Aeon - The new mind control 5-15min

The internet has spawned subtle forms of influence that can flip elections and manipulate everything we say, think and do ... Most of us have heard of at least one of these methods: subliminal stimulation, or what Packard called ‘subthreshold effects’ – the presentation of short messages that tell us what to do but that are flashed so briefly we aren’t aware we have seen them. In 1958, propelled by public concern about a theatre in New Jersey that had supposedly hidden messages in a movie to increase ice cream sales, the National Association of Broadcasters – the association that set standards for US television – amended its code to prohibit the use of subliminal messages in broadcasting. ... Subliminal stimulation is probably still in wide use in the US – it’s hard to detect, after all, and no one is keeping track of it – but it’s probably not worth worrying about. ... what would happen if new sources of control began to emerge that had little or no competition? And what if new means of control were developed that were far more powerful – and far more invisible – than any that have existed in the past? And what if new types of control allowed a handful of people to exert enormous influence not just over the citizens of the US but over most of the people on Earth? ... It might surprise you to hear this, but these things have already happened. ... The shift we had produced, which we called the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (or SEME, pronounced ‘seem’), appeared to be one of the largest behavioural effects ever discovered.

Bloomberg - How to Hack an Election 5-15min

For eight years, Sepúlveda, now 31, says he traveled the continent rigging major political campaigns. With a budget of $600,000, the Peña Nieto job was by far his most complex. He led a team of hackers that stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices, all to help Peña Nieto, a right-of-center candidate, eke out a victory. ... Sepúlveda’s career began in 2005, and his first jobs were small—mostly defacing campaign websites and breaking into opponents’ donor databases. Within a few years he was assembling teams that spied, stole, and smeared on behalf of presidential campaigns across Latin America. He wasn’t cheap, but his services were extensive. For $12,000 a month, a customer hired a crew that could hack smartphones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium package, at $20,000 a month, also included a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense. The jobs were carefully laundered through layers of middlemen and consultants. Sepúlveda says many of the candidates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few. ... His teams worked on presidential elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela. ... He’s serving 10 years in prison for charges including use of malicious software, conspiracy to commit crime, violation of personal data, and espionage, related to hacking during Colombia’s 2014 presidential election.

New York Magazine - Democracies end when they are too democratic. 5-15min

Plato, of course, was not clairvoyant. His analysis of how democracy can turn into tyranny is a complex one more keyed toward ancient societies than our own (and contains more wrinkles and eddies than I can summarize here). His disdain for democratic life was fueled in no small part by the fact that a democracy had executed his mentor, Socrates. And he would, I think, have been astonished at how American democracy has been able to thrive with unprecedented stability over the last couple of centuries even as it has brought more and more people into its embrace. It remains, in my view, a miracle of constitutional craftsmanship and cultural resilience. There is no place I would rather live. But it is not immortal, nor should we assume it is immune to the forces that have endangered democracy so many times in human history. ... Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato. ... Many contend, of course, that American democracy is actually in retreat, close to being destroyed by the vastly more unequal economy of the last quarter-century and the ability of the very rich to purchase political influence. This is Bernie Sanders’s core critique. But the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultrarich has been mostly a dud. ... The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics. ... it is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.

BuzzFeed - Inside The Playlist Factory 17min

For a while we thought we could choose our own music. Remember that? In the wake of the last century we seized the right to take our pick from all of the songs in the world (All of the songs in the world!) and told anyone who didn’t like it exactly where they could go. And when it turned out that was too many songs after all (how many lifetimes are needed for a complete survey of Memphis soul? Or Brazilian funk?), a new category of music services appeared to ease our burden. But these services were flawed, said someone about to make a lot of money, and could only recommend music based on what we were already listening to. Did they even really know what we wanted? Do we not contain multitudes? And so now we have people like Chery. ... Since he left XXL magazine to join the music-streaming service Beats Music (now Apple Music) as head of hip-hop and R&B programming in 2012, Chery and around a dozen of his colleagues, working largely behind the scenes, have embarked on a never-ending quest to organize every song in history into concise playlists that you can’t live without. ... In 2014, when Tim Cook explained Apple’s stunning $3 billion purchase of Beats by repeatedly invoking its “very rare and hard to find” team of music experts, he was talking about these guys. And their efforts since, which have pointed toward curated playlists (specifically, an industrial-scale trove of 14,000 and counting) as the format of the future, have helped turn what was once a humble labor of love for music fans into an increasingly high-stakes contest between some of the richest companies in the world. ... Try any of the major music streaming services today and you’ll find variations on a common theme: thousands of ready-made playlists (“Rich Girl Pop,” “Inspired by Jeff Buckley,” “Songs to Sing in the Shower”) for every conceivable genre, activity, or mood.

