Monday, May 26, 2008

Still lurking: The hidden persuaders

Near the beginning of "The Hidden Persuaders" (1957), Vance Packard quoted from Advertising Age magazine the first principle of the new science of motivation research: "In very few instances do people really know what they want, even when they say they do." Fifty years later, this astounding revelation has begun to penetrate mainstream economic theory. Better late than never.
American political ideology since around 1980 can pretty much be summed up in four words: markets good, government bad. Unregulated competition, in this view, is optimally efficient; governments need only enforce contracts, tend to national security, and then step out of the way. Neoclassical economics demonstrates with mathematical elegance that, if not interfered with, supply and demand, production and consumption, will glide smoothly toward a stable equilibrium.
But any proof is only as good as the assumptions it rests on. According to conventional economics and political science, consumers and voters can be counted on to make rational choices. "The assumption that we are rational," writes MIT economics professor Dan Ariely, "implies that in everyday life, we compute the value of all the options we face and then follow the best possible path." It also implies that we have sufficient information to make a wise decision, and that the context in which we decide doesn't matter - deciders are always calm and objective. It implies, as incoming Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein and University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler put it, that we are "Econs" rather than "Humans."
We're not, of course, as wise humans (and wily advertisers) have always known. A new sub-discipline called "behavioral economics" has begun to quantify this perennial intuition and assess its implications. Two engaging, enlightening new books divide these tasks. "Predictably Irrational" describes some of the research leading economists to modify many standard assumptions. "Nudge" turns these insights to account, suggesting improved strategies for individual decision-making and public policy.

Kansas, Or A Seattle Suburb?
At Mercer High School, two teachers -- Val Foubert and Jim Wichterman -- generated regular parental thunderstorms by teaching their students to challenge societal norms and question all manner of authority.  Foubert, who died recently, taught English.  His texts were cutting edge: "Atlas Shrugged," "The Organization Man," "The Hidden Persuaders," "1984" and the acerbic writings of H.L. Mencken.

With the right spin-meister the most rotten of us can smell like a rose
R whistle-blower David Michie is an expert in corporate spin, having worked in PR in London for more than a decade before writing The Invisible Persuaders, an insider's account of how British spin doctors manipulate the media. When not writing books, he still represents a few clients from his home in Perth.

He too believes it's no longer possible for corporate players to get by without the hottest spin doctor in town. "Without question the importance of good marketing has increased dramatically. I don't know about celebrities, but spin is particularly vital for companies, especially listed companies. Journos wield enormous power, and have to be engaged with professionally.

"High-level executives often lose objectivity about how a company is perceived. If you don't have good taste, it's sensible to hire an interior designer. Similarly, entrenched executives need to hire external communication advisers."

He says that Australia hasn't seen the extent of super spin doctors he encountered in Britain, the darkly charismatic control freaks who rule the world.

Coming to a marketer near you: Brain scanning
U.S. advertisers spent nearly $500 per American last year. But what makes one ad persuasive and another a dud? Two Bay Area firms have adapted brain scanning technology to gain insight into the science of spending.

"We can't read your mind, I assure you," said A.K. Pradeep, chief executive of NeuroFocus. But his Berkeley firm can do the next best thing - scan your brain to map the electrochemical spikes thought to signify attention, emotion and memory.

"This is the next generation in market research," said Hans Lee, chief technology officer for EmSense Corp. The San Francisco startup also is using electro encephalograph, or EEG, technology to correlate brain activity with physiological cues such as skin temperature or eye movement to gauge how people react to ads, computer games, even presidential candidates.

EmSense and NeuroFocus are leaders in neuro-marketing, a field that aspires to create objective measures of the effectiveness of the $149 billion that U.S. firms spent last year on advertising, according to TNS Media Intelligence, to reach 300 million Americans.

UC Berkeley neuroscientist Robert Knight, a scientific adviser to NeuroFocus, said neuro-marketing has arisen at the confluence of three trends: a better understanding of the regions of the brain; precise sensors to measure when, say, the memory center is active; and software to infer from these telltale signs whether a given message resonated with men or women of different ages.

