Brexit, Literature, Politics

Does Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes from the Underground’ predict a Facebook exodus over Big Data?

Mark Zuckerberg is dabbling in the dark arts of Big Data and Dostoevsky reckons we’re not going to like it

A recent article on Big Data terrified me. It tells the story of Michal Kosinski who used Big Data and psychometrics to predict, with staggering accuracy, your political affiliation, sexuality, personality, alcohol use, and much more just by analysing your Facebook ‘likes’. Then ‘Cambridge Analytica’ came along. During the Brexit and Trump campaign they used psychological profiling to target their slogans at the people most susceptible to their rhetoric. They’ve essentially built formulas that can predict and manipulate human behaviour.

This would have blown Dostoevsky’s mind. He was fiercely critical of such attempts to rationalise human behaviour and issued a warning about the consequences of such endeavours:

“Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over the other organisms.” Pic: Wikimedia Commons

‘If there really is some day discovered a formula for all our desires and caprices — that is, an explanation of what they depend upon, by what laws they arise, how they develop, what they are aiming at in one case and in another and so on, that is a real mathematical formula — then, most likely, man will at once cease to feel desire, indeed, he will be certain to. For who would want to choose by rule?’

In other words, once humans become aware of such a formula, the urge to exercise free-will would cause the collapse of such rational decision-making. The difference with Facebook and their dark associates lurking behind the scenes is that these formulas are, aside from a few leaks, kept hidden. In 2014 Facebook conducted a ‘news feed experiment’ to see if it could control people’s mood. This year an internal report was leaked which appears to advise advertisers how best to target vulnerable teenagers when they feel ‘worthless’ and ‘insecure’. Facebook are constantly increasing efforts to appear friendly, bubbly and philanthropic: personalised videos to champion friendships, more creative ways to celebrate birthdays and even a morning colloquial greeting updating you on the upcoming weather. But behind this facade, Facebook is increasingly becoming the bad guy, building trust before selling us out to the highest bidder.who targets me

One application called ‘Who Targets Me?’ could help speed up a Dostoyevsky-esque digital rebellion. The extension, currently available with Google Crome, is seeking to make people more aware of who may be trying to influence you through the adverts that appear on your screen. It’s hoped that with the upcoming UK General Election, attempts to influence voters will become more transparent. Will people begin to behave differently once these formulas are exposed?

Dostoevsky’s argument builds to a crescendo when he states ‘for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!’ If he is right, the more people are aware of these formulas at work, the more people will begin to rebel. At what point might people get sick of being played?Will we carry on as normal? Or could this continuation of data abuse signal the start of the end for Facebook?

Now read my other post about how Dostoevsky helps explain Brexit and Trump!

Pic Credit: Pixabay

Brexit, Literature, Politics

How Dostoevsky helps make sense of the Brexit & Trump backlash

The Russian literary heavyweight’s message to the Left: the smug championing of rational thought simply won’t work

In 1863 Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky wrote a book called ‘What Is To Be Done?’ It advocates rational egoism – a theory outlining how a utopian society could be created if only people made rational decisions about how to advance and converge their individual happiness with that of the local community’s. It went on to influence Lenin’s socialist vision of Russia.

notes wikipedia
“What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”   Pic – Wikipedia

This broadly describes a liberal outlook of society and institutionalised political correctness is a by-product of this; express yourself freely but be sensitive to the wider community in your choice of language. Whilst this may seem like a sensible idea to many – including comedian Stewart Lee – Dostoevsky would have anticipated the backlash. In Notes from the Underground, whilst he doesn’t explicitly mention political correctness, he mocks Chernyshevsky vision of a socialist utopia, stating that ‘choice is utterly and stubbornly opposed to reason’ and that Chernyshevsky’s smug championing of reason will only lead to rebellion. It’s human nature. After all, ‘what is a man without desires, without free will and without choice[?]’

