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.

Feminism in Star Wars: Rey Vs. Princess Leia

The new Star Wars film has a woman with a gun shooting people and committing other acts of violence. She also has various other skills. This has been described as feminist by some, in contrast to Princess Leia. If people want more characters (or worse, people) like Rey, then I’m afraid feminism still has a lot to accomplish.

If you praise Rey for her skills and ‘strength’, you’re probably uncomfortable with a female character being a human. This new obsession with resilience, with a power fantasy also leaked itself into discussions around Mad Max. I don’t know which is worse. A power fantasy about violence, or a fantasy about being weak and defined by how a man feels about you.

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Your average Fallout protagonist

Rey has no unique line of dialogue, no reactions that are specific to her that define her personality. Han Solo is a sarcastic, gritty smuggler. Chewbacca is his partner who growls and says whatever is on his mind. Finn is a moral hero who’s too afraid to be a hero. Kylo Ren is an angry teenager dying for a little bit of power. BB-8 is a childish, more energetic version of R2-D2.

What makes Rey unique?

People praised Rey for being strong, for being skilled and ‘surviving on her own’. If you played a Fallout game, you know that’s not much of an achievement. A character survives on a wasteland because the author wrote it so. A character can fix a spaceship because the author put skill points into that area.

Characters are not defined by skills. They are defined by their personalities, their desires and needs and flaws and inner conflicts. These are the qualities that drive stories. If skills were enough, then my Amazon in Diablo II would have been one of the best female characters ever.

The skills of the Amazon don’t move the story of Diablo. Why the Amazon would go chasing after Diablo could be an obsession with morality, or revenge, or desire for glory. Each of these traits would lead to a drastically different story with different themes.

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From one fantasy to the next, we still struggle to draw women as human beings

A hero concerned more with glory would interact differently with characters. They would boast and they would only take missions that will grant them fame. A hero that seeks revenge will have tunnel vision, won’t bother about anything but killing Diablo. In all of these stories the Amazon still has the skills. She can still throw javelins, yet they’re so different.

Princess Leia is more of a human than Rey. She might be a damsel in distress, but that’s her initial role. It’s not her personality. Throughout the film we learn who she is by how she speaks. She’s confident in her position of power. She’s so used to it she speaks to everyone in a bossy way. As soon as she’s rescued she takes command of the gang. Notice how, before they reach Leia they’re a bunch of weird buffons.

Rey doesn’t affect her surroundings like this. I often forgot she even existed. I cannot remember a scene that her personality contributed anything to. There is a bit of ‘tough girl’ persona going on, but it’s not well-developed. Rey screams here and there for Finn to stop holding her hand. Instead of sounding strong, she sounds like a grumpy tsundere. It’s shocking she also didn’t call him ‘baka’.

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Looks feminine, relies on a guy and still has more personality

The tough girl persona can work, of course. Furiosa was a cliche, but the creators (kind of) knew what makes the cliche work. Everything in her appearance pointed to a hero so rugged they have no existence outside of posing with shotguns. She has a distinct look that fits her archetype. Rey’s archetype is more vague. She’s tough, but not in a unique manner. Furiosa was tough in an 80’s action way. She’s inspired by Schwarznegger and Sylvester Stallone – the desexualized human who exists to kill people because it’s fun. Of course, they did tack the whole redemption thing but I already addressed Fury Road‘s failure at feminism.

It’s weird how Western cinema still struggles with female characters. You don’t have to explore anime too much to find diverse casts. Just look to Neon Genesis Evangelion or Attack on Titan. Even shows that rely on sexiness and fanservice, like Freezing, still have a cast that’s as diverse as their design. What’s better is that all of these characters can be developed without hiding their femininity. The characters of Freezing don’t need a tough exterior to fight the Novas.

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Leia isn’t satisfied with just getting rescued – she reacts.

