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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John Taylor Gatto – Dumbing Us Down

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Parents love to be scared. The news industry feeds on parents who want to be scared and then ‘protect’ their children. News is full of stories about things that could harm your children, like hot dogs or Marilyn Manson. If Stranger Danger was a band, it’d be the best-selling artist. It was a shock that no one told us we should stop going to rock concerts after the Eagles of Death Metal.

For some reason, no one started a moral panic around schools. No news media ever tried to scare parents about what goes on in schools and how terrible they are. I think it’s because parents love schools. Schools make raising children very easy. Let a bunch of strangers raise your child and grade them. They even do the job of telling you how good your kid is.

Although this book is pretty well-known, it hadn’t started a moral panic. Why? Could it be that parents don’t mind that their children are taught confusion, antisocial behavior, that their brains are being ruined by the confining environment of schools?

Gatto later says that the essay about the seven lessons isn’t the central essay. It is. It’s perhaps the definitive text about the wrongs of schooling. It lays down what schools actually teach, and asks us whether we want it or not.

He sometimes slides into conspiracy thinking. One of the introductions name-drops Cuckoo’s Nest and the Combine. Besides missing the point of the novel (It’s about how we must subjugate women), Gatto is never as paranoiac. He doesn’t talk about a huge organization controlling everything behind the scenes. Rather, our society is moving towards this.

It’s not because people are just power hungry, like a cliched villain. Our society moves towards this centralized structure because we think it’s efficient and will give us what we want.

What makes Gatto’s position worthwhile is because he’s not talking just about schools, but the worldview that gave birth to them. This comes to light in the last essay, the one that strays most from Gatto’s criticism of schools.

It’s one that’s destined to failure. Gatto waxes nostalgia about some past when we all lived in a small town and were a ‘community’. While he doesn’t go deep enough into describing the differences between networks and communities, his view isn’t black and white.

In fact, he addresses the flaws of these small towns. They cast out people. They caused great harm to those they deemed unfit. But, according to him, they did not have that much power. A person could have chosen to join that community to leave it.

In reality, it’s harder than it seems since we’re forced into existence, and born into a community that might not fit us. If it doesn’t, how do we know there’s something beyond it? Tolerance that people reach on their own is better, but I’d rather enforce tolerance than risk the damage the Quakers suffer. Even if it will slow the process a little, I’d rather illegalize these acts than wait until people decide to be tolerant.

While it may seem like he’s a religion apologist, he’s not. What he takes from religion is the sense of community. This is one of the most important ideas in this book. He demonstrates that the church was an environment where everyone took part – the old, the young and the in-between. Yes, they had roles but they were more connected than we are right now.

The problem with secular living, especially in big cities is how segregated we are. We are put into classes or schools or companies, all of which have a cause none of us agree with. He’s also wrong about the military. The military is intense. It creates an emotional experience that connects people. These networks don’t offer that.

He doesn’t view networks as completely useless. His problem with networks is that they serve a specific purpose, and can’t do more than that. The military can defend the country, but it’s not enough to bring meaning to a person’s life. We need networks to accomplish some objectives, but they must never be our whole lives.

The best part is Gatto’s criticism of schools. He uses the good old method of analyzing the form. Schools must, first of all, have a structure that encourages learning. Some may criticize Gatto’s anecdotes, but he describes in detail the type of ‘psychopathic school’. If your school functioned differently, then you’re lucky.

Humans are curious by nature. The reason parents have to scare us all the time is because we’re curious about what the fire feels like. Everything in the school structure goes against it. Standardized test limit what you can learn. You’re trapped with the same people in a setting where you’re punished for socializing.

The idea that we need schools to teach ‘basic skills’ is moronic. Reading and arithmetic don’t take too much time, and schools don’t teach basic skills anyway. How many schools teach cooking or fixing or building things?

It’s such a focused attack on the school structure that I’m surprised it didn’t make more of a splash. Sure, Gatto’s tone is often bitter and he sometimes repeats himself. It would have been helpful if there was more research involved, but then again these are speeches. He’s successful at explaining the exact problem and offering solutions. He never descends into black-and-white thinking, although he’s close to it. The idea of demolishig schools may seem radical, but some radical ideas have basis.

