Thursday, 14 June 2012

I Prefer Reality (Part 2)

Further joy at religious versions of reality being untrue

A month or two ago, I wrote about why I am so very glad that the versions of reality described by various religions are almost certainly untrue. I spoke about the tyrannical vision of life that Christianity, for example, teaches, and how I am glad to live in a world where this is almost definitely not the case.

But for all the suffering that humans might endure, on the larger scale of the universe, this is not really of much significance. What are the lives and deaths of a few score billion people, in the vast cold depths of the universe? But most religions not only have a position on what humans can and should do, the meaning of their lives, and the path to their ultimate destiny: they also have quite specific ideas about how the universe as a whole works. In a way, I think it would be an even greater shame if these were actually true, since not only would humanity by living under the yoke of an all seeing slave driver / condemned to karma-driven reincarnation / punished infinitely for finite crimes (and so on), but the universe itself would not be the wondrous thing we perceive it to be.

Take, for example, the Christian creation myth. That the planet was created in about a week, and populated immediately with all flora, fauna, and mankind in pretty much their current forms almost immediately, has a superficial appeal. As creation myths go, it isn't so bad, and implies a touch of artistry on the part of the God who created it all (after all, it took a whole six days' work). But on further consideration, I find this to be so, so, dull. The whole thing, as a working system, arrived in one go? What about the coalescing of a cosmic dust cloud, the ages of fiery volcanism, the majestic drift and shuddering collision of continents, the cycles of ice and fire, that made up the natural history of the Earth, as science tells it? That is what we stand to lose, if the Christian creation myth is true, and I would see that as a big let-down. Four billion years of geological chaos is so much more entertaining than a few days of divine construction.

And it's not just the Earth's marvellous history that we'd lose: remember, that particular creation myth - and all the others, for that matter - generally speak about the creation of the whole universe. The big bang, re-ionisation, hyper-inflation, the collision of multidimensional membranes, the birth and death of stars... all these wonders of science would turn out to be an illusion, placed into the cosmos such that they just happen to look as though they tell a rich and awe-inspiring history, for some reason. That may be an over-literal interpretation of these myths, but even so - if the universe did evolve as we suppose it did, but either under the direction of, or set in motion by, some God, a pantheon of gods born of chaos, supernatural force, divine congress, or whatever, that would still remove a lot of the fun from trying to figure it out, and the wonder at how it all came to be.

by Zen Pencils
The question of our own origins is another matter in which the scientific truth far outweighs any religious claim in terms of wonder and inspiration. The evolutionary origin of humanity is something which still drags on as a point of contention amongst the more literalistic religious believers, as countless debates and school-board hearings sadly demonstrate. One of the prime motivations, it seems, behind those who would deny our descent from ape ancestors, is the unwillingness to associate humans with being mere animals, a disgust of what it says about our un-divine natures. I see it exactly the other way around: evolution by natural selection is a far more empowering way to have come into being than to be merely placed, fully formed, in a garden one sunny Saturday morning. If we are to believe we were created pure and perfect, then presumably we must be nothing other than a disappointment, ever declining and sinning and failing to achieve our god-given potential - certainly not a very inspiring view of life (that sadly seems prevalent in a lot of religious thinking). The alternative, that we started as apes eking a living by whatever means from a merciless environment, and gradually developed into the thinking, feeling, rational beings we are, able to achieve great feats of engineering and exploration, to extend our own lives to many times their natural length and live in comfort undreamed of by any other creature: that is surely the more pleasing interpretation of our existence, and one which I am very happy to find is much more likely to be true.

Lest it seem like I'm going after Christianity in particular (though as I said before, that's just because it's the one I know most about), I'll emphasise the point that it doesn't really matter which mythical view of reality one considers: none of them match the real physical universe for sheer awesomeness. No religious sect ever dreamed up anything as majestic as spirals of stars, hundreds of quadrillions of miles wide, spinning towards each other over uncountable billions of years, to eventually collide and pass though each other. No creation myth is as impressive as an exploding star, spewing heavy elements formed in the fires of nuclear fusion out into space, to gradually coalesce into balls of rock and gas capable of sustaining life. No fantastical account of human beginnings is as empowering and satisfying as a billion year struggle from single celled life, through countless different forms, pitted against all the relentless forces of nature and the jaws of predators, and against all the odds, to survive, to produce beings capable not just of rising themselves out of the dust but to actively transcend our own biology, and to be capable of comprehending the whole dizzying journey.

