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The Observer Effect
Reflections on Privacy and Security
With a goal of documenting a personal philosophy, it’s inevitable that my toes dip into the waters of politics. This essay briefly touches those waters, so if that isn’t your cup of tea, I suggest you skip this one.
Unless you live under a rock, you’d recognize that western culture is becoming more and more transparent. Digital privacy is frequently signed away in the name of convenience, smartphone manufacturers have access to your online and physical location histories, the blockchain offers to transform the banking system into a public ledger, and security cameras have become ubiquitous. If you do something naughty enough, action is swiftly taken because somebody is always monitoring you.
The Observer Effect is a phenomenon in physics that occurs when observation impacts the results of an experiment. We see something similar in our transparent society experiment: people behave differently when they know they are observed.
This can play out a few different ways. Those that are monitored by authority figures tend to put on their best behavior while those that are recorded for benign purposes act excitable. In both instances, what Daniel J Boorstin identified as a pseudo-event is created. For example, whenever the television camera pans over a crowd of people at a football game, they all act like they are having the time of their life. A few moments earlier, they were standing calmly amongst themselves, yet the audience at home gets the impression of an electric atmosphere; hence a pseudo-event is born. These pseudo-events result from people acting a certain way because they feel compelled to as opposed to free expression. And of course, they feel compelled to behave a certain way because they recognize the microscope above them and the risk of judgment from peers and superiors.
This begs the question: is this such a bad thing? People withholding their undesirable traits to avoid judgment? Social norms exist for a reason. Perhaps what is best for the hive is best for the bee.
A rising rate of depression and anxiety in individuals may refute this case. Although a multitude of factors influence individual depression and anxiety rates, it would be naïve to think an increasing number of people feeling watched and subsequently coerced into certain behavior isn’t a contributing factor.
When we consider public policy and what is best for bees and their beehives, this puts us in a conundrum: how do you weed out harmful traits without coercion? How do you keep order in the beehive without crushing the bees in an Orwellian nightmare? We could:
Mold the hive to the nature of the bees
Influence the bees to change their behavior
Approach number 1 has been achieved to a certain degree through capitalism. It leverages greed to create value for others. Beyond the exception of rent-seeking, the only way to better your situation is by bettering someone else’s. The problem with rewarding greed is that once someone has found a way to help people really quickly, they acquire lots of wealth. Not that this is a problem in itself, but if this someone wants to rest on their laurels, they can use their wealth to help an aspiring politician. In return, the politician can ensure our capitalist friend no longer needs to worry about competition. In other words, once greed is used to better your situation, it can be used to transform the hive such that nobody else can compete with you. We’ve seen this in industries like health insurance, where regulation has gatekept aspiring competitors from entering the market. Hence, capitalism is a temporary solution; it inevitably devolves into cronyism because the same greed that got people on top, allows them to rig the game to stay on top.
Further, it can be argued that capitalism has cultivated the growth of other harmful traits such as consumerism and envy. Lastly, transforming society from the top down isn’t exactly easy, nor is it a suitable scale to test new ideas. One of the most recent revolutionary ideas on economics led to the Khmer Rouge and other regimes of terror, ironically because it did not account for the role greed would play within it.
Approach number 2 may be a better option. Rather than authoritatively mold the bees, it involves convincing them it is in their best interest to be good little bees. The author’s knee-jerk instinct is to embrace this approach and encourage introspection since 1) self-reflection is hard to come by in the modern culture and 2) most people know in their heart of hearts what they dislike about themselves and what they must do to overcome these traits - they just need to figure it out for themselves.
The problem with this sweeping generalization is that this is truly awful advice for many people - there is a section of the population that spends too much time in their head, leading to neuroses and other undue hardships. Even though the author’s advice is well-intentioned, this sect of the population would be harmed if such advice were heeded.
Without personally knowing my reader, I cannot know if my influence is for the better. Similarly, without directly interacting with someone, I cannot know their way of life and personal context, which means the validity of my opinion on their lifestyle is questionable at best and harmful at worst. Further, if there is a power dynamic between advisor and advisee, influence can rapidly transform into intimidation, which yields similar demoralizing results to the authoritarian Big Brother approach of mass surveillance.1
Approach number two to influence or nudge others towards good behavior is flawed despite being well-intentioned because it doesn’t scale effectively. Its inability to scale and its underlying condescension is the reason so many evangelists are so insufferable. Who are they to say their way of life is best for me?
