Dr. Suprakash Roy appears in The Best Seller, a novel by Arunabha Sengupta.

A cyber conscious mender of minds, he is interested in the effect of the modern world of the internet and social networking in changing human behaviour.

The following are a demonstration of how the doctor's own mind works, extrapolated from the novel.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Highs and Lows - Bipolar world wide web

The Queen of England has entered Facebook and the surfing serfdom has responded with 200000 likes.

Sarah Palin has discovered that Twitteratti is suitable for Political proclamations, probably because given the 140 character limit, she would not be expected to defend her dramatic statements.

However, while the conservative, liberal, old world and new world politicians join the social networking bandwagon, some mysterious game is afoot.

A while back, members of a group called Digg Patriots had been banding together to promote conservative leaning online stories. On the social networking site Digg, which presaged Facebook and Twitter, they were burying the articles of certain users within a couple of hours by posting their own comments over them in bulk.

While Digg Patriots were taken down after a website revealed their curious antics, and Digg itself has been left behind in the race by technologically more robust Facebook and Twitter which are immune from such burying tactics, it does raise a few questions.

Web 2.0 as I see it, acts more like a peripheral device for the modern brain. This is nothing sensational or new. Human beings have for ever been subject to the information that has flowed from the news print, television, movies, other media and now the internet. What is radically alarming to me is that, in this environment, where the individuals themselves seem to play a role in communicating and being a part of the propaganda juggernaut, manufactured consent is ever more easy.

While control of news and media by powers that be is not new by any stretch of imagination, modern times with Wikipedia, Google,Twitter and Facebook make it ridiculously easy for those with vested interests to mass manufacture favourable arguments and consent. Included in the step is the easy to use make-believe 'power' vested in the individual to forward and like the propaganda. This gives surfers the manufactured feel of playing an active part in social consciousness.

What we see often is manufactured groupthink orchestrated across these networks. This  not only promotes the propaganda, but also ensures that the population sincerely believe that they 'support' and 'like' and 'retweet' their own opinion, playing a major part in the important global movements.

With the sensory delights of the web, the clickable links promising plenty of reward with minimum of expended effort, aural, visual and also tactile touchscreen delights there for the taking, the millions cannot be expected to dwell on a particular issue for more than the half a minute before moving on to the next you-tube video or iTunes download. And if a supposedly socially conscious thought rolls by with thousands of likes, aggregated with web based evidence and agreement, it is easy to put the click of consent and pamper one's political consciousness, before moving to the next link of entertainment.

With the aid of agents and programs, it is not really a theoretical or technological stretch for sufficiently powerful interests to manufacture and append web based evidence and agreement. In the virtual world, a lot of the facts are .. well ...virtual ... and sadly, our netizens are growing more and more oblivious of the fact. The worldview that is being presented as the external consciousness of the current mass of mankind can be more virtual than ever before.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Retweet Your Revolution

My young politically conscious friend, the lovely Shruti Rattan, continues to view my cynicism about the internet and its effects on the worldview through her own sceptic spectacles.

When I claim social networking is instrumental in reducing the human free will for decision making and makes the derived species of netizens more and more susceptible to the phenomena of easy manufactured consent, she retaliates vociferously. The networked world, powered by Web 2.0, according to her, is more ideally evolved for social revolution than at any point of history. With one click of the mouse or flick of a thumb across a touchscreen, it is now possible to make the news of social evils available across the world. Tweets were what made Tehran stand up for freedom and democracy – and the Moldova revolution against their communist government can be called a Twitter revolution. Social networking brings unlimited empowerment to social activism. In one of our cannabis conferences, she even went on to state that the Berlin Wall was ripped down as a result of better communication through digitisation.

Mark Pfeifle, a former US  national-security adviser, has even written calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors are all across the cyberworld, spreading awareness, pushing for change.
“You are the best hope for us all,” James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official, told a crowd of cyber activists at a recent conference sponsored by Facebook, A. T. & T., Howcast, MTV, and Google. Sites like Facebook, according to Glassman, “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.”

Let us look at these puzzling claims, which have a strange whiff of overdone hype. With the screening of movies about Facebook and numerous instant best sellers about the power of the social networks, with a industry expectedly growing around the networking tools, it is natural that hype will be voiced and will be tweeted and retweeted, shared and reshared, posted and liked across the cyber world. But does it really
mean that much, even if one chooses to ignore the audacious claim that Al Qaida is stuck in Web1.0?

Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had limited  internal significance in Moldova. Very few Twitter accounts exist in the country. Anne Applebaum suggested in the Washington Pos that the entire revolution may well have been a bit of stagecraft cooked up by the government. 'In a country paranoid about Romanian revanchism, the protesters flew a Romanian flag over the Parliament building.'

In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

The fact remains that there is a developing false consciousness about the past through our connectedness, that communications did not really exist in the pre internet days. All the new stray facts and experiences seem to be herded into the category – social networking innovations.
I will again revisit the statement of my young friend as stated in the beginning of this article.         'With one click of the mouse or the flick of a thumb on a touch-screen, it is now possible to make the news of the social evils available across the world.'

My problem with social revolution aided by Twitter and Facebook is exactly that. One click of a mouse, one flick of the thumb on the touhcscreen. All done in the comfort of air conditioned offices or on a smug bedside table.  This is not instigated by a large racist white policeman throwing one off the train in South Africa. There is no palpating heart which skips every time a member of the local gang of white toughs enter the restaurant in Greensboro in the 1960s where one sits protesting because the establishment refused to serve a black man. Facebook, Twitter and their clones are at best armchair activism where involvement and outrage last about thirty seconds before moving on to the next  post announcing someone's procuring  a Cow on Farmville.

To me, what passes for socially networked activism is often in large quantities the kick one gets from nursing narcissism. From communicating his own political consciousness and scoail conscience to the whole wide world at the press of a button. It is often giant ego boosting self promoting propaganda. And sometimes an apology of social principles - throwing small change of Like, Comments, Retweets and Share into the donation box of issues while the juggernaut of life carries us hurtling along.

A little more probing gets down to the nature of the relationships involved in social networking and social activism. The freshmen who launched the crucial protest in Greensboro – leading to the emancipation of the black American people – were classmates and shared dorms. Let us look at some more examples. The revolutionaries in the Italian Red Brigade, the anti Taliban rebels in Afghanistan, the opposition groups in East Germany, the freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Jaigopal, Rajguru and Sukhdev … All had one common trait shared with the four freshmen who sat down in protest against the 'We don't serve negroes' rebuff. They were connected through strong ties of friendship. The groups were formed by closely knit young men who knew each other intimately before being joined by a common cause. The East German, the Italian and the Afghan activist groups shared the trait of having close friends in the revolution before plunging in it themselves. Bhagat Singh teamed up with college buddies.

Activism is always built a cause, but it also involves taking substantial risks and standing up for one's team. The primary features of social activism is taking a stand where dangerous implications are involved, and to do this one needs faith in one's mates. That is one of the reasons we see friendship and bonding being core differentiators in every successful activist group.

Contrast this with Facebook and Twitter. Facebook at best is a tool for managing weak ties that would not have bound otherwise. People with whom you would probably not be able to remain in touch in normal life. As noted in a previous post, people collect more friends on Facebook than they would be able to have a casual drink with in real life.
And Twitter is a place to follow the instant thoughts of people one hasn't even met.

So, can one hope to achieve social revolution through Social Networks? I would not put my money on it.
Facebook and Twitter have their serious uses. They work on weak ties and hence it is a great place to spread the news where not too much is asked from people – what suffices is exactly a click of a mouse or a flick of a thumb on the touch-screen. For example, forwarding petitions for the change of legislation, for reporting the requirement of blood of a particular group for a particular terminally ill patient. All these have their uses.
The other advantage is that new connections, new ideas and new opportunities are most likely to come from weak associations. Scientifically speaking, if you have strong ties with some individuals, you would be likely to know the avenues and the opportunities they can introduce you to … and chances are that you have already explored them. However, with people you don't know that well, there is always the chance of stumbling upon some prospects that come as a complete surprise and open up new avenues.

However, as far as social activism and revolution is concerned, weak ties are not exactly what I would recommend. We have already covered the area of armchair activists of whom not a lot is asked for. Added to this, two more reasons make it very difficult for Facebook and Twitter to lead social change.
One, every successful 'people revolution' need someone like a Martin Luther King Jr., or a Nelson Mandela – a leader with charisma to combine the connected activists into a functioning machine. By their very structure, Facebook and Twitter have no chain of command. There is absolutely no hierarchy, and it is difficult to imagine leaders leading the people who 'Like' their fan pages.

Secondly, there is the question of accountability. For an organisation – and social revolution is something brought about by an organisation – to be effective in bringing about social change, there have to be properly handled tasks assigned to individuals. Be it the American Civil Rights movement or the Boston Tea Party, successful social revolution follows assigned tasks and accountability. This is fundamentally against the very principle of the social networks, whose selling point is being cool, characterised by a single icon on which to click and share. Anything more than navigating three links – the social revolution will trip, tumble and totter.

