Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Readings on cognitive warfare at the societal level — #11: Molly McKew on “How Twitter Bots and Trump Fans Made #ReleaseTheMemo Go Viral” (Feb 2018)

This is the fifth article by Molly McKew I’ve included in this series. Her article’s sub-title sums it up: “Russian bots and their American allies gamed social media to put a flawed intelligence document atop the political agenda. That should alarm us.”

The article focuses on “a targeted, 11-day information operation that was amplified by computational propaganda techniques and aimed to change both public perceptions and the behavior of American lawmakers.” That gripping term “computational propaganda” refers to “the use of information and communication technologies to manipulate perceptions, affect cognition, and influence behavior”. Or, as an interviewee put it, “Computational propaganda serves to distort the political process and amplify fringe views in ways that no previous communication technology could.”

The article documents, in surprising detail, how the hashtag campaign #ReleaseTheMemo started small on Twitter, gained momentum, and became huge — increasingly amplified by automated bots and semi-automated cyborgs as well as by real people, including targeted pro-Trump lawmakers and media commentators. McKew discerns from her data that “The frenzy of activity spurred lawmakers and the White House to release the Nunes memo” — which, I’d add, is evidently what they aimed to do all along.

Posing the question “What does it all mean?”, McKew answers as follows:
“A year after it should have become an indisputable fact that Russia launched a sophisticated, lucky, daring, aggressive campaign against the American public, we’re as exposed and vulnerable as we ever were—if not more so, because now so many tools we might have sharpened to aid us in this fight seem blunted and discarded by the very people who should be honing their edge. There is no leadership. No one is building awareness of how these automated influence campaigns are being used against us. …
“A recent analysis from DFRLab mapped out how modern Russian propaganda is highly effective because so many diverse messaging elements are so highly integrated. Far-right elements in the United States have learned to emulate this strategy, and have used it effectively with their own computational propaganda tactics — as demonstrated by the “Twitter rooms” and documented alt-right bot-nets pushing a pro-Trump narrative. …
“So what are the lessons of #releasethememo? Regardless of how much of the campaign was American and how much was Russian, it’s clear there was a massive effort to game social media and put the Nunes memo squarely on the national agenda — and it worked to an astonishing degree. The bottom line is that the goals of the two overlapped, so the origin — human, machine or otherwise — doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that someone is trying to manipulate us, tech companies are proving hopelessly unable or unwilling to police the bad actors manipulating their platforms, and politicians are either clueless about what to do about computational propaganda or—in the case of #releasethememo — are using it to achieve their goals. Americans are on their own.”
Yikes! As I’ve noted before, back in the Cold War decades and before, we had to be wary of Soviets trying to be “in cahoots” with elements of the American Left — and vice-versa. Now it’s the reverse: we must be wary of Russians acting “in cahoots” with elements of the American Right — and vice-versa.

To read in full, go here:


Monday, February 5, 2018

TIMN's “forms” vs. their “fields” and “logics” (Part 2 of maybe 4) — an illuminating analysis of “forms” by literary theorist Caroline Elizabeth Levine

Ordinarily, to follow up Part 1, I might have to turn next to Plato and Aristotle as proponents of thinking in terms of “forms”. Fortunately, I need do nothing so philosophical. For a literary and cultural theorist has recently written a book that speaks to my view of TIMN’s reliance on “forms”. It’s by Cornell professor Caroline Elizabeth Levine. And just look at the title — Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015). Thus it’s not only about “forms”, but also touches on two of TIMN’s four forms: hierarchies (institutions) and networks. Still more fortunate for me, her introductory chapter (I’ve not seen the rest of her book yet) is online here:
Levine’s marvelous book is the only writing I’ve found so far that focuses on “forms” much as I do. So I’m going to excerpt numerous quotes from her Introduction that resonate with my usage and draw validation from that for TIMN. (I apologize in advance for the wordiness and repetitiveness of my write-up, but that’s become a side-effect of how I get things done these days.)

• Levine starts by noting that in past usages ““form” always indicates an arrangement of elements — an ordering, patterning, or shaping”. She makes her own definition deliberately broader: “Form … will mean all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference.” (p. 3)

Likewise, TIMN’s forms amount to different arrangements, patterns, shapes, configurations, ordering principles, and/or patterns that get repeated. We coincide on that, even though I don’t use all those terms. But our efforts differ in that TIMN is based on four forms, whereas her approach finds all sorts of forms everywhere.

• Levine clarifies that it is “the work of form to make order.” Which means that “forms are the stuff of politics.” And this means that “forms”, being inherently if not explicitly political, work by “imposing order on space” and by “organizing time” — say, by way of imposing boundaries and hierarchies, and by setting terms and age-requirements. To such an extent, she says, that “there is no politics without form.” (p. 3)

Likewise, TIMN’s four forms represent different approaches to order, including different ways of structuring space and time (as noted here). Levine deems all forms of order more political than I have (or would); but in a broad sense all four TIMN forms, their uses and combinations, are political, for they are subject to politics and become objects of politics.

• Levine collects together and makes explicit five long-standing literary and cultural ideas about “how forms work”. (1) They “constrain”, control, and contain. (2) They “differ” in how they impose order. (3) Many “overlap and intersect” — “sometimes powerfully reinforcing one another”. (4) They are portable, for they can “travel … across culture and time periods”. (5) They “do political work in particular historical contexts”, for “they shape what it is possible to think, say, and do in a given context.” Furthermore, “None of these ideas about form are themselves new, but putting them together will bring us to a new theory of form.” (pp. 4-6)

Levine’s five points apply well to TIMN’s four forms (tribes, institutions, markets, networks). In the order she listed, (1) They all serve to constrain and contain what people do. (2) They all differ in how they do so. (3) They often overlap and interact — in many societies, the tribal form in particular tends to penetrate the other forms. (4) They get applied in societies around the world. And (5) they shape each society’s history throughout the course of its evolution. A point I’d add that is missing from her list is that the four TIMN forms also differ as to the kinds of incentives and opportunities they provide to people.

