dogmatism that makes people think their way of looking at reality is the only sane way of viewing the world. My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything. If one can only see things according to one’s own belief system, one is destined to become virtually deaf, dumb, and blind. It’s only possible to see people when one is able to see the world as others see it. That’s what guerrilla ontology is — breaking down this one-model view and giving people a multi-model perspective.”Robert Anton Wilson: Searching For Cosmic Intelligence – interview with Jeffrey Elliot (1980)


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January 14, 2016 at 2:00 pm