"Neuroscience today is where physics was at the turn of the last century," Knight said. "We've had the groundbreaking thoughts and theories. Now we are measuring and testing."

Science laid the foundation for neuro-marketing by studying conditions such as attention deficit disorder, which taught researchers how to recognize the electrical signals of alertness, and Alzheimer's disease, which required an understanding of how we form memories. Such studies have revealed which areas of the brain become active when we see a tiger leap across a screen or watch a baby smile - signals captured using instruments such as sensitive EEGs.

Mall of the mind
Anderson quotes comedian Carl Reiner early in the first show: "A brilliant mind in panic is a wonderful thing to see." And Anderson's job is that of provocateur as much as announcer and facilitator. He is the punter surrounded by the industry, asking the questions we would if we knew the tricks its new psycho-persuaders like to pull these days.

He understands that the unique contribution of TV to advertising is its prodigious ability to communicate not simply information about a product but also fantasies about consumers and how they choose to live. It's where so much of his comedy comes from, after all.

The empire never ended

As we slingshot into the 21st Century, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the governments and institutions that mold our minds have implemented a system from which we cannot escape. Are we really trapped in a prison with no doors or walls?
Consider the following from Philip K. Dick's Divine Interference, by Erik Davis:

In the excepts of the Exegesis reworked into the "Tractates Crytptica Scriptura" that close the novel VALIS, Dick expresses the MIT computer scientist Edward Fredkin's view that the universe is composed of information. The world we experience is a hologram, "a hypostasis of information" that we, as nodes in the true Mind, process. "We hypostasize information into objects. Rearrangement of objects is change in the content of information. This is the language we have lost the ability to read." With this Adamic code scrambled, both ourselves and the world as we know it are "occluded," cut off from the brimming "Matrix" of cosmic information.

Instead, we are under the sway of the "Black Iron Prison," Dick's terms for the demiurgic worldly forces of political tyranny and oppressive social control. Rome is the eternal paragon of this "Empire," whose archetypal lineaments the feverish Dick recognized in the Nixon administration.

Demonstrating that prisons, mental institutions, schools, and military establishments all share similar organizations of space and time, Foucault argued that a "technology of power" was distributed throughout social space, enmeshing human subjects at every turn. Foucault argued that liberal social reforms are only cosmetic brush-ups of an underlying mechanism of control. As Dick put it, "The Empire never ended."

I would like to assert the possibility that the prison has always been under construction, and it gets closer to view as it nears completion.

"The Empire Never Ended"

Philip Dick was a master of capturing the paranoid sense of reality that pervaded American society during the Cold War. In Dick's universe, for any mystery that may be explained by multiple scenarios, it is always the most extreme, the most paranoiac possibility that's the actual one. This is part of what drives his creativity and makes his novels interesting.

There are many reasons why this site is named after Dick, and one is that the peculiarly American, paranoid sensibility Dick captured in his novels has not left us. The Cold War has been replaced with the War on Terror, and in a perpetual war in which our very existence is supposedly at stake and in which those in power may be said to have questionable motives, one gets the sense that all (and I mean all) possibilities are on the table.

Take, for example, conspiracy theories regarding 9/11. There are those who suspect that, at the very least, some in the Bush administration had foreknowledge of the attacks and did nothing to stop them. They saw them as instrumentally valuable for justifying a necessary military build-up in the Middle East -- the requisite "new Pearl Harbor" that the Project for a New American Century's report on "Rebuiliding America's Defenses" (pdf) conceived as necessary for initiating a swift transformation of the military in all its aspects (not only increased spending and improved technology, but also "forward basing" and "presence" beyond US borders; see p. 50-1 in the report).

Now I am not prone to conspiracy theories. I don't wear a tinfoil hat. I'm a philosopher -- a skeptic by training. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Yet, as a philosopher, I'm also trained to consider all possibilities, and to be conscious of what can and cannot be, strictly speaking, ruled out.

And it seems to me that we cannot rule out 9/11 conspiracy theories on the grounds that they are unthinkable -- i.e. that those in power would never do such a thing.

