Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The noted blogger Shrinkwrapped was kind enough to contact me the other day after my blogosphere-related posts to let me know that had written several of his own ( more on that in a bit). Shrinkwrapped is a psychoanalyst by profession which opened up some intriguing analytical possibilities.

Long time readers here know that this blog periodically deals with matters of intelligence, both the cloak and dagger kind as well as issues of cognition. I approach these subjects from the analytical perspective of historical methodology as well as the experience gained from years of working as an educator, particularly with gifted children. Shrinkwrapped's Freudian background is interesting to me partly because OSS psychoanalysts like Dr. Walter C. Langer - author of the classic psychological profile of Adolf Hitler - were some of the pioneers of the exceptionally difficult art of predictive intelligence analysis ( any fool can write a news summary; accurately assessing probable reactions of a key decision maker to hypothetical events is hard - even Hitler did not make his decisions in a social vacumn).

Shrinkwrapped offers up "The Blogger's Dilemma Part I. " and "Part II." which I would like to excerpt and then offer a few comments, though I strongly encourage you to read them in their entirety. First, "Blogger's Dilemma Part I"

"Once a Blogger has an audience the desire to keep or expand his/her audience begins to influence their blogging in ways that often lead to problems. For example, recognizing that our behavior is the compromise of multiple, primarily unconscious, determinants suggests we should maintain our modesty about our conclusions, yet a Blog that surrounds all of its arguments with qualifiers is likely to be a rather dull read. (I read enough "sophisticated" Psychoanalytic literature to know that the best way to lose the reader's attention is to eschew declarative sentences.) Simple and sharp delineations are favored; furthermore, oversimplified terms, like "liberal" and "neo-conservative", loaded as they are with the great weight of our projections, become bandied about with reckless abandon and are then over-interpreted by readers and writers alike. Yet without such terms, the act of writing a Blog post would require redefining specifics at every occasion. Aside from being unwieldy, it would also rather quickly grow exhausting for all. "

I think Shrinkwrapped is correct. To an extent, I've eschewed writing inflammatory posts about politics because of the loaded simplification the commonly used terms imply, often make it difficult to have a civil dialogue. I'm sure that costs me a considerable amount of potential traffic but I don't much care. The trade-off is that I get to spend my limited amount of blogging time on esoteric subjects that I find more interesting and I've made some outstanding connections with thinkers I greatly respect, a few of which in the case of Dave Schuler and Lexington Green have evolved into real world friendships. Call it the "Jimmy Stewart/It's A Wonderful Life Strategy of Blogging" - I'm the richest man in town. ;o)


"Democracy works essentially by summing the irrationalities of its citizenry in ways which tend to cancel out the most extreme manifestations. When it works well, both parties move to the center and try to appeal to the broad, more rational middle. This depends on a number of important factors, one of which is relatively unbiased information.

In my humble opinion, the Blogosphere has the potential to assist in both the process of "summing our irrationalities" and increasing the availability of unbiased information (derived from summing the biased information that is all we can ever have access to.)

Very astute. Sort of a market of psychologies. Long before The Wisdom of Crowds was published, the late supply-side guru Jude Wanniski was writing about this effect, which led me to exchange views with him a few times back in the late 90's but I never made the jump from economics to thinking about it in strictly psychological terms. Odd, because our individual decisions in the market hinge on our psychology to a large degree.

Now for " Blogger's Dilemma Part II":

"I wrote this thinking that it was clear that both sides of the equation clearly feel that they are correct and wondering how it is that two such completely incompatible views of the same data can be explained. The most likely explanation is that even those of us who are most certain of their position cannot possibly have a complete grasp of reality or a monopoly on "truth." Because Dr. X misunderstood this (or I did a particularly poor job of explaining what I meant; obviously I think my view is more correct about the Iraq War than the anti-War position and I'm sure that comes through in the post) he made a second Blogger's error. He adopted a tone of dismissive snarkiness which would serve to reinforce the prejudices of his readers who agree with him but would tend to discourage those who agree with me from reading further. He loses the opportunity to raise doubts and questions. If the point of our posts is to "preach to the choir" this is of no consequence but if we want to start or continue a discussion/argument, we need to be cognizant of why we resort to snark because what gets thoroughly lost in the post is how best to address our differences of opinion and viewpoint. For a reader, dismissing a post because the author descends into snark (and snark has a definite appeal at times!) can be unfortunate; it sometimes pays to ignore the insults and see if there are any points to be gleaned. "

In all fairness to bloggers everywhere, their flaming matches are no less petty, nasty, one-sided and ridiculous than what often occurs in academia. Or in departments of the executive branch.

Ideological conformity is very strong in the blogosphere and that tendency is inherently distorting of the OODA loop because the effect of only reading people who agree with you is extremely seductive. Like hypothermia of the mind, you just want to flop down in the fluffy, soft snow that is the text and drift off to sleep. One of my mentors, an old Social Democratic Marxist historian, used to regularly caution his grad students (mostly Leftists) not to read only the things that made them feel good and that's some advice I continue to pass along to my own students.

The IC is reading ( or rather "collecting" and doing meta-analysis) the blogosphere. So is the " other side" ( the Islamist jihad theorists are big fans of William Lind, reportedly). While the blogosphere tends to overestimate it's actual importance by several orders of magnitude it isn't irrelevant. In the aggregate at least, what bloggers write, matters.

We should really do a better job of it.
Hence the joys of reading and learning from ZenPundit & Sun Bin, Aqoul & Coming Anarchy and other blogs that are all over the viewpoint and worldview spectrums.

Especially considering the abysmal state of thoughtful and useful creativity and writing at NRO, the Nation, etc in comparison to the better sectors of the blogosphere like this.