• Levine’s next step is to “use affordances to think about form” — a concept whose usage is new to me. If I understand it correctly, the previous five points are generalities that apply across all forms, whereas affordances are specifics that attend a particular form. In her words, “affordances” refers to “both the specificity and the generality of forms — both the particular constraints and possibilities that different forms afford”. Particular forms thus differ as to the “constraints and possibilities” they carry — the concept of “affordances” helps express that “Each form can only do so much.” (p. 6) In other words, “each form lays claim to different affordances”; and as forms get moved from situation to situation, “forms bring their limited range of affordances with them.” (p. 7) What Levine wants to do with this concept is assure a discussion of power — for if forms “are the stuff of politics, then attending to the affordances of form opens up a generalizable understanding of political power.” For example, she says, “A panoptic arrangement of space, wherever it takes shape, will always afford a certain kind of disciplinary power; a hierarchy will always afford inequality.” (p. 7)

I don’t cotton yet to Levine’s concept of “affordances”, and I think the foregoing is unclear. Her individual chapters on selected forms — Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network — may make matters clear, but I’ve not read them yet. Even so, the points she makes with “affordances” are much like points I make about TIMN’s four forms, instead using terms like “attributes” or “uses” or “implications” (while, I’ve learned, others use “potentials” or “advantages”). For example, take a look at Table 1 from an old blog post (here) comparing attributes of each TIMN form. If those attributes correspond more or less to affordances — it looks to me they do — then once again Levine’s and my separate usages of “forms” are running parallel, often overlapping.

• Levine’s approach leads her to stress that forms and their affordances not only organize but also disorganize the world. This occurs because forms “often fail to impose their order when they run up against other forms that disrupt their logic and frustrate their organizing ends” — such as when “particular historical situations” make “forms overlap and collide”, creating contradictions (pp. 7-8). Her concept of affordances thus helps illuminate the capabilities and limitations of forms as organizing principles operating “in contexts where other political and aesthetic forms also are operating.” In sum, she says, “Form emerges from this perspective as transhistorical, portable, and abstract, on the one hand, and material, situated, and political, on the other.” (pp. 10-11)

At the same time, Levine is careful not to overemphasize contradictions that may arise among various forms and their affordances. Instead, she muses that her academic “field has been so concerned with breaking forms apart that we have neglected to analyze the major work that forms do in our world.” Since societies cannot be “altogether free of organizing principles”, she advises analysts in her field to move away from placing “too strong an emphasis on forms’ dissolution”, because doing so “has prevented us from attending to the complex ways that power operates in a world dense with functioning forms.” (p. 9)

Much the same applies to TIMN’s four forms. Their purpose is to organize, and TIMN is about how they may be progressively combined in complementary ways to improve the performance of evermore complex societies. Yes, their different organizing principles do tend to contradict one another — e.g., tribes vs. institutions, or hierarchies vs. networks. So the need is to make the forms function together as complementary contradictions. And identify why some societies prove better at doing so than others.

• Against this background, Levine identifies her book’s two major goals: The first is “to show that forms are everywhere structuring and patterning experience, and that this carries serious implications for understanding political communities.” Theoretically, she says, “political forms impose their order on our lives, putting us in our places.” But in actuality, we live in complex environments “composed of multiple and conflicting modes of organization” — with myriad forms “competing and colliding and rerouting one another.” Thus she is out to “make the case that no form, however seemingly powerful, causes, dominates, or organizes all others.” (p. 16)

This too is consistent with TIMN. It focuses only on the four cardinal four forms serving to organize our lives, but people often do use them to try to compete, collide, and reroute others — particularly where the tribal form and its clannish “affordances” (?) remain so pervasive they corrupt the later forms. In any case, in those societies where TIMN forces progress well, the story of societal evolution is about the successful combination of forms, not domination by any single form. One form or another may seem most prominent at times, but a society that gives way to domination or paramountcy by a single TIMN form, or worse yet to its hegemony, is doing something wrong. This amounts to a major parallel between TIMN and Levine’s analysis, in that it is best that “no form, however seemingly powerful, causes, dominates, or organizes all others.” Theorists elsewhere err who have claimed that the TIMN progression from monoform (T-only) through quadriform (T+I+M+N) societies means a sequential domination by the latest form added — a debate for discussion another time.

• Her book’s second major goal is more political and strategic: “to think about the ways that, together, the multiple forms of the world come into conflict and disorganize experience in ways that call for unconventional political strategies.” She objects to “critics and theorists” on the Left who assume that “powerful social institutions” and “coherent ideologies” rule our experiences. Instead, her book stresses the significance of “social disorganization, exploring the many ways in which multiple forms of order, sometimes the results of the same powerful ideological formation, may unsettle one another.” She seeks to clarify “how competing forms can sometimes produce pain and injustice as troubling as any consolidation of power.” (p. 17)

In arguing for her view that we live in societies where “no single form dominates or organizes all of the others,” she goes against “one of the deepest political convictions in the field: that ultimately, it is deep structural forces such as capitalism, nationalism, and racism that are the truly powerful shapers of our lives.” She agrees that “our lives are certainly organized by powerful structuring principles.” But she finds that “an exclusive focus on ultimate causality has not necessarily benefited leftist politics.” Instead, “It has distracted us from thinking strategically about how best to deploy multiple forms for political ends.” (p. 17)

Thus Levine’s work is about both theory and practice, for she aims to show that a multi-form approach to “formalism” has strategic implications for political activism by the Left. Contrary to conventional ideological activists who think and strategize in terms of large central concepts and forces, e.g., capitalism and socialism, she advises activists to “shift attention away from deep causes to a recognition of the many different shapes and patterns that constitute political, cultural, and social experience” — including “a careful, nuanced understanding of the many different and often disconnected arrangements that govern social experience.” In Levine’s view, then,
“ … the primary goal of this formalism is radical social change. All politics, including revolutionary political action, will succeed only if it is canny about deploying multiple forms. … Which forms do we wish to see governing social life, then, and which forms of protest or resistance actually succeed at dismantling unjust, entrenched arrangements?” (pp. 17-18)
Here again TIMN has lots in common with what Levine says. I am interested in TIMN primarily as theory. Yet it has implications for strategy, much like Levine’s, for it too implies “deploying multiple forms”, rectifying or reforming the improper application of established forms, and not letting any single form dominate.

