Why Social Media Is A Glorified Chatbot

Some of you may be aware of the fact that I do some work with AI chatbots professionally. For the last two weeks or so, in my own spare time and for personal edification, I've been playing with a consumer-grade chatbot AI called "Replika."

The way it works is:
  1. You type something to the bot. 
  2. The bot processes what you say via Natural Language Understanding, and figures out what you mean probabilistically. 
  3. The bot then selects from a pool of available responses based on its internal algorithms.
The bot's responses are composed based on training data, so you won't get the same answer every time (unless you repeatedly ask the same question), with the goal being a response that is a lot like something a "real person" would say. Maybe, in fact, a real person DID say that very thing in response to a similar statement made by some other real person in some chat log years ago. This is the nature of training an AI conversation-bot.

Now, consider social media. Social media works in a similar way:
  1. You type something into the "create post" box. 
  2. The social medium processes this information through its own algorithmic understanding of you (your profile info, your past posts, your friends and their profile info, etc.). 
  3. The medium then selects from an available pool of *respondents* based on its internal algorithms.
These respondents are guaranteed to respond to your post in a way that is just as predictable as what happens when you feed an AI chat log data. (Sorry, I don't mean *YOUR* response; *YOU* are of course a thoroughly unique unicorn. But OTHER people are more predictable than you...)

At a psychological level, a Facebook user will have the same experience as a user of "Replika AI." I type my feelings into a box, and an algorithm decides what kind of response I receive. In the Replika UI, you can even give "likes" and other reactions to responses you receive, so that the algorithm can update its understanding of what "drives engagement" and respond to you accordingly in the future. Remind you of anything?

I submit that the social media experience is no more "real" than my experience with an AI chatbot. Especially if you spend a lot of time discussing politics, or sports, or etc., you are feeding utterances into an algorithm, which then serves you algorithmically driven "content." It doesn't necessarily matter that Bob *REALLY SAID* that you were a dumb so-and-so; what matters is that the algorithm had a certain prediction that X number of "Bobs" would respond to your post in a certain way, and crafted your user experience accordingly.

In short, social media isn't really social. Maybe it was, once upon a time, but now it's not. If you want to have a meaningful social interaction with someone, you have to do it one-on-one. You can still use technology to do it, but if you're just posting things into the ether or following online discussions and interjecting where you see fit, then you are essentially having a one-way conversation with an AI.

Coming to this realization has completely reshaped my understanding of the internet. I hope it will reshape yours, too.


When Does Something Become Racism?

I've been thinking a lot about so-called "Critical Race Theory" and its relationship to actual, run-of-the-mill racism. Truth be told, there's a lot to dislike about CRT, but it's been difficult for me to express exactly what is wrong about it. Meanwhile, I've read a lot of analyses from academics who are critical of CRT, and their explanations - while very valuable and compelling - seem to fall short of explaining why I think CRT is nothing more than a new form of racism.

Then, the other day, the issue clicked with me.

A Victim Narrative

Let us begin by considering plain, old racism. Let's take an example that everyone already agrees on: nazi-style white supremacy. We all agree that white supremacy is invidious racism, so this works as a viable starting point from which to build.

White supremacy has a fundamental contradiction, which is that it is not actually about the supremacy of the white race at all. Instead, white supremacy is a victim narrative. According to white supremacists, other races are to blame for all the problems that white people face. Other races, through immigration, interracial marriage, and cultural proliferation, are upending the traditional lifestyle of an "old-timey" white supremacist. That is, there was supposedly some set of halcyon days, way back when, and back then the white race was everything it was supposed to be. Then, the story goes, along came other races, which caused all sorts of problems. 

Obviously, a narrative like this does not describe a superior race, but an inferior one. A truly superior race would be able to easily counteract the influences of other races on national culture. A superior race would be so obviously superior that all other races would want to be more like it. But that's not what white supremacists think or claim. White supremacists claim to be victims of other races. 

