The ironic cloud
By D. Graham Burnett and Jeffrey Andrew Dolven
By D. Graham Burnett and Jeff Dolven, from “Irony in the National Defense.” Last winter, Lockheed Martin Corporation approached Princeton University with a request for research initiatives. In April, Burnett, an historian of science, and Dolven, a professor of English, submitted the proposal, the cost of which they estimated to be $750,000; Princeton declined to forward it to Lockheed.
Irony is a powerful and incompletely understood feature of human dynamics. A technique for dissimulation and “secret speech,” irony is considerably more complex than lying and even more dangerous. Ideally suited to mobilization on the shifting terrain of asymmetrical conflict, inherently covert, insidiously plastic, politically potent, irony offers rogue elements a volatile if often overlooked means by which to demoralize opponents and destabilize regimes. And yet while major research resources have for forty years poured into the human sciences from the defense and intelligence community in an effort to gain control over the human capacity to lie (investments that led to the modern polygraph, sodium pentothal–derived truth serums, “brain fingerprinting,” etc.), we have no comparable tradition of sustained, empirical, applied investigation into irony. We know very little about its specific manifestations in foreign cultures; we understand almost nothing about the neurological basis of its expression; we are without forward-looking strategies for its mastery and mobilization in the interest of national defense. This project–a sustained three-year, three-pronged, interdisciplinary investigation, drawing on social scientists, engineers, and neurobiologists—will position Lockheed Martin for field leadership in a crucial new area of strategic and commercial growth.
If we don’t know how irony works and we don’t know how it is used by the enemy, we cannot identify it. As a result, we cannot take appropriate steps to neutralize ironizing threat postures. This fundamental problem is compounded by the enormous diversity of ironic modes in different world cultures and languages. Without the ability to detect and localize irony consistently, intelligence agents and agencies are likely to lose valuable time and resources pursuing chimerical leads and to overlook actionable instances of insolence. The first step toward addressing this situation is a multilingual, collaborative, and collative initiative that will generate an encyclopedic global inventory of ironic modalities and strategies. More than a handbook or field guide, the work product of this effort will take the shape of a vast, searchable, networked database of all known ironies. Making use of a sophisticated analytic markup language, this “Ironic Cloud” will be navigable by means of specific ironic tropes (e.g., litotes, hyperbole, innuendo, etc.), by geographical region or language field (e.g., Iran, North Korea, Mandarin Chinese, Davos, etc.), as well as by specific keywords (e.g., nose, jet ski, liberal arts, Hermès, night soil, etc.) By means of constantly reweighted nodal linkages, the Ironic Cloud will be to some extent self-organizing in real time and thus capable of signaling large-scale realignments in the “weather” of global irony as well as providing early warnings concerning the irruption of idiosyncratic ironic microclimates in particular locations—potential indications of geopolitical, economic, or cultural hot spots.
advanced active and passive sensing
This monitory feature of the Ironic Cloud leads to further consideration of the different ways to scan for and detect irony. But this work needs to be done at multiple scales: global, regional, theater, sect, individual, etc. The development of increasingly refined technologies for brain imaging has opened a staggering new world for the investigation of the somatic basis of psychological functioning. Language research has been at the forefront of this work. The time is ripe for a full-scale study of the neurophysiology of irony. What subregions of the brain are metabolically most active in an ironizing subject? What dynamical patterns are revealed by ironic expressions? Can irony be “stimulated” or “suppressed” by chemical or electro-physiological or magneto-inductive means? The answers to these questions will be crucial to the design and testing of irony-scanning equipment. While it is likely that such devices will for some time require relatively high-cost technology, there is reason to hope that biochemical or macrometabolic correlates will be discovered that would allow for inexpensive and portable “Irony Kits” (probably saliva-based, and possibly making use of litmus paper–like tabs) that could be counted on to identify ironic subjects or situations to an adequate first-order level of accuracy. The field value of such systems for military intelligence and domestic surveillance needs no elaboration.
