The Myth of Popularity

WARNING: Everything I say forthwith is purely speculative based on a rough approximation of a presented view of how a part of our world works, plus some vaguely related stuff I happen to know. It is very likely to differ from your own personal view of things, so please don’t get angry with me if it does.

Bad TV and cinema is a great source of inspiration; not because there’s much in it that’s interesting, but because there’s just so much of it that even without watching any it is possible to pick up enough information to diagnose trends, which are generally interesting to analyse. In this case, I refer to the picture of American schools that is so often portrayed by iteration after iteration of generic teenage romance/romcom/’drama’, and more specifically the people in it.

One of the classic plot lines of these types of things involves the ‘hopelessly lonely/unpopular nerd who has crush on Miss Popular de Cheerleader and must prove himself by [insert totally retarded idea]’. Needless to say these plot lines are more unintentionally hilarious and excruciating than anything else, but they work because they play on the one trope that so many of us are familiar with; that of the overbearing, idiotic, horrible people from the ‘popular’ social circle. Even if we were not raised within a sitcom, it’s a situation repeated in thousands of schools across the world- the popular kids are the arseholes at the top with inexplicable access to all the gadgets and girls, and the more normal, nice people lower down the social circle.

The image exists in our conciousness long after leaving school for a whole host of reasons; partly because major personal events during our formative years tend to have a greater impact on our psyche than those occurring later on in life, but also because it is often our first major interaction with the harsh unfairness life is capable of throwing at us. The whole situation seems totally unfair and unjust; why should all these horrible people be the popular ones, and get all the social benefits associated with that? Why not me, a basically nice, humble person without a Ralph Lauren jacket or an iPad 3, but with a genuine personality? Why should they have all the luck?

However, upon analysing the issue then this object of hate begins to break down; not because the ‘popular kids’ are any less hateful, but because they are not genuinely popular. If we define popular as a scale representative of how many and how much people like you (because what the hell else is it?), then it becomes a lot easier to approach it from a numerical, mathematical perspective. Those at the perceived top end of the social spectrum generally form themselves into a clique of superiority, where they all like one another (presumably- I’ve never been privy to being in that kind of group in order to find out) but their arrogance means that they receive a certain amount of dislike, and even some downright resentment, from the rest of the immediate social world. By contrast, members of other social groups (nerds, academics [often not the same people], those sportsmen not in the ‘popular’ sphere, and the myriad of groups of undefineable ‘normies’ who just splinter off into their own little cliques) tend to be liked by members of their selected group and treated with either neutrality or minor positive or negative feeling from everyone else, leaving them with an overall ‘popularity score’, from an approximated mathematical point of view, roughly equal to or even greater than the ‘popular’ kids. Thus, the image of popularity is really something of a myth, as these people are not technically speaking any more popular than anyone else.

So, then, how has this image come to present itself as one of popularity, of being the top of the social spectrum? Why are these guys on top, seemingly above group after group of normal, friendly people with a roughly level playing field when it comes to social standing?

If you were to ask George Orwell this question, he would present you with a very compelling argument concerning the nature of a social structure to form a ‘high’ class of people (shortly after asking you how you managed to communicate with him beyond the grave). He and other social commentators have frequently pointed out that the existence of a social system where all are genuinely treated equally is unstable without some ‘higher class’ of people to look up to- even if it is only in hatred. It is humanity’s natural tendency to try and better itself, try to fight its way to the top of the pile, so if the ‘high’ group disappear temporarily they will be quickly replaced; hence why there is such a disparity between rich and poor even in a country such as the USA founded on the principle that ‘all men are created free and equal’. This principle applies to social situations too; if the ‘popular’ kids were to fall from grace, then some other group would likely rise to fill the power vacuum at the top of the social spectrum. And, as we all know, power and influence are powerful corrupting forces, so this position would be likely to transform this new ‘popular’ group into arrogant b*stards too, removing the niceness they had when they were just normal guys. This effect is also in evidence that many of the previously hateful people at the top of the spectrum become very normal and friendly when spoken to one-on-one, outside of their social group (from my experience anyway; this does not apply to all people in such groups)

However, another explanation is perhaps more believable; that arrogance is a cause rather than a symptom. By acting like they are better than the rest of the world, the rest of the world subconsciously get it into their heads that, much though they are hated, they are the top of the social ladder purely because they said so. And perhaps this idea is more comforting, because it takes us back to the idea we started with; that nobody is more actually popular than anyone else, and that it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Regardless of where your group ranks on the social scale, if it’s yours and you get along with the people in it, then it doesn’t really matter about everyone else or what they think, so long as you can get on, be happy, and enjoy yourself.