For there is already a solid precendent for the planning of terrorist operations against innocent Americans to win public support for war. It was called Operation Northwoods. From ABC News:

In the early 1960s, America's top military leaders [i.e. the Joint Chiefs of Staff] reportedly drafted plans to kill innocent people and commit acts of terrorism in U.S. cities to create public support for a war against Cuba.

Code named Operation Northwoods, the plans reportedly included the possible assassination of Cuban émigrés, sinking boats of Cuban refugees on the high seas, hijacking planes, blowing up a U.S. ship, and even orchestrating violent terrorism in U.S. cities.

The plans were developed as ways to trick the American public and the international community into supporting a war to oust Cuba's then new leader, communist Fidel Castro.

America's top military brass even contemplated causing U.S. military casualties, writing: "We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba," and, "casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation."


Even after [the Head of the Joint Chiefs] Lemnitzer was gone, he writes, the Joint Chiefs continued to plan "pretext" operations at least through 1963.

One idea was to create a war between Cuba and another Latin American country so that the United States could intervene. Another was to pay someone in the Castro government to attack U.S. forces at the Guantanamo naval base -- an act, which Bamford notes, would have amounted to treason. And another was to fly low level U-2 flights over Cuba, with the intention of having one shot down as a pretext for a war.

Like Dick's stories, this article shows that anything is possible.

George Washington envisioned a wooded area alongside the Potomac River as the new federal city. The highest hill in the area, Jenkins Heights, was then owned by Daniel Carroll. In 1663, the owner of this land had been Francis Pope. Pope's name for the high hill was "Rome", and he called the nearby waterway "the Tiber."

Ancient Rome was a mere city which conquered the world. Although it apparently declined and fell, some say it did not fall but changed its form into the Roman Catholic Church and still dominates the world. Echoing this idea, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick theorized an enormous false memory imposed upon all humanity in which the last 2000 years of "history" never happened. According to Dick, author of the VALIS trilogy, we have been brainwashed by the Roman empire to think we are living in what is really a totally false world.

Washington's new Rome was surveyed, planned, designed and built largely by members of the secret society of Freemasons. On October 13, 1792 the cornerstone was laid for the President's House (now known as the White House). This cornerstone ceremony was performed by "the Free Masons of George-town and its vicinity," Georgetown Lodge No. 9 of Maryland. A year later, in September of 1793, freemason George Washington and Georgetown Lodge No. 9 performed another cornerstone ceremony, this time for the future Capitol Building.

The Empire Never Ended

Henry Kissinger has been all over the news lately, waxing strangelovian in his field of expertise, inhuman global horror.

A lawsuit filed in United States District Court in DC suing Kissinger and the US government on Monday, September 10 has so far not been mentioned in his learned deliberations. The family of Rene Schneider, asking $3 million in damages, accuses the defendants of "summary execution, assault, and civil rights violations." Schneider was a general in the Chilean Defense Forces who, according to the suit, refused to go along with a US-backed coup against newly elected socialist president Salvador Allende. The US government directed elements of the Chilean military to overthrow Allende's government before he had even taken office. The suit, based on recently declassified documents from the Nixon Era, indicates that Kissinger was calling the shots.

Schneider was ambushed on his way to work on Oct. 22, 1970. The CIA reportedly provided the guns used in the assassination. The CIA says the guns that documents show it sent for the crime weren't the actual guns used in the killing. There was some sort of mix-up, and the would-be kidnappers had to rely on their own devices. The CIA is now using its own previous bungling to demonstrate its innocence in the actual crime. (That argument incidentally, is pretty much the cornerstone of civilization as we know it.) The modernized CIA is, however, reformed enough not to quibble with its own cable to the Chilean military dated October 15, 1970: "It is the continuing policy of the US government to foment a coup in Chile."

Schneider's killing was supposedly a botched kidnapping attempt. The plan, apparently, was to take him to Argentina, while accusing leftists and terrorists of the kidnapping. The domestic fear aroused against leftists was to be used to facilitate imposition of a military government. Allende, the democratically elected president, was to be preempted from ever taking office.

