Pluralistic: 09 Oct 2020

Today's links

MK-Ultra and the brainwashing grift (permalink)

If you meet someone who claims to have created a system for controlling other peoples' minds, you know that they are:

a) Delusional;

b) A fraudster; and

c) A sociopath.

This goes for Rasputin, Mesmer, and self-satisfied Big Tech boasters who claim that machine learning deprives of us our free will.

And it definitely goes for the CIA, whose MK-Ultra plot to perfect mind control was a kind of ghastly running joke.

Writing in Jacobin, Alex de Jong offers a great potted history of MK-Ultra and its architect, the US government chemist Sidney Gottlieb, who, with "rehabilitated" Nazi and Imperial Japanese scientists, performed secret brainwashing experiments.

The article is keyed to the upcoming paperback release of "Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control," Stephen Kinzer's award-winning 2019 book on Gottlieb and his brainwashing experiments.

The experiments were genuinely awful: from fogging the San Francisco Bay with bacterial pathogens to dosing suspected spies with stimulants and depressants to extract confessions from them, then secretly murdering them and dumping their bodies.

It all kicked into high gear when Gottlieb encountered LSD, and began nonconsensually dosing Americans with huge amounts of it, starting with prisoners in an Appalachian addiction hospital, then branching out to unwitting research subjects at MIT, Stanford and Johns Hopkins.

Then he hired sex-workers to entrap johns in NYC and SF, luring them to rooms where they were kidnapped and megadosed with acid.

All that is terrible, but what's fascinating about it from a modern perspective isn't merely their immorality, it's their scientific uselessness.

These CIA experiments were undertaken in secret, and they were exploring a hypothesis: is mind-control possible? Did American POWs defect to North Korea because the Soviets had mind-control?

Over and over, the answer these experiments generated was a resounding no.

Everything they tried to do failed, repeatedly, dismally, and with terrible human costs. And yet, at every turn, the scientists involved – eminent scientists who'd done productive work in the nonsecret world of peer review – kept telling themselves they were succeeding.

And so did their paymasters! The entire operation is an incredible example of how the scientific method – and its transparency and adversarial peer review – are what prevents scientists and funders from falling prey to motivated reasoning.

Everything MK-Ultra did was a radioactively obvious failure, but all these super-smart, powerful people repeatedly talked themselves into viewing their experiments as success.

Their hypothesis ("Is mind control a thing?") was actually a conclusion ("Mind control is definitely a thing, and we have to figure it out"). But as we say in the crypto wars, wanting something badly is not enough.

All of this reminds me so much of Big Data and Big Tech, behavioral ads and behavioral modification. Back when hard drives got cheap and the web got wired for surveillance, the industry concluded, a priori, that with enough data, intentions could be divined… and shaped.

We were presented with this in IPO documents and conference presentations as a fait accompli, rather than as a hypothesis. The companies attracted vast amounts of capital and built vast surveillance and analysis systems.

For many of us, the existence of these systems was proof that they were onto something: "No one would fund this if it wasn't producing." Advertisers flocked to behavioral ads because they were convinced on this basis that they must work.

The ad industry's most successful product, of course, is itself: its ability to convince advertisers that it will spend its money wisely and multiply it through scientifically proven marketing techniques.

Just as the CIA's most successful product wasn't mind-control, it was the idea of mind-control, which excited the congressjerks who held their purse-strings.

And, like Gottlieb, the ad-tech industry performed nonconsensual human experiments. Remember back in 2012, when Facebook dosed 61,000,000 unsuspecting users with messages that were supposed to get them to vote?

And, like Gottlieb, they trumpeted this as a success! Those 61,000,000 interventions yielded an additional 60,000 votes – that is, a little less than a tenth of a percent of people who received the dose changed their behavior in a tiny way. Success!

Some people look at this experiment and recoil in horror at the thought that Facebook has perfected a mind-control ray. I look at it and think, well, the first time you exposed 61m people to a tactic, 0.1% of them responded.

Many of those people will become inured with repeat exposure, so mostly what this shows is that FB is really bad at doing what they charge people money for: influencing its users' behavior.

But it also shows something else: that FB are monsters.

Because anyone who TRIES to build a mind-control ray is a sociopath. Anyone who funds a mind-control ray is a sociopath. Anyone who invests in a mind-control ray is a sociopath. Trying to make mind-control a thing disqualifies you from participating in decent society.

But working in secret to do impossible, wicked things doesn't mean you'll succeed. It means you'll probably end up kidding yourself, even as you fail and fail and fail.

That doesn't make you harmless. Gottlieb and FB both destroyed the lives they touched.

But it means we should address you as a sociopathic fraudster who got high on your own supply – not as a supergenius whose secret invention puts the future of human free will at risk.

The only people these evil clowns really manage to brainwash is themselves and the people who pay their bills. Everyone else, they merely torture.

Machine Democrats (permalink)

Sometimes you have conversations that just stick with you. In 2006, I went to lunch with Eric Flint at the World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim; we got to talking about Obama and whether he'd run for president.

