Make sure you’re solving the right problem
June 25, 2016 8:11 AM   Subscribe

"How does an apparently intelligent person end up suggesting a solution that might, at best, constitute unethical medical experiments on prisoners? How does a well-meaning person suggest a remedy that likely constitutes torture?" -- Are the questions Ethan Zuckerman asks, triggered by a particularly dumb article on using Soylent Green and Oculus Rift in prison reform, using it as a kick off point to discuss the wider problem of techno optimism and the inevitable reaction it brings.
posted by MartinWisse (104 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
The phrase Zuckerman is looking for is "Engineer's Disease".
posted by Frayed Knot at 8:20 AM on June 25, 2016 [64 favorites]


You could design an awesome system for rehabilitation

Of course the author has hand-waved away the obviously simple parts.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:39 AM on June 25, 2016


Terminal engineer's disease, preventable only by adequate instruction in the humanities.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 8:40 AM on June 25, 2016 [81 favorites]


Science and engineering can help you invent amazing things. Business can show you how to finance and market them. But only the humanities can tell you why they're a really bad idea.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:46 AM on June 25, 2016 [85 favorites]


That boneheaded article starts with the assumption that Soylent is a 100% acceptable substitute for food and Oculus is a 100% acceptable substitute for reality. Both of these assumptions are dramatically far off the mark to a ludicrous degree. No doctor would ever endorse a diet of pure Soylent no matter how nutritionally complete it may be, and certainly nobody, not even Palmer Lucky, would sign off on Oculus being used in lieu of actual human interaction. That's just the first step down an increasingly dumb road.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 8:47 AM on June 25, 2016 [26 favorites]


I was waiting for the the author to propose amputating the prisoner's arms and legs so they would take up only 50% of the same space...

Seriously though, I know this person. This is the kind of person who enjoys making logical arguments and deductions from a simplified set of premises that lead to absurd, but in their mind genius solutions. I don't like talking to this person.
posted by sp160n at 8:49 AM on June 25, 2016 [73 favorites]


Soylent (not Green, or any other color) is mostly rice protein, oat flour, and omega-3 fatty acids extracted from algae. There might be a little bit of people in it, but that's probably just through love. And fingernail clippings.
posted by Guy Smiley at 8:53 AM on June 25, 2016 [15 favorites]


Of course the author has hand-waved away the obviously simple parts.

To be fair this hand-waving things away technique does work in virtual reality.
posted by srboisvert at 8:56 AM on June 25, 2016 [31 favorites]


There's no date I can find on the triggering article (Snow's). When was it written?

Was it a response to the big Mother Jones undercover reporter article?

If so, maybe thinking for a longer time before writing might be something to encourage...
posted by amtho at 9:03 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


This should be paired up with the Mother Jones longread about the reporter who went undercover as a corrections officer in a private (CCA) prison for months. The reality of how this would be implemented is that, even with the proposed savings, the subcontracting for the necessary equipment and staffing would still go to the lowest bidder, who would cut corners in every possible way to maximize profits. What you'd end up with would be a series of cheaply-made modular isolation cells stuffed with poorly-maintained and usually nonworking equipment, and prisoners being fed the liquid version of Nutraloaf that would periodically make them sick because it was being outsourced to the sort of Chinese manufacturers who would do things such as substitute sawdust for oat flour. And that's before you get into the politics of prisoners being given things that, if they're not actually high-tech gaming rigs, sure look a lot like them. (I've read somewhere that prisons were the last major market for black-and-white television sets because of popular objection to their having color TVs.) Not to mention the loss of income from prison-based industries.

Snow has added a sort of post-script at the beginning (a pre-script?):
The mistakes most of the critics make is in not reading the whole post, skipping the caveats, and conflating what is a thought experiment about one way to reduce the cost and risk of a terrible system with an actual proposal. I am not a politician nor a systems designer. But when it comes to American incarceration both of those groups have failed. I hope that this will create discussions on new ways we can improve prison, rather than nitpicks that prevent us from addressing such a hard problem at all.
Apparently he thinks that no one else is talking or will talk about prison reform if he doesn't pipe up.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:05 AM on June 25, 2016 [36 favorites]


I'm going to object to calling this guy either apparently intelligent or an engineer.
posted by The Gaffer at 9:07 AM on June 25, 2016 [15 favorites]


I'm thinking that isolating technologists, feeding them only soylent, restricting communication to Second Life, etc might be more useful to society.

When impractical technologism is outlawed, only impractical technologists will be outlawed incarcerated!!
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:08 AM on June 25, 2016 [10 favorites]


Seriously though, I know this person. This is the kind of person who enjoys making logical arguments and deductions from a simplified set of premises that lead to absurd, but in their mind genius solutions. I don't like talking to this person.

I think of it as Yudkowsky Syndrome.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:18 AM on June 25, 2016 [33 favorites]


Advocating for design from First Principles and locking people in Second Life, maybe this is a ValleyWank?
posted by ethansr at 9:25 AM on June 25, 2016


* Bonus: one of those sunshine/anti-depression lamps since you’re not ever going outside: $50

It's like he's read about humans on Wikipedia, but he's never met one.
posted by jcreigh at 9:25 AM on June 25, 2016 [50 favorites]


I know this person. This is the kind of person who enjoys making logical arguments and deductions from a simplified set of premises that lead to absurd, but in their mind genius solutions.

I'm struck by both the likelihood that this is a decent working description of engineer's disease in action... and by how close this is to a description of how engineering is done: you get yourself a tractable model of how a system works and you then you use logic to work your way through adding constraints and mechanisms for shaping system behavior until you get a system mostly providing the desired outcome (within certain tolerances).