Schneider instead reportedly pulled out a gun to defend himself and was shot dead. The CIA's analysis had argued that the ground wasn't yet ripe for a military takeover, but was overruled by the Nixon White House. The coup failed ... until 1973, when the US-backed Pinochet overthrew Allende and instituted a reign of terror and summary assassination of union members, leftists and suspected sympathizers.

Fast forward: as if we weren't all terrified enough, Kissinger sits on something called the Pentagon Defense Policy Board. The board, chaired by neanderthal Richard Perle also boasts such "eminent," conservatives as Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. This board's advice is that, since any strikes on Afghanistan, either with bombers or special forces, are unlikely to eliminate Bin Laden, the US should follow up with an attack on Iraq. Otherwise, the board reasons, the US military will look stupid killing a bunch of innocent Afghans for no logical reason.


At the heart of oblivion is empire.

The empire never ended.

If empire is the Sun, the planets of the solar system are its progeny. Saturn is the Pax Americana. Jupiter is the Pax Romana. Mercury is the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Pluto is the Master Race. All the houses of the Demiurge are scattered in between.

The Demiurge is God made in the image of man. God, on the other hand, is the conjunction of all the forces of existence meeting in a unique thought. When we think for ourselves, then do we know God.

The Demiurge is a projection of our paranoid ego image. The Demiurge is the idol we invest with all our own repressed, unrealised potential. The Demiurge is the voice of empire, and speaks to us as a paranoid hallucination. The Demiurge exists for one purpose—to crush us, to break our spirit and our will.

Empire is that which we mistake for our own memories, for our own identity, for our own life. Empire is a relationship, a representation and a state of mind. Empire is the matrix of anhedonic social control.

The root of empire is the codification of the irrational paranoid streak in human consciousness, brought about by the evolutionary glitch in the triune brain, into systems of ideological and religious control, manifest in the false dichotomy of Good and Evil.

From the dualism of Good and Evil comes the Known and the Other. Dualism forestalls free will through the polarisation of language and ideas and the imposition of moral absolutes. It encourages a fear of the Doppelgänger, our mirror image opposite, the incarnation of our unknown Self. The primary function of dualism is to prevent the experience of anamnesis, the loss of forgetting, by imposing a programme of Divide and Conquer—a habitual result of paranoid self-delusion. Gender and race are arbitrary and therefore false distinctions; we all demonstrate human intelligence, and thus human right, through the power of speech, whatever our gender, class or race. The one you are told to hate and fear and to treat as inferior is your sister and your brother. Anamnesis occurs as we transcend the false dichotomy of Good and Evil through a modification of our behaviour in daily life.

Empire is all around us, but is also hidden in plain sight. At one time or another we are aware of empire, but gradually lose our awareness of it. We lose the ability to see empire because we internalise the paranoid assumptions on which it is based. The more we internalise empire, the more we lose ourselves in it. It is not empire that changes, it is us. We allow ourselves to be broken in by empire, to be domesticated like animals. We allow ourselves to be consumed by the worst aspects of our own nature.

Empire is sleep. The colonised are Sleepwalkers.

A toast to free spirits

An unconventional life for a desert fox

Trophimowsky encouraged non-conformism, and gave Isabelle an eclectic education, which included six languages, metaphysics and chemistry. He did not stand in the way of her occasional adventures dressed as a boy, or the growing interest in Islam she shared with her mother. By the 1890s, the de Moerder household had acquired a number of Moslem friends, and Isabelle was corresponding with a French officer stationed in the Sahara. Augustin had been in the Foreign Legion and remained in North Africa. In 1897, the household moved to Bone in Algeria, where Isabelle and her mother converted to Islam, and lived in the Arab section of town.

Not long after settling, Madame de Moerder died, which affected Isabelle greatly. Before a lack of money forced her temporary return to Europe, she bought a horse and galloped off towards the desert dressed as an Arab man, wandering for as long as she could. This was to set the tone for the rest of her life.

[ ... ]

In the desert, the contradictions of Isabelle's life came to the fore. She adopted the persona of an Arab man, calling herself Si Mahmoud, wandering incessantly and earning a meagre income as a journalist. She was despised by the European community, but became a valued adviser to the French administration. It was known that she was a woman, certainly by the string of Arab lovers she took, but she was accepted by the Arabs as a man. A European acquaintance said of her, "she drank more than a Legionnaire, smoked more kif than a hashish addict, and made love for the love of making love".

