Monday, April 10, 2017

Studying Things

The study of individual topics or things often comes with a name. One of my favorites is “anemology,” which is the study of winds. It was a new one on me; I found it in a recent book on the Pacific part of World War II. It seems that anemologists were in great demand after Pearl Harbor, and, unsurprisingly, there was a short supply of them. The reason for their popularity was that there was suddenly an intense search going on for Pacific islands that were suitable for the building of airstrips. With all of those thousands of islands, it was only a very small number of them that could be useful. Planes take off and land into the wind, so the island would need a long stretch of relatively dry, flat, solid land that faced into the prevailing winds. The planes needed to be taking off into the north-east, where the winds came from. Things got dramatic pretty quickly. (See: Guadalcanal.)

One “study of” word that should interest us today is “psephology,” the statistical study of elections and trends in voting. This one comes from the Greek word, psephos, meaning pebble. Later on, Greeks voted by putting pebbles in a jar or something, and psephos came to mean vote as well.

Americans have always been interested in how people vote and why they vote the way that they do. That interest was enhanced by the appearance of computers, and the trend has only accelerated as computers have taken over our lives. By now we all have an Internet footprint that can be studied by various entities whose interest in our dirty laundry may vary from the merely venal to the truly sinister. (From advertising data to the influencing of our minds through targeted memes.) This kind of thing is getting pretty dramatic as well.

A company called Cambridge Analytica did a lot of work for the Donald Trump campaign last year. Depending on what you read, they either single-handedly won the election for Trump by creating psychological profiles of huge numbers of people in key states and then targeting them with focused ads through their Facebook feeds, or just did some run of the mill data mining that may or may not have been helpful at all. If it was the later, they were wildly overpaid.

John Bannon is a big fan, which cannot be a good thing. Look up “sinister” in the dictionary; they have his picture next to the definition. Robert Mercer funded the work that Cambridge Analytica did for Trump, and it cost a bundle. Mercer is a hedge-fund mega-billionaire who looks like a college professor and succeeds in appearing to be an easy-going, aw-shucks kind of guy. He doesn’t talk much, but he’s got his strong ideas. His daughter Rebekah is part of his political (mischief) team. She’s more hands on, and, if I may mix my metaphors, she doesn’t seem as reticent as her dad to get her hands dirty.

People and technologies like these have jumped into the deep end of the psephology pool with both feet. They are studying our elections and how to win them, and they are studying you and me. I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with the whole thing. But then, I’m not comfortable with many things, so maybe it’s nothing. Time will tell! 

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