That's why I get somewhat annoyed at religious believers who ignore such majesty; who insist that as wondrous as it is, it was produced by one God for one purpose; or to deny it even happened: because what they are missing is amazing. Similarly, for any semi-spiritual, New-Age philosophy that insists there's 'something' out there, that there are are things 'beyond science' or facts we are 'not meant to know'... well yes, of course there's something out there: there's a whole universe of supermassive black holes and unimaginably small strings, of nebulae bigger than a thousand suns and wasps smaller than a pinhead. And isn't this enough - just this? Why invoke ghosts and spirits and gods and demons, when we have the mystery of consciousness, the ingenuity of evolution, and the search for life elsewhere to occupy us? It seems that any alternative fantasies that people invoke serve only to detract from the real nature of reality, and are a poor substitute for the wonders that are really there to be found.

That's why I'm happy with the real, physical universe we have, and why I see it not as some barren, bleak, godless void, but a playground of rich wonders of which we could never have imagined. And why, as we begin to comprehend how the whole thing works, I am immensely glad that it is not a six-thousand year old project of an omnipotent tyrant, a result of a snake eating itself, or produced by a melody over dark water: but thirteen billion years of chaos and confusion and matter and exploding stars and dinosaurs and pulsars and drifting continents and giant sloths and hot Jupiters and the Casimir effect and common descent and redshift and quantum entanglement and emergent consciousness. This is much more fun.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Untangling the media

Reflections on the state of traditional, online, and social media, and on attempts to understand them

It is quite clear that the media has a large influence on how we perceive the world. Indeed, almost all our knowledge of reality comes not from first-hand experience, but other sources such as TV, newspapers, film and the internet. The massive increase in availability of such forms of information in the past century has made us much better informed, being able to get a reasonable idea of events happening on the other side of the planet in almost real-time - something which was completely inconceivable not too long ago.

As we consume more and more media, it becomes not just a way of finding out about what's happening elsewhere: it is reality. And since this reality is based on second hand information, fed to us by third parties with their own aims and agenda, we can easily get a false view of the world if the information is inaccurate or biased. This need not be deliberate deception, or even a conscious manipulation of facts, but a consequence of providing information in a way in which it is most easily absorbed. For example, the portrayal of violence on television (not just in news but also films and other fiction) is known to be far in excess of its actual incidence. This has various causes - sensationalism, the fact that violence shocks and sells copies, and because it's what viewers expect to hear - and people then genuinely believe their environment to be a more dangerous, unpleasant place than it actually is (this is called the mean world syndrome).  Similarly, people's views on scientific topics, such as climate change and the state of the economy, are often incorrect and grounded in misleading and biased reporting.

These issues were discussed at a lecture I attended a few weeks ago, hosted by the University of Bristol. Justin Lewis, a professor of communication at Cardiff University, discussed his work studying people's consumption of various media, and how this affects their beliefs about the world. In his work he has studied people's reaction to climate change, and how even though this is one of the most dangerous, urgent problems that humanity faces, we are in general remarkably relaxed about the whole thing.

It is interesting to note to that, while blatantly biased reporting obviously plays a role in all this, one of the ways in which people come to believe falsehoods is by erroneously imagining a connection between frequently co-occurring facts. For example, there is a reasonably widespread belief that the Earth is warming due to the hole in the ozone layer; this is totally untrue, but the point is that they are both often mentioned together, and this gives people the false impression that they must therefore be related, and even to construct an illusory causal relationship. Another example is the disturbingly pervasive belief in the US (and apparently in the UK) that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in league with Bin Laden: this is nothing but paranoia, but it is very likely that the two figures were frequently mentioned in the same news items, leaving people to inadvertently come to their own specious conclusions. Such unintended interaction between unrelated pieces of information would be hard to predict and track, and harder still to counter; it is a property of an incredibly complex system of information, over which individual people or organisations have a diminishing amount of control.