Networking is fine … but virtual social activism will remain just that … virtual. It brings a complete new meaning to Thomas Jefferson's words : A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cognitive Fallacies of Probability and the Internet

Linda Fallacy. Availability Heuristics. Confirmation Bias.

Well, yes, I am dropping jargon like a consultant, as my new bunch of friends would say.
What I am essentially talking about here are Probabilitistic Cognitive Illusions - a malfunction of the evolution of our cognitive map which makes us prone to make errors when faced with choices involving probability.

Let me start with the Linda Fallacy. Also known as Conjunction Fallacy. The most famous names associated with work related to Psychology of Decisions and Choice,Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, state this as follows:
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Which is more probable?
A) Linda is a bank teller.
B) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

A whopping 85% of people, when asked this question, choose B, although, in Probabilistic terms, the event B is included in the event A and hence has a lower probability. However, human beings are not engineered for proper probabilistic thinking.

Or the celebrated TaxiCab problem:
In another study done by Tversky and Kahneman, subjects were given the following problem:
A cab was involved in a hit and run accident at night. Two cab companies, the Green and the Blue, operate in the city. 85% of the cabs in the city are Green and 15% are Blue.
A witness identified the cab as Blue. The court tested the reliability of the witness under the same circumstances that existed on the night of the accident and concluded that the witness correctly identified each one of the two colors 80% of the time and failed 20% of the time.
What is the probability that the cab involved in the accident was Blue rather than Green knowing that this witness identified it as Blue?

Most subjects gave probabilities over 50%, and some gave answers over 80%.

The correct answer, found using Bayes' theorem, is lower than these estimates:
There is a 12% chance (15% times 80%) of the witness correctly identifying a blue cab.
There is a 17% chance (85% times 20%) of the witness incorrectly identifying a green cab as blue.
There is therefore a 29% chance (12% plus 17%) the witness will identify the cab as blue.
This results in a 41% chance (12% divided by 29%) that the cab identified as blue is actually blue.

Whenever the problem turns Bayesian, it is almost impossible for anyone but a trained statistician or mathematical probabilist to think out complicated situations.

And even trained statisticians are fallible, as pointed out by Marilyn von Savant in the famed Monty Hall problem. I am providing this curious problem below:

Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, "Do you want to pick door No. 2?" Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

Although not explicitly stated in this version, solutions are almost always based on the additional assumptions that the car is initially equally likely to be behind each door and that the host must open a door showing a goat, must randomly choose which door to open if both hide goats, and must make the offer to switch.
As the player cannot be certain which of the two remaining unopened doors is the winning door, and initially all doors were equally likely, most people assume that each of two remaining closed doors has an equal probability and conclude that switching does not matter; hence the usual answer is "stay with your original door". However, under standard assumptions, the player should switch—doing so doubles the overall probability of winning the car from 1/3 to 2/3.
The Monty Hall problem, in its usual interpretation, is mathematically equivalent to the earlier Three Prisoners problem, and both bear some similarity to the much older Bertrand's box paradox. These and other problems involving unequal distributions of probability are notoriously difficult for people to solve correctly; when the Monty Hall problem appeared in Parade Magazine, approximately 10,000 readers, including nearly 1,000 with PhDs, wrote to the magazine claiming the published solution ("switch!") was wrong. Numerous psychological studies examine how these kinds of problems are perceived. Even when given a completely unambiguous statement of the Monty Hall problem, explanations, simulations, and formal mathematical proofs, many people still meet the correct answer with disbelief.

Why this inability to solve probability problems?

One school of thought is that different events and situations faced men only relatively recently in the history of mankind. Interaction between people and events started to get exponentially complicated with the growth of communities. With small populations, life is simple – the probability space is narrow. If the cave painter is not etching mammoths on the wall (I guess the primitive man also had some way of denoting that they liked whatever was on the wall), he was probably with his woman. That is where probability came to a stop. But, with community growth, cultural exchange, communication methods and complicated networks between an ever expanding group of human beings, there are complicated events to consider, some independent, some dependent, some included and some excluded. Our genes have not kept up with the speed of community building and hence, when we make decisions of choice, we most often go by gut feel rather than probabilistic reasoning. Hence comes into the picture anchoring, bandwagon method, a total lack of understanding of the law of large numbers. In finance, many people blow up because of their gut feel that, after serving them through these various alternatives to probabilistic thinking mentioned above, finally runs out of luck.

