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Posts Tagged ‘algorithm

“Charisma is not so much getting people to like you as getting people to like themselves when you’re around”*…

Donald Trump and Barak Obama at Trump’s inauguration (source)

Charisma: hard to define, but clear when one encounters it. Joe Zadeh looks at charisma’s history– both as a phenomenon and as a concept– and contemplates its future (spoiler alert– AI figures).

After recounting the story of Stephan George, a German poet and thought leader who was hugely consequential in Germany in the first half of the 20th century, he turns to pioneering sociologist Max Weber, who met George in 1910…

At the time, charisma was an obscure religious concept used mostly in the depths of Christian theology. It had featured almost 2,000 years earlier in the New Testament writings of Paul to describe figures like Jesus and Moses who’d been imbued with God’s power or grace. Paul had borrowed it from the Ancient Greek word “charis,” which more generally denoted someone blessed with the gift of grace. Weber thought charisma shouldn’t be restricted to the early days of Christianity, but rather was a concept that explained a far wider social phenomenon, and he would use it more than a thousand times in his writings. He saw charisma echoing throughout culture and politics, past and present, and especially loudly in the life of Stefan George…

Weber had died in 1920, before George truly reached the height of his powers (and before the wave of totalitarian dictatorships that would define much of the century), but he’d already seen enough to fatten his theory of charisma. At times of crisis, confusion and complexity, Weber thought, our faith in traditional and rational institutions collapses and we look for salvation and redemption in the irrational allure of certain individuals. These individuals break from the ordinary and challenge existing norms and values. Followers of charismatic figures come to view them as “extraordinary,” “superhuman” or even “supernatural” and thrust them to positions of power on a passionate wave of emotion. 

In Weber’s mind, this kind of charismatic power wasn’t just evidenced by accounts of history — of religions and societies formed around prophets, saints, shamans, war heroes, revolutionaries and radicals. It was also echoed in the very stories we tell ourselves — in the tales of mythical heroes like Achilles and Cú Chulainn. 

These charismatic explosions were usually short-lived and unstable — “every hour of its existence brings it nearer to this end,” wrote Weber — but the most potent ones could build worlds and leave behind a legacy of new traditions and values that then became enshrined in more traditional structures of power. In essence, Weber believed, all forms of power started and ended with charisma; it drove the volcanic eruptions of social upheaval. In this theory, he felt he’d uncovered “the creative revolutionary force” of history. 

Weber was not the first to think like this. Similar ideas had been floating around at least as far back as the mid-1700s, when the Scottish philosopher David Hume had written that in the battle between reason and passion, the latter would always win. And it murmured in the 1800s in Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man Theory” and in Nietzsche’s idea of the “Übermensch.” But none would have quite the global impact of Weber, whose work on charisma would set it on a trajectory to leap the fence of religious studies and become one of the most overused yet least understood words in the English language.

A scientifically sound or generally agreed-upon definition of charisma remains elusive even after all these years of investigation. Across sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, history and theater studies, academics have wrestled with how exactly to explain, refine and apply it, as well as identify where it is located: in the powerful traits of a leader or in the susceptible minds of a follower or perhaps somewhere between the two, like a magnetic field…

…Weber himself would disagree with the individualized modern understanding of charisma. “He was actually using it in a far more sophisticated way,” he said. “It wasn’t about the power of the individual — it was about the reflection of that power by the audience, about whether they receive it. He saw it as a process of interaction. And he was as fascinated by crowds as he was by individuals.” In Weber’s words: “What is alone important is how the [charismatic] individual is actually regarded by those subject to charismatic authority, by his ‘followers’ or ‘disciples.’ … It is recognition on the part of those subject to authority which is decisive for the validity of charisma.”

The Eurocentric version of how Weber conceptualized charisma is that he took it from Christianity and transformed it into a theory for understanding Western culture and politics. In truth, it was also founded on numerous non-Western spiritual concepts that he’d discovered via the anthropological works of his day. In one of the less-quoted paragraphs of his 1920 book “The Sociology of Religion,” Weber wrote that his nascent formulation of charisma was inspired by mana (Polynesian), maga (Zoroastrian, and from which we get our word magic) and orenda (Native American). “In this moment,” Wright wrote in a research paper exploring this particular passage, “we see our modern political vocabulary taking shape before our eyes.”