There *is* a genius in this. And maybe the fact that you can do a lot of work and get so much out of playing inside the sandbox of a proven tractable model is one reason why it's human enough to forget how much work goes into finding a tractable model and how all of them have limits beyond which they're useful. And how much more likely your naive model on encountering a new problem domain is to result in a catastrophic failure than a comprehensive solution.
posted by wildblueyonder at 9:39 AM on June 25, 2016 [12 favorites]


The proposal to replace the food currently offered in prison with Soylent seems like a ridiculous "solution" to a non-existent "problem". Even if such a diet posed no health risk to prisoners, there would be a cost to prisoners in eating the same goop meal after meal, and the cost savings would be minimal.

On the other hand, the rebuttal by Zuckerman is also flawed. For example, he claims that Snow is working on the "wrong problem" -- namely, the problem of bettering prison conditions -- and that he should instead offer a solution to problem of mass incarceration. Of course, it is possible to work on two problems simultaneously; but Zuckerman maintains that a solution to the former problem should not be assayed not merely because it is less pressing than the latter problem, but because it would actively inhibit a solution to the latter problem. Taking his reasoning to its logical conclusion, we should actively worsen prison conditions, thereby hastening the end of mass incarceration. (Of course, it is possible that prison conditions are optimal as they stand: improving them would benefit current prisoners less than it would harm future prisoners by delaying the end of mass incarceration, but worsening them would harm current prisoners more than it would benefit future prisoners by expediting the end of mass incarceration. However, this seems vanishingly unlikely.) But this is exactly the sort of accelerationist reasoning that is widely ridiculed, and rightly so: cruelty breeds cruelty, and we can only diminish cruelty by advocating policies that are less cruel.

So I think that Snow does identify a real problem, and one that merits a solution: by forcing prisoners to interact with each other, you are subjecting many of them to violence, sexual or otherwise. For example, according to the following survey, an estimated 4% of inmates are sexually assaulted each year. (I do not know how to reconcile this survey with the number cited by Zuckerman; but I will note he misinterpreted the survey he cited, conflating the annual incidence of sexual assault in prison with the proportion of prisoners who have been sexually assaulted.) This problem can only be resolved by reducing the incentive of prisoners to commit violent acts or by reducing their opportunity to commit them. I am not sure what a solution of the former sort would entail; but Snow presents an interesting proposal for a solution of the latter sort. I understand that some prisoners would gladly brave the risk of violence for the opportunity to physically interact with other people, and I think Snow is wrong to deny them that opportunity. On the other hand, I think that prisoners should have a right to interact with others without worrying about their physical safety, and this right is currently being denied them. And technology offers a novel means of providing prisoners with that right: they can interact with others through electronic means, when their physical safety is assured. As long as prisoners are offered a choice between physical and electronic interaction with other people, I support Snow's second proposal.
posted by Abelian Grape at 9:43 AM on June 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


No surprise that it's a white male "celebrated entrepreneur" and "wunderkind".

His Step 1, Soylent, is already more than three times more expensive than what is already spent on feeding prisoners. (That is, admittedly, an older number. Soylent may only be twice as expensive!)

His pre/post-script is particularly insulting. Read the whole thing! He clearly hasn't spent more than 30 seconds doing research on his stupid ideas, but by all means we should all do the homework for him.

Maybe I'm just having a hard time recognizing genius.
posted by jimw at 9:45 AM on June 25, 2016 [13 favorites]


history is clear: innovation happens when we rethink conventions and apply alternative learning or technology to old problems.

When you see a sentence like this, you know stupidity is going to follow. People who spend time explaining to you how their invention fits into the historically-validated process of How Innovation/Disruption/Progress Is Done are either snake-oil salesmen themselves or drowning in it.

It's so weird that he sees the problems of corruption and dehumanization in the present system but not how they would operate in his own proposed system. I think this is where Engineer's Disease proves to be necessary but not sufficient to this kind of thinking. Ultimately, as a Dude, and particularly as a White Dude, when imagining himself as the subject undergoing the experience, he unconsciously assumes that the system will think of him as a human being worthy of dignity and care, even at the expense of profits, and treat him accordingly. Those of us who do not fall into that category know better.

("This system wouldn’t work for mentally ill inmates"...I wonder if he knows just how many inmates suffer from mental illness. Dude, do you even Lockup?)
posted by praemunire at 9:53 AM on June 25, 2016 [25 favorites]


his problem can only be resolved by reducing the incentive of prisoners to commit violent acts or by reducing their opportunity to commit them. I am not sure what a solution of the former sort would entail; but Snow presents an interesting proposal for a solution of the latter sort.

I admit I have not run a scientific trial on this, but based on, like, all previous human experience, I'm going to guess that people kept locked alone in cages with no physical human contact for months on end are likely going to end up in a very bad way even if you give them the Internet to play with, too. What does he think will happen when those people are suddenly back out in the real, non-Rift world?
posted by praemunire at 9:56 AM on June 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


Meh.

I won't argue with Zuckerman's criticisms (though I'm not sure why making prison safer and cheaper is at odds with making the justice system less harshly punitive, racist, etc). What business does Snow have offering up solutions to prison administation?

What gets me is that Snow's proposals are probably not as awful as some prison proposals by people actually charged with affecting policy. Or even practices that eventually come to be as a result of no particular thought at all. I'm wondering if so much current prison administration doesn't even match the rigor of of Snow's myopic technologism.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:00 AM on June 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


I think it's a bit of an interesting question if digital interactions with other people would prevent the kind of psychological damage isolation causes. No ethical way to study it, obviously.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:00 AM on June 25, 2016


The author has solved a problem where the target audience is the author, if the author were in jail.