A rebellion against political correctness and the mainstream media is often cited as a core force behind the rise of Trump and Brexit. Under the finger-wagging of political correctness people feel like they are being attacked and unjustifiably labelled as racist, homophobic or sexist in the process. The winning campaigns tapped into this narrative with devastating efficiency. Trump has repeatedly attacked political correctness and the mainstream media, we apparently live in a ‘post-truth’ world, whilst Michael Gove’s statement that Britons are ‘sick of experts’ caught great traction for ‘Leave’ supporters before the EU referendum. People became sick of being told what to think and say, invigorating the growing wave of populism.

Notes from the Underground deals with a huge range of issues not covered by this article, but when pundits have struggled to find an adequate, rational answer for why people voted Leave, it’s hard not to see sense in what Dostoevsky says about human nature. Economists and business leaders said it was a bad idea. University graduates said it was a bad idea. The Prime Minister said it was a bad idea. But this all just contributed to the rebellion: ‘one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests…however wild it may be…what man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.’

Feature pic: Flickr

Education, Politics

Fighting extremism with British values

Do Cameron’s anti-radicalisation policies contradict the role of education?


In September 2012, the Department for Education launched its updated set of teaching standards. Many teachers despise these standards due to their involvement in tedious box-ticking exercises, but to politicians these standards play a crucial role in defining what the role of a teacher should be. One particular inclusion stood out: the requirement not to undermine ‘fundamental British values’. In addition, the ‘Prevent Strategy’, launched in 2011, is now in full swing to try and cut off radicalisation at its core. But what do these government-led interventions actually mean for teachers in the classroom? Am I now required to be a mouthpiece for the state’s system of values? Are the Conservatives constructing an Orwellian network of thought police to report subversive opinions? Over the past academic year I’ve been looking to clarify what implications these projects have on our young people as well as the teachers who are supposed to be driving them.

In January, my Year 9 form approached me to ask if they could discuss the Charlie Hebdo attacks. After a few initial comments about whether the law should protect religion or not, a Muslim called Hasan (name changed), very calmly told us that the cartoonists deserved the violent repercussions that were dispatched. With the new anti-radicalisation strategies fresh in mind, I immediately flagged up Hasan’s provocative position to his Head of Year and logged my concerns onto his record of behaviour and conduct.

Several months later, Hasan, along with two other Muslims in the form, asked if they could present on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Worried about what views might be expressed in a form which includes both Muslims and Jews, I considered asking them to choose a less culturally sensitive topic. Nonetheless we proceeded and in the twenty

minute session Hasan led an articulate, fact-driven presentation followed by a whole-class discussion. I was blown away by how respectful, lucid and inquisitive the students were in their contributions. I would say it was my proudest moment as their form tutor although pride suggests that I had something to do with the debate; I simply sat at the back of the classroom and at no point felt the need to intervene.

The greatest danger is that Muslim-sympathetic opinions become stigmatised. School must be the arena in which opinions are expressed, discussed and –most importantly – scrutinised. Flawed arguments tend to self-destruct upon exposure to reasoned debate. I felt ashamed of myself for not fully engaging the class in discussion about Hasan’s Charlie Hebdo comments and for almost asking him to change his debate topic. My experiences have taught me that young people are more than capable of debating major issues if they are given an environment in which to do so.

Teachers have failed in many other areas by creating taboos. When setting my Year 9 students a task to write a speech about a subject of their choice, I was shocked at how many wrote about the prevalent use of racist and homophobic language at school. Students have worked out that they shouldn’t make jokes about race in earshot of teachers for fear of being labelled racist. Nevertheless racial slurs (particularly the use of the term ‘freshie’) remain part of the student lexicon but in an environment where the nuances of their jokes are not discussed or challenged. They know they should not say ‘that’s so gay’ in front of a teacher but do not always understand the wider implications of the phrase – and I don’t necessarily blame them. If we condition students to conceal beliefs they may view as too subversive for the classroom, such views will never face the scrutiny they may well need.