This leaves us in yet another conundrum. “Just be yourself” is generally poor advice since many have flaws they are dissatisfied with - flaws that they deep down wish to overcome. Yet, authoritatively forcing people to behave well is bad for the soul, nobody has successfully created a utopia that has incentivized us to extinguish the fire of our undesirable traits, and lastly, nudging others towards our ethics is at best conceited, and at worst, iatrogenic. All options create a top-down blanket where we impose our perception of what’s good upon others with generally negative outcomes.
Perhaps the answer lies in direction rather than action. Instead of influencing or molding from the top-down, we can build grass-roots pockets of virtue within the hive. Let’s call these micro-hives. These micro-hives differ from a hive in that their members have a concrete, first-degree relationship with those in it, while those in a hive are connected by second and third order relationships. Cletus and Jebidiah in small town Missouri interact with each other daily during their ritualistic visit to the local watering hole, while Jonathan Goldstein, Esq. from NYC has no direct connection with these refined gentlemen and their missing teeth despite a similar ritualistic visit to The Met. Both rituals have the same intention of connecting with peers, unwinding from work, and mental stimulation; but their daily ritual is analogous to how they all reside within the same hive but different micro-hives.
If Jebidiah and Jonathan are in the business of doling out advice, Cletus is much more likely to listen to the rural blue-collared Jebidiah than he is to our NYC attorney because of their concrete relationship with one another. Jonathan only knows of Cletus in the abstract sense. Jonathan can conceptually imagine life in small town Missouri based on what he’s heard or read about, but since he is not there and has never been there, he cannot understand their ambitions, superstitions, religious practices, or motives. Jebidiah can relate to Cletus much better and hence provide advice that better aligns with Cletus’s personal context - even if his speech sounds like chicken scratch reads.
Of course, this statement relies on some assumptions about the rules of their micro-hive.
Positive Sum Game
If the micro-hive is structured such that I have to rob Cletus to pay Jebidiah, I have effectively made them enemies. They must compete for resources which means what’s best for the bee cannot be best for the hive. This is called a zero-sum game.
If the micro-hive is structured so that Jebidiah can be paid without harming Cletus, I’ve created a positive sum game. Now they can collaborate with one another and create that corporate buzzword: synergy. What’s best for the bee can also be best for the hive.
The positive sum game is the ideal balance between competition and cooperation. This happens when people are either incentivized to seek out the wisest option in any scenario (i.e. the win-win) or penalized for choosing banditry (win-lose) or foolishness (lose-lose). In other words, Cletus is personally better off if he helps Jebidiah and he is worse off if his advice harms Jebidiah.
Returning to the thesis that direction and scale govern whether our attempts to mold bees or their hives are for the better, there are two reasons a smaller scale community is better equipped to create a positive sum game:
Small-town gossip creates a grassroots version of the observer effect that disincentivizes banditry
Simply having a personal connection with those you interact with can incentivize you to be more altruistic. When you know the local coffee shop owner and his kids go to school with yours, you feel more inclined to tip him for his service. Contrast that with the giga-Starbucks in Seattle: you have no personal connection with the barista. When you have a personal connection with someone, you think twice before seeking banditry. You think to yourself, “Gee, that’s my neighbor. I know his wife and kids - I wouldn’t want to screw him over.” Contrast that with international business where it’s easier to make a decision that does not impact you personally, with people you only speak with over Zoom, and only discussing professional topics. Here it is much easier to pull off a bandito hit-and-run.
The gossip associated with small towns gets a bad rep for good reason, but it isn’t without benefits. The small tight-knit community and its conduction for word-of-mouth can act as a mechanism to uphold the positive-sum game. It disincentivizes banditry because when you screw over your neighbor, everyone knows about it and shame is brought upon you. Contrast that with business in NYC - you can scam someone and they’ll scream on the streets that you’re a rat bastard, but it wouldn’t impact tomorrow’s scam on another person in the area because word-of-mouth carries less weight in a larger community.
This isn’t to say gossip is good for society, but the tightly-knit community of small towns can keep poor behavior in check through a grassroots version of The Observer Effect. The observant reader may find this contradictory to the aforementioned woes of surveillance. Again, the problem with the authoritarian surveillance approach is not necessarily The Observer Effect, but the scale at which it operates. Society is a complex system because it is composed of individuals with varying goals and desires and in such complex systems, emergent properties blossom once a threshold of scale is reached. Just like how social media has become something more than just conversation because of its scale, observation transforms into surveillance at an automated scale.