distributed isr and attack
Admittedly the most speculative dimension of this project is the preliminary investigation into modes of weaponized irony. Superpower-level political entities (e.g., Roman Empire, George W. Bush, large corporations, etc.) have tended to look on irony as a “weapon of the weak” and thus adopted a primarily defensive posture in the face of ironic assault. But a historically sensitive consideration of major strategic realignments suggests that many critical inflection points in geopolitics (e.g., Second Punic War, American Revolution, etc.) have involved the tactical redeployment of “guerrilla” techniques and tools by regional hegemons. There is reason to think that irony, properly concentrated and effectively mobilized, might well become a very powerful armament on the “battlefield of the future,” serving as a nonlethal—or even lethal—sidearm in the hands of human fighters in an information-intensive projection of awesome force. Without further fundamental research into the neurological and psychological basis of irony, it is difficult to say for certain how such systems might work, but the general mechanism is clear enough: irony manifestly involves a sudden and profound “doubling” of the inner life of the human subject. The ironizer no longer maintains an integrated and holistic perspective on the topic at hand but rather experiences something like a small tear in the consciousness, whereby the overt and covert meanings of a given text or expression are sundered. We do not now know just how far this tear could be opened—and we do not understand what the possible vital consequences might be. Even under the current lay or primitive deployments of irony, we see instances of disorientation, anger, and sometimes even despair. There is thus reason to hope that the irony of the future, suitably tuned, refined, and charged, might be mobilized to ” the enemy or possibly kill outright. This would be an extreme form of the sort of “speech act” theorized by the English philosopher (and, significantly, Strategic Intelligence Service officer in MI-6) J. L. Austin. Excitingly, such systems could be understood as the tangible culmination of a 2,500-year humanistic Western project of making words matter.
Wombaticus Rex wrote:If we don’t know how irony works and we don’t know how it is used by the enemy, we cannot identify it. As a result, we cannot take appropriate steps to neutralize ironizing threat postures.
I think Metcalfe says it all. This DARPA project is wading without passion or particular talent into territory already understood and even scientifically reduced in many ways by passionate practioners through thousands of years of storytelling, art, philosophy and criticism, rhetoric and propaganda.
What they produce is going to be about as effective as the effort to Sell America to the Arab world after 9/11, a spiritual predecessor to the metaphor program. But it will be funded for a few seasons, which is what matters to the program runners.
The Pentagon wants to understand the science behind what makes people violent. The question is what do they plan to do with it?
In February this year, the US government was forced into full damage limitation mode. News that US troops in Afghanistan had sent copies of the Koran to be incinerated, sparked a wave of deadly protests that left 36 people dead and more than 200 injured. Despite an apology from President Barack Obama and assurances that the burning was accidental, the public relations offensive launched to counter the damage done to the military’s reputation and stem the violence showed little sign of success.
Now imagine that instead of employing public relations experts to advise on the best strategy, US officials had a device that could advise them what to say, generating a story based on a scientific understanding of the brain’s inner workings to soothe tempers and calm the mood of the population. It sounds like something from a science fiction blockbuster, but is in fact the premise behind the Pentagon’s growing interest in the neurobiology of political violence, a relatively new field that combines neuroscience with more traditional social science-based approaches to understanding human behaviour.
One programme, started last year by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), even looks at finding ways to generate versions of events that could be used in attempts to persuade people not to support the enemy. Known as Narrative Networks, it seeks to "understand how narratives influence human thoughts and behaviour, then apply those findings to a security context in order to address security challenges such as radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency and terrorism, and conflict prevention and resolution,” says William Casebeer, the Darpa official leading the work.
The idea is straightforward: scientists have long known that narratives exert a powerful force on the human mind, helping to shape people’s concept of individual and group identities, even motivating them to conduct violent acts. Some bloggers and people posting on Twitter have suggested the Pentagon is seeking to elevate brainwashing to a science. "Darpa looking to master propaganda via Narrative Networks,'" read the headline of a report on the science news website Phys.org, for example, alongside countless similar blog posts and tweets.
Those involved in the research disagree. “None of the work we are doing, nor anyone else I know in the Narrative Networks group, is about increasing the ability of soldiers or sailors to kill people or to brainwash people,” says Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, who specializes in neuroeconomics, and whose work has been funded by the Darpa program.
Zak and others see this type of research being used in the shaping of messages that shows the US military in the best possible light, such as by highlighting its humanitarian work abroad. “Is there a way to hold events that might publicise things like healthcare, public health factors, [or] tooth brushing for children and you could give away half a million toothbrushes,” he says. “There could be things that help countries understand that most of the time what we want to do is get along with everybody.”
