I have recently given a guest lecture for International Relations students at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico. For it, I wanted to make sure to link some of the classic IR literature to the issues of content mod on social media. I succeeded and failed. The talk ended up being about underlying ideology and politics, which made for great discussion.
I want to use this space to share some of the more crucial elements of the presentation for the sake of public profit. Also, this takes the form of a massive braindump which represents my own views and no one else’s. And thus will be subject to revision without notice.
or how social media companies benefit from keeping algorithms and data processing as a black box
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1. What is manufactured ignorance (agnogenesis) and why should we care?
This fancy greek word comes from the mix of the word for ignorance or ‘not knowing’ and ontology, which is philosopher-speak for studying the nature of being. Coined by Robert Proctor and Iain Boal in 1995, they state that “ignorance is not just the not-yet-known, it’s also a political ploy, a deliberate creation by powerful agents who want you ‘not to know’.” In fact, some of the original manufactured ignorance studies were focused on tobacco companies’ public relations campaigns. Their strategy focused on seeding doubt to compete with the epistemological paradigms and scientific evidence to establish controversy.
According to Proctor ignorance can be “produced or maintained in diverse settings, through mechanisms such as deliberate or inadvertent neglect, secrecy and suppression, document destruction, unquestioned tradition, and myriad forms of inherent (or avoidable) culturopolitical selectivity”. He broadly characterizes three types of ignorance (1) native state ignorance (what is yet to be discovered); (2) lost realm ignorance (as product of inattention or sociological selection); (3) strategic ploy ignorance (manufactured with some specific goal). That being said, ignorance is not inherently evil, even when manufactured. I’ll get to that in the final section of the post. However, the public should care about strategic ploys by organizations (government or private corporations) to create public ignorance when their stake may be at odds with public interest.
This post deals with the tactics of manufactured ignorance and information obfuscation that social media companies seem to leverage in order to fend off criticism, avoid answering the tough questions and escape effective regulation.
I had the fortune to contribute to “Nuevas Voces de Política Exterior: Chile y el mundo en la era post-consensual”. A book that proposes a new and progressive path for Chile's stance on foreign policy. Specially relevant for the moment of change that Chile and the world are going through right now.
I wrote the chapter: “Chile, pionero: desafíos y oportunidades para una política estatal frente a los actores digitales globales” in Cristóbal Bywaters, Daniela Sepúlveda Soto, Andrés Villar, eds. Nuevas voces de política exterior: Chile y el mundo en la era post-consensual (Santiago, Chile: Fondo de Cultura Económica), pp.217-226.
This chapter is a more of a practitioner's paper that touches upon tech governance and regulation from a global south's perspective, and offers some perspectives vis-à-vis new technologies and policy recommendations, specific to Chile's context and foreign policy stance.
You can check out the chapter here:
Author’s accepted version (Spanish, non-final)
For more info on the book check out:
Book Information – Spanish
Amazon Kindle Info
See you in the next adventure,
From the original 1972 “Artefactos” box. A collection of postcards edited by Universidad de Chile that was never available for sale. Gotten by my grandad, professor of Medicine at said university, they are an iconic personal object.
My own loose translation:
They line their own pockets as God mandates
and then they come to us with their same old music
that we should be patriotic
This entry has (1) some personal history; (2) some reflections on the absurdity of political outcomes; (3) a brief flight over the pandemic – not in the way you think; (4) a message for the future.
or there is a systemic asymmetry of power and a loss of ability for self-determination in the countries of the Global South vis-à-vis tech platforms
This is a short article that comes as a fast-follow from (1) my previous research currently in press for Nuevas Voces de Política Exterior and (2) the Platform Governance Research Network Conference (@PlatGov on Twitter) discussions on diversity.
