A postmodern challenge to democracy

At the bedrock of the liberal democratic ethic sits an assumption so essential to our understanding of the world that we’ve forgotten how revolutionary it once was. Reality is objective, measurable, and accessible to everyone with minimal effort and education. Prior to the Enlightenment, people had little interest in the question of real versus unreal. You’ll find arguments over truth versus untruth, or virtue versus shame, but it was rare to find examples of people wrestling with the question of whether something was “real.” You won’t find the word “reality” in any traditional Biblical translation. Reality is a concept born of the Enlightenment, informed by reason and proof. Modernity is, to a very large extent, the philosophical offspring of the notion of empirical, objective reality.

A new post at Forbes looks at the social media presence of Jenna Abrams, whose Twitter account was on a list of fake Russian intelligence identities turned over to Congressional investigators. She had an extensive following on several platforms. Her posts were widely followed and reviled by different sides. And she doesn’t exist. Viewed in the context of Russian election meddling, she (it) is merely an interesting side-note. Considered in light of the rapid acceleration of computing power, there are ominous undertones in her life story, as it were.

If you consider the development of artificial computing capacity as an evolutionary cycle, independent of our own, then the Abrams scenario points to a troubling new landscape. For hundreds of thousands of years, our most important evolutionary edge was our status as the most the powerful computational engine on Earth. We have already lost that advantage, and we will never regain it. That may having interesting implications in many arenas, but the piece at Forbes focuses on what this means for politics. If cheap, easy to use AI engines can manufacture an apparent reality so convincing that we cannot easily decode it, then one of the foundational concepts beneath our democratic ideal becomes shaky. How do we preserve the power of democratic representation if ordinary people cannot expect to easily ascertain reality? If you need sophisticated experts to sort out a base notion of reality, what happens to democracy?


  1. Kevin Drum: The fastest way for this moment in time to be squandered is for it to become a partisan football. If liberals eat their own because they believe sexual abuse is intolerable, but conservatives survive by simply denying and blustering, what do you think will happen? First, conservatives will spot an opportunity: a way of taking advantage of liberal principles that they’ve learned doesn’t apply to them. Second, liberals will probably start to back off. Like it or not, this is just human nature. No group ever remains completely committed to a principled stand if it becomes obvious that it only applies to themselves.

      1. Mary, I believe you never go wrong by doing the right thing. But sometimes you pay a price for doing right, and as Kevin Drum points out, long term it’s unsustainable if one side pays that price and the other side doesn’t. We have to do everything we can to make sure the other side does pay.

      2. Everyone is not playing fair in this political maelstrom. The real question is: how to respond in such an unequal situation? I do not seek to have Democrats assume dominance; rather, I want a return to bi-partisan government – however naive that makes me. My temperament is not one of accepting the status quo even as I accept the incredible difficulty involved with fighting against the odds that exist. Should there be a Dem wave in ’18, the likelihood of it being sufficient to provide a Dem majority in either house is highly unlikely. Patience, then? In the meantime, our democratic institutions are being dismantled if not destroyed. Our justice system stacked with life-time hard right conservatives. Our census process is being savaged. Operation RedMap has been replaced with something far more sinister and I am deeply concerned. While I am personally doing everything I can to commit my time, energy and money to help fight against this subversion, will it be enough?

        Like many others, I am heading to a Thanksgiving gathering where the hosts complain about how many taxes they pay and how many slackers and illegals are siphoning their family’s personal resources away….while sitting in a very nice home, in a very nice community, with several cars, corporate health insurance, kids in college and savings. They also have an expectation that they will inherit from the estates of both sides of the family. By most measures, these are good people, hard working and good parents, just so incredibly limited in their awareness of what true poverty and helplessness are that they have lost all sense of empathy. They refuse to learn or listen to any other point of view – shutting down any attempt at conversation as “let’s not talk about politics” which attempts are rare. Short of not attending family gatherings, I simply try to blend in, which is getting harder and harder. I care so much about what is happening to our country and do not seem to be able to influence those who are closest to me. It’s disheartening but I don’t know what else to do except continue my individual efforts to bring about change…if I live so long.

        Sorry – not a very happy thing to share this day before TG, but it is reality for way too many of us.

      3. My amateur response, with regard to lopsided standards across the two parties: I think it’d be reasonable if the party arranged orderly retirement of harassers, such that a good candidate could be found to run in their stead. For example, conveniently, Sen. Franken is halfway through his term. Three years seems like a good amount of time to identify a more upright Democrat to replace him.