This is a great solution if you already love Soylent and playing Elite: Dangerous in VR for hours at a time.
posted by zippy at 10:05 AM on June 25, 2016 [18 favorites]


I love the part where, even if you agree with all his goofy assumptions, it falls apart.

"No weapons being made out of silly things like utensils so totally safe! Oh and there's a treadmill and a VR hookup in every unit."

Dude...dude.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:08 AM on June 25, 2016 [24 favorites]


Yeah, but he generously budgets for one replacement VR unit per prisoner per year.
posted by jimw at 10:20 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


My friends and I have a shorthand for this kind of engineer's disease thinking.

First, assume a perfectly spherical, frictionless chicken.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:25 AM on June 25, 2016 [36 favorites]


jimw:
Oh good christ that genius article. There's something subtle being said in the author calling an IQ of 122 "run of the mill". Honestly, that's a separate "engineer's disease" I've noticed amongst my STEM-degree endowed peers. A lot of them are open to the idea that intelligence can be boiled down to a single number, and averse to admitting the system has any flaws. Of course, they're often equally opposed to being tested themselves, usually because the result would obviously demonstrate their supreme intellect. Thus it's unnecessary.

As for this article, it reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend while working on the farm this past weekend. My friend had asked me what I would change about the criminal justice system, and was surprised to hear how much of a focus on education, treatment of mental illness, and job training I would prefer. His rebuttal was simply that, regardless of how much more efficient it might be, a system like that would never fly because the voting public wants cruelty and irrational punishment.

I think he's right. Long before any changes to the criminal justice system ever take place, we'd have to institute grand public outreach programs to convince people that the fiscal and moral benefits outweigh that delicious sadism of punishing the guilty.
posted by constantinescharity at 10:36 AM on June 25, 2016 [13 favorites]


The phrase Zuckerman is looking for is "Engineer's Disease".

Well, actually, this is a common misconception......
posted by thelonius at 10:38 AM on June 25, 2016 [18 favorites]


You know what I'm going to take exception with saying this guy has Engineer's Disease - he has (or says he has) a Masters of fucking journalism from fucking Columbia.
posted by atoxyl at 10:42 AM on June 25, 2016 [18 favorites]


the voting public wants cruelty and irrational punishment

Do we, though? Does even a simple majority want this? Or do we just assume everybody wants this, because

a) _some_ people want this, and they are very vocal;
b) we hear over and over that "most" people want mainly punishment; and
c) a lot of us were exposed as kids to people being cruel and small-minded and this had a disproportional impact on our evaluation of humanity as a whole?

Wouldn't most people prefer a system that actually helps people, although we may not know how to accomplish this, or it would be very hard?
posted by amtho at 10:45 AM on June 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


You know what I'm going to take exception with saying this guy has Engineer's Disease - he has ... a Masters of fucking journalism from fucking Columbia.

Well, the cure is adequate instruction in the humanities.
posted by zippy at 10:55 AM on June 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


"How does an apparently intelligent person end up suggesting a solution that might, at best, constitute unethical medical experiments on prisoners? How does a well-meaning person suggest a remedy that likely constitutes torture?"

In just reading the FPP, my immediate thought was, "A complete lack of empathy."

Also a large percentage of sexual assault and harassment in prisons is perpetrated by prison staff, so Snow's solution likely makes that part of the problem more likely, not less.
posted by lazuli at 11:02 AM on June 25, 2016 [13 favorites]


A lot of them are open to the idea that intelligence can be boiled down to a single number

Well the intended point of his article that it cannot though isn't it? 120 IQ is something like top ten percent - I don't know if that's run of the mill but it's lower than one might expect from a world-class physicist. The weird thing is that he takes the number from that single unspecified test anyway and says "Feynman had a lower IQ than many physicists" instead of asking whether the test was not an inadequate instrument to gauge the abilities of the guy who was teaching himself advanced math while famously having to ask for a "map of the cat."
posted by atoxyl at 11:08 AM on June 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


"How does an apparently intelligent person end up suggesting a solution that might, at best, constitute unethical medical experiments on prisoners? How does a well-meaning person suggest a remedy that likely constitutes torture?"

I'd say, the Dunning-Kruger effect is huge here. He doesn't know what he doesn't know, and a lifetime of people telling him how smart he is means he doesn't even know _that_ he doesn't know. He also doesn't know why humility framing is so important for writing about a problem like this, unfortunately.

At least he does care enough to spend time writing about this stuff. If he knew more, he could maybe contribute something worthwhile.
posted by amtho at 11:10 AM on June 25, 2016 [10 favorites]


he doesn't even know _that_ he doesn't know

Yeah his preface about how everyone who didn't like his essay was committing "errors" seemed like that, yes
posted by thelonius at 11:13 AM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


The idea of using VR I think is worthwhile not as a replacement for human interaction where it's already available but as a way to augment and give prisoners positive and pro-social life experiences without the general population having to be involved, potentially. But that's basically as a way of augmenting the fairly low-stimulation prison experience. I don't think it's going to happen, but sure, I think it's worth having a conversation about whether educational games and enriching cultural experiences are things that should be a priority for the prison population. I'd rather see people offered those experiences in a way that doesn't involve incarceration, but I feel like the US is way further off from that happening.