Widespread towards different power centers and figures, anger and contempt are largely destructive elements to base opinions and writing, which is what the majority in the blogosphere is acting upon right now, including myself.
"summing our irrationalities"

I think this phrasing is ill-conceived, although I do understand -- I think! -- what is behind it: it is like the effect of crossing waves in a pond that has been disturbed, canceling each other out until only relative tranquility is left.

I'd've much preferred the term consilience being used in the thought. The effect might not actually be consilience in the strictest sense; but the type of wide-range reading, conducted by many people, which could ultimately produce a type of harmonious near-agreement from so much silliness and irrationality on the Blogosphere, seems consilient in nature. There's nothing like stumbling onto two conflicting opinions which are both well-written and well-thought-out to get the machines of consilience in our own brains to try to bridge those gaps!

"...the effect of only reading people who agree with you is extremely seductive. Like hypothermia of the mind, you just want to flop down in the fluffy, soft snow that is the text and drift off to sleep."

This is one of those truisms that is probably true but that has always mystified me. I have occasionally stumbled into situations where I've caught myself being overly fond of echo chambers -- when my favorable opinions of my own ideas were bounced back at me -- but I've ultimately, and usually very quickly, cringed when experiencing that effect. Yet for most people, such an experience does appear to act like a drug, lulling them and giving them pleasure: a new opiate of the masses! (That is not very new, really...)

What I really think happens is something related to the title of my blog Phatic Communion. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the term; it's a term used to describe a kind of speech which is not intended to express ideas and thoughts so much as merely establish and extend social connection (or a feeling of social connection.) E.g., when we talk about the weather, we may have no real interest in the weather nor really care about what the other person is saying (the meaning), but only be engaging in a kind of verbal handshake. But here's the rub: I think that almost all language is used as phatic communion much of the time. So even these many blog posts and comments which would seem to be something else -- i.e., would seem to be efforts at transmitting information and meaning -- may often be only really a kind of phatic communion: I hate you, get away! or I love you, man! or F...-off! [Not really, please: not really!] And this effect may account for part of why such flaming, bickering, love fests, etc. occur and why so many conflicting opinions are never synthesized nor mature on their own: because meaning is not being addressed so much as social awarenesses are being built and addressed.

As for me: I tend to have an ace up my sleeve when it comes to avoiding becoming lulled. I assume a natural disagreement between myself and everyone I might meet! Well...If I have a natural disagreement between myself and myself, I can't in good conscience profess a belief in natural agreement between myself and others.

Where I go a bit wrong, I sometimes wonder: I can agree very strongly with a few points someone has expressed, can blog away on my own blog with numerous posts extolling the virtues of those points, and then a week or two later, lash out at some very weak points from the same author. In a milieu adjusted to more phatic-communionish parameters, that just seems either nuts or at best, inconsiderate and unsociable.
"Ideological conformity is very strong in the blogosphere and that tendency is inherently distorting of the OODA loop because the effect of only reading people who agree with you is extremely seductive."

I think this is a bit of an overblown concern. First of all it is normal for people who share the same interests, beliefs, and attitudes to associate with one another. As we all know, the internet is a great medium for facilitating social networking so we shouldn't be surprised when that networking actually takes place. "Beer conformity is very strong in bars."

Second, the internet is not the only place people interact with or are exposed to ideas. People read newspapers, magazines, books, watch tv, listen to radio, interact with friends, relatives and co-workers. In fact the internet may be the only place where people find kindred spirits. So blog reading habits need to be understood within this larger context.

Certainly from a tactical point of view you should know what your adversaries are thinking. From a scholarly point of view you should study the views of the various actors in a particular situation. But if you have a specific interest and you want to read blogs that address that interest you are not going to waste your time reading blogs that don't deal with that interest. For example, one of my primary motivations in roaming the blogosphere is to seek out interesting ideas, information and interpretations of the Long War, small wars, and the role of ideas and memes in conflict. While there are some liberals who write about these issues, such as Marc Danziger and Tom Barnett, most of the serious discussions of these issues are by people who would be categorized "right", "center-right". If more liberals were writing seriously about these topics then I would be reading more liberal blogs.

"Democracy works essentially by summing the irrationalities of its citizenry in ways which tend to cancel out the most extreme manifestations. When it works well, both parties move to the center and try to appeal to the broad, more rational middle."

It's not the summing of irrationalities. We live in a society in which there is the free competition of political ideas. Those ideas that have achieved prominence are those that have competed successfully, without regard to their validity. So it is a summing of the ideological views that have achieved prominence and a cancelling out of those views that don't fit in. If you want the summation to be different than what it is then you wage a campaign to have your ideas achieve prominence and then the sum of those ideas becomes the middle. But the middle is not "rational" because it is the middle, rather it is percieved as rational because it is accepted as normal. It is actually important for ideas to be right, so what we require is a methodology for determining this. This summing of prominent ideas is not an adequate methodology. If you lived in a country where the two prominent political factions were communist and fascist, would their summing be "rational"?
Hi everyone

The irrationalities phrase is taking a beating :o)

Gracias Eddie !

Curtis -I can agree with you (to an extent) on actual meanings taking a backseat to social gesturing

While I amused myself with the "Emphatic Constable" bit you did enlighten me about Phatic Communion. I never knew that.


The PDF deals with data that is a few years old but it gives an excellent visualization of the degree of ideological isolation vs. interaction via linking in the blogosphere.

Yes there is some political crossover but less than you would expect from normal networking behavior that might collect blogs around a common interest(say foreign policy) unless ideological conformity was a key variable :

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

” ‘We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’

“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners” ‘.”

[Matthew 11:16-19, NIV]
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