An interesting point made by Lewis was that, in this age of unparalleled access to information, where almost the entire knowledge of the species is available at our fingertips, people will still tend to seek out what is familiar to them. So rather than find new perspectives, people tend to go for that which confirms what they already know, and fits in with their current world view. This is quite understandable, since we generally prefer that which is familiar; but it encourages media providers to provide what they know their public wants: they make sure people hear what they expect to hear, packaging stories in a way that is most appealing (this is clearly evident in newspapers such as the UK's Daily Mail, well known for giving a hysterical, fear-mongering, xenophobic slant to everything; as well as traditionally more 'upmarket' publications such as the Guardian, whose left-leaning stance on issues such as immigration and the environment can usually be expected to chime with their readers' expectations.) The unfortunate consequence of this is that people's view of reality comes from the media they choose to consume, which is produced by organisations who sell them what they want to hear - a self-perpetuating cycle of misinformation and distortion. This is rather worrying, not least because politics and the media are so often intertwined, with policies aimed at appeasing papers and their readers - but also because such feedback loops and cycles of obfuscation become increasingly hard to comprehend.

The attempt to understand the way media is generated and consumed is the research interest of the second speaker at the lecture, Nello Cristianini, who followed Lewis's talk with an overview of the work carried out by his research group here at Bristol. The vast output of all the world's media is far beyond the capability of any human to comprehend, but using software which they have developed, it is becoming possible to automatically analyse news reports, from a variety of outlets, in an attempt to understand the constant flow of information. Obtaining, processing and storing the data is a feat of engineering in itself, requiring some rather substantial computing resources; but the real challenge is to autonomously understand the content of these articles.

One interesting area of this work is analysing which news articles become popular (defined as those that make the 'most popular' list), and attempting to predict this. It seems that it is not possible to simply classify, for a given article, whether it will be popular or not (understandably, since what is popular changes from day to day); but given a set of news articles it is possible to quite accurately predict which will be more popular than others from the same day. One thing that becomes evident from such analysis is that stories about people and celebrities tends to be more popular; and even amongst the readers of outlets specialising in topics such as politics and business, the articles they tend to prefer are of a more tabloid variety. This is perhaps not too surprising, and fits with the idea mentioned above that people will tend to seek out what interests them the most. I can imagine this kind of research being used by content providers to more accurately target their consumers with more of what sells well; but also as a useful tool for understanding how people consume information, and the most effective way of disseminating news stories to people so that they remain interested.

However, one thing which is important to realise about news stories is that they are not, in fact, "stories". Humans are a storytelling species, and our voracious consumption of novels, film, soap operas, musicals, opera, comic books, and theatre go to show how engaging a well-told tale can be. However, as we discussed after the lecture (I was fortunate enough to have a drink and a chat with the two speakers and a few of their students), news media is not presented this way. There is a headline, which essentially states the main, salient point; there is a preamble outlining basically what happened; and then there is the main body of the article, outlining the finer detail and background to the event. Maybe it's this that drives people to be disinterested in weightier topics, and seek items which are more easy to relate to personal narratives, or have a more direct relevance to their own lives. It's interesting that news coverage is almost the only genre that does this: in film, music, computer games, there is always the tension caused by not quite knowing what will happen next. Newspapers did not do this; radio and television news followed this model, with short snappy headlines followed by a progressive spiral of illumination; online news outlets naturally fell into the same format.

I must admit though, I do have some reservations about this hypothesis, and can't quite imagine actual news presented in an exciting, narrative-driven fashion, with key facts being withheld until the gripping conclusion; news written in this way would, I suspect, be infuriating.

