The Mathematics of Cancel Culture

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    The Mathematics of Cancel Culture

    To add fractions, you find the least common denominator—a term that has a certain resonance in our age of mass cancellation.

    Even a longtime number lover like myself cringes at the memory of grade-school arithmetic—mostly boring exercises of memorization and seemingly arbitrary rules that led to often obvious answers. These number numbing years effectively murdered math for most people, who would forevermore associate the subject with answers and sums rather than questions and ideas. 

    The exception, for me at least, was canceling—an oddly satisfying way to slim down numbers by slicing up factors and using just what you needed. To add fractions, for example, you’d first find a common denominator to make sure you weren’t adding apples and oranges (or 6ths and 3rds). To add 1/6 and 1/3, just multiply 6 and 3 to get 18—turning the fractions into easily addable 3/18 + 6/18. Presto: 9/18!

    Decisions about what has to go are rarely methodical, frequently based on ambiguous information; it’s easy to choose the wrong target, and mistakes can be fatal. The recent drone attack on Afghan civilians is a raw reminder. Some people think excising criminals from our midst requires the ultimate kind of canceling—capital punishment. The scores of known innocents executed, on death row, or recently released due to DNA evidence should give anyone pause.

    Endless elimination eventually gets us to … nothing. A void. People say nature abhors a vacuum, but actually, nature mostly is a vacuum; vacuum energy accounts for most of the energy in our universe. Nothing isn’t possible. (That is to say, “nothing” isn’t possible.) Whatever gets removed gets replaced by something else. Suck the air out of a straw and milkshake (or margarita) flows in. We all depend on pushback in one form or another. Bouncing ideas off other people. Getting rejected, sometimes for good reason. Boundaries keep us from running amok. If you’re pulling against something (or someone), and it/she suddenly lets go, you’re in for a fall. Sudden stops cause crashes, especially if you don’t take time to look out for what’s coming up behind you. 

    Most canceling isn’t so drastic or visible. But it goes on all the time, mostly without our noticing—a process revved up by AI. AI-driven hiring software cancels job candidates, disappears applicants from college entrance pools, culls potential mates, bans people from getting credit, insurance, parole. It even limits the options a doctor has (or sees) for prescribing drugs. No one knows exactly what these algorithms “consider” in their decisions, because the software is proprietary. We do know that AI depends on turning everything into yes-or-no questions; it’s either a relevant data point, or it isn’t. That’s digital by definition. It deals in discrete variables, not continuous change. As a geek friend recently put it: “AI murders calculus.” Mathematician Cathy O’Neil calls these systems “weapons of math destruction” (also the title of her—not yet canceled—book).

    Makers of our AI-powered devices spend a lot of time canceling friction, making just about everything a no-brainer. They require less and less of us because they do more and more, whether we want them to or not. One click instead of two. They make it effortless to say things, buy things, even cancel things. We don’t need to think twice. Or think at all.

    But friction is a good thing—and not just because it might slow down your ability to send that text you later wish you hadn’t or make butt dialing more difficult. We need friction to walk across the room. 

    Besides, deleting rarely erases things completely (your old texts included). Canceling leaves traces. In college, I received a report card (a real thing back then) with an inked A in physics crossed out, written over with a B—the ghost of the A still clear. I’d recently declined several invitations from my aged professor to meet after class for a drink. Sexual harassment didn’t even have a name at the time. But the experience canceled my interest in physics for quite a few years.

    As we all know, vanquished enemies often return, sometimes in different form. Sometimes they come back to bite you. Our campaign to cancel “germs” has been so successful it’s helped to produce stronger breeds of drug-resistant bacteria.

    So what’s the alternative? Bad, dangerous, and dumb things abound. If we don’t cancel them, then what? 

    In some obvious cases, addition can eliminate the need for subtraction—though it’s likely slower, more difficult, more expensive. For example, I read that analog clocks are being taken out of school classrooms. Why? The decision to cancel clocks was made because students no longer knew how to use them to tell time. Given that clocks are analogues to the Earth’s rotation, that’s a bigger loss than it may seem. Why not just teach kids to read hands on a clock?

    Most canceling is far less trivial, of course, but options do usually exist—even if they require time and resources (and thought). We can repair, reframe, revisit, refashion, restrain, redirect, repurpose, restructure, rework, retool, reduce, revisit, refocus, retrofit, reboot, rethink, reform, and so on. The reformation of our legal system is something law professor Jody Armour has studied and lived for a lifetime and reimagines in his new book, N*gga Theory: Race, Language, Unequal Justice, and the Law. A truly progressive legal system, Armour argues, values restoration, rehabilitation, and redemption over retribution, retaliation, and revenge.

    Science could not progress if it canceled old ways of understanding in favor of new. Very rarely do scientists entirely abandon even wrong and discarded ideas. Rather, the building blocks remain, but take on new meaning and context with the discovery of new knowledge, more complete theories, clearer explanations. Science is essentially additive. 

    I personally find it strange that most people seem to see aging as mostly a matter of cancellation. True, getting old pares away mobility of our limbs, shaves range and acuity from our senses, severs ties, shrinks stature, chisels away at memory. For me, however, what’s gained easily equals what’s lost. Sure, I’d rather do without the aches and pains, but they force me to jury-rig my way around obstacles—which is a fun challenge (sometimes). If my joints are less flexible, my outlook is more so. I remember less but know more. I have lower energy but more interests. I laugh more. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can do. Nothing wrong with that.

    The biggest thing we’ve lost to cancel culture is conversation itself. We’re afraid we’ll say the wrong thing. We’re afraid we’ll get canceled. Sometimes we don’t bother even to cancel and simply “ghost”—the passive-aggressive version.

    Probably needless to say, the specter of being ghosted, canceled, has haunted me all the while I’ve been writing this piece. But as I’m closer to my expiration date than most, it wouldn’t matter much. Nature will cancel me permanently, soon enough.


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    Published at Wed, 20 Oct 2021 13:00:00 +0000

    Attribution – For more Information here is the Article Post Source: https://www.wired.com/story/the-mathematics-of-cancel-culture

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