The Facebook Suicide Algorithm or: Getting Closer to Getting Further Away

Recently, Facebook announced they got a new algorithm that’s supposed to spot suicidal behavior. What I’m about to present isn’t a claim for or against this. This doesn’t have much to do with my philosophy of suicide. Rather, I’ll analyze the technology based on the McLuhan-ian view of technology as extensions of man. My purpose is to present this analysis and let people decide whether this technology is worthwhile. Spoiler alert, I think the conclusion means it’s bad.

First off, here’s the basic theory of McLuhan. When McLuhan talks about ‘media’, he talks about any technology. Any technology is an extension of a function of us. A ‘weapon’ isn’t something that sprang out of nowhere. Every weapon is an extension of our ability to hurt other people. Another integral fact is that every extension is meant to be more effecient in achieving its end, but means less involvement.

A hammer is an extension of our ability to hit things. What the hammer does and what the hand does when they beat the nail isn’t any different. The difference is in the effiency and involvement. The hammer is better at knocking the nail, can insert it more quickly into the surface. Once we use the hammer, we’re also less involved in the process. This is more vague, but what it means is our experience is limited. When we knock the nail with the hammer, we don’t feel the nail.

To use the weapon example, think of the atom bomb. It is just an extension of our ability to cause destruction, only far worse than a fist hitting a board. When you hit something with your fist in order to destroy it, you’re deeply involved in the process, you feel the surface of the object being destroyed. The object has to be close to you so you’ll use your fist. The atom bomb makes us less involved, since we don’t feel the surface of the buildings being destroyed. We don’t even see the victims since we have to drop the bomb from far away. This fact explains why technology leads to far deadlier wars, since people are less involved in the act of killing.

Of course, it’s possible this is not exactly what McLuhan meant. His writing can be cryptic, but this is the framework I’m working with here.

Now, for the algorithm. People have the ability to reach out to people that they consider in need of help. In our case, being suicidal means needing help. Life’s positive value is an axiom for many. Currently users can report posts they consider problematic – by that, I mean containing signals of ‘self-harm’ or suicide. I’m not sure if this can be called an extension of our ability to reach out, since it is already embedded in a technology – Facebook, which is an extension of our social circle/neighbourhood. What the algorithm does is search for these signals of ‘self-harm’ and report them, instead of users doing it.

Our ability to offer help is extended via this algorithm. It serves the same function, yet unlike a single person it scans thousands or millions posts a day. This alone makes it more efficient, since no post will go unnoticed and every distressing signal will be reported. In general, people will report a distressing suicide if it will be explicit. A show of hands: How many of you had people reaching out to you because you expressed something sad? By ‘reaching out’, I don’t mean commenting but engaging in conversation. If our current methods were efficient, we wouldn’t create an algorithm to do this. We wouldn’t feel the need to extend this ability if we did it right, just as we don’t have a machine to extended our ability to chew because our teeth work.

Now comes the bad side. Extensions of ourselves make us less involved, which is good if the experience wasn’t worth much. No one is going to miss feeling the pain of hitting a needle. In this case, the algorithm makes us less involved because we’re no longer reaching out as a person. Many in Sanctioned Suicide mocked this. We’re less involved since we’re no longer giving personal feedback, seeing the distressing signals with our own eyes and containing it. We don’t contact the person and hear what they got to say and hear their feedback to our attempts at help. Although this algorithm will be more efficient at finding distressing signals, we will be less involved in the experience of reaching out.

The question is, is this bad? My answer is, yes.

Involvement is critical when it comes to personal issues. Else, we’d all confess our sins to Cleverbot. A common complaint against psychotherapy is that the therapist isn’t actually involved and doesn’t really care. It’s a profession for them, they ask questions for the salary. The whole idea of caring demands involvement. In order for someone to care for us, for our troubles to mean to them something they need to be involved in our life. They need to find our troubles affecting, consider them important. Try reading about a serial killer and then watching an interview with him. In the second instance, you’re more involved with this person, you see them and hear their voices. Empathy demands involvement, since we can’t be empathetic unless we imagine ourselves in the position of the person suffering.