Soylent, on the other hand--I'm supportive of things like Soylent for people who have lives that are already rich with other experiences and where they aren't needing food to be that sort of role in their lives. But the description here of how it'd benefit the system has absolutely no awareness of the needs of normal human beings... or else no real acknowledgement that our prisons are full of said human beings. And that's the point where I realize this guy isn't trying to propose more humane improvements to the current system. He's basically proposing mods to improve his Prison Architect setup.
posted by Sequence at 11:30 AM on June 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


I am pretty sure I have seen his prison proposal in Black Mirror.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:31 AM on June 25, 2016 [5 favorites]


The best part was when one of Zuckerman's students at MIT, when asked to solve the problem that snow as trying to solved, proposed (paraphrasing) "Should *I* even trying to solve this problem? I know nothing about the prison system, nor anyone in it."

Lots of people want to try and fix shit, just because they think they're smart. Its amazing how few realize who much knowledge and experience they lack.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:33 AM on June 25, 2016 [19 favorites]


how about we just stop throwing so many people into prison

nah that'd never work
posted by egypturnash at 11:49 AM on June 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


Well, the cure is adequate instruction in the humanities.
In general, I agree with you, but I'm not sure that's even the point in this particular case. At some point, VR might be good enough so that we will have to take a serious look at the question of whether it could ever be an adequate substitute for actual experience, and that will pose all sorts of complicated philosophical and ethical questions. But we're so far from there yet, just from a purely technical standpoint. He's not just confused about the psychology and ethics of his proposals; he's confused about the technology.

Also, he can't be dumb enough to think that Soylent is the first liquid meal replacement. It's just a fancy new take on something that has already been around for a long time. When I was in eating-disorder treatment in the '80s, one of the "consequences" for failing to follow the "protocol" was that you didn't get food and instead had to drink some gross meal-replacement stuff called Susta-cal. Soylent is basically just Susta-cal for tech bros who don't realize that drinking that stuff instead of meals is a punishment, not an opportunity.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:50 AM on June 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


First, assume a perfectly spherical, frictionless chicken.

My friends do the same thing, but for us it's a spherical cow. E.g. "Well yeah, if you assume a spherical cow..."

Snow, though, is assuming a whole spherical barnyard. But it is really not that surprising. He is generalising from his lived experience, which should shock nobody because that is pretty human (to generalise from my own lived experience). Unfortunately his lived experience is not particularly relevant. Snow's blog post reminds me a lot of the solutions my friends and I come up with when sitting around with beers, solving the world's problems.
posted by selenized at 11:58 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Shane Snow is as lacking in empathy as the worst in the institutions he proposes to 'reform.'

And if, by some catastrophic and simultaneous failure of our regulatory and legal systems as well as simple humanity, his proposals were to be implemented, he will then have committed a more heinous act than the worst of the worst confined in those institutions.
posted by jamjam at 12:09 PM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


The original article reads well as satire. If Oculus Rift and Soylent are our future, then aren't we all in a kind of prison? Of course it might have been meant in earnest.
posted by miyabo at 12:15 PM on June 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


I think it's a bit of an interesting question if digital interactions with other people would prevent the kind of psychological damage isolation causes. No ethical way to study it, obviously.

Well, you can study it the way you study other instances of isolation: the other-folks-throwing-the-ball task, mere rejection, etc etc. You can't get "locking someone in for a week" past an IRB, but just getting rejected once is remarkably similar to the effects of isolation.

Jeremy Bailenson (who was my advisor) replicated a bunch of the much, much earlier social presence work in VR - it's a lot easier to manipulate social variables and things like that in VR, that was first poked about at by Blascovich, I think. The thesis that folks continue with is that people have a real difficult time in cognitive-unconscious terms to avoid mixing the virtual with the real, so most psychology studies can just be straightforwardly replicated in VR, with agents (bots) or avatars (of real people).

We've actually heard this before with non-VR computers, in pretty much straightforwardly the same thing, with written psychological tests. VR is not a perfect ersatz, tho, in the same way that normative screens are. So it will probably in practice, after wide deployment and after non-gaming uses have proliferated, have the same basic effect as the Internet does and social networks do in particular which is to increase loneliness generally in the population by a lot and increase alienation more. More Instagrams and more Facebooks in virtual space, basically.
posted by hleehowon at 12:18 PM on June 25, 2016 [5 favorites]


Are you more shocked that he's suggesting we eat babies, or that he's suggesting we eat Irish babies?
posted by boo_radley at 12:23 PM on June 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


If this is the kind of prison the kids are proposing, I really am not looking forward to hospice care.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:01 PM on June 25, 2016 [8 favorites]


Apparently he thinks that no one else is talking or will talk about prison reform if he doesn't pipe up.

And yet here we are, talking about his plainly terrible proposal rather than actual meaningful prison reform.
posted by Pyry at 1:23 PM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


How much money does he have invested into Oculus Rift and Soylent?
posted by gucci mane at 1:27 PM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


This can't happen now. But why do I have a feeling that it could very well happen someday.
posted by Splunge at 1:39 PM on June 25, 2016


This reminds me of B.F. Skinner's book Walden Two where he describes a commune utopia designed using just this kind of absurd logic. It's worth it for some thought provoking parts about communal labor and such, but also is absolutely horrifying in other places. Like the raising of babies in individual plastic pods that will be hosed down by robots to reduce child-care labor. It's really that kind of "wait, have you ever met a human" thinking.
posted by threeturtles at 1:54 PM on June 25, 2016 [5 favorites]


I think I first read a SF story exploring the premise of some kind of brain-in-the-vat prison time when I was a teenager (that's a long time ago)
posted by thelonius at 1:55 PM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I really liked Zuckerman's critique of the proposal, because of the way it talked more generally about failure modes of problem-solving, and the idea of "co-design" with users. For instance, in the current example, talking to prisoners and former prisoners, among others, about what the problems of jails are and what the solutions might be.