Perhaps mechanization is the trigger point in scale that transforms normal human behavior into something harmful. For all of human history, people have been observed by those in their community, but never before have people been observed by algorithms and faceless bureaucrats across the country. The same goes for social media - we have communicated with each other since before language, but only recently have we been able to clearly communicate with each other without a personal presence. Furthermore, it has become even more blurry whether those we interact with online are people or bots.
Mechanized interactions like social media, Zoom calls, and surveillance remove or filter the personal aspect of anything we do, which tilts the incentives of the game. The risks associated with foolishness or banditry are much less severe online than in person - there is no threat of physical repercussions. We commonly see a veiled form of banditry with surveillance - when those that monitor your digital data use it to take advantage of you. Think about those targeted ads you receive - somebody
stalked you gleaned your data in an effort to sell you something - to put something you might want in front of you.
You could argue that this is a win-win because you are presented with the option to purchase something that you want: you buy something you want and your esoteric seller collects his hard-earned money. But let’s not conflate wants with wins. I want to eat Five Guys, drink seven specialty cocktails at the local watering hole every weekend, and drive a new car; but these insipid wants are not wins. I would be much better off eating healthy foods, drinking in moderation, and putting my money towards appreciating assets - largely because these align with my goals. Eating, guzzling, and buying trash would lead to humongous Ls in my life.
What I want isn’t always the best choice for me and those that pander to my wants aren't always pandering to my best interests. If you spend little of your time in self-reflection, it can be difficult to discern your wants from wins. Hence, in places that are not conducive to self-reflection (i.e. the internet), those that bombard you with your wants frequently partake in banditry.
Just like with social media, such banditry would be much harder to carry out without mechanization and its ability to remove personality from human behavior. Duping someone into buying something they don’t need is much easier without physical interaction.2
Freedom to make mistakes - learn via negativa
While it is critical to create a micro-hive that disincentivizes banditry and foolishness, people still need the freedom to make mistakes - so long as those mistakes don’t harm others. The skeptical reader may wonder why people need the freedom to make mistakes. If we can prevent someone from making a mistake, why wouldn’t we? Let’s answer this with a simple thought experiment: have you ever met someone whose parents prevented them from ever making a mistake? This overly strict style of parenting creates needy children that either A) struggle to depend on themselves because a hovering parent was always there to solve their problems or B) struggle to cope with mistakes or hardship because they never had the opportunity to learn this at an early age. To be clear, the author isn’t saying children of strict parents are destined to fail or that they cannot learn these skills; they are just at a disadvantage because they had to learn certain coping and problem solving skills at a later age than their peers.
Apply this to the larger scale of a nation-state and we see a broader range of people debilitated. We end up with a society of adult-children that struggle to solve problems and cope with hardship. I sound like a boomer that whines about entitlement and snowflakes, but just like with any strawman argument, there is a grain of truth hidden in their hyperboles.
The education system, which parents children to a certain degree, exacerbates this because it is structured in a manner that delays children from making mistakes in the real world. This would be fine if the education system mimicked the real world in any way, but it is a sandbox with its own set of black-and-white rules, insulated from the grayness of the real world. Grades go up or down based on whether your answers on tests are correct or not. In real life, you must figure out whether your answer to life’s questions are right - nobody grades you. I remember hearing a quote that further illustrates how the education system is inverted from the real world, “In school, the knowledge is learned before the test. In the real world, knowledge is learned after the test.”3
It seems silly that we devote our adolescence and early adult years to the acquisition of crystalline knowledge when we have access to the entirety of collective crystalline knowledge at the tip of our fingers. The obvious exception to this silliness is a highly specialized career path that harms others when a mistake is made. It is time to transition to a model that allows our youth to develop amorphous knowledge such as problem solving, bullshit meters, and adaptability. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a rebellion against all crystalline knowledge - as understanding history, the structure of the country you reside in, and other scientific principles are necessary. Rather, I am arguing for a different model after a certain age: apprenticeship.
Apprenticeship allows adolescents to apply their crystalline intelligence to the real world; it lets them test ideas and see how the world responds. Mentors play a critical role in this structure by letting their apprentices make mistakes, but intervening before harmful mistakes are made. They also expose adolescents to real world problems of increasing responsibility as they develop their skills. Bodybuilders are familiar with progressive overload: the principle that muscles grow from increasingly challenging but not too challenging stimuli. Apprenticeship with exposure to increasingly complex problems is like progressive overload for the mind.