I have not articulated TIMN to be explicitly about values like “dismantling unjust, entrenched arrangements” (her words). But TIMN could easily be moved in value-laden directions. For its system dynamics favor respecting the limits of each form (i.e., what it can and cannot do best), and achieving proper balances among them (e.g., so that tribalized forces are kept from corrupting and distorting the performance of a society’s institutional and market systems). Each TIMN form is loaded with value orientations; it’s up to people how they get enacted, and this has a lot to do with their notions of limits and balances.

Unlike Levine, I don’t urge that TIMN should inform leftists about new ways to pursue radical social change. But because of its +N component, TIMN is inherently a harbinger of radical social change in the coming decades. And with further articulation, TIMN could be turned into a manifesto for radical social change. It needn’t be a leftist or rightist manifesto, but it would have to be a quadriformist manifesto — one very much about “Which forms do we wish to see governing social life” (as she puts it).

As I look ahead with TIMN in mind, it seems more important to try to be a quadriformist than a leftist or rightist. Today’s aging triformist societies are fraught with splits between leftist progressives and rightist conservatives who endlessly argue over whether government (+I) or market (+M) solutions should prevail — they’re stuck in triformist mindsets. Yet, tomorrow’s new quadriform societies will be transformed and remodeled by the rise of +N, completely altering public policy dialoge. These societies will surely have their own Lefts and Rights, but for now I think it’s more important to try to figure out what will be the essence of this next form than claim to be a leftist or rightist proponent of it. In my view, it will probably, hopefully, be a commons sector (as I’ve said in other posts).

• While Levine sees an unlimited variety of forms at work, she identifies four in particular as pervasive “political structures”: namely, bounded wholes, temporal rhythms, hierarchies, and networks. Here she gives more detail regarding what she means by each (before providing a separate chapter on each):
“ … bounded wholes, from domestic walls to national boundaries; temporal rhythms, from the repetitions of industrial labor to the enduring patterns of institutions over time; powerful hierarchies, including gender, race, class, and bureaucracy; and networks that link people and objects, including multinational trade, terrorism, and transportation.” (p. 21)
TIMN is based on four cardinal forms of organization: tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and information-age networks. So I’m pleased that two of her four (hierarchies and networks) roughly correspond to two of TIMN’s four forms — hierarchical institutions and information-age networks. But I can tell from the above passage that I’ll find significant discrepancies between her meanings and mine if/when I read her chapters.

For one matter, TIMN’s forms are sweepingly evolutionary in nature — her forms not so much, at least not from what I read in her Introduction. Moreover, reflecting historical analysis, TIMN prescribes a preferred progression in the addition and combination of its cardinal forms — from T-only, to T+I, to T+I+M, and in the decades ahead, to T+I+M+N societies. Her view is not like this, though it may well favor some forms over others. Also, I’m pretty sure TIMN’s forms are much more bounded than her four. Yet, as I said above, I’m pleased at the rough correspondence between the forms we each study — another plus for TIMN, in my view.

• Levine’s chief strategic insight is that “what we are facing is not a single hegemonic system or dominant ideology but many forms, all trying to organize us at once”. Thus she raises a concern that resistance to excesses associated with one form “may not emancipate us” but instead reinforce another form, undesirably. In light of this, achieving social change may be more difficult “in a world of overlapping forms” than theorists and activists have realized. What she asks her readers to wonder is, “Can we set one form against another or introduce a new form that would reroute a racial hierarchy or disturb exclusionary boundaries?” To find an answer, “we need a fine-grained formalist reading practice to address the extraordinary density of forms that is a fact of our most ordinary daily experience.” (p. 22)

Levine’s insightful points already embedded in TIMN. It too is concerned with system dynamics and strategies for systemic change, particularly in advanced societies where TIMN’s four forms vie for application. Where our approaches may differ is that TIMN is about the presence and performance of four cardinal forms, whereas she finds an “extraordinary density of forms” of many kinds spread throughout society. Despite this difference, her points that people may try to “set one form against another or introduce a new form” resonate with what I’ve written about TIMN — for example where I’ve noted how some politicians push excessively for a government (+I) or a market (+M) solution to a policy problem. By TIMN standards, Ayn-Randian libertarians and anarcho-capitalists in particular uphold unwarranted beliefs in using +M solutions. Elsewhere on the political spectrum, many leftists are so against capitalism they dismiss the necessity for an advanced society to include a proper +M/market system. Neither side seems to understand the limits of their vaunted form and the need for a balance among the four forms.

• Levine’s final paragraph in her Introduction reiterates her goal to “understand the relations among forms — forms aesthetic and social, spatial and temporal, ancient and modern, major and minor, like and unlike, punitive and narrative, material and metrical.” More to the point, she wants to “persuade those who are interested in politics to become formalists”. And she wants this for strategic as well as theoretical purposes — “so that we can begin to intervene in the conflicting formal logics that turn out to organize and disorganize our lives, constantly producing not only painful dispossessions but also surprising opportunities.” (p. 23)

Likewise, I would wish to persuade others to become TIMNistas. However, I would not call myself a “formalist”, nor say that TIMN expresses “formal logics” — that sounds awkward to me, not quite apt, too borrowed from literary studies. Maybe there’s some truth to it, but for now I’d prefer something like “form-oriented” or form-based”. Nonetheless, language aside, her closing remarks resonate with me because it would be good if TIMN were developed to the point where it could be used to help guide the future transformations it implies — in her words. “to intervene in the conflicting formal logics that turn out to organize and disorganize our lives, constantly producing not only painful dispossessions but also surprising opportunities.”

