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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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?

About Me

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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