A shift from the current education system’s classes to apprenticeship is a shift from additive knowledge to learning via negativa. Instead of acquiring tons of new knowledge, the adolescent is free to ideate hypotheses, test them, and discard what doesn’t work. By falsifying what isn’t true himself, he learns how to problem solve, cope, and adapt while gaining knowledge about fields that interests him.
Returning to the structure of the micro-hive, the point of this rambling at the education system is to say that people learn more when they have the freedom to make their own mistakes. I’ve personally learned much more in curricula centered around projects vs lectures and tests. As such, a micro-hive structured in a way that encourages benign mistakes is critical for a few reasons:
Individuals are better off because they can chase their curiosities
The hive is better off because individuals take the risk associated with experimentation while the society benefits from their findings
Nominating myself as humanity’s spokesman for a moment, I’d venture to say that people are happier when they can pursue their interests. Further, we feel most alive if we have skin in the game - if chasing those interests risks reputational damage, financial loss, or even physical harm. Of course there is a balance here. Individuals are not better off if they realize detrimental risks, but realizing some risks (i.e. making mistakes) in the pursuit of passion is a noble achievement since the juice of passion is worth the squeeze of mistakes.4
When everyone is encouraged to make mistakes, risks are transferred to each individual brave enough to chase their interests. Better yet, the benefits of individuals chasing their interests are passed on to the collective. We all benefit from people who risked financial instability to build something that interested them. For example, as popular as it is to hate Jeff Bezos, we all enjoy the luxury of receiving any good for sale on our doorstep within a few days and we didn’t take any risk to afford this luxury. All the risk was owned by Jeff when he decided to start his own business. Contrast that with a top-down approach - if a mistake is made by the powers that be, the risk is realized by every individual in the hive.
If we think about nature as a collective, it has ascended towards higher consciousness and transcended boundaries with this same freedom to make mistakes. Its structure of mutation and selection operates under the exact same principle - individuals have the freedom to make mistakes through genetic mutations and natural selection determines which is best. Mutations that are detrimental die off, but nature as a collective is better off because the gene pool is better fit to survive. Further, this mechanism thrives because some mutations transcend the previous paradigm, improving the standards of living. Again, the individual takes risks to better the collective. Nature learns via negativa by trying new things and discarding the mistakes.
This is not to suggest nature has a will, as mutation is a stochastic process, but its personification is merely intended to showcase that the principle of via negativa learning and the freedom to make mistakes isn’t just a localized principle or theory, it is the very mechanism of natural selection. Nature has survived longer and transcended higher than any man-made institution or decision, so it is worth considering her approach before trying to reinvent the wheel.
In a positive-sum society that grants people the freedom to make their mistakes, individuals are incentivized to chase their interests (unless of course their interests are destructive), and in doing so, they improve the lives of those around them. Any risks associated with mistakes are realized by individuals while the collective remains unscathed. There are exceptions such as profiting off pollution or rent-seeking, but these behaviors are eliminated in a positive-sum society because they are disincentivized to a high enough degree.
Contrast this with the top-down surveillance society we are marching towards, where decision makers are removed from the repercussions of their decisions - they have no skin in the game. Remember how Jonathan does not understand Cletus and Jebidiah’s way of life, but if he has the authority to dictate their lifestyle, he is 1) more likely to make a decision that is not best for them and 2) he is shielded from the impact of his decisions because he does not live there. This is because once the scale reaches mechanization, it shifts the tides towards a zero-sum society - there’s no skin off Jonathan’s back if he messes up. In this case, Jonathan has no incentive to make a decision that’s best for Cletus and Jebidiah. Even worse, if Jonathan lives in a negative-sum society, he gains from our farm friends’ loss, so he is incentivized to make a destructive decision.
To return to our original premise, people are best off in a society that:
Allows individuals the freedom to chase their interests, make mistakes, and learn from them
Punishes people for making decisions or mistakes that harm others
Encourages improvement by leveraging the observer effect on a non-mechanized scale
I leave you with this question:
What can you do to build a micro-hive of collaboration and curiosity?
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You could argue that a power dynamic between advisor and advisee is inherent to the situation, further strengthening this point
You can look up data on incidence of fraud over the rise of the internet if you don’t believe me. There are many more types of snake oil and its charlatans are getting more creative
I can’t remember who this is attributed to
No source for this, but none needed. I hope this is self-evident