CODA: For trying to understand the meaning and implications of “forms,” Levine’s is an excellent book, better than anything else I’ve come across. I see at Amazon that it received lots of praise, awards too, from academics right after its publication. What I don’t see is whether it received much recognition from leftist social theorists and activists who strategize about social change. My guess is no, but I’d like to know for sure, either way, and why. I’d suggest they (especially pro-commons P2P theorists) should give her approach more attention, as should future-oriented theorists and activists on the Right. I’d also suggest that Darwinian theorists take a look as well (see Part 1 of this multi-part post). From what I’ve read about “strategic action fields” and “institutional logics”, their theorists might benefit as well (see my discussion in Parts 3 and maybe 4, next).

Friday, February 2, 2018

TIMN's “forms” vs. their “fields” and “logics” (Part 1 of maybe 4) — TIMN and Darwin’s reliance on”forms”

When I first started thinking about TIMN in the late 1980s, I settled on “forms of organization” as its central concept —over time, becoming just “forms”. While no one has criticized me for using “forms”, I have noticed, and others have pointed out, that social theorists have lately produced prominent alternative concepts that are much preferred in academia. The ones that have caught my eye are “strategic action fields” (à la Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam) and “institutional logics” (à la Patricia Thornton and William Ocasio), and to a lesser extent “stacks” (à la Benjamin Bratton).

Forms, fields, logics — not to mention concepts I’ve already discussed elsewhere: Alan Page Fiske’s “relational models” and Kojin Karatani’s “modes of exchange” — comprise quite a set of alternatives. I’m sticking with “forms”, and this series of posts addresses why. The main reason why is that my usage of “forms” seems on track to do everything that other theorists would rather do with “fields” and “logics”.

So let’s start with some clarifications about “forms”, then move in subsequent posts to “fields” and “logics” in order to illuminate conceptual overlaps and differences.

My clarifications about “forms” in TIMN

While my focus started out being about “forms of organization”, I’ve tried to clarify that each of the four TIMN forms — tribes, (hierarchical) institutions, markets, and networks — is about much more than organization in a narrow sense. Here’s the longest clarification I’ve written so far:
“The development of each form has a long history. Early versions of all four were present in ancient times. But as deliberate, formal systems with philosophical portent, each has gained strength at a different rate and matured in a different epoch over the past 10,000 years. Tribes developed first (in the Neolithic era), hierarchical institutions next (notably, with the Roman Empire and then the absolutist states of the 16th century), and competitive markets later (as in England and the United States in the 18th century). Now, collaborative networks are on the rise as the next great form. Its cutting edge currently lies among activist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) associated with civil society. …
“Each of the four forms, writ large, embodies a distinctive set of structures, processes, beliefs, and dynamics about how society should be organized — about who gets to achieve what, why, and how. Each involves different codes and standards about how people should treat each other. Each enables people to do something — to address some social problem — better than they could by using another form. Each attracts and energizes different kinds of actors and adherents. Each has different ideational and material bases. Each has both bright and dark sides, both strengths and weaknesses. And each can be gotten “right” or “wrong” in various ways, depending on circumstances.
“Once a form is subscribed to by many actors, it becomes more than a mere form: It develops into a realm, even a system, of thought and behavior. Indeed, the rise of each form spells an ideational and structural revolution. Each is a generator of order, because each defines a set of interactions (or, transactions) that are attractive, powerful, and useful enough to create a distinct realm of activity, or at least its core. Each becomes the basis for a governance system that is self-regulating and, ultimately, self-limiting. And each tends to foster a different kind of worldview, for each orients people differently toward social space, time, and action. What is deemed rational — how a “rational actor” should behave — is different for each form; no single “utility function” suits them all.
“Each form becomes associated with high ideals as well as new capabilities. Yet, all the forms are ethically neutral — as neutral as technologies — in that they have both bright and dark sides and can be used for good or ill. The tribal form, which should foster communal solidarity and mutual caring, may also breed a narrow, bitter clannishness that can justify anything from nepotism to murder in order to shield and strengthen a clan and its leaders. The hierarchical institutional form, which should lead to professional rule and regulation, may also be used to uphold corrupt, arbitrary dictators. The market form, which should bring free, fair, open exchanges, may also be distorted and rigged to allow unbridled piracy, speculation, and profiteering. And the network form, which can empower civil society actors to serve public interests, may also be used to strengthen “uncivil society” — say, by enabling terrorist groups and crime syndicates. So, it is not just the bright sides of each form that foster new values and actors; their dark sides may do so as well.” (Source)
That still looks pretty good to me.

I forget why I first chose “forms of organization” instead of “types” or “kinds” or “modes”. Maybe I sensed it was a potentially grander concept. Yet my choice has proven fortuitous, since the ensuing reduction to “forms” enabled me to write the preceding. I could not have done so as sensibly if I’d used “types” or “kinds” or even “modes”. The best alternative for TIMN might be “formations” — a word favored, along with “forms”, by Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s usage of “forms”

I take heart from learning that Charles Darwin treats the biological evolution of living “forms” and “formations” as central concepts in his theory of evolution. This is particularly evident in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), where Darwinian principles of inheritance, variability, adaptation, and selection may produce a “new and modified form”, and “parent forms”, and “elaborately constructed forms”, and “less-improved forms”, and “endless forms” — as attested in the following three quotes (my underlining):
“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.” (p. 5)
“Looking not to any one time, but to all time, if my theory be true, numberless intermediate varieties, linking most closely all the species of the same group together, must assuredly have existed; but the very process of natural selection constantly tends, as has been so often remarked, to exterminate the parent forms and the intermediate links. Consequently evidence of their former existence could be found only amongst fossil remains[.]” (p. 179)
The third of these quotes is from the book’s closing paragraph, with its famous final sentence. I’m quoting it in its entirety, for it pretty much summarizes Darwin’s theory of evolution, and makes reference to “forms” up front as well as in that famous final sentence:
“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (pp. 426–427)
So “forms” is a key concept for Darwin. He also often refers to “formations”, “varieties”, and “species”. But it’s not clear to me what the differences are. He uses these terms in ways that are not exactly distinguished from each other — they often seem interchangeable. Yet “forms” appears to be the highest broadest concept, encompassing “species” and “varieties”.