      4. You’re forgetting the urgency of peeling off any senatorial or House votes re the GOP Tax Cut bill. Anyway they can, anyone they can – unless they are Republican. Have you heard even a whisper of running Barton through the House Ethics committee?

    1. I mean – how do we respond to this kind of unmitigated crap if not to call it out? Accept it? Ignore it? I sent Jones campaign $$ even though his chance of winning is so small. It was all I felt I could do, but I had to do something to take a stand.


  2. OT, but this article from the Atlantic is one of the best pieces of journalism I have ever read.

    It’s a deliciously long piece that explores a topic that has been fleshed out here by Chris and his articulate commenters: namely, that racism was the proximate cause of Trump’s election.

    The author does a wonderful job of detailing how Americans can, and always have, feel no personal animus towards people of color, yet still support policies that oppress them.

    To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from the article, “They care less about the unpunished murder of brown people by agents of the state than they care about brown people kneeling in protest of the murders.”

    I can’t wait to give this another read over the holiday break. Happy Thanksgiving to this lovely little corner of the internet. I’m thankful I found you two years ago.


  3. EJ

    For those of you watching German politics, yes, I think that right now it is every bit as bad as it looks. I may be a FDP supporter, but right now I am very disappointed in them.

    A political party must think of the good of the country before it thinks of its own good, and they have not done this.

  4. I think it takes us time as a society to learn how to use new mediums. When newspapers first went mainstream there was a lot of misinformation, and we learned “not to trust everything you read in the papers” and which brands were reliable (NY Times, Washington Post, etc.) and which were out there (Supermarket tabloids).

    Cable news went though a similar development, with the growing understanding that Fox News isn’t news, but advocacy.

    Both newspapers and cable news were a similar model – one-to-many dissemination from a point of claimed authority. With social media the point of authority ‘broadcasting’ to you is your social network – people you know, and you are less likely to switch off or challenge them. I think it may take a few more years before we re-evaluate the way we pass information between ourselves to the point where we have our skepticism at the same level we have for unrecognized or discredited media brands. In the interim we will have to put up with clowns like our current president who has figured out how to tell the big lie via the new channel.

    1. I guess you could look at it from the top down (Trump), but for me it is a bottoms up phenomenon….willfully uneducated masses who lazily latch on to whatever catch-phrase is hurled by people they excuse for behavior they all envy.

      I expected nothing from Trump and he delivered less. I continue to be amazed at people I know who have adopted an attitude of utter abandonment of any moral or factual basis for their personal decision-making.

  5. And in the current atmosphere of sexual harassment hysteria, budget hysteria, the puppet tyrant vs that idiot Ball tweet war, a little nugget that will do far more damage to democracy just slides in without any fanfare.

    I have detailed why I think the Net is being used for far more evil than good right now, and when this happens, likely Dec 14th, that will seal it.


    But no worries, when blog sites like this are throttled down to a 10 minute load time, or not at all, no biggie, right? The routers that control the U.S. based WAN traffic (the U.S. chunk of the Internet) are run by about 7 or 8 service provider companies. Even fewer control all the traffic that comes across the transpacific and transatlantic fibre cables.

    These companies will then control all widespread traffic on the Net within the U.S. Sure, some little ISP out of Los Angeles or NY may provide fair access to all its other local customers, but as soon as they hook up to the big boys, which they all do, forget it. And when the big boys decide to delist web sites out of their DNS servers, then it is lights out.

  6. 2 points:
    1) I disagree that democracy was based on the notion of an objective reality. It was based on the dignity and intrinsic worth of the individual. There is no need for an objective reality (whatever that means). Defining dignity as being intrinsic means it doesn’t change if you’re a prince or a pauper, but it also doesn’t change if you’re right or wrong about reality (which is why we still allow flat earthers, anti-vaxxers, and climate change deniers to vote).

    The Western Enlightenment’s true accomplishment was saying that all legitimate power arises from individuals and their collective decisions, rather than from God. That is what forced divine-right monarchies to give way to democracies. Not any sense of objective reality. We’ve always shared a collective belief about reality, whether it was the Bible telling us the Sun rotated around the Earth, or (now) scientists telling us the Earth rotates around the Sun, even though our subjective experience of the sunrise and sunset has never changed. You can argue that the Enlightenment based our reality on science rather than religion and this was a huge advance, but I would argue for the average person, who has never been an expert in either, all you did was switch one poorly understood authority with another. Meet the new boss, same as the old one…

    2) Jenna Abrams may not be real, but the people who created her account and mapped out the strategy for her account most certainly are. Regardless of how far AI advances, there will still be people with the means to control it. I’d say it hasn’t even advanced very much: she’s just a tool in a time-honored practice that is so well established, it has its own name: astroturfing (i.e. fake grassroots). Jenna Abrams is just a more advanced version of “experts” from fancy-sounding institutes who become talking heads on news programs.