In this discussion of how news stories aren't stories at all, another obvious example came to mind that takes this hierarchical approach to disseminating information: academic papers. Here, even more than in news articles, there is a concise, informative title, followed by an abstract quickly summarising the purpose, methods, and conclusions of a piece of work, followed by a lengthier account of the technical details. As my supervisor in my earlier days used to tell me: this is not a thriller, don't withhold information - tell them what they need to know and give detail later. This may well be a more efficient means of describing research after all - though as Justin Lewis lamented, few people actually read these papers. A dry, no-suspense delivery style might have something to do with it (of course, the lack of attention span is exactly why we structure papers like this - we have abstracts because we know they don't read the whole thing).

But this pessimism about the homogeneity of individual's media consumption may not be so well deserved. After all, some stories/articles/videos become immensely popular, and spread over the whole internet with virtually no top-down control, exposing people to viewpoints they might not have actively sought - that is, they go viral. Naturally enough, our conversation turned to memes - where ideas are considered replicators, spreading through a population simply because they are good at spreading. Perhaps this could be a way of spreading information, in an easy to consume format: produce many variants of a news story, release them, and the ones which are better at spreading will reach the widest audience.  Exploiting the new-found knowledge of which kind of stories people want to read could make such an approach more likely to succeed (indeed, the secret to creating viral, self-perpetuating content has long been a goal of advertising and marketing). Whether packaging news in viral memes and spreading them - essentially tricking people into reading what an editor thinks they should be reading - is a good idea, I'm not so sure; then again, packaging content in an easy to access, relateable format is exactly what newspapers, TV and the internet have always done (I should emphasise that I'm not talking about memes in the lolcats / face-with-caption sense, but rather the construction of news stories in which makes people want to share them).

Of course, consumption of top-down media is only part of the story. User generated content, such as blogs and social networking, are becoming a significant factor in the way people react to and find out about the world; and as complicated as older media styles are, these promise to be another level again. But again, recent research is making some headway into trying to untangle this web of communication, by looking at twitter data from the UK over a period of a few years. This consisted of several million tweets, analysed by examining the words to identify the sentiment expressed by the tweet. While one individual tweet is not particularly meaningful, taken together clear patters begin to emerge, and correlate strongly with real-world events happening. For example, the 'joy signal' - a measure of how happy people on average are according to their tweets - reliably peaks each Christmas, as does the 'fear signal' at Hallowe'en.

So far so predictable. But a really interesting thing happened after the pre-budget announcement in October 2010, when the first wave of spending cuts was announced by the new Conservative government: the national level of fear shot up, as people immediately began to worry about losing services, benefits or livelihoods. What's remarkable about this is that the fear level, after an initial spike, did not go back down - it remained at an elevated level until the end of the sample period, deviating noisily from what looked like a new baseline. A similar thing happened in mid 2011, when riots broke out in many UK cities, and for a while the anger signal dominated. This gradually diminished as the rioting died out (back to the baseline fear over continued cuts). The researchers, of course, were quick to downplay suggestion that this could be used to predict future riots.

Whether the sampled data was actually long enough to show this is a long term change, or if such drastic changes in average mood are common, is not yet clear. Either way, such analysis promises to be a useful tool in understanding not only how people are using their own media generation abilities, but how they react to wider events. I am reminded of a plan by the government a year or so ago to measure the nation's happiness, and to use that as an indicator of prosperity (arguably makes as much sense as other arbitrary measures like GDP) - this would be a useful alternative, requiring no interventionist surveying, and giving a more immediate picture of what's going on. That this kind of information can be gleaned from tweets alone, using a fairly simple model of content understanding, is quite encouraging, given the wealth of data which more sophisticated tools could exploit.

I think that, despite the concern over what people are reading and how they see the world, or the effect that new media may be having on our perceptions, there is grounds for optimism. On the one hand, it seems inevitable that people will gravitate towards the media they prefer, in turn reinforcing their entrenched view of reality - and with a better model of this, ways to target them more precisely will emerge. But with this knowledge will also come the possibility of disentangling the complex web of media interaction, figuring out why people seek the information they do, and how to use this for the improved dissemination of information. User generated content will only become more important in how people interact with the world - but rather than being a cause for concern, this can be a valuable source of information, to directly measure how they perceive reality, and how people respond to events. The media as it stands is a vast and complex system which, much like the world economy, is beyond the comprehension of most humans: but with more sophisticated tools in data mining and artificial intelligence, it may be possible to get a better understanding of how this all works, and how we should deal with it.