It got me thinking about the thread we had here the other day about fat. Fatness is a problem that has been defined in such a way that only a single solution exists: losing weight. This single solution continues to be pursued in sometimes extreme ways (we also had a FPP recently about a tube that would let people extrude part of the food they ate before it could be digested. This is not the craziest, most dangerous, or most invasive weight-loss method ever proposed. Some mainstream methods, both within and outside the medical field, compete with it in one or more of those areas).

It would be interesting to see professionals who are involved in the weight-loss industry having conversations with fat people about what their primary problems are. Most fat people internalize, at least to some extent, the weight-loss solution, but when fat people talk among ourselves, we talk about:

1. Harassment from friends, family, and strangers
2. Challenges with getting effective health care
3. Limited affordable options for comfortable and attractive clothing
4. Difficulty finding romantic and sexual partners
5. (Sometimes) problems with energy and fitness

Theoretically, all those problems could be solved with weight loss. But most of them could also be solved by reduction of stigma around weight. The majority of fat people do not have diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, heart disease, or an eating disorder. These people's lives could be improved tremendously by the reduction of stigma, support for appropriate medical care, and support for personally-appropriate levels of activity, even in the complete absence of weight loss.

I don't mean to get off-topic. It's just that Zuckerman's article made me realize that I have never seen or heard of a cooperative venture where actual fat people talk with other interested people about how fat people experience their own lives, and what solutions they would most benefit from. Zuckerman linked to an article called "The Reductive Seduction of Other People's Problems," and I think this is a good capsule description of how weight is treated in the US, with problem-solvers who are not, themselves, fat shaping solutions to their own perception of things without consulting the real human beings whose experience they ought to be drawing on. Zuckerman gave me some ideas I'm going to carry away with me, so, while he worries that giving attention to the soylent/Occulus Rift prison model lends it legitimacy, his critique of it gave me, at least, a new tool for thinking about something that's been a concern of mine for most of my adult life.
posted by not that girl at 2:09 PM on June 25, 2016 [27 favorites]


If only other countries had penal systems that functioned well without prisoner rape and abuse, perhaps we could use them as some sort of model rather than making up some techno utopian shit.
posted by benzenedream at 2:26 PM on June 25, 2016 [29 favorites]


Now I'm really not sure if the original article is supposed to be satire or not. Maybe he has fooled himself.
As the Arbinger Institute writes, “Self-deception . . . blinds us to the true causes of problems, and once we’re blind, all the ‘solutions’ we can think of will actually make matters worse.”
posted by jimw at 2:39 PM on June 25, 2016


I'm not sure why we are talking about ethics and prisoners in the context of diet and VR while those same prisoners are legally slaves.
posted by srboisvert at 3:27 PM on June 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


> His rebuttal was simply that, regardless of how much more efficient it might be, a system like that would never fly because the voting public wants cruelty and irrational punishment.

To which I would like to add that the public's preference for cruelty isn't a result of insufficient education about what sorts of systems actually reduce crime. It's a result of the public having a genuine, thought-out preference for the infliction of cruelty toward others, a real desire to know that there are places where people are suffering for no good reason. We're not nice but misguided people. We like being cruel, even or especially when it costs us money and safety.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:32 PM on June 25, 2016 [20 favorites]


Wait...wasn't there an episode of DS9 where they did this to O'Brien?


You know if they did it to O'Brien, it's got to be pretty fucking terrible.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:42 PM on June 25, 2016 [15 favorites]


Other countries do have penal systems in which prisoner rape and abuse is vastly less prevalent than in the American penal system. Curiously, however, those countries also have lower crime rates and lower rates of recidivism. This curiosity cannot be explained solely based on differences between American and non-American penal systems: if one intervenes to treat prisoners more humanely (e.g., by decreasing the prevalence of inmate abuse), one can expect the deterrent effect of prison to wane, and the crime and recidivism rates to increase. (With the exception of interventions which increase the opportunity cost of engaging in criminal behavior, such as providing education to inmates.) In other words, one can modify the penal system to reduce abuse or to reduce recidivism, but not both. One can, however, reduce the crime and recidivism rates through social and economic policies -- for example, extending the social safety net. The effectiveness of other countries' penal systems stems from these sorts of policies (alongside a host of other factors, including their less violent cultures). I am therefore disinclined to believe that we can use their penal systems as a model.
posted by Abelian Grape at 4:00 PM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


In fact, I think there should probably be a Miles O'Brien Test for most "engineering solutions to social problems."


Did they do this to Miles O'Brien?: That's a hard no.


Does this seem like something they might have done to Miles O'Brien?: Yeah, that's still probably not a good idea.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:22 PM on June 25, 2016 [16 favorites]


if one intervenes to treat prisoners more humanely (e.g., by decreasing the prevalence of inmate abuse), one can expect the deterrent effect of prison to wane, and the crime and recidivism rates to increase.

Why can one expect that? It doesn't seem intuitively obvious at all. Quite the opposite, it seems faintly ridiculous that the average marginally-law-abiding individual greatly deterred by the thought, "I wouldn't mind a stint in prison so much, publicly shamed, locked up away from friends and family, and career ruined, were it not for the possibility of getting a serious beatdown, so I guess I'll obey the law." Even if that is in some small way a deterrence, it seems at least possible that its value is more than offset by the positive value of placing prisoners in an environment that will reinforce normal functional interpersonal skills and allow them to eventually reintegrate into society without being utterly broken men and women.
posted by xigxag at 4:31 PM on June 25, 2016 [24 favorites]


if one intervenes to treat prisoners more humanely (e.g., by decreasing the prevalence of inmate abuse), one can expect the deterrent effect of prison to wane
I'm not sure I accept that premise. I don't think that punishment has to be inhumane in order to provide a deterrent, and I think that traumatized former prisoners may be more likely to re-offend than people who get out of prison with significant new problems.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:32 PM on June 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


"if one intervenes to treat prisoners more humanely (e.g., by decreasing the prevalence of inmate abuse), one can expect the deterrent effect of prison to wane, and the crime and recidivism rates to increase"
Got any evidence to back that up? I'd be very surprised if there was a provable link between how humanely prisoners are treated and crime/recidivism rates. Norway's prison system seems to indicate the exact opposite in fact.
posted by simonw at 4:35 PM on June 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


The point is, in Norway they treat all people more humanely, not just in prison, so emulation would have to include providing jobs and health care when they got out, for instance.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:47 PM on June 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


Good point, let's do that.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 4:49 PM on June 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


My claim was based upon a priori logic combined with some general knowledge of human psychology. I assume that the likelihood of a person committing a criminal act (e.g., robbing a bank) depends upon its expected cost (e.g., being imprisoned) and its expected benefit (e.g., obtaining money) in the obvious way: the greater the expected cost, the lower the likelihood of committing the crime. I also assume that the expected cost increases as the prevalence of inmate abuse increases. My claim follows from these two assumptions. (Though, upon reflection, perhaps the second assumption may be questioned: some people may believe that they will have the opportunity to abuse others in prison without being abused themselves. If so, the expected cost of imprisonment would decrease as the prevalence of inmate abuse increases. However, I do not think that there are many such people.)

The abuse an inmate receives in prison can certainly have a pronounced emotional effect upon him (or her). However, the more he is traumatized by such abuse, the more he will dread returning to prison (i.e., the greater the expected cost of his returning to prison), and the less likely he will be to commit a crime in the future. I am arguing not that inmate abuse has a positive social effect overall, but that such abuse has a beneficial effect upon the crime and recidivism rates, despite its many other deleterious effects (which may include producing "broken" people).
posted by Abelian Grape at 5:03 PM on June 25, 2016


I assume that the likelihood of a person committing a criminal act (e.g., robbing a bank) depends upon its expected cost (e.g., being imprisoned) and its expected benefit (e.g., obtaining money) in the obvious way: the greater the expected cost, the lower the likelihood of committing the crime.

Hah, you think humans are rational actors? You've met one, right?

Seriously though your assumption is not supported by psychology, and thus the rest of the argument falls with it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:14 PM on June 25, 2016 [25 favorites]


Politician's Syllogism
posted by rhizome at 5:27 PM on June 25, 2016


So his solution is essentially The Matrix?
posted by maxwelton at 5:27 PM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


The abuse an inmate receives in prison can certainly have a pronounced emotional effect upon him (or her). However, the more he is traumatized by such abuse, the more he will dread returning to prison (i.e., the greater the expected cost of his returning to prison), and the less likely he will be to commit a crime in the future.

I'm a therapist who specializes in treating trauma. That is not in any way how trauma works. Deeply traumatized people get stuck in fight-or-flight mode, which means that their brains simply cannot make rational assessments of consequences.
posted by lazuli at 5:39 PM on June 25, 2016 [47 favorites]


Plus, really, your comment seems to be implying that any abuse is a reasonable punishment for any crime. Rape, for example, does not seem like a reasonable punishment for smoking a joint near a school.
posted by lazuli at 5:43 PM on June 25, 2016 [19 favorites]


Even granting without question your assumptions about how deterrence works it makes no sense to omit the concept of rehabilitation from the discussion - isn't that the obvious tradeoff?
posted by atoxyl at 5:53 PM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


The abuse an inmate receives in prison can certainly have a pronounced emotional effect upon him (or her). However, the more he is traumatized by such abuse, the more he will dread returning to prison (i.e., the greater the expected cost of his returning to prison), and the less likely he will be to commit a crime in the future. I am arguing not that inmate abuse has a positive social effect overall, but that such abuse has a beneficial effect upon the crime and recidivism rates, despite its many other deleterious effects (which may include producing "broken" people).

What utter, embarrassing nonsense. Recidivism declines when people can function in society - when they can get and hold jobs, when they can stay off drugs, when they can find places to live that are not terrifying and horrible, when they can get away from bad companions. As a broad generality, ex-prisoners find it difficult to get jobs, difficult to afford much less successfully rent decent housing, and difficult to manage the PTSD induced by terrible prison experiences.

When people can't manage ordinary life, they turn back to crime, sometimes on the view, actually, that prison is at least stable and familiar.

Have you ever known anyone who has been to prison? I've known a variety of people who have. I particularly remember the man who lived below me for a few years in my terrible, cockroach-filled apartment building on a high-crime corner. He was an absolute mess - traumatized, angry, drunk, sick - and who was supported by his wife and son, to whom he was terrible, because he could not get or hold a job with his record and health. He ended up back in prison, actually, because he had an episode of rage so scary that his son called the police. His wife begged the police not to take him, but they did. He tried pretty hard - he tried to be a decent person and I think his underlying temperament was a sunny one, but life got the best of him.
posted by Frowner at 5:56 PM on June 25, 2016 [32 favorites]


Well, the cure is adequate instruction in the humanities.

