The Grand Lie

Brenda Cooper @ 26-10-2011

Most of my day-to-day life is good to great. A little too much stress, a few challenges with weight and sleeplessness, but I’m living my dreams about writing and I’ve got a job that pays the bills and leaves a bit extra behind for electronics. I’m usually optimistic. At the core, I suppose I still am, even though today, I am also convinced many of our choices are simply awful. Continue reading “The Grand Lie”


The Stanford Prison Experiment: forty years on

Paul Raven @ 11-07-2011

Via MindHacks, the Stanford University alumni magazine has interviewed a bunch of participants in the infamous Prison Experiment for the fortieth anniversary thereof. The ethics of the SPE are quite rightfully questioned, even to this day, but even so it’s a hugely valuable data point in our understanding of human nature and its response to cultural roles.

Phil Zimbardo:

We had arranged for everyone involved—the prisoners, guards and staff—to be interviewed on Friday by other faculty members and graduate students who had not been involved in the study. Christina Maslach, who had just finished her PhD, came down the night before. She’s standing outside the guard quarters and watches the guards line up the prisoners for the 10 o’clock toilet run. The prisoners come out, and the guards put bags over their heads, chain their feet together and make them put their hands on each other’s shoulders, like a chain gang. They’re yelling and cursing at them. Christina starts tearing up. She said, “I can’t look at this.”

I ran after her and we had this argument outside Jordan Hall. She said, “It’s terrible what you’re doing to these boys. How can you see what I saw and not care about the suffering?” But I didn’t see what she saw. And I suddenly began to feel ashamed. This is when I realized I had been transformed by the prison study to become the prison administrator. At that point I said, “You’re right. We’ve got to end the study.”

Christina Maslach:

At first Phil didn’t seem different. I didn’t see any change in him until I actually went down to the basement and saw the prison. I met one guard who seemed nice and sweet and charming, and then I saw him in the yard later and I thought, “Oh my God, what happened here?” I saw the prisoners being marched to go down to the men’s room. I was getting sick to my stomach, physically ill. I said, “I can’t watch this.” But no one else was having the same problem.

Phil came after me and said, “What’s the matter with you?” That’s when I had this feeling like, “I don’t know you. How can you not see this?” It felt like we were standing on two different cliffs across a chasm.

Dave Eshelman:

What came over me was not an accident. It was planned. I set out with a definite plan in mind, to try to force the action, force something to happen, so that the researchers would have something to work with. After all, what could they possibly learn from guys sitting around like it was a country club? So I consciously created this persona. I was in all kinds of drama productions in high school and college. It was something I was very familiar with: to take on another personality before you step out on the stage. I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, “How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, ‘knock it off?'” But the other guards didn’t stop me. They seemed to join in. They were taking my lead. Not a single guard said, “I don’t think we should do this.”

The fact that I ramped up the intimidation and the mental abuse without any real sense as to whether I was hurting anybody— I definitely regret that. But in the long run, no one suffered any lasting damage. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, my first reaction was, this is so familiar to me. I knew exactly what was going on. I could picture myself in the middle of that and watching it spin out of control. When you have little or no supervision as to what you’re doing, and no one steps in and says, “Hey, you can’t do this”—things just keep escalating. You think, how can we top what we did yesterday? How do we do something even more outrageous? I felt a deep sense of familiarity with that whole situation.

Every time I’m reminded of the SPE, I find myself thinking that every politician, general and CEO in the world should be forced to study it in intimate detail.

That thought is immediately followed by the horrible suspicion that they already have.


Un-American behaviour? There’s an app for that

Paul Raven @ 21-12-2010

So last week I flippantly suggested the possibility of a smartphone app for reporting politically or religiously unpalatable behaviour by persons in your immediate vicinity. I often make these worst-case-scenario suggestions as a rhetorical device, a kind of ultimate extrapolation of the sf-nal “if this carries on…” riff, rather than in the sincere belief that they will actually come to pass. Sometimes, however, reality likes to remind me that a cynic is rarely disappointed [via TechDirt]

Citizen Concepts announces the launch of PatriotAppTM, the world’s first iPhone application that empowers citizens to assist government agencies in creating safer, cleaner, and more efficient communities via social networking and mobile technology.  This app was founded on the belief that citizens can provide the most sophisticated and broad network of eyes and ears necessary to prevent terrorism, crime, environmental negligence, or other malicious behavior.

The underlying concept is actually pretty sound (not to mention an inevitable component of a truly networked society) but the presentation is, to me at least, chilling in its jingoistic nationalism*, and a reminder that technology is morally neutral: it’s the hand that swipes the screen which wields the blade.

[ * This is not an anti-American dig, by the way; I’d find a Union Flag-draped equivalent even more unpleasant. It is my hope that systems like this will actually erode nationalism in the long run, but it’s far from a foregone conclusion, sadly. ]


Further corrosive effects of networked handheld computing

Paul Raven @ 17-12-2010

Thanks to recent events, it’s almost banal to talk about how the increasing ubiquity of  mobile devices and internet connectivity empowers the average Josephine on the street, but it’s worth remembering that governments aren’t the only hierarchies feeling the burn: the giants of retail commerce are starting to see the playing field flattened by price comparison apps [via MetaFilter].

Until recently, retailers could reasonably assume that if they just lured shoppers to stores with enticing specials, the customers could be coaxed into buying more profitable stuff, too.

Now, marketers must contend with shoppers who can use their smartphones inside stores to check whether the specials are really so special, and if the rest of the merchandise is reasonably priced.