Justin Lewis, speaking on climate change and the pervasive advertising industry:

Interview with Nello Cristianini on BBC news about the twitter sentiment analysis project:

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Uncountably many

Reflections on the incomprehensibly large number of people that exist 

I travel around on trains quite a lot. And one thing that always strikes me is the sheer number of houses I see as I flit by - in their hundreds, thousands, in every town and city. Not that there are an inappropriate number - I'm sure that there are approximately the right amount of houses for the people who need to live in them. But it's unsettling.

Because in every one of those houses, there will be people. This is not surprising, as there are several million people in the country, and they have to live somewhere. But the number of people is merely a statistic, as easily ignored as national debt or a famine death count; we are accustomed to hearing large numbers and used to ignoring them, of not seeing their true significance.

not actually taken from a train. obviously

The thing is, every one of those houses contains unique, individual people, each with their own lives, a full back story, an identity, hopes for the future. To glimpse briefly one house, its back garden open to the train tracks and strewn with children's toys, is to realise that it has real, live inhabitants, as real as myself or anyone I know. Theirs will be a house full of possessions, items of varying utility and consequence, the detritus that gathers around human life. I think of my house, filled with so many objects, each with its own meaning, a collection of memories accumulated over decades - this seems normal, it is right that my house should be so full of personal history... and yet, so will the house of this unknown, unseen family, and every other; rich histories that make up real people's lives, but totally unknown. This is difficult to grasp, the enormous quantity of stuff that exists out there, meaningful to some and unknown to the rest.

An instant later, the house is gone, disappearing into the distance as the train speeds on, to be replaced by more, similar yet still unique, innumerably many stretching beyond the horizon. It's strange to think I am not likely to look upon it again, to notice it amongst all the others; and that its inhabitants I will never meet, and know of them only by implication of the building they inhabit. A piece of momentary scenery, hiding whole existences utterly unknown, to me and almost everyone else, but lived out as fully and purposefully as any other.

That, I find, is what's difficult to fully comprehend. The physical amount of brick and steel that make up houses is itself vast, but quantifiable; the gargantuan amount of material that make up these millions of homes is all just so much inert matter. But for so, so many living, breathing, individual humans to inhabit them seems unbelievable, almost too far fetched to be true. Given the immense (and largely unremembered) detail that makes up my own life, can it really be possible that such complexity is replicated millions, billions, of times?

This is why it's so hard to understand the meaning of large numbers of people. Thousands die every day from preventable causes, but a nation's heart is captured by stories of individuals, personal narratives to which we can easily relate; an incongruity that makes tackling humanity's larger problems so difficult.  The world's population has reached seven billion - but what is that, other than just a billion more than it was last time we checked? To try and think of them all as people is impossible - not only because we can't really visualise what a one and nine noughts actually represents, but because it just seems so much beyond imagining, that this many individual lives can actually be happening, right here, right now, as real and detailed as our own. If truly contemplating the existence of all the people implied by my view from the train is daunting, to remember that this is a tiny, insignificant fraction of the humanity that's out there is dizzying indeed. I might just look away from the window for a while.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

I am not amused by this jubilation

An attempt to reason my distaste of the Diamond Jubilee

This weekend in the UK, it seems absolutely impossible to escape the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.  Not only is it constantly the focus of TV and radio, with every newspaper packed full of monarchistic minutiae, but all the shops are suddenly full of Britain-themed everything, an excuse for sales, promotions, and suggesting endless ways to host our own perfect jubilee celebrations, and every street is a flag-lined arcade.

So by now I am quite fed up with it all, and find the whole thing annoying and unnecessary. This is separate, I think, from the debate of whether we actually need a monarchy or not, and whether such an archaic form of political and social organisation has any place in a 21st century democracy; or whether we could or should be paying for such glitzy pomp in days of alleged austerity. These issues have been argued pretty thoroughly elsewhere, so I'll not dwell on it here (though in case you haven't guessed, I fall pretty strongly on the republican side of the debate).

