Brainwashing Is Not A Thing

By Graham Peterson

My colleagues are currently going at it on Scatterplot and Orgtheory about the ethics of the recent Facebook study that nudged people’s emotions without telling them.  I’m with the positivists but I’m afraid they’ve given away the game before they started playing, because that’s what positivists do.  They try to skirt and narrow the ethical debate to research methods, and the side with the more compelling political story wins by default.

Alternatively, I think the outrage about Facebook is silly because I don’t believe Facebook, or any implied cabal of Facebook, Netflix, Amazon.com, the NSA, and the zillions of other people, can control my behavior in any significant way.

Now, I 100% agree with my structuralist friends that people are pretty dumb and rely on information that’s embedded in routines, concatenated in institutional structures.  But I 100% disagree with (some of) them that those embedded behaviors are substantially manipulable from the top down.

Here’s why.

The guy or gal at the top is just about as stupid as the guy at the bottom.  There are differences in intelligence that sort along class and race and other status distinctions.  But these are small, too small to explain the (often times) exponential differences in marginal productivity of people at different levels of hierarchies.  What is clear, though, is that knowledge agglomerates (clusters) on networks, and that nested hierarchies of such networks can produce enormously differential outcomes for the individuals on those networks.

But here’s the clincher: this agglomeration and recombination is an emergent phenomenon, and that implies that no one cluster at the top — no cigar club in Langley Virginia — can influence significant control over the rest of the network.

What’s more, the complexity of the information embedded in these networks grows as a function of innovative recombination — that is, as a function of the technological and social change that defines the modern world.  The problem of managing, directing, and channeling that complexity becomes increasingly difficult.  It’s not that socialism (and CIA-ism and NSA-ism and Facebook-ism) isn’t desirable (though, of course, it isn’t) — it’s not even possible.

100 years ago people were worried about mass culture, because there was a demonstrable natural monopoly in radio and television and movies, and producers had to bleach their product to reach as many people as possible, in order to cover their enormous costs.  Many communications industries also benefitted from government-enforced monopoly rights.

Alas, technology has reliably eroded the cost of these network/communication technologies, and competition has increased.  Content has gotten richer and more differentiated.

And now people tune in for several hours a day to a television that they talk back to, for independently produced content that is tailored specifically to their tastes, by people they care about, and with whom they have long run, community- and solidarity-building relationships.  It is a sociological wet dream, and it’s being read off, by people whose politics are stuck in the post-WWII-progressivism, as a totalitarian nightmare of centrally directed propaganda.

The situation couldn’t be more the opposite, and the reaction from people in sociology, who aren’t particularly fond of paradoxes of hegemony and all that, ought to be much stronger than: “but we can run some really cool experiments with Facebook data.”

The reaction ought to be a serious challenge to the theoretical orthodoxy of old-left structuralism in sociology.  That the world is a structural place, in no definite sense of the theory implies the politics that are common to the sociology department, and it’s time to stop responding to the indictment of social scientific and capitalistic exploitation with the positivism tip-toe.

Update: Noah Grand, who knows much more about news media, culture, and sociology than me, has a fantastic post on these matters at his blog.

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