Native American beliefs were of particular interest to Weber. On his only visit to America in 1904, he turned down an invitation from Theodore Roosevelt to visit the White House and headed to the Oklahoma plains in search of what remained of Indigenous communities there. Orenda is an Iroquois term for a spiritual energy that flows through everything in varying degrees of potency. Like charisma, possessors of orenda are said to be able to channel it to exert their will. “A shaman,” wrote the Native American scholar J.N.B. Hewitt, “is one whose orenda is great.” But unlike the Western use of charisma, orenda was said to be accessible to everything, animate and inanimate, from humans to animals and trees to stones. Even the weather could be said to have orenda. “A brewing storm,” wrote Hewitt, is said to be “preparing its orenda.” 

This diffuse element of orenda — the idea that it could be imbued in anything at all — has prefigured a more recent evolution in the Western conceptualization of charisma: that it is more than human. Archaeologists have begun to apply it to the powerful and active social role that certain objects have played throughout history. In environmentalism, Jamie Lorimer of Oxford University has written that charismatic species like lions and elephants “dominate the mediascapes that frame popular sensibilities toward wildlife” and feature “disproportionately in the databases and designations that perform conservation.” 

Compelling explorations of nonhuman charisma have also come from research on modern technology. Human relationships with technology have always been implicitly spiritual. In the 18th century, clockmakers became a metaphor for God and clockwork for the universe. Airplanes were described as “winged gospels.” The original iPhone was heralded, both seriously and mockingly, as “the Jesus phone.” As each new popular technology paints its own vision of a better world, we seek in these objects a sort of redemption, salvation or transcendence. Some deliver miracles, some just appear to, and others fail catastrophically. 

Today, something we view as exciting, terrifying and revolutionary, and have endowed with the ability to know our deepest beliefs, prejudices and desires, is not a populist politician, an internet influencer or a religious leader. It’s an algorithm. 

These technologies now have the power to act in the world, to know things and to make things happen. In many instances, their impact is mundane: They arrange news feeds, suggest clothes to buy and calculate credit scores. But as we interact more and more with them on an increasingly intimate level, in the way we would ordinarily with other humans, we develop the capacity to form charismatic bonds. 

It’s now fairly colloquial for someone to remark that they “feel seen” by algorithms and chatbots. In a 2022 study of people who had formed deep and long-term friendships with the AI-powered program Replika, participants reported that they viewed it as “a part of themselves or as a mirror.” On apps like TikTok, more than any other social media platform, the user experience is almost entirely driven by an intimate relationship with the algorithm. Users are fed a stream of videos not from friends or chosen creators, but mostly from accounts they don’t follow and haven’t interacted with. The algorithm wants users to spend more time on the platform, and so through a series of computational procedures, it draws them down a rabbit hole built from mathematical inferences of their passions and desires. 

The inability to understand quite how sophisticated algorithms exert their will on us (largely because such information is intentionally clouded), while nonetheless perceiving their power enables them to become an authority in our lives. As the psychologist Donald McIntosh explained almost half a century ago, “The outstanding quality of charisma is its enormous power, resting on the intensity and strength of the forces which lie unconscious in every human psyche. … The ability to tap these forces lies behind everything that is creative and constructive in human action, but also behind the terrible destructiveness of which humans are capable. … In the social and political realm, there is no power to match that of the leader who is able to evoke and harness the unconscious resources of his followers.”

In an increasingly complex and divided society, in which partisanship has hindered the prospect of cooperation on everything from human rights to the climate crisis, the thirst for a charismatic leader or artificial intelligence that can move the masses in one direction is as seductive as it has ever been. But whether such a charismatic phenomenon would lead to good or bad, liberation or violence, salvation or destruction, is a conundrum that remains at the core of this two-faced phenomenon. “The false Messiah is as old as the hope for the true Messiah,” wrote Franz Rosenzweig. “He is the changing form of this changeless hope.”… 

How our culture, politics, and technology became infused with a mysterious social phenomenon that everyone can feel but nobody can explain: “The Secret History And Strange Future Of Charisma,” from @joe_zadeh in @NoemaMag. Eminently worth reading in full.