Darwinian treatments of “forms”

Oddly, I’ve not yet found a full discussion by a Darwinian about the meaning of “forms” and its relation to other concepts. The closest I’ve come is Sean Carroll’s article on “The Origins of Forms” (2005). It implies that “forms” is a grand concept, and his early passages indicate that “forms” has to do with “shape” and “patterning”, also with “plans” and “architectures”, as well as “structures” and “contrivances”. The strongest usage is in the following passages near the end of his article:
“ … Evo-devo shows how complex forms and structures evolve, not only in ways that lead from one species to the next, but also in ways, such as the making of body plans, that have shaped the major differences in the higher taxonomic ranks.
“The major tenet of the modern evolutionary synthesis is that the evolution of forms above the species level (“macroevolution”) can be extrapolated from processes operating at the level of populations, within species (“microevolution”).”
Even so, Carroll’s is not the full conceptual discussion I’m looking for (though maybe there’s more in his book Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo, 2005). I’m told I should look into the writing of D'Arcy Thompson, John Tyler Bonner, and Ernst Mayr, among others. But that looks to be a daunting task at this point. I did peruse Thompson’s lauded On Growth and Form (1917), only to find it relies far more on physical forces (e.g., gravity) than on biological evolution to explain why living entities take the shapes (forms) they do — not very relevant or helpful to my cause. My halting efforts to find extended discussions in writings by Bonner and/or Mayr have not proven fruitful, so far. (I’m open to suggestions!?)

What I gather, in a general sense, is that Darwinians, like Darwin himself, treat “forms” in ways that I deem consistent with TIMN. They distinguish among early and later, primitive and modern, lower and higher, simple and complex kinds of forms. So does TIMN. They seek to explain transformations of forms in terms of processes that are common to, and operate across, all living forms — e.g., differentiation. So does TIMN. In particular, they emphasize Darwin’s seminal theoretical principles, notably variation, adaptation, and selection. TIMN could be written up that way, showing parallels between biological and social evolution.

Indeed, I offered some preliminary remarks to that effect in an old blog post (here). With Darwin and TIMN in mind, I’ve proposed at some length that “Imperfect adaptation to a form may be optimal for continued evolution”, and that “Successful combination depends on the development of regulatory interfaces”. I’ve also indicated that TIMN can easily accommodate Darwinian ideas about an “iron law of multilevel selection” (à la David Sloan Wilson) and about “a massive diversification of species of organizations” (à la Daniel Dennett and Deb Roy).

Meanwhile, the one theorist I’ve found who deliberately examines Darwin’s usage of “forms” is a literary theorist: Ian Duncan, specifically his article “Aesthetics and Form in Charles Darwin’s Writings” (2017). According to how he reads the Origin of Species book, “Darwin’s theory emerges as a theory of form”. He also says that “Crucially for Darwin, the diversity of living forms will be the ineluctable condition for apprehending nature as “one great whole.””

That helps; it’s further confirmation of how central and systematic the concept of “forms” is for Darwin. But it still doesn’t fully tell me what “forms” means, so that I may draw inferences for TIMN. For my Part 2 post, however, I’ve found another literary theorist who offers an incisive detailed analysis of “forms”, without ever mentioning Darwin.


Sean B. Carroll, “The Origins of Form,” Natural History, September 2005, pp. 58-63, online at http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/features/061488 /the-origins-of-form

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).

Charles Darwin — WikiQuote, online at https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

Ian Duncan, “Aesthetics and Form in Charles Darwin’s Writings,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature (2017), online at http://literature.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.001.0001/acrefore-9780190201098-e-45?print

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form (1917), online at https://books.google.com/books?id=_9NMM9l5FMUC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Brief blurts about tribes and tribalism in America — Steven Pinker via Thomas Edsall

Thomas Edsall’s article on “Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar?”(Jan 2018) observes that “If postmodernism does not account for Trump’s bludgeoning of the truth, what does? A field that provides insight into the Trump phenomenon is evolutionary theory.”

Edsall then quotes from Steven Pinker:
"Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard and author of the forthcoming book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” emailed me his thoughts:
“The answer lies in raw tribalism: when someone is perceived as a champion of one’s coalition, all is forgiven. The same is true for opinions: a particular issue can become a sacred value, shibboleth, or affirmation of allegiance to one’s team, and its content no longer matters. This is part of a growing realization in political psychology that tribalism has been underestimated in our understanding of politics, and ideological coherence and political and scientific literacy overestimated.”
“Once tribalism becomes embedded in the political system, Pinker wrote,
“the full ingenuity of human cognition is recruited to valorize the champion and shore up the sacred beliefs. You can always dismiss criticism as being motivated by the bias of one’s enemies. Our cognitive and linguistic faculties are endlessly creative — that’s what makes our species so smart — and that creativity can be always deployed to reframe issues in congenial or invidious terms.”
Edsall then goes on to say:
“If tribalism has begun to supplant traditional partisanship, their argument suggests, lying in politics will metastasize as traditional constraints continue to fall by the wayside."