    Regardless, you may say that people were influenced by that AI. True, but it’s not the AI that’s disturbing. Lots of people believe the fake experts on cable news too. The real question is why do the people with the power feel the need to hide? Why does the wizard always have to be behind a curtain? Why couldn’t the person who created Jenna Abram’s account just put his own name on it?

    And that’s why the future of the world isn’t the Matrix, it’s Idiocracy, as you explained it. No one mistakes an automated customer service line for a real person. We still know there’s a manager somewhere there who can solve our problem. It’s just harder to get to him. And that manager has no desire to deal with irate customers all day.

    Likewise, even now, there is a hidden world, based in reality, with shared goals, in which government works exceedingly well to sustain it and allow people in that world to thrive. Most of us don’t live in it, and are relegated to the broken buildings of Idiocracy. Even the current Republican administration, as “crazy” as it seems, is working quite well: the tax cuts which are about to be passed, the environmental regulations that are being rolled back, the privatizing of public services, etc. are all music to the ears of their real constituents. And as they continue their looting, they’d rather not risk facing the ire of an increasingly desperate public.

    AI is a distraction. It’s not the source of our fractured reality. That is entirely the result of a political world in which the elites are increasingly insulated from the concerns of the average person, who is viewed less as a fellow citizen and more as prey. The choice to use AI to obscure reality rather than reveal it is entirely a political decision that’s made about every technological advance. Even the printing press could be used to spread the teachings of the Bible, or allow shysters to more easily print and spread their dubious pamphlets. That choice has nothing to do with the technology itself.

  7. “Crazy conspiracy theories and paranoid narratives spread more slowly among the affluent and college educated than among aging or working class voters in small towns.”

    I don’t think that’s true. The classic example is that anti-vax movements are mostly a rich white person’s crazy. But also, among Republicans, belief in Climate Change is Real and Humans are Responsible trends DOWN the more educated the Republican is. Less educated Republicans actually believe in climate change more. Why is that?

    The best way of understanding it is looking at the psychology behind scams. The ideal target for a scammer is a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or small businessperson. These are people with a lot of money, but they have certain peculiarities that are noteworthy:

    They are highly educated with licenses that require higher education degrees (except for small business owners, but still often enough)

    They have technical, not humanities, focuses.

    In other words they are very smart, but not well versed in things like psychology, empathy, cognitive biases, and emotional motivators. Their smartness leads to a tendency to believe that they are not wrong about anything. “I should know, I’m a doctor.” Yeah but that doesn’t mean you understand economics.

    Thus you get a nice one-two punch. If you scam an engineer, not only will he have enough money to make the scam worth it, but the scam can continue for a very long time because the engineer, seeing himself as too smart to get scammed, will refuse to admit or agree that the thing that is happening to him is a scam. “Listen, I’m an engineer. This is not a scam, you just don’t understand the risk behind business.”

    Note also that an underlying motivator behind willingness-to-be-scammed is identity. “I am a doctor. That means I’m intelligent. Intelligent people don’t get scammed.”

    In the same manner, we’ve discussed GOP’s willingness to get scammed through sheer tribalism. On the one hand, Roy Moore is a lecherous pedophile. But to be fair to Roy Moore, the other guy is a Democrat.

    (Sidenote: this is why individuals shouldn’t be allowed to join parties. Party membership should be only designated when running for public office).

    Anyway, that tribalism has been discussed before. Where I agree that this epistemological crisis cannot be solved is in mere ‘education’, and I agree that it primarily has to be resolved with meatspace interpersonal interaction of biological humans looking each other in the face. The problem with that is that Flyover Country got that name for a reason, and modern politics is exasperating that issue. Meatspace can be even more of a tribalism than cyberspace, which brings together all these Texans, West Coast, East Coast, and non-Americans. Virtual communities still retain the opportunity for young people browsing The Web in Hicksville, Okladakota to realize her strange movie interests she developed watching random stuff on Netflix is shared by those evil elitists in New York. That’s still what the bulk of the Internet is, and AI just refine the recommendation engines and expand the encyclopedias.