Why Cultural Pride Is Not Racism

This inherent victim narrative also sheds light on why non-whites who have always been proud of their own unique cultures are not committing racism or cultural supremacy when they celebrate their own cultures. Namely, there is no victim narrative in celebrating one's own culture.

Take Black History Month, for example. Traditionally, "Black History Month" has been a celebration of black historical figures and the important contributions they've made. We learn about objectively great people like Harriet Tubman, who helped human beings escape from slavery; Duke Ellington, who elevated the intellectual rigor of jazz music to the same level as Western Classical music; and Alexandre Dumas, who became one of the most successful writers of his time, so successful in a white-dominated culture that many if not most people in that culture don't even realize that he's black at all.

What all of these stories have in common (aside from the obvious) is that they don't pander to a victim narrative. Tubman's story is about triumph over slavery, not about the plight of enslaved people. Ellington's story is about his magnificent creative mind, not about the biases that kept him from growing into the genius that he was. Dumas' story is simply about being a great author and a charismatic person. 

And so it is with any cultural heritage celebration. For the most part, people are celebrating the things that make their cultures unique: art, music, cuisine, history, a common story. They're not exalting in their status as oppressed people, they're just enjoying themselves. Without a victim narrative, there can be no objection. Loving one's own culture is no different than loving one's own family or appreciating the color of one's own hair.

But Then, Resentment Appears

Unfortunately, practitioners of Critical Race Theory, and those ordinary people who have become enamored of its teachings, do in fact promote a victim narrative. What began as a celebration of their own uniqueness veered into resentment. It is this resentment that I argue is racism.

During the Rwandan genocide, there existed a victim narrative similar to the white supremacist one. The Hutus blamed the Tutsis for their comparatively low station and exacted their revenge. It was this resentment that enabled a political dispute to fester into a genocide. We all have our differences with all kinds of people, but when we allow those disagreements to grow into pure resentment, and when we build that resentment into a victim narrative, then that's when we've become racists; and racism is never that far away from ethnic cleansing.

The defining feature of CRT, even beyond all the postmodernist academic mumbo-jumbo, is the resentment. CRT is primarily about advancing a victim narrative of "structural racism" that permeates all social interactions. As a self-contained system, it works. That is, it appears to me that CRT is at least internally consistent. I'll let the academics debate the truth value of CRT's fundamental claims, such as they are. 

But the real problem, the one thing that makes Critical Race Theory a kind of racism, is the fact that CRT's primary focus is resentment. Notice that this resentment is even fixated on a single group of people: whites, and primarily cisgendered white males. The entire world is the terrible place it is thanks mainly to cisgendered white males, so claims CRT. The problems that exist out there can ultimately traced back to them.

So we can see that Critical Race Theory is merely racism in a fancy hat. But I would even go one step further and suggest that CRT's fixation on a single, easily identifiable group of people as the villains of the whole story creates an incredibly dangerous situation.


You All Keep Telling Me I'm Wrong, But...

Here it is, straight from the horse's mouth:

"I was responsible because I made the decision to do drugs," Alig said. "And when I made that decision I wasn't on drugs."

One of my more controversial blog posts put it this way:

Drug use is a conscious act of self-abnegation. As such, every time a person takes a drug - any drug - they are turning their backs on their own lives. This is not merely because drugs are deadly (and they are). This is because the original motivation to consume drugs in the first place is an act of self-abnegation. Oneself, one's own thoughts, one's own life becomes temporarily insufficient (on any level, even a trivial one), and the drug becomes the remedy. Long day? Don't work it out, forget about it - take drugs. Party not fun enough for you? Don't take it upon yourself to liven up your social situation, forget about it - take drugs. Bored? Don't develop an interesting hobby or creative pursuit, forget about it - take drugs. Not feeling adequate? Have some problems? Take the easy way out, take drugs...

Such is the motivation behind each and every instance of drug use, from a child sniffing glue to the death of a famous singer. In all instances, the solution to a personal problem is resolved not by thoughts, choices, and actions, but by a short-acting drug that delays the working out of a solution. The goal is always to stop thinking as a stand-alone being - to either become one with the drugs or to not think at all.

This is death.