Monday, March 25, 2019

The difficulty of killing - I

"The soldier above all other people prays for peace, for they must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war." -  MacArthur

On killing : the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society is a book written by Dave Grossman. He is a soldier of twenty years' service, has been a sergeant, a platoon leader, a general staff officer and a company commander in an infantry Division. In addition, he is a parachute infantryman and an army Ranger. He has been deployed to the Arctic tundras, the Central American jungles, NATO head-quarters, the Warsaw Pact, and many mountains and deserts. In short, he knows what he is talking about.

He quotes Leo Tolstoy at the beginning of the book:  ‘War has always interested me; not war in the sense of maneuvers devised by great generals . . . but the reality of war, the actual killing. I was more interested to know in what way and under the influence of what feelings one soldier kills another than to know how the armies were arranged at Austerlitz and Borodino.’ This is a topic that is not generally focused on. This book is different because it focuses on the psychology and the motivations of soldiers in actual combat which made them shoot or not shoot.

The standard way to model the response of an endangered creature is the fight or flight model.  This model is fine for inter-species fights but for intra-species fights, the set of options expands to include posturing and submission. Thus, the first response in intra-species fights is deciding between fleeing or posturing. The intimidating but harmless posturing motions and sounds are designed to convince an opponent  that the posturer is a dangerous and frightening adversary. What is created is a "perfect illusion of violence." When the posturer has failed to dissuade an intraspecies opponent, the options then become fight, flight, or submission. When the fight option is utilized, it is almost never to the death.

Similarly in war, as in gang war, posturing is the name of  the game. Small, invisible groups yelling could make itself sound like a regiment if it shouted loud enough. Plumed helmets, brilliantly shined armour, war cries, exploding grenades, charging bayonets,  etc., are posturing devices meant to intimidate the enemy before actual fighting. Adding the posture and submission options to the standard fight - or -flight model of aggression response helps to explain many of the actions on the battlefield. When a man is frightened, he literally stops thinking with his fore brain (that is, with the mind of a human being) and begins to think with the mid brain (that is, with the portion of his brain that is essentially indistinguishable from that of a non-human animal), and in the mind of an animal it is the one who makes the loudest noise or puffs himself up the largest who will win. Grossman writes:
. . . modern training or conditioning techniques  can partially overcome the inclination to posture. Indeed, the history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanisms for enabling and conditioning men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human beings. 
Prior to World War II it had always been assumed that the average soldier would kill in combat simply because his country and his leaders have told him to do so and because it is essential to defend his own life and that of his friends. But the unexpected discovery was that, of every hundred men along the line of fire during the period of an encounter, an average of only 15 to 20 "would take any part with their weapons." Why did the others fail to fire? From his studies, Grossman concluded that an important factor contributing to this surprising finding is that within most men there is  an intense resistance to killing their fellow man, ‘a resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it’.

Several studies have confirmed this: surveys and observations of the ancients, numerous accounts of ineffectual firing, assessment of Argentine firing rates in the Falklands War, data on the extraordinarily low killing rates among Napoleonic and American Civil War regiments, the British Army's laser re-enactments of historical battles, the FBI's studies of nonfiring rates among law-enforcement officers in the 1950s and 1960s, and countless other individual and anecdotal observations all confirm that the vast majority of combatants through-out history, ‘at the moment of truth when they could and should kill the enemy, have found themselves to be "conscientious objectors." ‘

Studies show that only a few men actually fire at the enemy, while others prefer to do other tasks like gather and prepare ammo, load weapons, pass weapons. Those who did fire seem to have intentionally missed their targets. Most soldiers seem to have an inner resistance to firing their weapon in combat.  This lack of enthusiasm for killing the enemy causes many soldiers to posture, submit, or flee, rather than fight; it represents a powerful psychological force on the battlefield; and it is a force that is discernible throughout the history of man.

Grossman interviewed numerous soldiers during his research. He says that while writing the book, he had been concerned that World War II veterans might take offense at reading that the vast majority of combat veterans of their era would not kill. But he found that not one individual from among the thousands who have read On Killing has disputed this finding.  He writes:
Just as I do not wish to condemn those who have killed in  lawful  combat, nor do I wish to judge the many soldiers who chose not to kill. There are many such soldiers; indeed I will provide evidence that in many historical circumstances these non-firers represented the majority of those on the firing line. As a soldier who may have stood beside them I cannot help but be dismayed at their failure to support their cause, their nation, and their fellows; but as a human being who has understood some of the burden that they have borne, and the sacrifice that they have made, I cannot help but be proud of them and the noble characteristic that they represent in our species.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Is the psychological distance between people shrinking or growing? - V

When you have a feeling that you might already understand something, but are not quite sure, you tend to go searching for information that will confirm your suspicions. When you find that confirming piece of information, you become satisfied that you were correct all along and you stop searching. Once you believe you’ve made sense of something, you feel that you need not continue your efforts and you stop your pursuit of new knowledge. When you depend on the Internet for information, such conformation bias is all-pervasive.