The algorithm, by making us less involved in the process of reaching out to people undermines itself. By removing ourselves, we remove the most crucial thing. The basis of reaching out is that someone actually cares about your troubles and wants to be involved in getting through them. Remove the person who cares, and there is no ‘caring’. An algorithm cannot care, it is not a person.

The main message this algorithm sends is not that someone is so caring they’ll invent this technology but the opposite. Someone is so uncaring that they’ll invent a technology that will do the caring for them. You can lead a horse to water, but a bunch of professionals showing up at a person’s house doesn’t send the message you care but that you want control. The reason communities like Sanctioned Suicide work compared to R/SuicideWatch is that the people in SS are deeply involved with one another, they communicate and exchange ideas, don’t aim for a specific result but are just there with a person.

Let’s assume we take the position that suicide is bad. This algorithm is another symptom of our pathetic attempts at controlling people, rather than helping them. If suicidal people are really in a bad situation and in need of help, how can we help them by patronizing them, caging them, trying to control them rather than reaching out to them? We can’t complain about being mystified by suicide since we don’t even try to understand it. Technology now extends our ability to reach out for others, to letting them know we hear their troubles in such a way that actually tells them we don’t care.

If we really did care, we wouldn’t need to invent a technology to do it for us.

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Hal Gold – Unit 731: Testimony

unit731
In the anime Paranoia Agent, the state of victimhood rescues people. People suffer from all kinds of stress – sometimes personal, sometimes moral – and and an American-looking dude hits them with a baseball bat. Once they get hit and fall unconscious, no one really cares about their past life. It’s all about helping the poor victims.

I don’t know how much the creator knew about Unit 731, but that anime is obviously tied to the atom bomb. Saying the atom bomb rescued the Japanese from admitting their war crimes may sound obscene, but isn’t there some truth to that? How many people know about the atomic bomb and how many know about their aggression in China in general? For example, in Israeli history students learn about the atom bomb but not one thing is said about the rape of Nanking or Unit 731. We see movies about the Holocaust often. Is there an internationally recognized day for the victims of Japan?

This isn’t about whether America should’ve bombed Japan or not. It’s an interesting, difficult discussion we mustn’t avoid – but it belongs in a different book. It’s about understanding what can drive people to do such horrors. The book doesn’t relish the gore on display. there are some juicy details – babies being bathed in frozen water, a person being constantly executed and somehow never dying, diseased people forced to have sex and then give birth. The point is more about shocking you that yes, people can do these things.

Haven’t we learned this lesson from the Nazis? Yes, we did. The difference is, the Nazis were losers and were the villain. Stories about the Holocaust may horrify us, but we often distance ourselves by painting the Germans as a bunch of villains smokin’ cigars and laughing maniacally. Japan were supposed to be victims. When one country – and the losing country at that – does it it’s just villainy. When a people that are supposed to be victims do it and the winners sweep it under the rug, it becomes scary.

When people object to the ‘tyranny of science’, they may sound like a bunch of crazy luddites. The scientific theory is one of the integral pillars of civilization. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without science. No idea is safe from corruption, though. The idea of people torturing and inflicting pain in the name of science may seem like recipe for a cartoonish villain in a Hollywood movie.

That’s reality, though. One reason Unit 731 was allowed to remain hidden was because the data was precious enough. The scientists were given immunity if they handed over all the information they received. Many of them went to acquire high positions in Japan, especially academic positions. Even the history of something as great as science is stained by blood.

It’s a perfect example of how horrible war is. Since the data from Unit 731 was pretty useful for biological warfare, many of the masterminds could go on with their lives, being scientists if they handed their data. In a way, they got redeemed because of the action that demands redemption. Imagine if Dr. Mengale was given a high position in a university because he made some scientific discoveries.

The history is fairly brief, since the main role of the book is to deliver the testimonies. It’s a good piece of history, but not a very detailed one. As an introduction into the topic though, it’s good enough. The writing is precise, not too filled with jargon and the story is fairly easy to follow. The book creates a unique niche of itself in the literature of Unit 731 – by providing an easy introduction and a more personal look.

As for the testimonies themselves, what Gold says in the introduction is true. They’re messy, sometimes a bit incoherent. That’s okay since they’re speeches by people who are trying to remember a horrible event from a long time ago. The messiness of it also comes from how the people in the unit didn’t know what they were doing. The testimonies come mostly from low-level workers. The masters weren’t going to risk their position in Japan.