What annoys me most about this current spate of pro-royalty enthusiasm is that it is unavoidable, yet totally unrepresentative. Whether we are a fan of old Mrs Windsor or not, it is almost as if we are expected to join in and fulfil our quota of jubilation, being good little citizens and parade around in honour of our betters. This obsequious nonsense is not a celebration which well represents the people of Britain. In focusing on this one aspect of the country, all the diversity and variety is swept aside. Of course, the celebration is meant to be just about the Queen and her six decades of incomparable diplomatic achievements, rather than a celebration of the country itself, and all things British - but the lines are easily blurred, with over-zealous patriotism being the currency of this weekend's events; and after all, it is the union flag draped over every surface, and not the coat of arms of the house of Windsor.

This is in no way a rant against the concept of Britishness; in fact, it could be seen as a rant for it. Because the things that I see being celebrated are nothing to do with the true nature of the people of this country - but more like stereotypes. These festivities are all about sucking up to a wealthy monarchy, waving flags, street parties, giant flotillas on the Thames, watching guards parade up and down, and all that nonsense; which is not what Britain is about, or really ever has been. It may be one aspect of it, but these jubilee celebrations are playing on this to the expense of all else. For everyone else who considers themselves British, but don't consider the crown to be the focus of their existence, I can imagine them feeling more than a little alienated.

I realise of course that not everyone is like me, with my cynical view of royalty and liberal-lefty dislike of archaic extravagance. I do not claim to be speaking for the 'average person', and accept that there may well be a majority who are in favour of a monarchy. But that's my point: we are all different, and to represent the British identity by this blue and red striped charicature does not acknowledge this. From looking at my twitter feed and speaking to virtually everyone I know, it is very clear that many people do not relish this kind of sycophantic celebration - and while of course this is not a representative sample, it shows that there are quite a lot of people who feel this has nothing to do with them.

It's worth considering what all this celebration would look like to an outsider. It would probably be exactly the kind of thing they would expect from those quaint, tea-drinking Brits - a shamelessly gaudy celebration of our favourite hereditary title. Again, that's my point: it is propomoting a stereotype. The typical Family Guy or Simpsons portrayal springs to mind, where any British person is a posh-speaking, wonky-toothed cricket-loving toff in a fancy house. If that is how the world interprets us, we can hardly blame them, if we insist on holding such nauseatingly grandiloquent celebrations as the jubilee.

Britain should mean a lot more than this pompous charade. It is a nation of great scientific achievement, a huge diversity of ethnicity and culture, a place where all sorts of new and unexpected things happen, precisely because we don't always fit into one type of character. In a nation that produced Francis Bacon and Charles Darwin, the Rolling Stones and Aphex Twin, Jane Austen and Arthur C. Clarke, J.M.W. Turner and Damien Hirst, there is no single definitive style or characteristic, other than the differences between them. One of the great strengths of Britain seems to be its willingness to embrace this diversity, and combine different traditions and cultures to make them its own; it has long been a favoured destination of people from around the world seeking, and finding, a better life, and enhancing the country at the same time. Our favoured drink is of Chinese origin; Indian food has virtually become the national dish (or not); and what would traditional British cuisine have been without the introduction of the potato? This is (partly) why I am so annoyed at the likes of UKIP, the BNP and the EDL for harping on about some kind of British identity which is under threat, as if there were ever one defining trait: rather, I would say that one of the defining features of Britishness is that there is no single, universally-conformed to identity, and that it embraces people of all different backgrounds and makes them its own.

And that, basically, is why I object to the whole jubilee thing. Not necessarily as an objection to the monarchy itself (though I admit that is definitely an issue), but because it is celebrating a caricatured, monolithic ideal of Britishness which exists only in the minds of a few, clinging on to the relics of an outdated system of authority and class; and broadcasts this bland stereotype to the rest of the world. This is not a celebration of modern Britain, it is a pastiche. Rather than glorifying some horrific vision of feudal serfdom, far better to celebrate our differences, our achievements, the cultural mix that is the real world: that, from my point of view, is what Britain should be about.