I was recently in a conversation among very sharp people about a certain modern villain. He's screwed up in public a few times lately, and he's getting some big, bad press. For years, I've heard people talk trash about him, and I guess I've finally found my line. I just can't hear folks talk about my buddy like that. So I'm going to stand up and say it: I'm friends with the guy. He's got his flaws, but I like him. And I'd like to give him a fair introduction. His name is Deception.
Yes, deception. The art of projecting a thing that ain't so. The ability of living critters to disguise their true state or nature from others. The word "deception" has very negative connotations. And here, in this lengthy and possibly overly-vehement blog entry, I plan to flog those connotations to death. I think the reason deception has such a bad rap is that we only notice it when it goes badly. The rest of the time, we don't see it. We just rely on it.
Deception, like anything else, is a tool. It's a very powerful tool. Big power is scary and causes strong reactions. We've seen deception go very, very wrong. And that's a real thing. There is, absolutely, the potential for harm on a large scale.
Even so, asking "is deception bad" is just silly. It can't be answered, because deception is written into the very fabric of our beings. Powerful tools are useful. Deception in particular is so useful that it's used to positive effect all over the world, by all of us, constantly, all day long. That means me, you, and everyone we talk to. Not only do we need deception, but in fact we all secretly love deception. It gives us all kinds of things we humans like. Like selfhood. And society. Don't believe me? Give me a minute.
The tool of deception is in the hands of people, to use for harm or benefit. It can be unreliable: sometimes we try to use it for benefit and get harm. The interesting bit is learning how the tool works. Under what circumstances does deception lead to harm, robbery of free will, loss of systemic intelligence - and when benefit, increased free will, smarter systems?
Let's start with defining some variables and categories in deception (lest we wind up trying to compare leaf-mimic beetles to the the NSA). By the end, I hope to hear your thoughts about how we construct an ethical user's manual for this thing. Because I sure as heck don't know. And I want to know. The tool of deception is, I will argue, getting more powerful by the day.
Factors in Deception
- What is the power relationship of deceiver <--> deceived?
- How socially amplified is the deception? Is it 1:1, or 1:many?
- What is the role of consent in deception?
- What's the role of motivation?
- What's the role of skill - when motivation alone isn't enough?
Types of Deception
Tier 1: Local Deception
#1: Deception of biological necessity.
This means looking bigger, or dead, or like a rock to escape a predator or to get fed. Sometimes it's underdog behavior (the moth convinces the bird it's a hawk) and everybody loves an underdog. Sometimes it's not. Cats slink on silent feet, trapdoor spiders lie in wait, etc - the powerful deceiving the weak in order to eat them. No good, no bad: it just is. Nature has used deception from the tops of the redwoods to the bottom of the ocean, and since the dawn of time. This is 1 : 1 or small-scale 1 : many, "motivated" by survival.
#2: Deception of sociological necessity.
This is my favorite kind of deception. It's a party sampler of weird human ingenuity. We use deception to perpetuate the literal thousands of polite fictions that keep society functioning. Politeness itself is often deception, i.e. "You do not look fat in that dress," and "this chicken is delicious."
Specifically, I'd like to personally thank deception for allowing us to hide our biological responses. Ever been really attracted to a valued co-worker? Pretty great to be able to hide that. There's a Grey's Anatomy about a girl who blushes scarlet from head to foot whenever she feels attraction (Short clip here. Fantastic.). It's impossible for her to function in society. She has no secrets. Deception #2 is why teenage boys carry binders.
Listing all petty, socially-encouraged deceptions is an infinite project. They vary by culture, too. In some cultures (example: the "saving face" Asian norms) social deception is one of the highest forms of citizenship ("Thank you, sir, I didn't want this job anyway."). Is it kindness? More like social WD40. They are society's rules of engagement. Sometimes they seem stupid and we experiment with them - carefully. When we break them, wackiness ensues. When they clash, cognitive dissonance extraordinaire. "Do I tell my best friend that his wife is flirting with me?"
They are peer to peer, usually, and 1:1. What's the role of consent in this type of deception? We are all informed, subconsciously at least, of what deceptions are expected. In fact, socialization is composed in no small part of teaching kids how and when their society expects them to deceive. "Honey, it's not nice to tell grandma she smells funny. And don't make that face."
#3. Deception of responsible custodianship.
Parents and guardians must deceive children regularly. Doing it well is a delicate balance. It's hard. Sometimes we do it with sad hearts, knowing we'll lose trust later.