It’s not a perfect book. It’s a collection of speeches so it often slides into bitterness. Gatto’s dissection of the school structure is a brilliant one, even if Postman had better solutions. People often tell me that we can’t do anything about schools or that there aren’t any alternatives. Well, here they are. Even if it’s not the definitive text about education, it’s full of worthwhile ideas.

3.5 psychopathic schools out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Earth

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If Foundation’s Edge sees Asimov diving into the Thriller genre, then Foundation and Earth is the complete opposite. Here, Asimov attempts something far more psychological and philosophical. These were things he avoided in previous installments. Considering how different Edge was in terms of ideas, the new approach isn’t surprising. Like a true intellectual, Asimov challenges himself and his thinking. Too bad this challenge was too much for him.

The first Foundation novels’ strengths was in knowing in their limits. Despite the huge scope, Asimov knew he’s not good at expressing ideas or psychology in fiction. So the whole series was just some cool puzzles and adventure stories. That’s also why none of them is truly brilliant. Edge only approaches that because it has a better understanding of the Thriller genre.

Foundation and Earth is supposed to be the series’ defining statement. It’s a slower, denser novel. It’s more concerned with the philosophical implication of Gaia than solving whatever puzzle Asimov came up with. Many are bothered by the trashing of the Seldon Plan, but that’s just Asimov replacing his old ideas with what he considers to be better one.

Asimov was never good at expressing ideas using fiction. He used them to make his stories look cooler, but there never was any deep exploration. He tries to do it here, and he always stumbles. The novel tries to tackle the community vs. individuality debate, and the only answer he can come up with is ‘let’s wait until we get to Earth’. The dialogues feel literally copy-pasted. The same phrases make an appearance, over and over. I don’t think people in real life say the same thing in the exact phrase.

We also get some cool set-pieces that feel like they belong in a different novella. An adventure consists of various stages, and each is supposed to both stand on its own and contribute to the whole. In general, they’re challenges for the characters to overcome and develop.

Since Asimov doesn’t develop characters, they all feel pointless. Killer moss could make for a fun short story. Solaria and their obsession with loneliness would be fantastic in the hands of a more philosophical writer, someone like Aldous Huxley. Here, all it gives is a plot coupon to redeem later.

Even the final conclusion is disappointing. For a novel so reliant on ideas, the conclusion should’ve been more than to reveal who was behind the scenes. We get no argument for Galaxia. All we get is that there was a person behind the velvet curtain and that we shouldn’t pay any attention to it. Such a conclusion would have worked in previous novels, but here Asimov doesn’t aim for a simple adventure.

There’s even rambling prose and lots of sex, which is new to Asimov. Maybe Asimov disocvered sexuality only at around age 65, which is great for him. I heard many men can’t get it up at that age, but it doesn’t make the sex any less out of place. At least Asimov is not as misogynistic as other authors. He writes like a person who doesn’t understand people in general, rather than just women. Even if we get a male character who has a lot of sex, at least the attitude towards it is positive.

The rambling prose is harder to forgive. Asimov’s strength was in how skeletal his prose was. There was nothing under the surface, but there was zero bullshit. Here, we get a lot of technobabble, including the precise distance between things (Did Asimov bother to calculate?) and meaningless descriptions of nothing. Rambling prose doesn’t make it seem like you got buried ideas. It makes it look like you’re trying to hide a lack of them.

The only idea that works is Asimov’s defamiliarization of Earth. It doesn’t get much deeper other than pointing out how unique Earth is, but there’s fun in it. His descriptions of musical instruments is especially entertaining. Asimov’s sense of fun and wonder at the universe also didn’t vanish. Despite the rambling prose, it’s still easy to follow and read. He doesn’t create a dense labyrnith where the content gets buried. It’s the same old Asimov, only with some extra unnecessary words.

It’s a fun adventure, but Foundation and Earth is an anticlimatic closer to the series. I appreciate Asimov’s effort to try out ┬ánew things, but none of it works. It’s still worth reading if you enjoyed the other Foundation novels. Asimov was a fascinating mind, and you can see his progress throughout the novels. It’s an average adventure that rambles a little too much, but I’ll give Asimov credit for how his ideas progressed. He didn’t call himself a rationalist for nothing.

2.5 galaxies out of 5