Robert Breault


As we muse on magnetism, we might recall that it was on this date in 1723 that Johann Sebastian Bach assumed the office of Thomaskantor (Musical Director of the Thomanerchor, now an internationally-known boys’ choir founded in Leipzig in 1212), presenting his new cantata, Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75— a complex work in two parts, of seven movements each, marks the beginning of his first annual cycle of cantatas— in the St. Nicholas Church.

Thomaskirche and it choir school, 1723 (source)

“O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!”*…

The estimable Steven Johnson suggests that the creation of Disney’s masterpiece, Snow White, gives us a preview of what may be coming with AI algorithms sophisticated enough to pass for sentient beings…

… You can make the argument that the single most dramatic acceleration point in the history of illusion occurred between the years of 1928 and 1937, the years between the release of Steamboat Willie [here], Disney’s breakthrough sound cartoon introducing Mickey Mouse, and the completion of his masterpiece, Snow White, the first long-form animated film in history [here— actually the first full-length animated feature produced in the U.S; the first produced anywhere in color]. It is hard to think of another stretch where the formal possibilities of an artistic medium expanded in such a dramatic fashion, in such a short amount of time.

[There follows an fascinating history of the Disney Studios technical innovations that made Snow White possible, and an account of the film;’s remarkable premiere…]

In just nine years, Disney and his team had transformed a quaint illusion—the dancing mouse is whistling!—into an expressive form so vivid and realistic that it could bring people to tears. Disney and his team had created the ultimate illusion: fictional characters created by hand, etched onto celluloid, and projected at twenty-four frames per second, that were somehow so believably human that it was almost impossible not to feel empathy for them.

Those weeping spectators at the Snow White premiere signaled a fundamental change in the relationship between human beings and the illusions concocted to amuse them. Complexity theorists have a term for this kind of change in physical systems: phase transitions. Alter one property of a system—lowering the temperature of a cloud of steam, for instance—and for a while the changes are linear: the steam gets steadily cooler. But then, at a certain threshold point, a fundamental shift happens: below 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the gas becomes liquid water. That moment marks the phase transition: not just cooler steam, but something altogether different.

It is possible—maybe even likely—that a further twist awaits us. When Charles Babbage encountered an automaton of a ballerina as a child in the early 1800s, the “irresistible eyes” of the mechanism convinced him that there was something lifelike in the machine.  Those robotic facial expressions would seem laughable to a modern viewer, but animatronics has made a great deal of progress since then. There may well be a comparable threshold in simulated emotion—via robotics or digital animation, or even the text chat of an AI like LaMDA—that makes it near impossible for humans not to form emotional bonds with a simulated being. We knew the dwarfs in Snow White were not real, but we couldn’t keep ourselves from weeping for their lost princess in sympathy with them. Imagine a world populated by machines or digital simulations that fill our lives with comparable illusion, only this time the virtual beings are not following a storyboard sketched out in Disney’s studios, but instead responding to the twists and turns and unmet emotional needs of our own lives. (The brilliant Spike Jonze film Her imagined this scenario using only a voice.) There is likely to be the equivalent of a Turing Test for artificial emotional intelligence: a machine real enough to elicit an emotional attachment. It may well be that the first simulated intelligence to trigger that connection will be some kind of voice-only assistant, a descendant of software like Alexa or Siri—only these assistants will have such fluid conversational skills and growing knowledge of our own individual needs and habits that we will find ourselves compelled to think of them as more than machines, just as we were compelled to think of those first movie stars as more than just flickering lights on a fabric screen. Once we pass that threshold, a bizarre new world may open up, a world where our lives are accompanied by simulated friends…

Are we in for a phase-shift in our understanding of companionship? “Natural Magic,” from @stevenbjohnson, adapted from his book Wonderland: How Play Made The Modern World.

And for a different, but aposite perspective, from the ever-illuminating L. M. Sacasas (@LMSacasas), see “LaMDA, Lemoine, and the Allures of Digital Re-enchantment.”