And think of the world now, after connections and parameters have taken a completely new meaning, with the advent of the internet and Web 2.0 in the form of social networking. With the human brain not equipped to deal with probability based on events in normal society, how does it fare in the socially networked world, where connections are infinite in the literal sense? Decision making based on the information available to human beings based on all the channels of association in the modern world is in one word – impossible. The brain is just not tuned to work with so many parameters.

And if I suggest that a major reason for the panic that snowballed into the crisis was the socially networked communications, which took away the last rational power of people to make an informed choice, will I be too far from the truth?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Change of Weather

23rd September, 2010 ... Facebook faces technical problems.

Some New Yorkers used the Facebook outage as an opportunity to step away from the computer and enjoy the weather.

"Since facebook went down, I went outside. I forgot how nice September can be. Go outside," tweeted user Broadbandito, who is located in New York.

Change of weather? Clouding of the virtual skies enabling us to switch on the sunlight in our lives?

Strange times.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Net aided Neocortex and Community Stamp Collection

University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Wegner conducted an experiment to demonstrate what he calls transactive memory.

It seems all memory is not stored within our own heads. As social animals, whenever we interact closely, a lot of storage takes place outside, in combination with other cortical cells as well. Almost like a joint memory account.

He conducted a memory test involving  59 couples, all dating each other for the last three months. Half of them were allowed to form pairs between themselves, and the other half were split up and paired randomly. Wegner then asked all the pairs to read 64 statements, each with an underlined word. Eg. Midori is a Japanese melon liqueur.

Five minutes later, they were asked to write down as many of the underlined words as they remembered. Sure enough, the pairs who knew each other could remember a lot more. They seemed to have an implicit joint memory system.

Cognition in community is different from cognition of individuals. Same with memory and reactions.  The difference in the behaviour of one by himself and in a group is very well known and analysed.

A community existing together tends to develop a set of characteristics unique to the group. Where, as a group, they like, dislike, appreciate, hate, idolise and take steps that would have been alien to the individual lives of the different individuals who constitute the group.

Think what it means in terms of communities like Facebook, Orkut, Twitter and the rest. As people tend to spend more and more time within the groups, the questions crops up.

How much does an individual think for oneself?
Is it a tweet and then the migratory reflex takes over the population, with each one unsure of the direction, moving as a united whole? Much as the migratory birds do?

But then, man is a social animal.

With neocortical volumes of apes proportional to the intelligence, and that in turn proportional to the size of the groups they can peacefully cohabit, man finds himself in the biggest communities.

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar found the phenomenon very striking and also fit an equation linking cortical volume with community size.  The more a community grows, the bigger is the number of multiple way interactions that one has to keep track of. In a five member group, one has to contend with 6 interpersonal dynamics apart from the four between self and others. When the group increases to 10 members, it becomes 36 interpersonal relationships added to nine between self and others. So, naturally, living and cohabiting peacefully in a big group requires sufficient brain size to manage all relationships and interactions.

The size of the ideal human group based on the cortical volume, according to the equation derived by Dunbar, is 147.8 or roughly 150. Human beings are programmed through evolution so that more than 150 people in a group necessitates branching into different communities or creating a complicated system of hierarchy. That’s why military units are hardly ever more than 150 and some of the hunter gatherer tribes who survive to this day, like the Hutterites, make it a point to branch off into other group once the member count reaches 150. Even high tech firm Gore Associates, Newark, Delaware, follows the policy of opening a new office whenever a centre exceeds 150.

The reason for a cap in the number of members in a group is simple. Bonding as friends, or close associates, empathising and resonating takes time, and burns emotional energy. At more than 150, our channel capacity is exhausted. Then the group behaviour becomes erratic, unmanageable and unpredictable, often harmful.

However, we see people collecting friends like stamps on Social Networking sites, often ‘friends’ numbering more than 500, and moving as a unified group along with them. The 150 boundary is flagrantly overstepped.

The questions that naturally arise are ...
Is an individual losing individuality, burnt out in expended emotional energy ?
Are the friendships meaningful?
Are networks moving haphazardly, malfunctioning their way to some downfall?
Are human beings, powered by internet, evolving to have greater net aided neocortical capabilities?
How easy is it in today’s community linked world to control the minds of many in unscrupulous ways?
Is some self motivated power not already doing it?

Well ... we have to wait, watch and find out ...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Evolution of Language and Cognition in Twitter Age

Body language matters …

When talking to people, there are different expressions, facial features and gestures typical to types of individuals that tip the cognitive map of our brains into liking, disliking, trusting, mistrusting, developing a rapport, remaining aloof, becoming friendly, falling in love, getting aroused and all sorts of emotions.