Done well: creating magical adventures with fictions like Santa Claus & the Easter Bunny. Or, protecting children from knowledge that would be psychologically destructive. You can never tell a child that sometimes you wish you hadn't had a child. When you say "stay near me in this park," and they ask "why," you don't say "because of kidnappers & pedophiles."
Done (understatement follows) poorly: I once knew a guy whose mother died suddenly when he was a small child. "To protect his innocence," his whole family lied to him about it for a full year. Not great.
Number three is powerful --> powerless. Mostly, we hope, "motivated" by kindness. It's 1:1. What does consent even mean with children?
#4. Psychological deception:
4a. Psychological deception as maturation process:
Deception is the underpinning of several major developmental phases. Without deception, there is no privacy, and without privacy, there is no self. It's considered a major milestone when children learn that no one can see their inner landscape. We see it when they first experiment with lying. Teens use deception to individuate. Without deception, teens could not create a self that was out of accordance with their peers' or parents' wishes. Where would gay teens be today without deception?
4b. Psychological deception of the self:
At Foo Camp, I gave my first talk ever. All day, me = full blown panic attack. I realized it was seriously distracting me from my first FooCamp experience. Finally, I said to myself: "I'm not going to give this talk." Let's face it, I know me: I’m giving the talk. But a little slight of hand, and voila: I'm relaxed and present all day. Then, just at the right moment, I blindside myself by standing up and giving the talk.
Manipulation / deception of the self is an art when used well. We can use it to motivate, pacify, and bolster our willpower. "I'm sure this surgery won't hurt much." "If I get through today without a cigarette, maybe I can have one tomorrow." And the favorite sanity patch of young people everywhere: "I'll probably never get old or die."
We can rail against these first four levels of deception. Maybe it is lame that we need this tool to get by. But what's the value in value-judging it? It doesn't get us anywhere. The human race has thoroughly vetted this tool, and we have voted with our feet. We've been using all four, all day & every day, since we got our grubby little mitts on our first cerebral cortex. Do they go wrong? All the time. Are they scary powerful? Absolutely. And does that mean we should eradicate the tool of deception from our mortal tool chest? To do so would change us so much we would cease to be what we are. Ever read a SciFi story where people have always-on ESP? They scarcely seem human anymore. That's a world without deception.The down side of this one is easier. "Just one more drink. Then I'll give it up."
And let's face it. It certainly does make life interesting.
I'll say it again. The ethical meat of deceptions 1-4 is not whether, but how.
Now let's take it up a notch, to amplified deception. Where we use societal or technological megaphones to deceive en masse.
Tier 2: Amplified Deception.
#5. Deception by Organizational Leadership.
I once worked for a company that was rapidly running out of money. There was a chance it would survive, and we would all keep our jobs, if we all worked hard and hit a deadline. The chance was small, but real. This company prided themselves on transparency. It became clear though that when they were transparent, the employee collective lost hope and motivation, and all joy in our work.
Hypothetical up side: they hide the financial problems and we give it 100% and hit the deadline, and everybody wins.
Down side: we miss the deadline anyway, and a bunch of people are quite surprised to find themselves unemployed.
I find this problem very difficult. In the end, with great discomfort, I voted for deception. This is why I never want to be in upper level management. I suspect, but don't know, that executives must occasionally deceive to make organizations work. And the best ones hate doing it.
This is a 1 : many deception. It's powerful --> powerless. Given the option, we'd all rather the company live. Does that make it consensual?
#6. Deception by a Political Agency:
I hardly need to list examples here.
Deception up side: Sometimes, #5 (deception for organizational function) is clearly at play. If everyone believes we are in a recession, nobody spends money, and we remain in a recession. We all want everyone to believe we are not in a recession so that we can not be in one. But it would be stupid to be the only one to act on it. The magic only happens if the collective moves together.
Down side: horrifying human rights atrocities.
Politicians sometimes invoke #3 (deception of responsible custodianship) when they deceive on a grand scale. As though the people are innocents, and the politicians are the only ones who know what's really going on - so they have the right to make decisions for us. Generally, Americans don't like that at all. Equality of all parties is the very essence of American cultural mythology (even when we're hypocrites about it). It borders on being a religion.