Some testimonies are better than others, but I understand the inclusion of them all. Unit 731 was destroyed. Everything was blown up and footage and pictures were hidden or destroyed, too. We will never have access to the full story, so we must make do with the little we have. Don’t expect to get a coherent story out of these. It’s a collection of anecdotes, but fascinating ones.

They’re presented with a minimalism that’s frightening. Imagine if Raymond Carver wrote a collection of short stories about people in a laboratory conducting these experiments. Then again, what other way is there to tell these stories? They’re blunt. Details aren’t gory, they’re just there. Some horrors cannot be painted with any language. You cannot express being horrified and you can’t tell the full details. Just saying they forced diseased people to have sex is enough to cause a shock.

It’s soaked in pain. Reading this book is both easy and difficult. The language is as minimalistic as a hard-boiled thriller, but to know so much pained was caused by human beings can be too much. As harsh as they are, we need these stories of pain. This book is an anti-war book. If there was no war, it’s possible Unit 731 wouldn’t have existed.

Now, I don’t think we can just lay down our arms and war would be over. Both sides need to lay down their arms for this to happen. Yet what will cause them to do it? At some point, I don’t think ideological or territorial conflicts matter much. We need to stare at the abyss without blinking, without romanticizing it or dramatizing it. We need the cold, hard facts of how much pain war causes. It really doesn’t matter whether Japan should be hated for what they did, or be forgiven because they got the atom bomb. What matters is we humans are capable of producing such pain, but no one wants to suffer through this. Until all of us – and I’m including every single continent, since the narrative is of ‘Evil West’ is too easy to swallow – are horrified by war, it won’t stop.

Reading about Unit 731 is essential. This far into human history, it’s time to know exactly how much pain war causes. War doesn’t only result in people shooting each other. Civilians are murdered in their homes. Great ideas like science are being abused. Schools today preach a lot about the glory of programming and getting your own start-up company. I don’t think this is what will prevent another Unit 731.

4 out of 5

Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth

Scientists successfully splice Woolly Mammoth DNA into Elephants

Finally, after thousands of years (Or millions, depending which book you read) humanity has made its first step towards manifest destiny. No, America is not the final frontier. Space is also not the final frontier. Neither of these frontier solve the crucial problems that people have been unjustly forced to deal with.

Our world contains no Woolly Mammoths.

The fact that people aren’t even aware that it’s a problem is proof that it’s a problem. Since both thinking and not thinking it’s a problem constitutes as proof in this case, I declare the lack of Mammoths to be set as the top priority at the UN.

We have made progress regarding our recognition of the problem. Ice Age was a pretty popular series of animated films, which starred a Woolly Mammoth. Skyrim, a terrible game known for committing the crime of not having Turn Based Combat with Pause Button, has mammoths in it. It wasn’t enough, though. Ice Age isn’t recognized as the most important film series. People still think Skyrim is at fault for not being Icewind Dale. No one is discussing mammoths.

Scientists do, though. After doing some reflecting, here are a few of the problems that we will solve by bringing back Woolly Mammoths

No More Countries

There will be no need for countries. Every place will be recognized as to whether it has mammoths or not, and it will be desirable to be only close to mammoths. Anywhere that doesn’t have mammoths will be abandoned. There will be no need to draw lines between zones. Mammoths know no bounds

No More Religious Arguing

Everyone will convert to mammoth worship. Atheism will become irrelevant. Who cares whether there’s a God or not? If he exists, he also worships mammoths.

People Will Stop Breeding

We will voluntarily extinct. Once the mammoth is back in the house, our job is done. We were put here to bring it back. It’s time for us to leave the Earth alone and let the mammoths enjoy it, instead of clogging it with more babies. Competing against them for resources is a crime punishable by being exiled back in time to an era without mammoths

Veganism Dies

We will have to eat any animal that is making the mammoth angry. You might see a contradiction here. We’re supposed to die off, yet also serve the mammoth? Yes. So long as we’re here, we need to do our best by eliminating anything that hurts a mammoth. We need to kill any animal that competes with it. We should also eat it, so the meat won’t go to trash.