Zak’s work involves trying to understand how listening to stories affects the brain’s natural release of oxytocin, sometimes called the trust hormone. “Why are we grabbed by some stories and not others?’ he says. “It just seems like a great question to ask.”
To test his theories, Zak uses an experiment that involves involves university students watching a short video featuring a father describing his son’s battle with brain cancer. After watching the video, Zak measures oxytocin levels in the blood of the participants, as well as their willingness to give the money they’ve earned from participating in the experiment to charity. “Our hypothesis is that this connection system that human beings have, which utilizes oxytocin, is activated by these same kinds of narratives, these same kinds of stories,” he says.
But stories aren’t the only way to increase trust. Zak has also experimented with having subjects spray oxytocin into their nose, but it's not an approach that would have practical applications for the military, he cautions. The government is not looking to “just spray oxytocin into the crowds,” he says. “That, first of all, would be highly unethical and illegal, and it wouldn’t work anyway. You have to get a lot into the brain.“
While Zak is focusing on oxytocin, other researchers working with Darpa’s support are trying to understand the parts of the brain responsible for values and ideals. Emory University professor Greg Berns, a neuroeconomist, recently conducted an experiment that involved paying people to give up their fundamental ideals and beliefs. Participants were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner while statements based on answers they had previously given on a questionnaire were presented on a screen. Topics related to either core beliefs such as views on gay marriage, sex with children and the sterilization of people with genetic conditions, or less fundamental matters such as preference for PCs or Macs.
The volunteers were then offered up to $100 to sign statements disavowing their previous views. Perhaps unsurprisingly, more were willing to take money to change position on things like whether they were a cat person rather than a dog person than were willing to do so to shift their stances on whether they would accept money for sex, for example. More interestingly, Berns found that fundamental values, such as those concerning sex and belief in God, triggered activity in a part of the brain called the left temporoparietal junction, while more every-day belief statements stimulated activity in the entirely separate left and right inferior parietal lobes.
These findings, suggests Berns, means there is a biological basis for ethnic conflict. “Many of the conflicts that we currently face internationally are ultimately about control of biology,” says Berns. People may say they are fighting for ideas, but what they are really fighting for, according to Berns, is for values connected to survival, such as reproductive rights. “Things like religion are placeholders for that; what we’re seeing is a very Darwinian struggle for limited resources,” he says.
Berns, like the other researchers involved, says the Darpa program is about finding ways to stop people from fighting, not controlling them. “It’s not about brainwashing people," he says. "We’re not in the business of reading people’s minds, or implanting thoughts. By understanding the biology of what causes people go to war, we might begin to understand how to mitigate it.”
Whether creating better narratives can help reduce conflict is still an open question, however. Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have been studying the role of stories and dialogue on those involved the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in particular, how stories affect sympathy for others.
“I think there’s a perception out there that if someone commits these horrible atrocities to another group that they must be sociopaths, they must be psychopaths that lack empathy for other people,” says Emile Bruneau, a post-doctoral fellow at the Saxe Lab at MIT, which is not funded by the Darpa programme. “But, I think it might be very different, that they might actually be highly empathic people, but their empathy is highly regulated so that it’s applied strongly to in-group members but not at all to out-group members.”
In a study published last year, Bruneau and his colleagues looked at what happens in the brain when Jewish Israelis and Arabs read stories intended to evoke sympathy about members of each other's group. Participants read about children suffering physical or emotional pain such as by cutting themselves with a knife or losing a parent, for example. Brain scans carried out with fMRI machines showed these stories elicited similar patterns of activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, the brain region associated with sympathy, whether subjects read about members of their own group or about "the enemy". Interestingly, reading the same stories about the suffering of South Americans triggered a noticeably different response in this brain region and others involved in thinking about others' emotions. “The most poetic interpretation of that is these are the brain regions where the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference,” says Bruneau.
In a separate study, Bruneau and colleagues asked Israelis and Palestinians to write about the difficulties they faced because of the ongoing conflict. The accounts were then read by members of the opposing group, and feelings such as empathy, trust and warmth were measured using a survey. The researchers found the attitudes of the Palestinians towards the Israelis improved more when they were allowed to tell their stories, rather than listening, whereas Israelis' attitudes about Palestinians improved more after they listened to Palestinians describing their experiences.