I know this is uncomfortable, but I want to address the world beyond that belief. I think it's important to raise your head up and question religion once in a while, or you can end up really far from where you were headed. In some cultures (China, Japan, Korea), political deception is a simple fact of life. Many people throughout history and all over the globe have believed "the leader/king knows better than we do," and sometimes that has produced stable societies. There is no moral default on political deception. There is just the way we see it, in this particular culture and era, and what we learn from history.
Am I saying the USA should become a totalitarian state? No way. I am however suggesting that it's just remotely possible - just once in a while - that the politicians who sit at the center of the vast clockwork of a nation know some things that we, the people, would not handle well. To quote Men in Black:
1: "Why the big secret? People are smart, they can handle it."
2: "No - a person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it!"
I see two factors at the core of this highly problematic space.
- This is deception amplification as at its maximum level. When a politician deceives, the ripple effect can impact billions of lives. The stakes are always high. And the farther we sit from the deceiver, the less we know about his/her motivations. They may say they deceive for the common good. But what if they're really just in it for the money, the power? They're too far from us. We can't know.
- Collective action social dilemmas are super hard. Each of us is two people: an individual a member of the collective. Sometimes the individual wants to act one way and to have the collective act another way. Don't infringe upon my freedom, but for god's sake make this damn population recycle / drive sober / stop having crack-addicted babies. We don't have good language for separating, and creating relationships between, the two different problems we each embody.
There is a fascinating tension here. We're currently handling it with a volatile stew of inefficacy, unvetted deception, and collective resentment. I think we can do better. And I think we do that by writing the manual of amplified deception.
Me, I want to talk about amplified deception firstLevel 1 deception isn't worth discussing. Biology is going to have to deal with its own conscience. Levels 2-4 are interesting sociological exercises and are worth talking about. But, IMO, the real money problems are 5 and up. They're wicked problems. And they're newer than #1 by a long stretch. They're problems we've created for ourselves by having societies and media. And if we screw up levels 5+, the casualties are scores of lives, and the course of history.
Talking about levels 2-4 is easier. The scope is smaller and the players knowable. Five and up are hard, scary and absolutely vital to our progress as a people.
And from where I sit, the best, weirdest, most fascinating deception type is #7.
#7. Amplified Lateral Deception.
Examples: I can create a fun game that'll teach critical thinking, but only if people don't know that. I can convince people to take this helpful medication if I mislead them a bit. I can get people to want this product. I can get people to ignore this candidate.
Number 7 is where change agents and innovators are playing, right at this moment. The internet has democratized deception amplification. It's not about the powerful - CEOs, parents, media moguls or presidents - it's us, deceiving one another, peer 2 peer on a grand scale.
Number 7 is where I myself sit in a state of profoundly inspired ethical lockjaw. I think I know how to push systems. Do I do it? Do I teach other people? I might (I do) think I'm trying to help. But I can't kid myself: you never know what's going to happen when you push a system. The cascade / secondary effects can be catastrophic. One day you think you're selling soda, and the next day you're the shamefaced parent of a new diabetes epidemic. And the next guy might not even be trying to help.
Call to Action
So here we are, holding a tool. It is powerful. We've shown we can use it for good and for harm. And now everybody has one with a megaphone taped to it. What the heck do we do about that?
Here is where I most want to learn from you folks. I don't have the answer. Deception scares and inspires me. Nobody is smart enough to write the manual for this tool in isolation. But collectively, I believe we can do it. And until we set some ground rules, a lot of innovators like me are effectively paralyzed.
Here's some more grist for the mill:
- The internet makes it harder to hide the truth. Yet, falsehood still thrives on the internet (see: climate change debacle).
- Social systems in the digital space are becoming more exposed and hackable.
- Are there other types of deception? What are they?
- Is it ever true that you know better than other people? When is that ok? Do we as individuals ever know better than we as a crowd mentality?
- When does deception produce predictable results, and when not?
- I suspect consent is at the heart of some interesting conlficts. What if....
- ... We used lateral amplified deception as opt-in, but permitting deception in the actual execution? Meaning, the deceived always has the option of consenting to the goals of the deception, but waives awareness of the means of delivery? "I want to quit smoking" or "I want to stop fighting".... and then serve me up a game?
- ... We tried that same thing on a governmental scale? This year we vote "less violence through manipulation" on the docket, and the gov't is free to create manipulative social programs towards that end. We let people try to decode them. Whether we decode them or not, in a few years, they're exposed. We decide as a society whether we liked it.
Thank your the use of your brains, folks.