The Atlantic - The Binge Breaker 15min

Harris is the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience. As the co‑founder of Time Well Spent, an advocacy group, he is trying to bring moral integrity to software design: essentially, to persuade the tech world to help us disengage more easily from its devices. ... While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, Harris points a finger at the software itself. That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible. The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” ... we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us. ... He studied computer science at Stanford while interning at Apple, then embarked on a master’s degree at Stanford, where he joined the Persuasive Technology Lab. Run by the experimental psychologist B. J. Fogg, the lab has earned a cultlike following among entrepreneurs hoping to master Fogg’s principles of “behavior design”—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill. ... Sites foster a sort of distracted lingering partly by lumping multiple services together.

Bloomberg - Confessions of an Instagram Influencer 12min

There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of influencers making a living this way. Some make a lot more than a living. The most successful demand $10,000 and up for a single Instagram shot. Long-term endorsement deals with well-known Instagrammers, such as Kristina Bazan, who signed with L’Oréal last year, can be worth $1 million or more. Big retailers use influencers, as do fashion brands, food and beverage companies, and media conglomerates. Condé Nast, publisher of the New Yorker and Vogue, recently announced that it would ask IBM’s artificial intelligence service, Watson, to take a break from finding cancer treatments to identify potential influencers. ... The ultimate goal: to persuade someone, somewhere, to pay me cash money for my influence. ... “You sell part of your soul. Because no matter what beautiful moment you enjoy in your life, you’re going to want to take a photo and share it. Distinguishing between when is it my life and when am I creating content is a really big burden.” ... Instagram doesn’t explicitly ban bots, but its terms of service do prohibit sending spam, which, when viewed in a certain light, is exactly what I was doing. On the other hand, except for a single user who somehow had me pegged and accused me of being a bot, nobody with whom I interacted seemed to mind the extra likes or comments. ... I was already verging into “micro-influencer” territory, a hot new field within influencer marketing where, rather than hiring one or two big-time influencers, an ad agency will simply give out free merchandise to 50 small-timers.

The Atlantic - Searching for Lost Knowledge in the Age of Intelligent Machines 21min

Yet the mystery of the mechanism is only partly solved. No one knows who made it, how many others like it were made, or where it was going when the ship carrying it sank. ... What if other objects like the Antikythera Mechanism have already been discovered and forgotten? There may well be documented evidence of such finds somewhere in the world, in the vast archives of human research, scholarly and otherwise, but simply no way to search for them. Until now. ... Scholars have long wrestled with “undiscovered public knowledge,” a problem that occurs when researchers arrive at conclusions independently from one another, creating fragments of understanding that are “logically related but never retrieved, brought together, [or] interpreted,” as Don Swanson wrote in an influential 1986 essay introducing the concept. ... In other words, on top of everything we don’t know, there’s everything we don’t know that we already know. ... Discovery in the online realm is powered by a mix of human curiosity and algorithmic inquiry, a dynamic that is reflected in the earliest language of the internet. The web was built to be explored not just by people, but by machines. As humans surf the web, they’re aided by algorithms doing the work beneath the surface, sequenced to monitor and rank an ever-swelling current of information for pluckable treasures. The search engine’s cultural status has evolved with the dramatic expansion of the web. ... Using machines to find meaning in vast sets of data has been one of the great promises of the computing age since long before the internet was built.

The Economist - Vienna: How Vienna produced ideas that shaped the West 8min

Imperial Viennese society could not survive. But the ideas and art brought forth during the fecund period of Viennese history from the late 1880s to the 1920s endured—from Loos’s modernist architecture to Gustav Klimt’s symbolist canvasses, from Schoenberg’s atonal music and Mahler’s Sturm und Drang to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Those Viennese who escaped Nazism went on to sustain the West during the cold war, and to restore the traditions of empiricism and liberal democracy. ... This ferment was part of a generational revolution that swept Europe at the end of the 19th century, from Berlin to London. But the Viennese rebellion was more intense, and more wide-ranging. And it provoked a more extreme reaction. Hitler arrived in Vienna from the Austrian provinces in 1908 and developed his theories of race and power there. Vienna was thus the cradle of modernism and fascism, liberalism and totalitarianism: the currents that have shaped much of Western thought and politics since Vienna itself started to implode in 1916 until the present day. It has been the Viennese century. ... Amid a babble of peoples and languages—one in which, as elsewhere at the time, gender roles were being redefined—Viennese thinking was driven by an urge to find universal forms of communication. ... Often the Viennese intellectuals leapt ahead by transferring knowledge gained in one discipline to others, gloriously indifferent to the mind-forged manacles that have come to stifle modern academia and research. ... Von Mises and Hayek, one of his students, saw earlier than most that by the interwar years the liberal era in Europe was being overwhelmed by the collectivism and totalitarianism of the right and the left. They subsequently devoted their lives to reversing the tide. ... The Viennese school placed the lived experience of individuals—rather than the abstractions of class, race and nationalism favoured by their opponents—at the heart of their intellectual enterprises.