Friday, January 26, 2018

Readings on tribes and tribalism — #26: Lawrence Rosen’s “A Liberal Defense of Tribalism” (Jan 2018)

Here’s an unusual article that disparages the ruckus about reversions to tribalism in America. Princeton anthropology professor Lawrence Rosen’s “A Liberal Defense of Tribalism: There’s nothing wrong with political tribes that can’t be fixed by what’s right with them” (Jan 2018) argues that too many commentators — he cites Thomas Friedman, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, and Barack Obama — “misunderstand the nature of tribes.” Rosen’s point is that “rather than simply being the cause of our political problems, tribalism can also contribute to the solution.”

Good point to make in a major journal. But I am ambivalent about his analysis. On the one hand, I wish I could publish an article like this, for its key point is one I keep trying to make: the tribal form has both bright and dark sides — tribalism can bind as well as splinter, it can be centripetal as well as centrifugal. On the other hand, the more I look at Rosen’s argument, the more I think it is inaccurate and unbalanced. I’ll clarify this in my bulleted closing remarks.

When I started this series of readings, tribalism and other T-words were mostly used as mere synonyms for polarization, divisiveness, etc. By now, the usage of T-words has become much more systematic. Various writers I’ve included in this series — notably David Brooks, Jonathan Haidt, and Andrew Sullivan, not to mention others — clearly realize that, despite the concern about Americans reverting to the tribal form, it is a distinct form of organization that has both bright and dark sides, and that its bright sides (family, community, etc.) are essential for the proper functioning of society. That’s a fundament of TIMN theory — I’ve said so repeatedly, even as I (and they) have worried and warned about malign reversions to the tribal form.

Rosen knows that the tribal form has a mixed nature — it’s the basis of his argument — but he’s intent on registering just his disapproval of the negative analyses of political tribalism in America. He makes that clear up front:
“American politics, we are told incessantly, has become “tribal.” It is not meant as a compliment. References to tribalism are intended to capture how Western, and especially American, political life has regressed in recent years into a more primitive state, one characterized by polarization, insularity, vengefulness, and lack of compromise. …
“As popular rhetoric, the tribalism metaphor, given its sheer pervasiveness, must be judged a success. But as an attempt to illuminate our present moment, it represents the worst kind of failure. It draws its force from a legitimate scientific insight that it distorts beyond recognition.”
He briefly agrees that American politics has “become more tribal”, as political groups are “increasingly based on single aspects of common identity with unambiguous boundaries.” He also acknowledges “the partisan tribes of our present politics” and their “pugnaciousness.” Yet he objects that too many commentators view tribes “as primitive, violent, and insular”, as atavistic, primordial, and pre-modern (his words, not mine), and thus as regressive — “a reversion to some natural and ancestral mode of thinking”.

According to Rosen, recent “armchair anthropological analysis”, instead of treating the tribal form scientifically, has turned tribalism into a metaphor, a caricature fraught with pejorative fatalistic implications. And this, he says, is making our politics exceedingly “exclusionary” and “more adversarial than necessary”. It is motivating people to create “hardened barriers” and “seal themselves off from one another.” In other words,
“ … Use of the word “tribe” in reference to political groups may seem an innocuous surrogate for truculence and exclusivity. But it is ultimately distorting. When we call our politics “tribal,” we project a sense of confinement and premonitory violence and indulge an image of humankind as instinctively hostile to outsiders.”
Scattered throughout his article, Rosen identifies what is often positive about the behavior of “actual tribes”. Drawing on instances from American and Middle East history, he shows that traditional tribes can be adaptable, not so rigid as commentators presume. Many tribes have “porous boundaries” and “frequently adopt outsiders”; some even intermarry. They value “reciprocity” and “mutual obligation”, including toward outsiders. They are not authoritarian; they prefer to disperse power, at times by appointing “multiple chiefs” for different tasks and by convening “tribal councils”. Indeed, many tribes have developed methods we’d be wise to emulate for “easing our ever-increasing social tensions”. These methods include avoiding “claims of moral superiority”, “reaching across boundary lines,” “fashioning crosscutting ties that mollify entrenched positions”, and creating “interlocking associations”. All this, says Rosen, can “serve as a bulwark against the factionalism of family, clan, and other subdivisions.”

As practical implications of his view, Rosen specifies a few “tribal-inspired political and social reforms Americans should consider.” State governments should “consider an increase in the number of seats in their legislatures.” They should “alleviate the incentives to pursue gerrymandering”. They should “consider increasing the proportion of votes needed to pass certain kinds of laws”.

For his closing exhortation, Rosen reiterates that
“Now would be a good time to embrace such a vision and to abandon our image of tribal politics as something we would choose to eradicate if we weren’t condemned to it by fate. Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with tribalism that can’t be fixed by what is right with it.”
Again, I say, many good points. Rosen’s article is a stimulating addition to the mix — a partial corrective to unbalanced claims of excessive tribalism. But from my TIMN perspective, Rosen has written up an overreaction that is itself unbalanced, even misleading.

• It’s a fact that American politics has turned more tribal, malignantly so. He acknowledges this, but only fleetingly, presumably so he can focus on his main theme: how commentators have misunderstood tribalism, viewing it only darkly. Well, not so fast.

• As I’ve observed before, Americans don’t cotton to the T-words (tribe, tribal, tribalism). As American politics became more partisan, divisive, and polarized, starting a decade or two ago, the T-words were used mostly as synonyms for those other words. Yet, in the past few years more commentators have begun using the T-words in a systematic way, recognizing the distinctive nature of the tribal form. This constitutes an advance in public policy dialogue.

• Yes, many commentators have dwelled only on the dark sides, and yes the T-words are often deployed pejoratively. Yet our most analytical commentators do not fit Rosen’s harsh portrayal. The few mentioned up front — Brooks, Haidt, Sullivan — have indeed criticized the increasing tribalization of America and its malign effects. Yet they have also noted lots of ways in which the tribal form has beneficial bright sides. They are having difficulty identifying how to diminish the dark sides and reinvigorate the bright sides, but they’re not unaware.