In a strange chain reaction, various ancient memories mapped in our schema, of this life or ancestral, comes into the picture. You may like someone because she moves her lips as you speak, as if trying to repeat what you have just said … something mapped to your schema of the mind because your high school girlfriend used to do the same. You may not like a salesperson because his eyes move too quickly, arising memories long dead, of an ancient ancestor being confronted by a snake.

Tone of  the voice, shift of the eye, twitch of the facial muscles, position of the hands, these are different for people with different traits – which allow them to connect as senders, receivers and carriers of emotion.  If we see two people in conversation, a silent video film of their interaction will produce particular patterns that can be correlated with the dynamics built up by the two. The eyes contribute to 80% of the senses, so the visual factor influences the cognitive maps in ways no sense organ can even approach. Most of this connection often takes place within the first blink of the eye.

And in the modern day, people are being heralded at birth by Twitter, tracking progress on facebook and communicating in mediums of chat, sms, emails … A lot of the connection between people happen over the connection space of the social network, where, following body signals with eyes is eliminated from the equation, replaced by smileys. The dance that we witness in a video recording of interaction between individuals is replaced by distinct images of space and time separated reactions to scraps, wall posts, emails and texts. Even in real time chat, one does not see the movement of the eye, the twitch of the face.

But, as the worldview, and with it, the interaction space changes, human beings will evolve in their cognitive connections. New words, expressions and language quirks are bound to come into communication. I am not speaking of ROFL and GNSD and WYSIWYG. There are bound to crop up specific  patterns of word usage in the medium of the net that will distinguish senders from receivers, that will be instrumental in building  rapport among different individuals, that will emit the approximation of those signals produced by subtle movement of body parts, facial features … and within the secret cognitive map of the human being, will develop the skill of reading and deciphering these signals. Probably a lot of it has already developed. 

Language and cognition of language is undergoing an upheaval. We are some years from knowing the exact details.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Virtual World Record

When we talk of world records in sports, we are still restricted to the field of play - even when the erstwhile distinct divide of the world into the actual and the virtual is becoming more and more fuzzy.

And like every sphere of the actual game, in the virtual world too, Sachin Tendulkar is the trailblazer, lighting up the web in a way that outshines firewalls.

When he was nearing his 200 against South Africa - the first man to score a double hundred in an One Day International - the crowd of users flocking to check the updates crashed Cricinfo.com. For a long period of time, the site was unavailable. The first time this had happened because of overload in the history of the website.

Mark of a genius ... and I guess some indication of the way he influences the lives of millions.

However, I get the feeling that before long the charisma, x-factor, and popularity of sportsmen will be judged by the number of hits - not across the net or past the fielders, but on the web pages.

Or is it already the case? New cognitive world view ... new Weltanschauung.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Information Freeway or Modern Maoism?

Social Networking is the panacea of many. Especially for the BRIC nations, blogs, status updates, family photo albums, political tweets and virtual videos are a window to sharing with the rest of the world. The East West divide of progress of the 20th century is more or less reverse replicated in the extent of social network usage across the world. And this information sharing has brought about a revolution in the way of life and understanding of the same.

However, when I asked pointed questions over implications of powers with vested interests controlling sites that people take for granted as gateways to information - Google and Wikipedia - people grew uncomfortable, but ultimately scoffed.

Pessimistic as it sounds, it may not be too far from the truth. Who will pass up this monumental opportunity of propaganda if given the chance?

China has already started creating a great wall around the information highway. And the graph given here will demonstrate how different states are very, very concerned about controlling information and manipulating minds.

In this world view of unprecedented group think with scarce thinking and more forwarding social networked animals, mind control of the mass is easier than ever.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

iPhone therefore I am - net nuggets

With one Apple, expelled from Eden ... with iPad, iPhone, iBook, iTunes, iPod ??? Expelled from earth to roam forever in virtual reality

iPhone therefore I am

A world that wakes up to read the writing on the wall

Twitter has made the world more forward thinking than ever ... albeit more prone to forward than think

The click shall inherit the earth

Facebook - a combination of id, ego and superego ... with id signifying electronic identity

Cosmic consciousness or end of free will?

Words of the Prophet are written on the Facebook Wall ...

Click and thou shalt find

Thy will be done ... on earth as on the web

Panic is infectious, twitter and facebook the carriers ... the social networked animal is approaching the tipping point of an epidemic

About Me

My photo
A novelist and cricket historian, Arunabha Sengupta is the author of three novels and the Chief Cricket Writer on cricketcountry.com. In his novels he deals with the contemporary world with acerbic humour. In his cricket writings he covers the history and romance in the game, while his post graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces