Alex Kogan: Cambridge Analytica’s Villain?

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In this post, I’m going to reverse my usual procedure. Instead of telling you what I think about something, I’m going to provide the raw story for readers to chew and see what you think. At some point, I’ll jump into the conversation.

Michael Lewis—the bestselling author of works including The Big Short, The Blind Side, and Moneyball—has a newish podcast called “Against The Rules.” The rough premise is that referees of all types have become less powerful in American life and we’re poorer for it.

I’ve been listening since its debut earlier this month and really like it. His storytelling style is somewhat circuitous, weaving together seemingly disconnected threads by the conclusion.

The third episode is called “The Alex Kogan Experience.” Its teaser: “Everyone hates grammar and ethics cops. Until they need one.” It’s roughly 40 minutes–with a couple of commercials you can easily skip–but I think worth it.

Give it a listen and weigh in.

FILED UNDER: Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mike Schilling says:

    His storytelling style is somewhat circuitous, weaving together seemingly disconnected threads by the conclusion.

    And now you know … the REST of the story. (I really miss those.)

  2. James Pearce says:

    Listened to it on the train and dug it, despite the commercials. I had no idea the ombudsman had gone extinct, but then again it’s been years since I cracked an actual paper. Maybe Lewis is onto something with that.

    I think I’ll need to listen to more episodes to really form an opinion on his “referees of all types have become less powerful” concept, though. I take it Lewis doesn’t consider “the crowd,” as he calls it, to be referees?

    (That Kogan’s data-mining operation was essentially useless is also a detail worth mentioning.)

  3. James Joyner says:

    @James Pearce:

    I take it Lewis doesn’t consider “the crowd,” as he calls it, to be referees?

    Correct. And I agree with him on that score. There are all manner of areas where expertise matters and where everyone’s opinion is therefore not equally relevant. (Indeed, his setup episode is about the NBA—where the refs are getting objectively better and yet players and fans are getting more angry at refereeing.)

    But, yes, it’s the Kogan/Cambridge Analytica piece that surprised me.

  4. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    (Indeed, his setup episode is about the NBA—where the refs are getting objectively better and yet players and fans are getting more angry at refereeing.)

    Remember the Music City Miracle? The crucial lateral pass took place right next to a field-wide yard marker (there’s one every ten yards), and in the replay you can see the ball is going backwards, very slightly, compared against the visible solid white line on the field.

    That’s solid, objective evidence. But many Bills’ fans still call it an illegal forward pass.

    Just about every controversial call in NFL history in playoff games, or games that decided who goes to the playoffs, still get angry reactions from fans.

    Some calls were wrong, no question. Most were not. And a few were so ambiguous one cannot tell what really was the right call.

    I have to confess whenever the Steelers get hit with a big penalty like pass interference, my reaction is to say “no way!” But then I watch the replay, and the vast majority of the time I conclude it was the right call.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    OK, I’ve been waiting for a substantive comment that says something about the content. If this is all about the kerfuffle over whether Kogan, Facebook, or Cambridge Analytica is the villain in the data theft, the answer is they all are and I’m not going to invest 40 minutes in listening to this. If it gets into whether the Mercers, or others, shared data with the Trump campaign, or more nefarious actors, then I might.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: I love Lewis’ books. Him having a podcast is almost enough to get me to listen to one. Sadly, retaining information I receive audibly is… Problematic for me (my inherent ADD has been nothing but enhanced by my increasing deafness).

  7. Teve says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Michael Lewis is on my top 10 all-time nonfiction list. I’ll pretty much read anything he writes, about anything.

  8. Moosebreath says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    “I love Lewis’ books. Him having a podcast is almost enough to get me to listen to one.”

    Pretty much in the same boat, but I generally don’t listen to podcasts, because nearly all of them end up wasting far more of my time with irrelevant stuff than it would have taken the source to have edited it to make the argument cohesive. I may have to give Lewis a try, though.

  9. Andy says:

    Listened to the podcast last night. I did not follow the Cambridge Analytica stuff closely when it was first reported. It was interesting to learn how wrong their profiles were.

    Some other thoughts:

    It reminded me of Tom Nichol’s book “Death of Expertise.” I haven’t read the book, but when I used to be on Twitter I had a few debates with him about his premises and read some excerpts. Expertise is certainly important but it has its limits. And increasingly, experts seem to disagree on a lot of topics and therefore people are able to pick the expert that agrees with their own views.

    I think it’s clear there’s been a substantial decline in the power of a common social authority generally and the reduced power of “referees” is just part of that. As a society, we seem to have dropped pragmatism as a defining feature of American culture (My gravatar image is of William James, one of the founders of the American philosophical movement that created pragmatism – so I’m a fan.)

    Moreover, ideology has morphed into something unrecognizable from even a decade or two ago and has, intentionally or not, systematically weakened traditions and norms that acted as “referees” for our society.

    The right’s descent into reactionary nativism has dropped any practical view of the responsibilities of society and the state – modern “conservatism” has sunk into open self-interest which is happy to use the state to enforce their version of order while hypocritically clinging to the claims of limited government. Conservatism today is anything but.

    Meanwhile, as the left’s good intentions have grown, considerations of the practicalities of achieving their goals have diminished into farce. Additionally, the left’s modern notions of “progress” have, intentionally or not, resulted in the erosion of traditional sources of authority and social cohesion in our society and replaced them with nothing but technocracy and bureaucratic state control. Social services cannot fill the void that allows coherent communities to exist. This is a fundamental philosophical problem the left has no answer to.

    And the end result is the atomization of society, which is what we are seeing now. Despite our technology which allows more engagement and interaction than ever, we are actually an isolated mass of individuals propagandized and divided by elites for their own ends.

    The solution is not to outsource our thinking to “experts” who are part and parcel of that elite – though they shouldn’t be ignored either. The wisdom of the crowd does work, as long as the crowd does not exist in a narrow ideological bubble, but we seem to all live in such bubbles now.

    Anyway, I’m dirgressing – to sum up I don’t see the American right or left leading us to greater social cohesion (which would empower “referees”), quite the opposite, so I would expect current trends to continue.

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  10. Tyrell says:

    @Kathy: I have noticed that the NHL players and referees seem to get along well compared to other sports. Baseball seems to be the worst. The NFL refs really make some crazy calls (they are not full time).

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy: Yes, it’s nearly impossible for fans to be objective about refereeing. Unless it’s just flagrant, they’ll always deny that their guy committed the foul and want even incidental contact ruled a foul if the other team does it.

    @Andy:

    experts seem to disagree on a lot of topics and therefore people are able to pick the expert that agrees with their own views.

    This is actually the subject of the most recent episode of the podcast, “Leonardo.” There are whole industries where the regulator’s incentives all point in one direction because they’re paid to give people results they want.

  12. just nutha says:

    @Tyrell: Hockey rules are MUCH simpler.

  13. Andy says:

    @James Joyner:

    This is actually the subject of the most recent episode of the podcast, “Leonardo.” There are whole industries where the regulator’s incentives all point in one direction because they’re paid to give people results they want.

    I will check that out if I get some time this weekend.

    Experts can also have honest disagreements. Regardless, experts should be informing policy, not determining it.

  14. Tyrell says:

    @just nutha: “hockey rules are much simpler”: ask some people what “icing the puck” is and listen to their answers.
    Only sport where fighting is “punished” with a five minute rest break.

  15. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    Unless it’s just flagrant

    Would that it were so simple.

    I admit I’m atypical in this regard. But there are objective rules, and it’s clear the officials tend to enforce them impartially (I know about the home field effect on officials, that’s why I said “tend”).

    So on such occasions, if I’m convinced by the replay, I get angry at the player for committing the infraction, not at the officials for calling it out. And not always that. There are some cases where a penalty is better than the alternative, usually a score by the other team.