Whilst I have no doubt that the Prevent Scheme is well-intentioned – indeed, it acknowledges the need for serious debate in the classroom – its rhetoric triggers alarm bells. Whilst I don’t know many people who would disagree with the Department for Education’s final list, the obligation to promote British values goes against one of my fundamental instincts for what an English teacher should be: a neutral facilitator for the exchanging of ideas. Why shouldn’t we scrutinise freedom of speech? Why shouldn’t students be allowed to criticise or disagree with our current system of democracy? My fear is that, unless we think carefully about implementing anti-radicalisation strategies, we will confirm what American journalist H.L. Mencken once wrote: “The plain fact is that education is itself a form of propaganda – a deliberate scheme to outfit the pupil, not with the capacity to weigh ideas, but with a simple appetite for gulping ideas ready-made. The aim is to make ‘good’ citizens, which is to say, docile and uninquisitive citizens.”



Why democracy is overrated

Should the public be trusted on Brexit? Should inexperienced ministers be in charge of education, economics, immigration and welfare?

On the 23rd January 2013, David Cameron promised an in/out referendum on membership of the EU. It’s a sentiment you would never hear a politician (publicly) express and it initially appears undemocratic, perhaps even faintly fascist, but when are we going to start accepting that experts and academics are in a better position to make certain decisions than the general public?

The ministers who end up in charge of immigration, welfare, education and the European Union are inevitably individuals who are in no position to introduce an informed, pragmatic system that will benefit the country; they are weighed down by pressure from backbenchers, the media and the electorate and – in the vast majority of cases – lack any kind of relevant experience in the field. Furthermore, these are the people who drive the national rhetoric and shape public opinion. It therefore came as no surprise to me to learn that the general public hold drastically inaccurate misconceptions about crime, benefit fraud and immigration.

Despite an abundance of published research, pro-immigration arguments underlining the economic benefits of immigration were almost non-existent in the election campaigns. Why? Because when a voter in a marginal seat expresses his annoyance at hearing a group of foreigners not speaking English on the local bus, a rebuttal about the futile nature of this complaint followed by references to the positive effects of immigration is a sure fast way of losing their vote. Why do our leaders keep up this pretense that: a) the voter is always right; and b) politicians have the expertise to handle all of the country’s problems? Moreover, convincing people about such a sensitive, complex and emotionally charged issue takes time, patience and a willing listener. In a world of Twitter, soundbites and quick headlines, politicians will never have these luxuries. I would therefore like to see media outlets (like this one) giving more importance to those better placed than us to advise on immigration.

As education secretary, Michael Gove gained an infamous reputation for completely ignoring the advice of academics simply because they disagreed with his vision for a future curriculum. This petulancy would be just about acceptable if the only consequence was the alienation of millions of teachers and academics. The real victims however are the country’s next generation of young people who are being educated in a system that has never had the backing of education experts. The lack of respect for educational research in Britain is reflected in the slashing of research funding over the last five years. What social and economic benefits might we be missing out on by ignoring the advice of education experts?

By the end of 2016, the British people will have decided whether or not they should be part of the European Union. I find it hard to believe that Cameron – a man who has presided over austerity, welfare reform and privatisation without any consultation from the general public – genuinely feels that the British public are in the best position to make a decision of this magnitude. The fact that Cameron is willing to risk disrupting the longest period of peace and co-operation in Europe due to Conservative Euro-sceptics, speaks volumes about the contrived nature of modern politics. It’s a calculated move dressed in democratic robes. Call me a cynic, but I think that xenophobia, patriotism and scaremongering will play a bigger role in determining the referendum outcome than a reasoned, informed debate weighing up the pros and cons (just look at the negative campaigning during the Scottish referendum). If I’m right, then politicians clearly think that the public lack either the intelligence or desire to familiarise themselves with EU economics, law and politics. I am not an expert on any of the above and am therefore more than happy to let experts do what they do best when the stakes are this high.

It is nothing ground-braking to suggest that a combination of education and engagement is the way forward. This starts with teachers. Young people need learn to question everything they see and hear with a desire to seek truth surrounding complex national issues. Politicians need to stop using referendums as a political tool and need to value expert opinion over the whims of their cabinet. Let’s stop putting celebrities on panel shows and instead magnify the importance of experts. I’ve lost count of the number of times during a debate I’ve thought: “can someone well-informed just come on and tell us what the right answer is please?” More extreme views make better T.V. but it’s patronising to the general public. I no longer wish to hear two polarised views provided in the name of balance and entertainment. Because it’s the experts stood on the fence that probably have the best view.