“Africa ingests and assimilates everything that is hostile to it. Perhaps it is the Predestined Land from which the light that will regenerate the world will one day emerge!”
-Isabelle Eberhardt

“One very graceful impression is that of sunset over the port and the terraces of the upper town, and the gay Algerian women; a whole playful world in pink and green on the slightly blue-tinted white of the uneven and disorderly terraces. It's from the little lattice window of Madame Ben Aben that you discover all this.”
-Isabelle Eberhardt, Excerpts from Her Journals

Described by some as a desert queen in men’s clothing, by others as “too lazy to live,” the life and writings of Isabelle Eberhardt has captivated the imaginations of dreamers throughout the past century. Eberhardt was a female writer who penetrated deep into the heart of Algerian culture and society at the peak of French colonization, and left behind a legacy that has lived on in multiple biographies, movies, and the continual reproductions of her own writings. This is the legacy of a liberated women who lived a life outside of the constraints of both Arabic and Western values, and seemed to touched that far flung notion of unabashed freedom. From the pages of her diaries, one can discerned that Eberhardt was truly a romantic heroin cast adrift in a divine tragedy upon the seas of the great Sahara, as well as a ground breaking character who walked a path without predecessor.

Isabelle Eberhardt in brief

Today, went to see a sorcerer, lodged in a tiny shop on one of the streets in the upper part of town, among the dark stairways along rue du Diable. Was convinced of the reality of that incomprehensible and mysterious science of magic.... And what horizons, at once far-reaching and obscure, this reality opened up to my mind, what a sense of calm as well, firmly demolishing any doubt!

Of late, the feeling of calm and melancholy has returned. Unquestionably, Algiers is one of the cities that inspires me, especially certain parts of town. I'm happy with our present neighborhood, with our house too, after that horrible dump on rue de la Marine. Here, if it weren't for the unending, boring, and thankless work, and the problems and anxieties of our present situation, I would have a few days of peace, contemplation, and productivity.
How is it that the imbeciles the "world" and literature are teeming with can claim there is nothing Arab about Algiers? I, who've seen many other cities, experience some of the purest impressions of the Orient here.
One very graceful impression is that of sunset over the port and the terraces of the upper town, and the gay Algerian women; a whole playful world in pink and green on the slightly blue-tinted white of the uneven and disorderly terraces. It's from the little lattice window of Madame Ben Aben that you discover all this.
The bay of Algiers is, along with that of Bone, the prettiest, most deliciously intoxicating corner of the sea I've ever seen. How far we are here from disgusting Marseilles, with its ugliness, its stupidity, its rudeness, and its moral and material filth! In spite of the crowds brought here by a prostituted and prostituting "civilization," Algiers is still a lovely city, and it's easy to live here.
Yet, seeing the corpse of Zeheira, the Kabyle woman who threw herself down a well in the impasse Medee to escape a marriage she hated, borne on a stretcher covered with rough gray cloth, cast a mourning veil, heavy and dark and indefinable over this luminous Algiers for days on end.
The more I study--very badly and too quickly--the history of North Africa, the more I see that my idea was correct: Africa ingests and assimilates everything that is hostile to it. Perhaps it is the Predestined Land from which the light that will regenerate the world will one day emerge!
During the landing at Sidi-Ferruch in 1830, a peaceful looking old man approached the French camp. All he said was the following: "God is God, and Mohammed is His prophet!" He then went off and no one ever saw him again. That man had come to announce something that no one understood ... it was the permanence of Islam, there, on the bewitching soil of Africa.

Isabelle Eberhardt quotations

"A nomad I will remain for life, in love with distant and uncharted places."

"For those who know the value of and exquisite taste of solitary freedom (for one is only free when alone), the act of leaving is the bravest and most beautiful of all."

"I am not afraid of death, but would not want to die in some obscure or pointless way."

"The farther behind I leave the past, the closer I am to forging my own character."

"I am full of the sorrow that goes with changes in surroundings, those successive stages of annihilation that slowly lead to the great and final void."


image from

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