The search sector has tremendous power to determine what we see, where we spend, how we perceive the information we find, etc. In The Black Box Society, Frank Pasquale quotes George Dyson as saying in his book Turing’s Cathedral, “Facebook defines who we are, Amazon defines what we want, and Google defines what we think.” Eventually people may give algorithms the authority to make many important decisions. An illustration is the change in how we choose books in a bookstore and how we choose books in Amazon. When people go to a bookstore, they flip through one book and read the first few sentences of another, until some gut feeling connects them to a particular title.

In the Amazon virtual store, a message pops up and tells them: “I know which books you liked in the past. People with similar tastes also tend to love this or that new book.” Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able constantly to collect data on their users while they are reading books. Your Kindle can monitor which parts of a book you read quickly, and which slowly; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. If Kindle was to be upgraded with face recognition software and biometric sensors, it would know how each sentence influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It would know what made you laugh, what made you sad, what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. Such data should eventually enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision.

On one side is Google’s well-known motto – ‘Do no evil’. On the other hand, its former CEO Eric Schmidt once said that “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” In Black Box Society Frank Pasquale says, ‘It is probably more accurate to say that he and other Silicon  Valley leaders don’t want to be caught crossing the creepy line. As long as secrecy can be used to undermine market competition and law enforcement, they will be emboldened to experiment with ever-creepier, more intrusive, and even exploitative practises.’

Algorithm driven programs popularize more extreme views. People with more extreme views are more likely to express their feelings through clicks, likes and postings than moderates. Over time, the algorithm figures out which box you fit into and tailors suitable results towards you. (It will be called 'enhancing user experience' . And when you couple this with the future of fake news, you will have a mess.) Moderates will give a lot fewer data points for the algorithm to work with and so the targeting will be less precise.

The way Google’s search function operates ensures that people live in their own bubbles and are satisfied that the fragmented knowledge they get represents the whole truth. Google installs a cookie in your computer by default and collects the maximum possible information. Google knows the general location of the user from the IP address and his tastes and preferences from his previous usage pattern. Google will customize its search results according to such information so the results for the same search string at different locations and different users may not be the same.

Hiding behind labels like ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’, Google creates a new reality by the way it slices and presents reality. Google ranks pages according to the number of links they get and they proclaim that their search results show that ‘democracy on the web works’. But some have the resources to generate more links perhaps by paying influential sites  to link to it. There are many ways to game the system. Evgeny Morozov writes in To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, ‘The neutrality defense is bunk – and the sooner Google itself acknowledges this and finds a way to exercise its newly found powers responsibly, the fewer mistakes . . . it will commit in the future.'

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in August 2010 (quoted in Googlisation of Everything), Google’s chief executive officer, Eric Schmidt, said, “I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next. . . . We know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are.” As Google learns more about our search histories, and customizes the search results through its estimation of our interests, we will increasingly find ourselves in a bubble. You will never encounter the unexpected, the different, the ‘Other’. You will only get information that fits your prior beliefs.

There are ways to remove customization but most people are not technically savvy enough to perform the necessary actions so they are stuck with Google's default option which is to gather whatever information is possible about an individual. Siva Vaidyanathan says in The Googlisation of Everything, ‘Over time, as users in a diverse array of countries train Google’s algorithms to respond to specialized queries with localized results, each place in the world will have a different list of what is important, true, or “relevant” in response to any query.’ So although information has been made available to everyone in theory, walls get built up in practice.

We tend to think that when people take decisions after discussing an issue in a group, an 'average' of the group view emerges. But this is not what happens. People take more extreme views when in a group rather than when they are alone, a phenomenon known as group polarization. Many studies from different parts of the world have shown the phenomenon of group polarization in action. For example, after a group discussion, people already supportive of a war become more supportive, people with an initial tendency towards racism become more racist. This phenomenon also occurs in online discussion.

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump said  that a man who tried to rush the stage during a rally had ties to ISIS. When he couldn’t produce any evidence,  he said that all he knew about it came from what he saw on the Internet. When the most powerful man on the planet believes the information on the Internet, it can't be comforting. As Clay Shirkey says in his post A Speculative Post on the Idea of Algorithmic Authority, ‘There’s a spectrum of authority from “Good enough to settle a bar bet” to “Evidence to include in a dissertation defense”, and most uses of algorithmic authority right now cluster around the inebriated end of that spectrum…’

More data makes us feel that we can make more accurate predictions. But those predictions change human social and political behaviour thus negating  those same predictions soon after they are made. Thus more data will make the world more complex and unpredictable than before. I keep recollecting a statement by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj – 'I am prepared to maintain that humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.' And the ‘silly’ old man was right (which doesn’t surprise me anymore). Ironically, the 'modernist' vision of Nehru has become controversial while the 'obsurantist' Gandhi has become more relevant. Joseph Brodsky writes in Less Than One:
There is something in the consciousness of literati that cannot stand the notion of someone's moral authority. They resign themselves to the existence of a First Party Secretary or of a Fuhrer, as to a necessary evil, but they would eagerly question a prophet. This is so, presumably, because being told that you are a slave is less disheartening news than being told that morally you are zero. After all, a fallen dog shouldn't be kicked. However, a prophet kicks a fallen dog not to finish it off but to get it back on its feet. The resistance to those kicks ...comes not from a desire for truth but from the intellectual smugness of slavery.