Kin Lane

We Need More Investment in Cybernetic Research

I have read a couple of books on Cybernetics in the last couple of years, and increasingly see the subject cited in more modern work while discussing the situation we find ourselves in with the Internet. According to Wikipedia, Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities. Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine” I am guessing the movement lost momentum because Norbert Weiner had a come to Jesus moment when it came to the military origins of his work, and stepped away from this area of research and outreach, but I am feeling like as a society we need more investment in cybernetics right now, helping us make sense of the impact the Internet and the web is having on the social fabric of reality in 2020.

I have been studying the impact the web, and more particularly APIs are having on what I’d consider to be our digital self, while also working to understand the real world physical impact each of these digital transactions have on our lives for over a decade now. The core of my work as the API Evangelist over the last decade has been to understand how every bit of our professional and personal lives are being reduced to a transaction, and sold as part of a digital marketplace that has emerged in the last 20 years. I don’t believe we have a strong grasp on how the web is being used to attract, manipulate, surveil, and shift behavior in some very damaging ways. I think we need to work to slow the march of Internet connected technologies until we get a handle on how it is being used, and how it impacts human beings around the planet. I don’t think we can stop things now that the cat is out of the bag, but I do think we can invest more in understanding the relationship us human beings have with Internet enabled technology, and put some more safeguards in place to help minimize the damage.

This blog is all about unpacking everything Kin Lane, and one of the early warning signs that went off for me when it comes to the power technology, and the control it has over me, occurred as part of my job as a software architect and engineer. I have an obsessive compulsive personality to begin with, but once you bundle that with defining, designing, reverse engineering, and building out digital infrastructure, you end up with the potential for some serious work to get done. I am one of those kinetic wind up hot wheel cars that you roll backwards a couple of times and then let loose–give me an idea, assign my brain a task to accomplish and I become very narrowly focused on achieving the desired objective. I get obsessed, focused, and possess unbreakable concentration when I am reverse engineering an existing platform API, or possibly building a new one. Once I get a bee in my bonnet about solving a “problem” with computational thinking, I become hooked. Blinders on. Until the mission is complete. If you repeat this enough times over the course of a couple decades you end up with a lot of work getting done, multiple startups and applications built, but you also end up with a lot of wreckage in the wake, including addiction, divorce, broken friendships, and much, much more. Around 2015 I began to see more of the toll this obsession with Internet technology and a computational view of the world was taking, something in 2020 I am only beginning to understand at even a basic level. The really big red flag for me, which told me there was something seriously damaging going on is the way that a single social media post or thread could spin me out, make it near impossible to step away from Facebook or Twitter, while also possibly leaving me physically in a bad place as a result. One topic. One issue. Just the right meme from a conservative “friend” that I grew up with. A precisely place criticism on my blog or via Twitter calling me out for something. I would get so pissed off sometimes it would literally end the work day for me, leaving me unable to continue functioning as a human being. Thanks to repeated questioning and examining of myself via this blog I am able to step back and see the problem for what it is. I am an expert in application programming interfaces, so I understand the details of how each digital resource is being used to manipulate me, but I am not a psychologist, so I fall quite a bit short when it comes to fully grasping the psychological nature of each API resource as it applies to a specific demographic, personality, and user. Think Cambridge Analytica, and the outcomes of those quizzes they engineered to psychologically profile everyone via Facebook, allowing those different demographics to be manipulated via APIs using advertising and social sharing. It is these connections between humans online using technology that I feel like we should be firing up another round of investment into cybernetics and get some more answers to–there is just so much that we do not understand here, and it feels like the fallout from Cambridge Analytic has just been swept under the rug, and we haven’t learned anything.

I am fully aware that I am being manipulated online on a daily basis. I study the technical side of this manipulation full time as part of my work. I have studied my own mental health and cognitive state through storytelling here on this blog, but I am only beginning to develop an awareness of the toll all of this takes on my mental and physical state. I know enough to never trust anything I read online. I know enough to understand the power and superficiality of relationships online, but I am not convinced many other people do. I know people right nw who are completely convinced that they are tapped into not just digital, but spiritual, cosmic, and higher sources of information simply by having the right friends on Facebook, and seeing the social shares of a handful of people they believe are tapped into THE source of knowledge. I just think we might have overestimated people’s grip on reality when we just assumed everyone should be on the web. I know people who feel their social media sources of information were more authoritative than conversations I was having in person within federal agencies within Washington D.C. I think we haven’t fully assessed the state of education in this country, and the rich environment for misinformation when it came to the web. I don’t think we are being honest about the psychological impact of a single shared meme on Facebook, in a world where very few people can actually read a book cover to cover anymore. I don’t think we fully understand the cognitive weaponization that can occur when you super charge a single blog post with the right title and images, and use it to wind up a demographic. If a meme about conservatives calling themselves “patriotic rebels for not wearing masks” can leave me wound up for hours offline after reading on Facebook, I can only imagine what a “liberals are coming for your guns” meme can do to a conservative demographic on Facebook.

We just do not understand the impact of a single Facebook post, Instagram image, or Youtube video on our cognitive state, let alone a barrage of these digital transactions throughout the day, the week, or for the last 20 years. I can see the gears at work. I can see the cognitive control these platforms have over our reality. I can produce evidence of the daily impact all of this is having on my physical and mental state. I want to know more. What does it all mean? How do we learn from the Cambridge Analytica incidents? How do we establish more observability and accountability into the digital transformations that are occurring all around us? How do we push digital platforms to help us answer these questions? I just don’t believe we have a handle on the relationship human beings have with Internet enabled technology. I think we let capitalism take the lead when it comes to this conversation, and the pace of change has left academic research very far behind in understanding what is going on, and lawmakers even further behind when it comes to knowing how they should be driving the conversation around regulation and investment. Tech companies have the lion share of talent and money when it comes to this computational game we find ourselves in, and something has to shift if we are going to obtain a handle on what is happening, let alone how we are going to begin driving it all in a more sensible direction. Early computer scientists believed that this new technology would be used to augment humans and we would be the ones in control, but I am afraid without a structured, disciplined, and well-funded approach to making sense of the Internet and the web, it is the other way around, and the technology has the upper hand–leaving the relationship we human being have with technology in 2020 a very dangerous, manipulative, and abusive one.