Memoryless News: Doomed to Repetition

I am currently listening to the audio version of Brian Christian’s book, The Most Human Human. It is a look at human conversation and behavior contrasted against the artificial intelligence of computers. Christian uses his participation in the Turing Test, a contest where computer programs intended to carry out convincing conversations are pitted against real people. Remote judges then have to discern man from machine. The most deceptive AI program is titled “The Most Human Computer” and another title, “The Most Human Human”, is bestowed on the person least often mistaken for a soulless robot.

One of the most memorable bits so far is Christian’s comparing the experience of dealing with customer service and speaking with a computer. Conversation bots sometimes are recognizable by their lack of a train of thought and, like a customer service transfer, can result in a feeling of having to repeat yourself over and over.

"The same thing happens sometimes in customer service, where the disruption of intimacy seems almost tactical."

The author goes on to relate a frustrating and familiar tale of phone reps playing a game of musical chairs which stifles any opportunity to move his case forward or establish an understanding of his reasoning.

Anyone who studies economics or statistics is probably familiar with models or functions with memoryless properties. This is where the next answer the model delivers is independent from the previous answers. This can either be appropriate or inappropriate for mathematical models, but would rarely be desirable in any conversation with a goal.

Hearing the customer service analogy to memoryless decision making instantly reminded me of a frustration I have when watching the news. As a news junky I see the same cast of characters acting as guests, pundits and hosts arguing the topic of the week over and over. Unfortunately, the same points are batted around and seemingly little progression occurs from conversation to conversation. One would think that, unlike the newest customer service rep, the next interviewer would be well aware of the lingering questions and resolved or unresolved issues that took place in the other seven or eight interviews that the given interviewee has participated in that very week. This does not seem to be the case.

I remember in the 2008 presidential debates when John McCain would state that the U.S. had the highest corporate tax rate among large nations. Candidate Obama would reply that the effective rate, what companies actually pay on average, was much lower and competitive. McCain, that I recall, never confirmed or denied the validity of the response. I assumed that the conservative talking point would need to be amended in some way or that the media would be hawkish about pointing out the misleading nature of the claim.

But in later debates and interviews the point was continually raised, often unchallenged. Each time the conversation restarted there was no memory of the previous iterations. No progress was made in reaching a conclusion or even narrowing the set of possible conclusions.

In the last year a liberal talking point, the noting of Exxon and other large companies virtual lack of taxation while reaping record profits, has snuck in to the conversation as well. This point, while providing balance, doesn’t complete the story. What is the effective tax rate? What sort of companies pay more or pay less? These would be the telling points that would inform the public. I would presume an interviewer or pundit would want to know these things to bring a relatively dreary conflict to a close.

Why would people who are supposed to be intelligent and who, if not initially experts, should become better versed in these topics continue to repeat the same questions and accept the same answers? The motivations of politicians and like-minded pundits are clear if unlikeable. They want to push forward their or some benefactor’s goals and will use whatever logic will get them there most easily. They assume the public is only paying mild attention and they are probably right.

But what do the interviewers want? Are they just unprepared? Is there a real effort to maintain the argument rather reach conclusions? It seems silly as it is not as though another issue wouldn’t take the place of the resolved question. Maybe it is harder than it seems. Perhaps feedback is more plentiful from viewers with partisan views that need protecting than from those who want to be informed. In any event it “seems almost tactical.”

The existence of so much news-related airtime being filled without substance is disappointing in the same way as finding out the 24 screen multiplex isn’t carrying that award winning small film you’ve heard so much about, but with far more lasting consequences. After all, you’ll never be able to rent the answers to such issues on Netflix.

  1. wsthursday posted this
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