Footnote: I get most of these ideas from what is painted by the media as being the norm in American schools and from what friends have told me, since I’ve been lucky enough that the social hierarchies I encountered from my school experience basically left one another along. Judging by the horror stories other people tell me, I presume it was just my school. Plus, even if it’s total horseshit, it’s enough of a trope that I can write a post about it.

The Chinese Room

Today marks the start of another attempt at a multi-part set of posts- the last lot were about economics (a subject I know nothing about), and this one will be about computers (a subject I know none of the details about). Specifically, over the next… however long it takes, I will be taking a look at the subject of artificial intelligence- AI.

There have been a long series of documentaries on the subject of robots, supercomputers and artificial intelligence in recent years, because it is a subject which seems to be in the paradoxical state of continually advancing at a frenetic rate, and simultaneously finding itself getting further and further away from the dream of ‘true’ artificial intelligence which, as we begin to understand more and more about psychology, neuroscience and robotics, becomes steadily more complicated and difficult to obtain. I could spend a thousand posts on the subject of all the details if I so wished, because it is also one of the fastest-developing regions of engineering on the planet, but that would just bore me and be increasingly repetitive for anyone who ends up reading this blog.

I want to begin, therefore, by asking a few questions about the very nature of artificial intelligence, and indeed the subject of intelligence itself, beginning with a philosophical problem that, when I heard about it on TV a few nights ago, was very intriguing to me- the Chinese Room.

Imagine a room containing only a table, a chair, a pen, a heap of paper slips, and a large book. The door to the room has a small opening in it, rather like a letterbox, allowing messages to be passed in or out. The book contains a long list of phrases written in Chinese, and (below them) the appropriate responses (also in Chinese characters). Imagine we take a non-Chinese speaker, and place him inside the room, and then take a fluent Chinese speaker and put them outside. They write a phrase or question (in Chinese) on some paper, and pass it through the letterbox to the other person inside the room. They have no idea what this message means, but by using the book they can identify the phrase, write the appropriate response to it, and pass it back through the letterbox. This process can be repeated multiple times, until a conversation begins to flow- the difference being that only one of the participants in the conversation actually knows what it’s about.

This experiment is a direct challenge to the somewhat crude test first proposed by mathematical genius and codebreaker Alan Turing in the 1940’s, to test whether a computer could be considered a truly intelligent being. The Turing test postulates that if a computer were ever able to conduct a conversation with a human so well that the human in question would have no idea that they were not talking to another human, but rather to a machine, then it could be considered to be intelligent.

The Chinese Room problem questions this idea, and as it does so, raises a fundamental question about whether a machine such as a computer can ever truly be called intelligent, or to possess intelligence. The point of the idea is to demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to appear to be intelligent, by conducting a normal conversation with someone, whilst simultaneously having no understanding whatsoever of the situation at hand. Thus, while a machine programmed with the correct response to any eventuality could converse completely naturally, and appear perfectly human, it would have no real conciousness. It would not be truly intelligent, it would merely be just running an algorithm, obeying the orders of the instructions in its electronic brain, working simply from the intelligence of the person who programmed in its orders. So, does this constitute intelligence, or is a conciousness necessary for something to be deemed intelligent?

This really boils down to a question of opinion- if something acts like it’s intelligent and is intelligent for all functional purposes, does that make it intelligent? Does it matter that it can’t really comprehend it’s own intelligence? John Searle, who first thought of the Chinese Room in the 1980’s, called the philosophical positions on this ‘strong AI’ and ‘weak AI’. Strong AI basically suggest that functional intelligence is intelligence to all intents and purposes- weak AI argues that the lack of true intelligence renders even the most advanced and realistic computer nothing more than a dumb machine.

However, Searle also proposes a very interesting idea that is prone to yet more philosophical debate- that our brains are mere machines in exactly the same way as computers are- the mechanics of the brain, deep in the unexplored depths of the fundamentals of neuroscience, are just machines that tick over and perform tasks in the same way as AI does- and that there is some completely different and non-computational mechanism that gives rise to our mind and conciousness.

But what if there is no such mechanism? What if the rise of a conciousness is merely the result of all the computational processes going on in our brain- what if conciousness is nothing more than a computational process itself, designed to give our brains a way of joining the dots and processing more efficiently. This is a quite frightening thought- that we could, in theory, be only restrained into not giving a computer a conciousness because we haven’t written the proper code yet. This is one of the biggest unanswered questions of modern science- what exactly is our mind, and what causes it.

To fully expand upon this particular argument would take time and knowledge that I don’t have in equal measure, so instead I will just leave that last question for you to ponder over- what is the difference between the box displaying these words for you right now, and the fleshy lump that’s telling you what they mean.