And, I assume, taught only by true Sctosmen, right?
posted by MikeKD at 6:15 PM on June 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


I was going to tell an anecdote similar to Frowners, but now that I don't have to...following up on what lazuli said, many if not most people who go to prison have already been traumatized by life well before their first felony conviction. Their reasoning has already been impaired. We're not just talking hard luck or social maladjustment, we're starting to learn that even mild recurring brain trauma can in some cases lead to severe impairment and irrational behavior. You might even say that a priori it would be unreasonable to expect traumatized people to make reasonable choices. The type of thing that might easily deter an emotionally healthy individual might not deter them. It might have a lesser deterrent effect, might have a perverse effect, (prison as a rite of passage, e.g.), or might have basically no deterrent effect because they are overwhelmed by the choice that's right in front of them that will turn out to be a crime.
posted by xigxag at 6:16 PM on June 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


The abuse an inmate receives in prison can certainly have a pronounced emotional effect upon him (or her). However, the more he is traumatized by such abuse, the more he will dread returning to prison (i.e., the greater the expected cost of his returning to prison), and the less likely he will be to commit a crime in the future. I am arguing not that inmate abuse has a positive social effect overall, but that such abuse has a beneficial effect upon the crime and recidivism rates, despite its many other deleterious effects (which may include producing "broken" people).

It is so, so tempting to say 'this does not commute' and leave it at that, but what you've got there is a recipe for destroying the most vulnerable prisoners, who are the most likely to be able to rehabilitated and turned into useful citizens if well treated, and turning them into permanent wards of the state, in and briefly out of prison for the rest of their shortened and infectiously or contagiously disease-ridden lives (think multi drug resistant TB and Russian prisons here), and turning the more resistant prisoners into hardened psychopaths who will form the backbone of a truly organized criminal underclass which will make the kind of public life upon which democracy depends effectively impossible because controlling them will require an authoritarian police state.
posted by jamjam at 6:34 PM on June 25, 2016 [10 favorites]


My claim was based upon a priori logic combined with some general knowledge of human psychology. I assume that the likelihood of a person committing a criminal act (e.g., robbing a bank) depends upon its expected cost (e.g., being imprisoned) and its expected benefit (e.g., obtaining money) in the obvious way: the greater the expected cost, the lower the likelihood of committing the crime. I also assume that the expected cost increases as the prevalence of inmate abuse increases. My claim follows from these two assumptions.

Do human beings in your life generally operate in this way? Do you think you actually make decisions in this fashion?
posted by praemunire at 7:22 PM on June 25, 2016 [10 favorites]


Do human beings in your life generally operate in this way? Do you think you actually make decisions in this fashion?

If he did he'd be off doing something gainful instead of commenting here.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:24 PM on June 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


Wait...wasn't there an episode of DS9 where they did this to O'Brien?

"Hard Time." [FanFare, spoilers for this and other episodes to some degree in the comments] Relevant to this discussion because even though it was done primarily to save money, the VR experience was of jail itself, with all of the various degradations and humiliations. It was deliberately designed to be punitive, and really messed with O'Brien's head.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:28 PM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Terminal engineer's disease, preventable only by adequate instruction in the humanities.

Indeed, it's as if he's only ever studied notable historical engineers, having modernized Thoreau's advice to live on a diet of beans, swapped in VR for Plato's cave shadow puppets, and improved upon Benson's prison's design. All terrible engineers with unworkable ideas that lot.
posted by pwnguin at 7:46 PM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


Re: Yudkovsky Syndrome:

THANK YOU, Internet. I've been looking for ages for a phrase to make fun of this sort of overwrought mis-use of the words 'thought experiment'.
posted by girl Mark at 8:02 PM on June 25, 2016


depends upon its expected cost (e.g., being imprisoned) and its expected benefit

Which is why capital punishment works so well.
posted by pompomtom at 8:09 PM on June 25, 2016


Also: please, please, read about the Dunning-Kruger effect, Abelian Grape.

[FWIW, I didn't think you were insincere...]
posted by amtho at 8:42 PM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Since my views on this topic are coming across as insincere, I'll stop posting. But I should note that I don't have any first- or second-hand experience with PTSD, and my scanty knowledge of PTSD is entirely derived from some brief internet research. If I gave anyone the impression that I am well-informed about PTSD, I apologize. In fact, I did not mean to give the impression that I am particularly knowledgable about any of the topics under discussion. I was just offering my beliefs, which I do not hold with any great confidence, and which I will happily revise given additional evidence. Thanks for the reading suggestion, amtho.
posted by Abelian Grape at 8:56 PM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


Here is an amazing insight : people who rob convenience stores are not so good at cost benefit analysis.
posted by benzenedream at 8:59 PM on June 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


Re cost-benefit analysis:

A large number of crimes are committed by people who basically have nothing to lose. They are homeless or otherwise have no assets, and for reasons outside of their control, they have no means of supporting themselves. They may also be addicted to drugs/alcohol and/or mentally ill.

For these folks, engaging in crime may be entirely "rational" because: (1) there's a good chance they won't get caught; and (2) even if they do get caught, the time they spend in jail/prison, as horrible as it is, is not really that much worse than their lives at present.