The request for more women who ‘kick ass’ (basically, are violent) is odd. The obsession with power also makes me question whether these people even understand how fiction works. Fiction isn’t a fantasy to escape from reality to. Fiction, like any other art form, brings us closer to reality. It’s supposed to connect to it in some way. It can be anything from exploring pure visual beauty or themes of life and death. A character that is a wish fulfillment is boring.

I wonder how long it will take until this trend will die. Trends come and go, anyway. We now have an obsession with toughness and grimdarkness. We used to have an obsession with escapist brightness. Someday we’ll look at it all and laugh at how stupid we are.

Further reading: Keely’s series of posts on Strong Female Characters

Suicide: An Introduction to the Discussion

Suicide is a messy subject. There are a thousand angles to talk about, so many topics and sides that it’s easy to get lost. Debates can easily lose their direction with both parties talking about different things. Here I list the 3 main discussions around suicide. It’s important to know which of these we’re discussing. Each of these can be split up into more subjects, but I’m sure these are the main ones.

The discussion around the right to die is about the morality of suicide. The main question is whether people are morally obliged to live against their will, or whether they should be free to die. The most fundamental discussion is whether suicide has any moral weight at all. In general, here in the West we don’t view suicide as ‘immoral’, but we also don’t see it as a moral right like the right to live. What exactly the right to die means depends on who you ask. The most common definition is a painless, clean exit by euthanasia/assisted suicide. Most of the discussion about this right revolves around AS. Talking about the right to die says nothing about whether suicide is a good or bad option. It merely asks whether people should be able to do so, and how freely. It’s also connected to the right to self-harm.

  • Philosophical Suicide

This discussion is darker, less popular but it’s all over suicide networks. This is the discussion whether, in general, suicide is benefecial or harmful to the person committing it. It’s a general discussion that’s tied closely to antinatalism and Benatar’s asymmetry argument. The main question is, is non-existence always better than existence? It deals not with specific situations, but the nature of existence versus non-existence. Although a lot of suicidal people may not consider this question consciously, I don’t think you can talk about suicide without addressing them. Now with the more exposure antinatalism has and suicide communities, this discussion is integral to talking about suicide.

  • Personal Suicide

Whenever someone mentions suicide, the discussion will most likely slip into this. Considering the emotional weight of the subject, it’s for it not to. The discussion of personal suicide is about whether a specific person should commit suicide. Although it’s tied to the previous discussion, this one takes into account the person’s situation. Suicide networks generally avoid this part because they’re pro-choice, so they’re not out to convince anyone whether to live or die. This is the main (and possibly only) discussion suicide preventionists engage in. Many of the anti-suicide don’t seem to understand the difference between this debate and the former one, so they mix the two up and the discussion goes void. When talking to a suicidal person, it’s important to notice what they’re talking about, philosophical (general life vs. death) or personal (situations specific to them that make them want to exit). If you can’t distinguish what the person is talking about, you’re not really listening. Then again, if you’re against suicide you’re not listening anyway.

There are a lot of other topics involved and each of these can be split up into more and more specific debates. I don’t see anyone pointing out the existence of these. In truth, it’s the suicide prevention brigade that is doing the most harm. They do not discuss any of these. They handwave suicide, dismissing it as terrible and trying to use force to stop it instead of noticing the complexity beneath it. Only when we’ll acknowledge the variety of topics inside suicide we will be able to talk about it. All the research funds and we still get empty platitudes. So far, if anyone wants to actually talk about suicide, go to suicide communities. Be warned, especially if you work in suicide prevention. It’s harrowing.

Schrodinger’s Rapist or: Stranger Danger 2: Electric Boogalo

There are all kinds of problems with Schrodinger’s Rapist. It’s fairly logical, but it only states obvious things that don’t further our understanding. It’s a nice-sounding buzzword, too. As far as trying to reveal greater truths about the existence of rape culture, it’s a failure. In order to reveal rape culture, you’ll have to reveal something. This is just Stranger Danger with a feminist paintjob.

I’m going to tackle it from various points.