Dependence theories and neo-colonialism: where economics meets knowledge
Teoría de la dependencia (dependency theory), in the mid 1960s, represented a critical effort to understand the limitations of economic development initiated during a historical period where the world's economy was dominated by the hegemony of large economic groups. In this scenario, Latin American scholars came up with an alternative understanding of the economic inequalities seen across regions in the world. In short, they indicated that there were economic “centres” that dominate the economy and that in order to continue to be on top they required the countries in the “periphery” (e.g. the global south) to be subject to a power dynamic that forced them into being kept underdeveloped (see works by Raul Prebisch, Anibal Quijano, Theotonio Dos Santos and more). The idea that some countries are “dependent” on others for their economic development or position within the economic network gives the theory its name.
These novel ways to understand economic realities, that drew theoretically from dialectic methods and from a marxist understanding of the world, have been contested and criticized for different reasons (see Solorza and Cetre 2011: 135-137 for some of them). However, I'm not here to assess the merits of the theory in terms of its explanatory power or its economic fit. Rather, I believe that the phenomenon of dependency once studied by these Latin American scholars is happening in Tech Platform behavior and governance. Moreover, I believe this situation displays characteristics that could be seen as a form of neo-colonialism.
I show arguments in two sections: (1) asymmetries in the production of Platform Governance knowledge and access; (2) the behavior of Tech Platforms syphons power away from the periphery and their acts might be characterized as neo-colonial given the power dynamics that they exhibit.
Or where the cuban missile crisis meets tech decision making and governance
It is time that we move on from simplistic assumptions to explain the reasoning behind organizational behavior. These generalized unconscious biases contribute to make us ineffective in understanding the incentives and decision-making paths tech companies actually display. Thus, making us more prone to finding the wrong solutions to the problems of free speech, moderation and AI ethics. To achieve alternative, more intentional, version of these assumptions, I've decided to go back in history (both to my past as a political scientist and also to historical events) because part of the path towards that understanding has already been charted for us.
In 1962, at what some consider the closest moment the world has ever been to nuclear war, the USSR had set up ballistic missiles in Cuba in response to the US' move of doing the same in Turkey and Italy (and their failed Bay of Pigs invasion). After the month and 4 days that the crisis lasted, scholars turned rapidly to find explanations as to why both States had acted the way they did (why did the USSR put missiles in Cuba? Why did the US react by blockading Cuba? Why were the missiles withdrawn?). One of them, Harvard Professor Graham Allison, understood the value of getting this right better than anyone, writing his seminal book “essence of decision” in 1971 to try to explain why the events unfolded the way they did.
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Longer article with some ideas about police reform. It speaks about defunding and disarming the police, crowd control and, use of excessive force. It lays out an alternative approximation to a problem that seems to be hostage to ready made rhetorics. Pick up a coffee and enjoy.
For the longest while I've been thinking about police reform in the light of what is going on in Chile, my country, and three common rhetorics that have been found across countries with social upheavals in the past year or so.
On the one side, we have the more conservative, right-wing if you will, that calls for 'law and order' and use of force (to the extremes of me having actually heard people say that protestors and looters should be dealt with el paredón a.k.a. firing squad). These people are also completely oblivious to the realities of marginalized communities and neighborhoods – they are blinded by their own realities, which they use as benchmark.
And, on the other, people on the left, incited by what some characterize as anarchist, who use the slogan ACAB ('All Cops Are Bastards') who make an apology of violence against the police ('the first line defenders') and equate awful societal conditions to physical violence. These people have been seen to call to defund the police and are completely desensitised to the consequences of their violent behavior.
In between, there's a bunch of well intentioned citizens who tend to sway one way or another depending on the news, their experiences and the opinion of their closest circles. I would add academics and other politicians to this mix by the mere common ground of the fact that they will “condemn violence across the board” and also “defend the right to protest” as republican values.
In short, all of these rhetorics are expressions of a main underlying problem. A problem which in its own way undermines the possibilities of a State that owns the monopoly of legitimate violence (as opposed to narcos, organized crime, violent groups, etc.) and that there's value in having a strong, respected police organization fiercely controlled by civilian powers (congress, citizens, justice departments).