All I really knew about Obama then was his 2004 DNC speech, which was and is a remarkable rhetorical feat, full of inspiration and aspiration. I said as much to Eric, who told me, basically, that I wasn't from Chicago and so I couldn't understand.

He explained that Chicago Democratic politics were Machine politics, a form of cynical, transactional politics that elevated power rather than ideology, and that Obama's success in the Machine meant that he would be a horse-trader, not a populist.

That conversation came back to me when Obama was elected and unceremoniously shut off the server grassroots campaigners used to get him elected, smashing a powerful popular movement into a collection of atomized individuals assigned a new role: cheering from the sidelines.

I watched in the years after as Obama attempted to govern in smoke-filled rooms where he and his rival power-brokers hammered out deals, a strategy that bombed. The GOP had an unruly mob – the Tea Party – who were all in on ideology, while all Obama had soaring rhetoric.

Republicans who gave Obama an inch got primaried by this activated, frothing base. Meanwhile, the ideological and committed base that Obama had mobilized in 2008 were stuck on the sidelines.

I never really understood Machine politics beyond a few cliches about Tammany Hall and whatever I'd gleaned from watching Gangs of New York.

Today, I read "The Other Democratic Party," by Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields:

It's an excerpt from "Trump's Democrats," their new book based on three years of fieldwork living in historically Democratic counties that swung for Trump in 2016.

The authors describe a kind of Democratic politics – and Democratic voter – whose commitment to the party was based on Machine politics: the "boss politics" of places like Ottumwa IA, Johnston RI, and Elliott County KY.

These are places where top political offices are essentially hereditary, and where elected officials routinely fill political appointments with relatives and cronies – but also where party stalwarts and supporters are "taken care of."

Where the local political boss has a weekly kaffeeklatsch in a diner where you can petition to have your potholes fixed or to for a job in the dominant industry. These bosses act like Trump.

I don't mean that they hand out favors in this gross, transactional way (though they do), but also that they are bellicose, petty, vengeful, and prone to vicious rhetoric about people who fail to show them "respect."

In any two-party system, each party will be a coalition: in the GOP, it's bankers, racists, violent sociopaths and swivel-eyed religious nuts.

Historically, the Democrats were a coalition of southern aristocratic white supremacists and northern labor movements.

LBJ's signing of the Civil Rights Act in 64 triggered a "great realignment" with Dixiecrats mostly migrating to the GOP.

Today, the Democrats are still a fragile coalition, a fact that was obvious during the primary.

But Muravchik and Shields suggest that the Trump election was another kind of realignment, with the GOP going all-in on boss politics, and drawing in voters – and politicians – who like that kind of arrangement.

They're saying that the GOP has become the party of Richard Daley, Jim Traficant, and Rod Blagojevich – the party you vote for if you want policy made by horse-traders in smoke-filled rooms who shiv their enemies and reward their cronies.

But in a coda, they say that Trump is not great at boss politics. The thing that made boss politics a staple for more than a century was that bosses were effective – they actually made life better for the people who paid them fealty.

Bosses actually cared about the people they bossed – it was a twisted and flawed and often revolting love, but it was love nonetheless. Trump barely bothers to hide his contempt for America and the people who vote for him.

Mattis Dover's spectacular animations (permalink)

Mattis Dovier is a French animator known for his spectacular, pixel-art monochrome animations.

I learned about them this morning and even though i have a million things I should be doing, I just keep scrolling through his endless Tumblr.

The glory days of Hypercard were something like this, filled with work that made a virtue out of limitation.

Quintessentially cyberpunk in that they hint at a world where technology is romantic, noirish, sexy and sinister.

I could look at these all day.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Student finds GPS bug on car, uploads photo, FBI demands to have their warrantless bug back

#10yrsago THE UNIDENTIFIED: dystopian YA about education transformed into a giant, heavily sponsored game

#10yrsago HOWTO bake porridge in a pumpkin

#5yrsago Prisoners’ debate team trounces national champs from Harvard

#5yrsago T-shirt: Bugs and Gossamer as Han and Chewy

#5yrsago It’s been ten years since Sony Music infected the world with its rootkit

#5yrsago Court tells millionaire yoga troll Bikram Choudhury that poses can’t be copyrighted

#1yrago The cloud vs humanity: Adobe terminates every software license in Venezuela, keeps Venezuelans’ money

#1yrago Podcast: Why do people believe the Earth is flat?

#1yrago Facebook’s 2016 election billboards: Buy all your elections with us!

#1yrago How the “Varsity Blues” admissions scam punished deserving, hard working kids so that mediocre kids of the super-rich could prosper

#1yrago After an injunction against Pacifica radio, New York’s WBAI is back on the air

#1yrago Checkm8: an “unstoppable” Iphone jailbreaking crack

#1yrago Supreme Court greenlights lawsuit over Amazon’s wage-theft from warehouse workers

#1yrago For the first time ever, taxes on the 400 richest Americans were lower than taxes on everyone else

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Waxy (

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