    Where concentration could be focused is on the concept of radicalization, which would mean analyzing its operands, getting a sense of how it targets people, and then focusing on disrupting one or both of those things. For one thing, teaching critical thinking might not be enough, but creating a civics propaganda focused strongly on non-violence and simple principles of citizenship and exchange could help a lot.

    One of the big reasons why Republicans are losing their shit all the time is that the Republican party has been yelling at them that the American government is the badguy for at least three generations. This is totally something that could be fixed, by, for instance, targeting negative campaign advertising.

    With basic civics should come basic Enlightenment messaging. The Obama campaign found that telling people, “Gay people deserve rights to” turned them off and made them feel lectured to, lied to, etc. But when he said, “Many of us have family members who are gay, many religious leaders are gay, many successful businessmen are gay,” suddenly the exact same people were searching on Google for “famous and successful gay people.” By stating a fact they didn’t know, he ignited their curiosity.

    As such the Other Side, be it Democrats or any independent of third party group, should rework their messaging to be less about combating these extremists and more about providing passages to other, better ways. Instead of “The tax bill steals from the poor and gives to the rich!” the smarter thing to do would be to say, “Why are you raising taxes on the middle class to pay for corporate tax cuts rather than removing corporate write-offs? Shouldn’t we level the playing field for small businesses rather than asking more of our hard working middle class?’

    Since literally every American believes they are hard working and middle class, that argument would speak to them. Since it brings up the existence of corporate giveaways, it would ignite curiosity regarding what they are. Since it offers a solution rather than treat the bill as a zero-sum game if one party wins and the other party loses, it allows the failure of the bill as written to be an opportunity for a bill as of yet unwritten.

    But, unfortunately, it can’t happen at this exact moment because of the toxic environment we’re in. So best thing is to start working that messaging in on campaigns before working it into legislating, and continue to demand acknowledgement to rules, procedures, and professionalism while creating better marketing and PR campaigns for institutions themselves.

  8. I work in machine learning and have dabbled a bit in the “consciousness problem of AI.” From this perspective, Chris’ post is fantastic since we’ve been debating these issues for years. One way to overcome the “postmodern AI problem” (a made up term based on Chris’ article) is to start focusing more on direct human interaction and intersubjectivity. Since machines lack subjectivity or experience, this lack will be exposed in second person interactions (and I don’t mean artificial interactivity like the Turing test). By raising the bar for entry to culture and what constitutes genuine second person dialog and interaction, we can move forward despite relegating a host of cognitive tasks to AI assistants.

  9. Jenna Abrams does raise the issue of proving “what is reality”, especially in the context of social media. People are treating social media accounts as “people” and using them as sources the way we normally use friends and family, even though about half of Twitter accounts are fake. That is a very serious problem, and amongst other things means we need to stop treating “social media” as “social” because it’s not really people.

    OTOH, I don’t think Jenna Abrams demonstrates we’ve lost our status as top computational engine. It is at least primarily the work of people, based on the non-apologia when it got caught.

  10. “Sapiens a brief History of Mankind” , by Yuval Noah Harari, argues that culture is something completely invented in the human mind and then manifested as reality in the real. Good and evil is such a construct. As is freedom. AI are an another extension of our cultural evolution. So we have two types of evolution going on, biological and cultural. The biological is much slower. It could be argued that it is our culture which has given us such a dominate role on our planet. It crosses freely into all peoples no matter what race or creed they are. This hits at what has riled up many of Trump’s supporters. One of the books interesting ideas is how wheat domesticated humans. Barry Ritholtz who runs the “Big Picture Blog ” was the one that turned me onto this book and others books. Along with the garbage on the internet there are real jewels. Along with Mr. Ritholtz blog this blog is one of them.

  11. Chris, I said it a week or two ago on this site, and will say it again. The Internet is an awesome tool that can be used to do great good for mankind, but right now, the damage being wrought by the awesome power of this tool outweighs the good.

    I don’t see how we turn this thing around, but if all social media platforms were outlawed (yes, I am talking blogs too), and people had to get their information from offline media sites, or TV, the world would be better informed, as bizarre as that sounds.

    I know that a ban like that will never happen, but sometimes, new is not always better, and the old ways of disseminating news, information and opinion, while orders of magnitude less efficient, were far safer.

    Oh, and on a related note, I think it is complete madness for any country or political entity to run any kind of election with anything but paper ballots, no matter how long it takes to tally all of them.

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