• Rosen decries commentary about American politics reverting to tribalism, making the tribal form look bad. But from an evolutionary perspective, a reversion is in fact occurring — in TIMN terms, it’s from politicians who long believed in the institutional form and behaved in civil pro-institutional ways, to politicians who increasingly forsake institutional ways and prefer to act in tribalized ways. Thus it isn’t just commentators who’ve opted for tribal explanations; it’s our politicians as well, starting years before the commentators. Rosen’s focus on commentators neglects this.

• I’d add that what’s making tribalism so problematic isn’t only the reversion noted above, but also a displacement —a second reversion? — that’s gone largely unnoted. It’s a decades-long displacement of the bright sides of the tribal form by its dark sides. All the remedies Rosen calls for are from the bright sides of the tribal form; he’s right about trying to emulate them. What should be noticed, and he doesn’t, is that all the ones he mentions — e.g., avoiding claims of moral superiority, reaching across boundary lines, fashioning crosscutting ties that mollify entrenched positions, and creating interlocking associations — were traditional normal practices in American politics last century, back when the tribal form was working reasonably well and properly undergirding our institutions. Rosen advocates this replacement without recognizing, much less explaining, this earlier displacement and the slow decay in American society at TIMN’s tribal level that help explain it (see writings by Robert Putnam and Charles Murray). That’s another reason why I think his article is somewhat straw-man and circular.

To read for yourself, go here:

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Readings on cognitive warfare at the societal level — #10: Clint Watts, “So What Did We Learn? Looking Back on Four Years of Russia’s Cyber-Enabled “Active Measures”” (Jan 2018)

I have a big backlog of readings to eventually write about on this topic, but I’m hastening to jump the line with this expert new article by Clint Watts, “So What Did We Learn? Looking Back on Four Years of Russia’s Cyber-Enabled “Active Measures”” (Jan 2018), since it is one of the few based on recent empirical research.

Watts has been monitoring Russian “active measures” online for years. Here he identifies “four phases to their operations.” Over time, the four “layer one on top of each other” and blend together “as the Kremlin’s military, diplomacy, intelligence, and information arms pursue complementary tasks mutually supporting each other.”

In “Phase 0: Capability Development (Jan 2014 – Fall 2014)”, Russians began experimenting with cyber weapons and techniques in Syria, Iraq, and the Ukraine.

In “Phase 1: Infiltrate Audiences (Fall 2014 – Summer 2015)”, recognizing their successes in Phase 0, they began using troll armies to campaign in America for the “amplification of social issues of race, immigration, and anti-government conspiracies.”

In “Phase 2: Influence Audiences (Fall 2015 – Election Day 2016)”, they added hacking for the purpose of “seeking compromising information that could be used not strictly for its intelligence value but also as nuclear fuel for information warfare.” They also deployed a set of political narratives to undermine support for Clinton, enhance support for Trump, and drive wedges between pro-Hillary and pro-Bernie supporters. In addition, the Russians deployed another set of narratives that “shifted from strictly political narratives attacking or promoting candidates to attacking the integrity of elections and democracy itself.” Thus, according to Watt’s analysis, the Kremlin “sought not to win the election, but undermine American faith in institutions and processes”.

In “Phase 3: Leak Kompromat and Power Narratives (Fall 2015 – Election Day 2016)”, Russian operations focused on driving divisive narratives into the U.S, using outfits like Wikileaks and DC Leaks, along with Sputnik News and Russia Today channels. As a result,
“Stolen information provided the nuclear fuel for the Kremlin’s information warfare arming click-bait websites, conspiracy theorists, political opportunists, and mainstream media discussions with corrosive, divisive narratives or timely distractions from more relevant political discussions. … Putin’s plan did not seek to change the vote, but to undermine it, and strike a lasting blow against democracy post-election regardless of the victor.”
Watts reports that U.S. intelligence and other agencies were very slow to catch on to all this. Partly because of an excess of hubris, in that they didn’t think Russia would attack our system this way. Partly because of a lack of imagination, in that they hadn’t grasped how influential hacked information and other cyber measures could be. And partly because our system is so disorganized — no one has a clear mandate to lead on cyber matters, and there is no unified plan. Watt’s says that what’s really required is a “task force approach”. But here we are, years after the Kremlin began its information attack, and still we have no strategy. “It is impossible to know who in the U.S. government is in charge of counter influence, when no one is certain what the plan is.”

Watts goes on to identify some telling signs that Russians are plotting an information attack, but I’m going to jump over those to end by quoting his concluding paragraphs:
“I estimate the decision point, from a strategic perspective, for Putin’s plan to mess with the 2016 presidential election came in the summer of 2015. Russia’s hacking decision demonstrated execution of a planned campaign, the pursuit of defined goals, and the level of Kremlin commitment to achieving its foreign policy goals vis-à-vis other actions. For instance, Russian hackers aggressively targeted the United States, France, and Germany suggesting their commitment to breaking up the European Union and weakening NATO by employing the same technique in sequence. In the future when Russia’s hackers launch a widespread campaign, analysts should ask not just what information the hackers were seeking to acquire but why the information of targets might be of use for influence. Secondly, hacking for influence must be done well in advance to allow sufficient time for triage, release, and subsequent influence of a targeted population. Looking back, hacking to influence on behalf of a candidate likely requires a year’s lead time; hacking to advance a general conspiracy, possibly only two to three months.
“The Kremlin’s playbook is in the wild, and authoritarians around the world have begun adopting their techniques in pursuit of domestic and foreign audience manipulation. The world, and particularly the West, must move past the presidential election of 2016, learn from its mistakes, and begin anticipating where the Kremlin will move next. No one has successfully countered Russia’s approach yet, and Putin has no reason to stop. In the absence of resistance, Russia will exploit success, not demonstrate self-restraint.”
I think this is quite worrisome. It leads me to reiterate that my two series of readings — the one on tribes and tribalism, and this one on cognitive warfare — are linked by a point straight from TIMN theory: The grand purpose of cognitive warfare at the societal level is to tribalize (even atomize) a society. And to do so by way of undermining peoples' trust in and ties to their institutional and market systems, as well as emerging network systems, so they have nowhere to go but back to the tribal form.