Financial Times - How China rules the waves 9min

Investments into a vast network of harbours across the globe have made Chinese port operators the world leaders. Its shipping companies carry more cargo than those of any other nation — five of the top 10 container ports in the world are in mainland China with another in Hong Kong. Its coastguard has the globe’s largest maritime law enforcement fleet, its navy is the world’s fastest growing among major powers and its fishing armada numbers some 200,000 seagoing vessels. ... The emergence of China as a maritime superpower is set to challenge a US command of the seas that has underwritten a crucial element of Pax Americana, the relative period of peace enjoyed in the west since the second world war. ... China understands maritime influence in the same way as Alfred Thayer Mahan, the 19th century American strategist. “Control of the sea,” Mr Mahan wrote, “by maritime commerce and naval supremacy, means predominant influence in the world; because, however great the wealth of the land, nothing facilitates the necessary exchanges as does the sea.” ... The five big Chinese carriers together controlled 18 per cent of all container shipping handled by the world’s top 20 companies in 2015 ... The total size of these investments is difficult to calculate because of sketchy disclosure. But since 2010, Chinese and Hong Kong companies have completed or announced deals involving at least 40 port projects worth a total of about $45.6bn

Screen shot 2017 01 12 at 11.00.07 pm
Wired - Can You Turn A Terrorist Back Into A Citizen? 19min

As he fielded guilty pleas throughout 2015, Davis thought about how he might offer leniency to the conspiracy’s least culpable members. He could do so only if he knew for sure that the men would never again be tempted by jihadism. To that end, Davis began to research whether there are effective therapies for reforming extremists. He hoped to find a credible way to transform Yusuf and his friends back into the ordinary young men they’d once been. This could spare the youths years behind bars—an act of compassion that would undermine the Islamic State narrative that the West despises its Muslim citizens. ... Davis discovered that numerous nations, from Denmark to Indonesia, have developed methods for nudging young men and women back from the extremist brink—a process known as deradicalization. The judge became intent on starting the first laboratory for deradicalization in the US; he just needed to find an expert he could trust, someone with a proven track record of liberating young minds from violent extremism. ... Koehler’s key finding has been that all extremists, regardless of ideology, develop a sort of tunnel vision as they go through the indoctrination process. ... Koehler sees little point in starting moral or theological arguments with these young people, who are more interested in becoming warriors than debating the finer points of scripture. Instead, he advocates repluralization: the careful reintroduction of problems and solutions into a radicalized person’s life, so that they can no longer devote all their mental energy to stewing over their paranoia. ... Koehler believes that each client needs at least four mentors plus an “intervention coordinator” and that full deradicalization can be achieved only after a matter of years, not months.

Wired - Inside the Macedonian Fake-News Complex 9min

In the final weeks of the US presidential election, Veles attained a weird infamy in the most powerful nation on earth; stories in The Guardian and on BuzzFeed revealed that the Macedonian town of 55,000 was the registered home of at least 100 pro-Trump websites, many of them filled with sensationalist, utterly fake news. ... The sites’ ample traffic was rewarded handsomely by automated advertising engines, like Google’s AdSense. ... Within Veles itself, the young entrepreneurs behind these websites became subjects of tantalizing intrigue. Between August and November, Boris earned nearly $16,000 off his two pro-Trump websites. The average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371. ... It was once a town of modest glory, turning out revolutionaries and intellectuals and alive with industry. One of its largest factories, a ceramic works named Porcelanka, employed 4,000 people. For a time, its residents recall with perverse pride, Veles was the second-most polluted town in the former Yugoslavia.

Nautilus - The Anatomy of Charisma 11min

Why do some people so clearly have it and others don’t? Why do we fall so easily under its influence? Charismatics can make us feel charmed and great about ourselves. They can inspire us to excel. But they can also be dangerous. They use charisma for their own purposes, to enhance their power, to manipulate others. ... Individuals with charisma tap our unfettered emotions and can shut down our rational minds. They hypnotize us. But studies show charisma is not just something a person alone possesses. It’s created by our own perceptions, particularly when we are feeling vulnerable in politically tense times. I’m going to tell you about these studies and spotlight the opinions of the neuroscientists, psychologists, and sociologists who conducted them. ... Antonakis has identified a series of what he calls Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLTs), which range from the use of metaphors and storytelling to nonverbal methods of communication like open posture and animated, representative gestures at key moments. When taken together, he has shown, they have helped decide eight of the last 10 presidential elections.