* Shakespeare, The Tempest


As we rethink relationships, we might recall that it was on this date in 2007 that the original iPhone was introduced. Generally downplayed by traditional technology pundits after its announcement six months earlier, the iPhone was greeted by long lines of buyers around the country on that first day. Quickly becoming a phenomenon, one million iPhones were sold in only 74 days. Since those early days, the ensuing iPhone models have continued to set sales records and have radically changed not only the smartphone and technology industries, but the world in which they operate as well.

The original iPhone


“Two obsessions are the hallmarks of Nature’s artistic style: Symmetry- a love of harmony, balance, and proportion [and] Economy- satisfaction in producing an abundance of effects from very limited means”*…

Life is built of symmetrical structures. But why? Sachin Rawat explores…

Life comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, but all organisms generally have at least one feature in common: symmetry.

Notice how your left half mirrors the right or the radial arrangement of the petals of a flower or a starfish’s arms. Such symmetry persists even at the microscopic level, too, in the near-spherical shape of many microbes or in the identical sub-units of different proteins.

The abundance of symmetry in biological forms begs the question of whether symmetric designs provide an advantage. Any engineer would tell you that they do. Symmetry is crucial to designing modular, robust parts that can be combined together to create more complex structures. Think of Lego blocks and how they can be assembled easily to create just about anything.

However, unlike an engineer, evolution doesn’t have the gift of foresight. Some biologists suggest that symmetry must provide an immediate selective advantage. But any adaptive advantage that symmetry may provide isn’t by itself sufficient to explain its pervasiveness in biology across scales both great and small.

Now, based on insights from algorithmic information theory, a study published in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences suggests that there could be a non-adaptive explanation…

Symmetrical objects are less complex than non-symmetrical ones. Perhaps evolution acts as an algorithm with a bias toward simplicity: “Simple is beautiful: Why evolution repeatedly selects symmetrical structures,” from @sachinxr in @bigthink.

Frank Wilczek (@FrankWilczek)


As we celebrate symmetry, we might recall (speaking of symmetry) that it was on this date in 1963 that the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was signed into law by president John F. Kennedy. Aimed at abolishing wage disparity based on sex, it provided that “[n]o employer having employees subject to any provisions of this section [section 206 of title 29 of the United States Code] shall discriminate, within any establishment in which such employees are employed, between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs[,] the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions, except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex […].

Those exceptions (and lax enforcement) have meant that, 60 years later, women in the U.S. are still paid less than men in comparable positions in nearly all occupations, earning on average 83 cents for every dollar earned by a man in a similar role.


“I confess, I do not believe in time”*…


The automatic analysis of sentiment in text is fast changing the way we interpret and interact with words. On Twitter, for example, researchers have begun to gauge the mood of entire nations by analysing the emotional content of the tweets people generate.

In the same way, other researchers have started to measure the “emotional temperature” of novels by counting the density of words associated with the eight basic emotions of anticipation, anger, joy, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise and trust.

All this automation is possible thanks to new databases that rate words according to their emotional value.

Now Hannah Davis at New York University and Saif Mohammad at the National Research Council Canada have gone a step further. These guys have used the same kind of analysis to measure the way the emotional temperature changes throughout a novels and then automatically generated music that reflects these moods and how they evolve throughout the book.

They say their new algorithm, TransProse, will change the way we interact with information. “The work has applications in information visualization, in creating audio-visual e-books, and in developing music apps,” they say…

Judge for yourself:  read on at “The Music Composed By An Algorithm Analysing The World’s Best Novels“; check out the research at arXiv.org; and then listen to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Lord of the Flies, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and A Clockwork Orange.

* Vladimir Nabokov, novelist and noted “sufferer” of synaesthesia


As we hum along, we might recall that it was on this date in 1928 that D.H. Lawrence, writing to Aldous Huxley, judged prolific non-fiction author and novelist Arnold Bennett “a pig in clover.”  Exactly three years later, on this date in 1931, Bennett died of typhoid at age 64, after drinking water in a Paris hotel to demonstrate to companions that it was safe.

The next night Virginia Woolf noted in her diary, “Queer how one regrets the dispersal of anybody…who had direct contact with life — for he abused me; & yet I rather wished him to go on abusing me; & me abusing him.”

Arnold Bennett


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 27, 2014 at 1:01 am

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