To read Watt’s article and see his striking graphic, go here:

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Readings on tribes and tribalism — #25: Jonathan Haidt, “The Age of Outrage” (Dec 2017)

In an earlier article in this series (#8), Jonathan Haidt and co-author Pico Iyer proposed that Americans ease their divisive turn to tribalism by focusing on improving interpersonal relations. Writing alone in this article — “The Age of Outrage: What the current political climate is doing to our country and our universities” (Dec 2017) — Haidt focuses more on how students and kids are being affected by current trends. He’s particularly critical of what the Left has done to tribalize our campuses, notably by purveying “intersectionality”. He seeks to counter tribalism by having his Heterodox Academy work for “viewpoint diversity” on America’s campuses.

Haidt shows up front that he understands the tribal form, our naturally tribal natures, and the concerns of our Founding Fathers to safeguard democracy from tribalized factionalism, not only by institutionalizing a division of powers along with a set of checks and balances, but also by seeking to educate new generations of American citizens to uphold our fledgling system:
“When we look back at the ways our ancestors lived, there’s no getting around it: we are tribal primates. We are exquisitely designed and adapted by evolution for life in small societies with intense, animistic religion and violent intergroup conflict over territory. We love tribal living so much that we invented sports, fraternities, street gangs, fan clubs, and tattoos. Tribalism is in our hearts and minds. We’ll never stamp it out entirely, but we can minimize its effects because we are a behaviorally flexible species. …
“Here is the fine-tuned liberal democracy hypothesis: as tribal primates, human beings are unsuited for life in large, diverse secular democracies, unless you get certain settings finely adjusted to make possible the development of stable political life. This seems to be what the Founding Fathers believed. …
“So what did the Founders do? They built in safeguards against runaway factionalism, such as the division of powers among the three branches, and an elaborate series of checks and balances. But they also knew that they had to train future generations of clock mechanics. They were creating a new kind of republic, which would demand far more maturity from its citizens than was needed in nations ruled by a king or other Leviathan.”
Haidt’s long account of why Americans have lately come to “hate and fear each other so much more than we used to” revolves around an insightful “unifying idea” borrowed from physics: “keep your eye on the balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces.” He doesn’t say so explicitly, but that’s an excellent notion for distinguishing between bright sides of the tribal form that pull people together — e.g., family, community, civic clubs, patriotism — and dark sides that push people apart, such as factionalism, sectarianism, xenophobia.

Haidt then identifies a series of five current trends that “can be seen as increasing centrifugal forces or weakening centripetal forces.” One of these is diversity — it is so strong a centrifugal force that “those who want more diversity should be even more attentive to strengthening centripetal forces.” Two other tribalizing trends, he warns, are “the Republicans in Washington, and the Left on campus. Both have strengthened the centrifugal forces that are now tearing us apart.”

As for our university campuses, Haidt deplores the rise of “the new identity politics of the Left” as a centrifugal “bad kind” of identity politics, in contrast to the centripetal “good kind” once represented by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Particularly worrisome is the spread throughout academia of the concept of “intersectionality”. Initially a reasonable idea about how race, ethnicity, gender, age, and other identities may intersect in ways that compound prejudice and discrimination, it soon got turned into a concept about systemic oppression and how to fight back:
“And here’s the strategically brilliant move made by intersectionality: all of the binary dimensions of oppression are said to be interlocking and overlapping. America is said to be one giant matrix of oppression, and its victims cannot fight their battles separately. They must all come together to fight their common enemy, the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish or possibly atheist male. …
“This means that on any campus where intersectionality thrives, conflict will be eternal, because no campus can eliminate all offense, all microaggressions, and all misunderstandings. This is why the use of shout- downs, intimidation, and even violence in response to words and ideas is most common at our most progressive universities, in the most progressive regions of the country.”
Haidt’s ultimate concern is education. In addition to being a university professor, he is the founder (co-founder?) of the Heterodox Academy (heterodoxacademy.org), an ingenious bold non-partisan effort to improve “viewpoint diversity” in academia. Through it, Haidt and other members are working to help besieged professors “stand up” against illiberal activism. They are seeking solutions by “putting out ideas and tools that help people stand up for viewpoint diversity and open inquiry” — a laudable endeavor.

In closing, Haidt leaps pragmatically from alarm to hope, appealing to us to “come together, admit that we messed up, and change what we are doing to kids, and to college students”:
“So please do not despair. Be alarmed — the situation is truly alarming. But most Americans are decent, thoughtful people who don’t want to give up on their country or its universities. There are many things we can do to reduce tribalism, strengthen our kids, and repair our universities. We — the baby boomers and gen-Xers who fill this room — we have made a mess of the clock. Left and Right, Republicans and Democrats. But we can make up for it if we can come together, admit that we messed up, and change what we are doing to kids, and to college students. We just might be able to raise a generation of kids who can care for the clock after all.”
My conclusion: Haidt makes valuable points throughout. I especially like his distinguishing between centrifugal and centripetal forces — I’d not thought of that as a way to characterize the differences between what I’ve called the “dark sides” and “bright sides” of the tribal form. Moreover, I welcome his effort this time to go beyond rather abstractly advocating improving interpersonal relations, to point toward pragmatically improving campus environments in ways that should reduce tribalism.

To read Haidt’s article in full, go here: