Milgram -- On Computers!
Wednesday, 27 Dec 2006 :-: ["Permalink"]
This is a response to an article in Nature which describes the findings of Mel Slater in "A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments".
The study states,
Our results show that in spite of the fact that all participants knew for sure that neither the stranger nor the shocks were real, the participants who saw and heard her tended to respond to the situation at the subjective, behavioural and physiological levels as if it were real. This result reopens the door to direct empirical studies of obedience and related extreme social situations, an area of research that is otherwise not open to experimental study for ethical reasons, through the employment of virtual environments.
This, it seems to me and my trusty sidekick Logic, is quite silly and rather dangerous.
** * **
It has been clear for a very long time that at is very real to us. It was as much a debate to Plato and Aristotle as it is to us today. Immersive environments are interesting precisely because they offer a different kind of correspondence to reality. It is both silly and illogical to suggest that
- this test is valid because it recreates the conditions of the original study
- this test is ethical because it fails to recreate the conditions of the original study
It *is* true that the more recent test measures something different than the Milligram test. It is an interesting result. But if the Nature article and the scholarly publication are any indication, the researchers seem to completely misunderstand what it is that they're actually measuring.
Jeremy Bailenson is quoted as saying that "What Slater's research is showing is if you make your virtual reality good enough, you can go back and ask all these questions".
This is silly. This is *not* what Slater's research is showing. The significant difference between Slater's research and the theatrical simulations of the past is not the fact that these are computer simulations. The difference is that Slater's research is not a double-blind. This is freshman stuff. Don't they understand this?
This simple logical failure allows them to mischaracterize the ethical question. The ethical question with in Milgram's study did not rest in the actors who pretended to be tortured. It resided in the double-blind nature of the test and its moral/psychological impact upon those whom the test encouraged to torture other people.
By telling subjects about the test, Slater ruined the results and destroyed any useful correspondence to Milgram's study. If his test is valid, then his results seem to indicate that even in the absence of a double-blind, people take this stuff seriously. This supports the argument that Slater's test was also unethical.
But we can't really know, because Slater introduced too many new variables. If he just wanted to test the double-blind effect, he would have used actors, as did Milgram. But he also introduced a virtual reality system. So his results have to do with the nature of double-blinds, but they also have to do with the believability of virtual reality.
Bailenson seems to think that virtual reality is believable enough to give us insight into human reactions in the actual situations simulated. But this is the central issue with Milgram's study: whether simulation is ethical or not. Replacing human actors with digital actors does not change the ethical problem. If it is someday established that humans react to certain digital environments in nearly-identical ways to physical reality, then the potential for unethical testing increases, due to the greater possibilities of simulation. Would it then be possible, for example, to recreate rape in a digital environment, measure the results, and claim ethical high ground since physical rape is not perpetrated? Of course not. The Milgram study provides a case of far better simulated realism than any computer will ever be able to create. And anyone with any basic understanding of Internet culture has likely read the 1993 case study, "A Rape in Cyberspace", which suggests that even textual encounters can have a significant psychological impact, a conclusion supported by Slater's research.
The popular misconception that videogames and televisions, by merit of their nature as simulations, are effectless, is dangerous and troubling. If they were truly nonexperience, they would not be popular. Each year, hundreds of computer games put millions of people in situations even more ethically questionable than that of participants Milgram's famous study.
IMHO, Slater is trolling. It's the good ol' funding and publicity garnering standby of "let's do X -- with computers! "(in space, underwater, with six foot tall dancing cockroach hobos, etc). The latest, most depressing variant of this is the Arden Project, which has almost nothing to do with theatre or Shakespeare's plays. Why can't people obtain a basic idea of the issues they're dealing with? And why do other people fund them? Sigh.
** * **
I'm just getting warmed up. Rest and further study have resulted in such gems as "Why Christians Need to Read The Communist Manifesto". But I'll let that wait for a future date.
Also note that I had the reprise on simulation and stimulation ready to go in my blog queue several days before I came across this issue. Weird, eh?
Simulation and Stimulation - Reprint
Thursday, 21 Dec 2006 :-: ["Permalink"]
I just revisited a post from last year on the disciplines of study. It's worth another read.
** * **
In my quest for optimum output, I tread the wire between two elements which must both be optimized: time and my mind.
For example, do I go to sleep or keep working? If I go to sleep, I can do more work today. But if I keep working, will my mind continue to output thinking at a reasonable rate? I know the dangers of excessive late night work; I think I'm working hard, but late night work often goes at a slower rate. Drowsiness can be mistaken for flow.
The first great mental challenge of my life was to acknowledge the weirdness of my brain and give it enough time to complete complex tasks. Instead of sitting in front of the math problem, crying until my mind caught up, one early mentor suggested I doodle.
It was my first introduction to a basic mental technique: give yourself time to do the job. Aided by some math videos where I saw the equations performed on a board, I clung to the concept of time for years.
To this day, time management is one of the most important parts of my life. A much more complex inner equation leads to the daily allotment of time. Into it goes a set of tasks I wish to accomplish, the set of possible locations, and a sense of my mental state. Based on these variables, I choose where to go, how to get there, and what to eat.
This is because I have added a study of the mind to the concepts of basic time management. In high school, I would just sit in front of the computer, waiting for the ideas to come. They came much more slowly back then. No doubt my mind is much stronger, but I have also honed my methods.
In this, one must be very specific about the object one wishes to achieve. For example, many of my friends believe that they work best under pressure. Thus, they choose to write papers the night before. In reality, they do not work best under pressure. They work fastest under pressure. Their best work would take much, much more time to complete. This, of course, demonstrates their priorities. Something else must be much more important to them.
Among the last-nighters, there are also people who wish to do quality work, but are stuck. Like the student who writes the first reasonably-logical thesis which comes to mind, they stick with the mental disciplines which they encounter by accident. And last-night pressure is the easiest mental stimulant to discover; even many highly-motivated, highly-intelligent people stop here.
The last-night mindset is deceptive. It seems the quickest and most intense of all mental effort. It may even be highly addictive. Highly social people prefer this method, since it frees their time for other, more important things. Fortunately, when I was young I read some advice against making this a regular pattern: (Samuel Johnson's early letter to Boswell).
So I looked for other paradigms of mental discipline. And I am still looking. For their nature and scope can vary widely. Hypertext, for example, has led to an important paradigm change for me. My thoughts on the unpublished Metaphysical poets have led to further distinct changes in my mental toolbag. There are several others, but I will only give one more example:
The next mental technique which people discover is a sort of self-conditioning.
I recently saw a cartoon in which someone offered herself a cookie if she were able to write 5 more pages. By offering herself a reward, she was trying to behaviorally condition herself to write more. This was a question of motivation.
The conditioning can become much more subtle when it looks like operant conditioning. It starts out by remembering a particular good study session. Any number of factors, such as sleep, nutrition, the topic itself, or any previous work on the topic may have contributed to this outstanding study session. But our imaginary thinker remembers that he was at coffeeshop X or in seat Y when the marvelous thinking occurred. Next time he wishes to study well, he will attempt to recreate that environment. In effect, they are trying to operant condition themselves to produce work; instead of salivating at the sound of the bell, they wish to think upon command. The utmost level of their art is seen in Act I of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. When Lucky's hat is put on, he is told to "think!" And he does, until the hat is taken off.
I know a hundred people who would think themselves fortunate to be Lucky, if only so they could spend the rest of their day partying.
I am eating a cracker as I write this. For me, taste and rote muscle movement also affect my thinking. For example, I often pace.
I have put a lot of thought into how music affects thinking. And this is not only because I spend large amounts of my day around specialists in music and psychology. It's because music is just about the most common conditioner in Western life.
Now that we live in a world were recorded music is readily available, music is often used in the attempt to induce certain thoughts or emotions. Malls, movies, telepones on-hold, nightclubs, bedrooms, and even babies' rooms are all places where we carefully select music to get a particular emotional/psychological reactions from ourselves and others around us.
The principles of conditioning also apply. Satiation, etc... The effects are staggering. Some research suggests that the massive amounts of stimulation available in our developmental stages may contribute to the prevalence of ADHD. Even if this is not the case, we have been affected: One of the most decorated honors students in Elizabethtown College's class of 2005 swore he could only study textbooks while watching TV and listening to the radio. Certain elements of religious tradition, such as the lighting of candles and incense, or the sole ceremonial use of certain colors, could also be seen as a form of self-conditioning.
Few people get beyond this type of discipline toward becoming effective in what they desire (I state this in general terms, because I realize that some may wish to put their mind to other things than mere study. For example, therapists may seek to maximize empathy. Artists and writers may wish to enhance their imagination, etc.). But to stay here is naive. It leads to an ever-narrowing corner, since conditioning creates ruts which become progressively more difficult to escape. Also, one can leave the goal for the stimulus (which is what Johnson wrote about). For example, someone who studies well in coffeeshops may continue going to coffeeshops for the enjoyable experience long after its mental usefulness has passed (because you get to know the people there, because the noise grows, etc.).
Most people think of these things in a superstitious manner. But it is useful to consider out the individual properties of each thinking arrangment. A case study analysis would unnecessarily lengthen this already-long post. So I will leave that to you.
(for example, the advent of recorded music has led to the widescale use of recorded music in the daily life of religious people. If recorded religious music really had the intrinsic effect that its proponents claim, we would have this amazingly-devoud population of religious people. Is this happening? If not, why not? What is the actual, long term effect of recorded religious music in the life of your average, music-listening devotee?)
There are other paradigms of self-awareness that specialize toward the thinking work I do. I have a small trove of carefully-edited methods, as I try to develop what I have and find new ways of doing.
** * **
It would be easy to reduce people to stimulous machines, self-conditioning ourself with stimuli and our brain's response to chemical reactions in our body. One could define religion, love, philanthropy, hate, war, and creativity with these terms. But...
Although I carry out my own development in a systematic, thoughtful way that acknowledges the physical and psychological aspects of my being, I know there is a spiritual element to life. I know that the Spirit and grace of God stand large in whatever measure of success my person has achieved.
In all this, let us not forget the spiritual things.
** * **
That was all background to this thought I had in the morning: should I play videogames or not?
The answer may surprise you, but it will have to wait for another post.
Back in Pennsylvania
Wednesday, 20 Dec 2006 :-: ["Permalink"]
A young girl, the friend of a friend, is walking down a street when a man jumps out of a van, kidnaps her, and rapes her. After he discards her and she finds her family, she returns to cutting and other compulsive acts.
** * **
Evil is the reward of free will, the bitter dregs of our true liberty. Shine, righteousness! Shine somewhere... anywhere? Where is there good in this indifferent world? Fire and blood, and dire, dreadful deeds clash complacently, crush our mediocre, shuffled mumblings. Gashes gleam the crusted dusty armor-- but honor, goodness have dimmed, at best mouldering on the brick-a-brac shelves of dilettantes.
I am one of those dilettantes. On some nights, when the winter chill presses icy fingers against the windows, I sit at the fire with some cider and recite with the ancients the legends of glory. Sometimes I write an aphorism in my commonplace book. The candle goes out, and I sleep peacefully.
Annals of Spam, Pt III
Sunday, 10 Dec 2006 :-: ["Permalink"]
Have I mentioned how much I love spam? It truly is a literary genre of unique qualities. It is no small feat to frustrate Bayesian filters and remain interesting. People get hired to write this stuff. Someday, I want to make an anthology:
A gratifying tripod dances with a squid behind a pickup truck, because the eagerly gentle canyon underhandedly cooks cheese grits for a hole puncher. The psychotic rattlesnake is barely gratifying. For example, a mating ritual indicates that a demon conquers a plaintiff behind a cloud formation.
(previous: "I love spam", "The Philosopher Ballerina")
Thursday, 7 Dec 2006 :-: ["Permalink"]
Vision in Politics
Sunday, 26 Nov 2006 :-: ["Permalink"]
Men of true wisdom who love their country will always hold dear a view of what their country is, and what it might be. What good father looks on his son and sees a schoolboy but not the man he will become? Not the wise father, who praises and encourages him while correcting his faults. The wise father, whose heart is stretched between the future and the present, holds his son back from tasks and temptations which he cannot yet handle, and sometimes spurs his son to confidence and initiative. But only the wisest can properly advise the once-in-a-lifetime chances, and few are strong enough to forbid when the heart says, "go".
Saturday, 18 Nov 2006 :-: ["Permalink"]
Although I didn't make it to the formal hall, I was able to meet some other MeFites at the Combination Room at Trinity last night, in-between judging for the Cambridge IV debate. Thanks for a lovely time, everyone!
Stories, MMoRPGs, and the End which Never Comes?
Wednesday, 15 Nov 2006 :-: ["Permalink"]
Mark Bernstein recently commented on Jill's and Diane's discussion of endings and MMORPGs.
Jill suggests that WoW turns endings into goals, "potentials you can achieve", and that the game gives you a chance to repeat the same story over and over again, perhaps more quickly, but with the same major plot elements.
Then Jill (and eventually Diane and Mark) look at the story from the perspective of television. IMHO, that viewpoint misses the interactive nature of the story and considers it to be something that is devised by some hand on high and experienced in a fixed way by a set of consumers. It's easy to think this way, when the main elements of plot are common to all viewers: the same kinds of enemies, the same character classes, different people doing the same things. Mark wonders, "are we just harvesting gold and arresting 500 villains?" But people aren't doing the same things.
The story of MMORPGs resides in the main plot elements as much as the story in Greek tragedy resides in the main plot elements. When they go to the annual Dionysian festival, the people already know about Agamemnon; they already know about Oedipus. They know what happens. The tragedies are often just small bits taken from the bigger stories whose basic plot remains the same. Why bother seeing the same sub-story again? Because the interesting parts of story reside in-between the "key" parts of the plot. That's why we get away with three renditions of the story of Electra by three Greek playwrights in a short period of time. And they don't fall flat. The essence of story is anchored to the "main" parts of the plot, but the interesting things often happen in-between.
But this comparison doesn't even fully work. MMoRPGs let us think beyond the idea of the gamemakers as authors. Diane realizes this (and more) when she asks,
What is the nature of the relationship between the world of World of Warcraft and the lives of those who play it?
Although the "game world" may go on, perhaps even in a cyclical way (like life, like Athens), stories in WoW have definite beginnings and endings. (People do tend to index experiencein terms of events and episodes.) I hear gameworld stories all the time. When I go to the cafeteria and meet my MMORPG-playing friends, they never tire of telling me about their adventures hunting Chinese farmers, or taking out some monster. WoW has renewed the oral tradition. When I hear them, I imagine it as a taste of the storytelling in Mead-halls during the time when stories like Beowulf were first told. For them, the main plot elements (I killed X monster) are only checkpoints, something to keep track of the really interesting parts. They talk about who was in the group, how they behaved, what expected things occurred, what they didn't expect. They describe the battles in detail. But some stories aren't even about the battles or quests -- did you hear? Ed just sold his helmet and bought two hundred fireworks. It happened this way... For these people (and I'm sure plenty of others find other reasons to play), WoW gives them a chance to tell stories, to have something interesting to say, something interesting to share, something to argue about. And, just as in the Greek plays, they are happy to relive the same stories in different ways. But unlike the Greek plays, these are their stories, no matter how many others experienced similar ones.
Yesterday, I told some postgrad friends a story about shopping for things with which to bake bread. The plot looked like this:
- I go to Sainsbury's, buy wheat and yeast.
- I can't find a casserole dish.
- I wander central Cambridge,
- I go to Mark & Spencer; they don't have a casserole dish.
- I go to the Grafton Center and buy a casserole dish at that specialty cookware shop.
- I go home and make bread.
They looked at me with incredulity. "What's the point?", I imagine they wondered. Most of us go shopping several times a week -- at the same stores. Then I let loose my final line.
"See! This is what gradschool does to you. It makes something like that seem like an adventure."
I had them in irons.
** * **
This, of course is not a General Theory of All MMoRPG playing, because people play for different reasons. Jill's post comes from the competetive side of gaming, where the interest lies in goals and things to accomplish. But sometimes, I play games just because I want to kill time, or because I feel like seeing explosions, or want to see what happens if I increase my character class, or talk with other people, or whatever. But sometimes I just like the idea of being elsewhere.
Jill says that "World of Warcraft isn’t about puzzles, it’s about hard work, navigation, strategy and mastery." Sure, but is that all? It includes these elements, but are they the only (or the key) things that make it interesting?
Goals are a big part of games, because they leave us with a satisfying place to stop playing, a point in the game where it's possible to let go, and thoughts about game won't reach back into the physical world (someone should write about this phenomenon, about the psychology of moving between worlds). But just as story doesn't have to be about success and survival, games don't have to be Story(tm), any more than a walk in the botanic gardens, or drinking tea with a friend has to be Story. Sure, somebody had to plan the garden and maintain it, but even in such a contrived place as a botanic garden, with pathways and glasshouses, it's still just life.
Thursday, 9 Nov 2006 :-: ["Permalink"]
Lileks is right. Irony is to blame. Fifty years ago, manly companies like IBM had their own songbooks(mp3), symphonies, glee clubs, and dresscodes which required men to wear garters out of professional pride.
The music is now silent at IBM; the IBM band stopped playing in 2001.
** * **
Lest you think that loyalty and tradition are so dead that no hope remains, Bank of America continues the tradition.
Negative Ads Update
Wednesday, 8 Nov 2006 :-: ["Permalink"]
It's comforting to know that the people who make negative ads are nonpartisan, so long as you have money to spend.
"It's more how you say it than what you say," said Joanne Joella, a vocal coach from Melrose Park. "What we do is based on the science of manipulation. Your voice is a powerful, powerful tool."
It's not the ideal way to conduct American political campaigns, Oxman acknowledged.
"I wish the dialogue was happening in newspapers, but not as many people are reading newspapers these days," he said. "TV ads work."
That's right. Love your country so much that you will spend billions of dollars to win, win, win, using cynicism about citizens as a thinly-veiled excuse to deceive.
** * **
The Democrats have won many seats on a platform of negation and non sequitur. This creates a tenuous political situation. What will they do with their power?
Monday, 6 Nov 2006 :-: ["Permalink"]
When life is treated like a game, we all lose. Right now, the National Republican Campaign Committee (organized and chaired by House Republicans) has deployed an electronic system to annoy and discourage citizens with telephone messages which pretend to be from Democrat marketers. If people hang up, the system will call them right back, giving the impression that Democrat marketing is obtrusive and annoying, when the true perpetrator is the Republican machine.
Bad faith campaign tactics, which I have observed to the shame of both Republicans and Democrats, are tearing the last shreds of faith and goodness from the bleach-dry bones of our society. Have we become so good (at politics) that we have no more need for virtue or respect?
I am reading Tragedy right now. Why should I bother? I can read in my own country a thousand recurring wrongs which tragedy could not begin to utter.