“The retailer’s advantage has been eroded,” says Greg Girard of consultancy IDC Retail Insights, which recently found that roughly 45% of customers with smartphones had used them to perform due diligence on a store’s prices. “The four walls of the store have become porous.”

Some of the most vulnerable merchants: sellers of branded, big-ticket items like electronics and appliances, which often prompt buyers to comparison shop. Best Buy, the nation’s largest electronics chain, said Tuesday that it may lose market share this year, a downward trend that some analysts are attributing in part to pressure from price comparison apps.

The WSJ points out that not everyone has a smartphone capable of doing this sort of on-the-spot comparison, and that it tends to be applied to “big ticket” tech items rather than everyday bits and bobs like groceries. But if we assume that market penetration of handheld tech and mobile internet continues at its current pace, it’s not a wild leap to assume that price comparison will become a standard function, and possibly even the “killer app” that makes mobile internet appealing to those currently uninterested in its more abstract bleeding-edge “social” uses. If the Western recession continues for a few years, tools that save money will become extremely popular, and as a result we may see market forces narrowing traditionally huge profit margins very quickly indeed.

But hey, it’s not all about man-versus-The-Man: ubicomp also lets you single out your fellow citizens for their transgressions against the public good.

DriveMeCrazy, developed by Shazam co-founder Philip Inghelbrecht, is a voice-activated app that encourages drivers to report bad behavior by reciting the offender’s license plate into a smartphone. The poor sap gets “flagged” and receives a virtual “ticket,” which may not sound like much until you realize all the information — along with date, time and location of the “offense” — is sent to the DMV and insurance companies.

Anyone can write a ticket, even pedestrians and cyclists. No one is safe from being tattled on. Even if you don’t use the program, which went live Wednesday, you can’t opt out of being flagged if someone thinks you’re driving like a schmuck. Inghelbrecht is emphatic in saying he sees no privacy issues with the app and insists the end of road-going anonymity can only improve safety.

Now there’s a delightful conundrum for modern morality: we’d all love to be able to shop that douchebag who cut us up while clocking ninety in the fast lane, but we’d hate to be stung for the two minutes we left the car in a no parking zone so we could pop into the post office on our lunch break. The ability to mutually police each other’s behaviour represents a potentially massive shift in the way we think about society… but it also opens the gates to new forms of non-hierarchical persecution, pettiness and holier-than-thou bullshit.

For example, how about an app for reporting non-Christian (or non-Muslim, non-atheist, non-Liberal or non-Conservative) behaviour to a localised public forum? That’s sure to end well! Or an app for reporting people who throw pets into bins for a giggle, perhaps…

It’s a cliché to point out how much power the networked society offers us as individuals. But it’s less of a cliché, I think, to point out that we’re going to have to learn fast about the responsibility of individual and community power – not to mention a new need for mutual tolerance in a transparent world – if we want to avoid descending into a world even more dog-eat-dog than the one technology offers us an escape from. “Look first to the beam in one’s own eye”, and all that.


Do nothing, get paid: the “Michelangelos of work avoidance”

Paul Raven @ 09-12-2010

Interesting piece at Forbes here about a sort of person we’ve all known – or maybe even been, to a greater or lesser extent* – in our working careers: they are the “Michelangelos of work avoidance” [via BigThink]:

Work-avoidance Michelangelos know how to stay idle while suffering no consequences or, in some cases, even getting promoted. June lasted in her job for more than a decade before finally being laid off, and when her termination came it had little to do with her lack of productivity. The office was automating her job.

One of her skills was spending little time at her desk or anywhere near the department where she supposedly worked, so that her bosses didn’t even think about her much. Out of sight, out of mind, you might say. “If people don’t think of you, they can’t give you work,” Abrahamson says. Other ways to accomplish that: Arrive at different, unpredictable times of day. Work from home. Set up your schedule so that you frequently change locations.

[…]

If your boss does manage to track you down and try to give you some work, you can strategically deploy a kind of good-natured cluelessness. “The principal here is that you try to give work to a person and come to the conclusion that they can’t even understand the instructions,” Abrahamson explains. In such a case most bosses will figure it’s easier to do the work themselves.

If you perform a specialized function within your office, you can distort the time it takes to get it done. Among June’s supposed jobs was keeping time sheets for her department’s staff. No one else knew the system she’d set up or how long keeping the data took. Thus she could make a task that took minutes appear to consume hours of toil. People with computer expertise who work among Luddites can easily exploit this tactic.

Then there’s what Abrahamson calls the anticipatory screw-up. Make it clear to your boss, in the most pleasant way possible, that you will fail at the assignment she wants to give you. “You don’t have to fail,” advises Abrahamson. “You just have to be clear that you’re going to fail.” Most smart bosses will then give the job to someone else.

Not really surprising that as complex a system as corporate capitalism should have provided niches for freeloaders, nor that human beings – with their innate gravitation towards maximum rewards for minimum outlay – should have taken to them so successfully.

And before you think I’m beating on capitalism alone, I’m pretty convinced that this sort of behaviour goes all the way back into the dawn of history; I suspect shamanism may have arisen due to one or two people per tribe being smart enough to see a way to game the social system. (“Sorry, can’t go hunting with you this week, guys; waaaaaay too busy communing with the gods. But they did tell me that y’all might want to try your luck beyond the third hill to the North…”)

[ * Not me, obviously; I was always a model employee wherever I worked before becoming freelance. SRSLY. ]


Next Page »