The MIT research could hold some lessons for the US government, which spends over a billion dollars a year on trying to convince foreign audiences of its point of view, whether via radio broadcasting, or through the Pentagon’s foreign language news sites. “It’s interesting that we spend a lot of money as a country on the Voice of America [radio station],” Bruneau says, “when this research is starting to show that what might be most effective would be the ear of America.”
Line of defence
Beyond the question of better storytelling is a fundamental question about whether such research will actually help the Pentagon convince people that the US military is really there to help them. Tom Pyszczynski, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado who studies terrorism, says it’s not clear that understanding the neuroscience of violence, while an interesting scientific endeavor, will lead on its own to solutions to terrorism.
“We need to understand those things, no doubt about it, but, in terms of promoting peace I’m not sure that knowing where in the brain the anger that leads to violence is happening is going to help us discourage war,” says Pyszczynski, who has been studying the effects of the recent Arab Spring uprisings on attitudes towards the West. “We’re not going to be able to go in and zap people’s amygdalae or anesthetize them or do whatever,” he says. “We’re going to need to change the way they interpret things that happen and we’re going to need to stop doing things that people interpret as insulting or challenging to their way of life.”
For Pyszczynski, the potential for such work also raises an interesting ethical question reminiscent of the issues addressed A Clockwork Orange, both the 1971 film and the book on which it was based. “If you could somehow reliably change peoples’ minds so that they didn’t want to kill anymore, should that be done?” he asks. “Well, you’re impinging on their freedom in a way, but on the other hand you’re saving a lot of lives.”
But shaping public relations campaigns – and people’s minds - isn’t necessarily the only military application for such research. David Matsumoto, a professor of psychology and director of the Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory at San Francisco State University, is being funded by another Pentagon initiative, called Minerva, to conduct scientific research on the role of emotions in inciting political violence. Matsumoto and his colleagues are studying language and facial expressions used by political leaders to see if those can be used to predict future violence.
“I think that one of the most logical direct applications of this kind of finding and this line of research [is] to develop sensors that can watch, either monitor the words that are being spoken and/or the non-verbal behaviors that are expressive of those emotions,” he says of the Pentagon’s interest in his work. “I think the development of sensors like that ... would be sort of an early warning signal or system [to detect violence].”
Of course, some might question whether the vision of a machine that spits out story lines at the flip of a switch, or provides an early warning “emotion” sensor for war, is blue sky dreaming. But Read Montague, a neuroscientist at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke, Virginia, sees the possibility of technology that could come into play in cases like the Koran-burning protests in Afghanistan.
“I see a device coming that’s going to make suggestions to you, like, a, this situation is getting tense, and, b, here are things you need to do now, I’ll help you as you start talking,” says Montague, who is part of the Darpa Narrative Networks project. “That could be really useful.”
Montague points out that people also once doubted that a computer could beat a chess master, but as technology advanced, computers eventually became good enough that they could out manoeuvre even the best chess players. Of course, the idea of Big Blue-style computer that taps the mind’s biology to generate stories sounds less like a feel-good storytelling machine than a military weapon designed to manipulate people’s mental state. “It’s a weapon,” says Montague, “but it’s a defensive weapon.”
When photographs documenting the torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib came to the attention of a horrified public, national and international voices were raised in shock, asking how this happened. At War with Metaphor offers an answer, arguing that the abuses of Abu Ghraib were part of a systemic continuum of dehumanization. This continuum has its roots in our public discussions of the war on terror and the metaphors through which they are repeatedly framed.
Arguing earnestly and incisively that these metaphors, if left unexamined, bind us into a cycle of violence that will only be intensified by a responsive violence of metaphor, Steuter and Wills examine compelling examples of the images of animal, insect, and disease that inform, shape, and limit our understanding of the war on terror. Tying these images to historical and contemporary uses of propaganda through a readable, accessible analysis of media filters, At War with Metaphor vividly explores how news media, including political cartoons and talk radio, are enmeshed in these damaging, dehumanizing metaphors. Analyzing media through the lenses of race and Orientalism, it invites us to hold our media and ourselves accountable for the choices we make in talking war and making enemies.
Wombaticus Rex wrote:Jerky wrote:We all should be studying such constructs very closely.
Well, yeah. Hence the thread.
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