First of all, the language switch. This is the quote from Rebecca Watson with the sexes switched:

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a woman who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of girl—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

Dear women, you are Schrodinger’s False Rape Accuser, or Rapist, or Heartbreaker, or Run-Away-With-Child-er, or Mugger. I’m afraid, too.

What if made this a race issue? Schrodinger’s Black Mugger. Assuming black people commit more crimes (for whatever reason – class or genes or rap cred or because of biased reporting), wouldn’t it be reasonable to think a black person is Schrodinger’s Mugger until he proves otherwise?

Schrodinger’s Rapist is true, but its logic also encourages distrust of women. Even if you confine it to rape, males still get raped. Even if it happens less often, it does. Men being in power doesn’t matter. It’s not going to make the experience of a raped male any better.

Schrodinger’s Rapist is also an extension of Stranger Danger. Stranger Danger is an idea that should’ve been discarded long ago. People remember it when they want to ‘keep their children safe’ (=locked in the house with only a math textbook) and forget about it when complaining about how antisocial everyone is.

Stranger Danger is promotion of asocial behavior. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t respond when they talk to you. They’re all out to get you. What people forget is that everyone is a stranger until you get to know them, including the parents. The baby simply didn’t have any control.

Strangers might hurt you. Asocial behavior is certain to hurt you. Isolation is a common factor when it comes to depression and depression is a common factor when it comes to suicide. Stranger Danger didn’t contribute anything.

Stranger Danger (Schrodinger’s Rapist) also fail because it’s not only strangers who hurt us. These strangers have probably been brainwashed with being asocial, too. It’s often people we are close to who hurt us the most. Rape occurs more often by familiar people rather than strangers.

That makes perfect sense. If you want to rape, it’s easier and safer to do it with someone you know, who trusts you. They will be less resistant at first. You already know how to interact with them and how to coerce them to having sex. You can guilt trip them later. If you’re the dominating person in a social group, they will less likely to accuse you.

The idea can cause more harm than good. It will make women fearful of strangers, but it can make them more lax with familiar people who are most likely to rape them. Where does the circle end though?

It also misses the point. By telling people not to act like rapists, you’re actually telling rapists how better to conceal themselves. A person with little regard to consent doesn’t need to be told how ‘not to act like a rapist’ but why rape is so wrong.

Acting like a rapist and raping are two different things. A person can have an aggressive, loud behavior. He can even care little for personal space and accidentally touch you, but it doesn’t mean he’s a rapist. It means he’s loud, obnoxious and doesn’t care much for personal space. It doesn’t mean he’s inconsiderate (or sadistic) enough so he will harass you.

The only surefire way to tell if someone is a rapist or a sexual harasser is when they actually do it. We should not teach people how not to act like a rapist. We don’t people not-acting like rapists, but we want them to not rape at all.

I also saw a claim that talking to people who are currently in the middle of something – reading a book, on the laptop, browsing Facebook on their phone is rude. I fail to see rudeness in initiating social interaction. It’s rude to keep pushing if a person tells you s/he’s busy, but it’s possible that this person is browsing Facebook because there’s nothing to do on the train.

You will get hurt less by telling a person who approached you to leave you alone then by not being approached to at all. Loneliness is more damaging than we think. The fact some people won’t leave you alone is rude, but is a different story.

(Here’s some Hypocrisy With Natalists moment: You think it’s rude when guys approach you while you’re reading a book, but think it’s fine to force people into existence? That kid you just forced into existence and wants to die suffers way, way more than you.)

If Schrodinger’s Rapist is supposed to make us understand better the fear women have of rape, it fails. It’s Stranger Danger in disguise. It’s actually worse than Stranger Danger. Its main message is that you can’t trust anyone. In some ways it’s true. Anyone can hurt you. The key word is ‘can’. It’s possible they will and it’s possible it won’t. There is one thing that’s guaranteed – loneliness, isolation and fear of communication will hurt you no matter what.