Given that it's impossible to solve/prevent every crime, the rational way to deal with these folks is to find a way to improve the quality of their lives. To give them something to lose. Easier said than done, but that's the solution.
posted by mikeand1 at 9:14 PM on June 25, 2016 [12 favorites]


I was just offering my beliefs

It's like the links are coming to life right here in our thread.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:17 PM on June 25, 2016 [17 favorites]


I like how Snow complains in the introductory note that some people hated his idea without reading through the entire article. Look, buddy, if you're going to write down an actual good idea, maybe don't preface with a whole bunch of extremely stupid bullshit (Soylent? VR?!?). I'm not saying there is an actual good idea in there (I highly doubt it), because I don't know due to not reading to the end, but that's kind of my point. I have better things to do with my time.
posted by axiom at 9:19 PM on June 25, 2016


You know, I've been having a rough few years. I'm disabled and can't work, don't get benefits. My husband has lost three jobs in 3 years and turned to waiting tables so we could survive. Our poverty has gone from temporary to chronic, and it's changed the way I think quite a bit. After he suddenly lost his last job I found myself trying to come up with ANY way to make some money, regardless of legality or risk. Could we sell drugs? Damn, wish I had some guns so we could rob a bank.... I mean, not SERIOUS thoughts, but not entirely jokes either.

I have come to recognize the kind of hopelessness that makes any kind of payday, regardless of risk, seem incredibly tempting. I was reading about some criminal activity, with people making thousands quickly. And I was thinking....damn, that'd be nice. Even if one of them was murdered and the rest ended up in jail, yeah, there's definitely a mental point I can imagine where it seems worth it. Where being able to set aside the terror that comes from having NOTHING would be such a relief that you wouldn't care how stupid or risky it is long-term.

And I have a college degree, a high IQ, no drug use and no mental illness. We seriously, seriously underestimate what poverty does to people, mentally.
posted by threeturtles at 10:47 PM on June 25, 2016 [28 favorites]


Oculus is a 100% acceptable substitute for reality.

You know, I get that it's not, but I'm also a person who has had to deal for years with older people telling me that 'internet friends don't count', and being very vehemently 'yes they fucking do'. I actually have very little RL social interaction with humans, and a lot of virtual social interaction, and really it does me just fine, and I'm not in prison and voluntarily choosing this. I think the idea 'hey we should let people have virtual companionship' is not actually the same as 'solitary confinement'. Solitary confinement with no one to talk to does make people crazy, but I think valuing hanging out with other inmates you may have nothing in common with, as opposed to virtual hanging out with people you do, is not necessarily the best starting point.
posted by corb at 11:35 PM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


Indeed, it's as if he's only ever studied notable historical engineers, having modernized Thoreau's advice to live on a diet of beans, swapped in VR for Plato's cave shadow puppets, and improved upon Benson's prison's design. All terrible engineers with unworkable ideas that lot.

One of the things a good education in the humanities teaches people is that individual ideas cannot be plucked whole from their contexts and mashed together uncritically. Another thing it teaches is how to spell Jeremy Bentham's last name.
posted by kewb at 4:34 AM on June 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


Another factor to consider is how specialized telecom companies engage in ridiculous price gouging when it comes to prisoner phone calls.

Prison is inherently hard, partly because the person is isolated from peer and community support networks for extended periods of time. Then they face additional forms of isolation as part of conditions of release. Time in American prisons is correlated with terrible health outcomes and reduced life expectancy. Making them even worse doesn't appear to have significant impact on recidivism.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:26 AM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Another factor to consider is how specialized telecom companies engage in ridiculous price gouging when it comes to prisoner phone calls.

And that COs can and do withhold basic necessities as privileges that must be earned, with arbitrary conditions for withdrawal of said "privilege" based on arbitrary infractions. I can completely imagine VR goggles being used as another tool for a COs psychological control and torment of prisoners.

And that's before we consider some not-so-unrealistic possibility of special "punishment programs" run through the VR for added torment. Might sound weirdly dystopian but bear in mind we already got correctional facilities where prisoners are subjected to all kinds of creative humiliations.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 5:36 AM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


In the Iain M. Banks Culture novel Excession, there is a throwaway scene where human character Ulver Seich is touring a museum of torture devices maintained by the sentient spacecraft GCU Grey Area (aka Meatfucker). Among the various nasty tools she is surprised to find a little tank with a neural lace floating in it, the device usually grown throughout a human brain in order to create perfect virtual reality. When she asks about it the GCU reminds her that it is actually one of the most perfect torture devices ever invented -- as we have seen in a previous scene where the Meatfucker used it. Ulver is a bit disquieted by this since she is equipped with one herself.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:20 AM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


It struck me as amusing that we don't have any M.Sc. from Columbia specializing in Corrective psychology publishing any speculative papers on how they think a MOS 6502 processor works.

Meaning, I guess it could be fun to pile on the author for having a wicked case of engineer's disease and needing what-? A runthrough of Philosophy 101, I guess, maybe? It's really not my place to redesign someone else's undergraduate curriculum.

I really can't see anything in the original piece that is frankly, worthy of all this discussion, except that maybe he scattered in all the right brand names (soylent, oculus) which does, I guess, prove in the long run-- he knew exactly what he was doing, in terms of how modern journalism works.
posted by mrdaneri at 6:35 AM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


The article reads a lot like a science fiction dystopia. Sadly, for many people, prisoners are undeserving of even basic human concern. Prisons are inefficient, often corrupt and they have mixed goals - rehabilitation and punishment. Government-run prisons probably promote corruption, siphoning off any cash they can. For-profit prisons suffer from greed - corporations are required to maximize profit. And taxpayers don't want want to think or care about prisons, or pay for them. A good engineer should review the literature, find out what has already worked, and build on that. But throwing name-brand tech at it feels more interesting, I guess.
posted by theora55 at 8:59 AM on June 26, 2016


THANK YOU, Internet. I've been looking for ages for a phrase to make fun of this sort of overwrought mis-use of the words 'thought experiment'.

Wayback Machine confirms he only added the claim that it was a "thought experiment" after he was called on his bullshit.
posted by howfar at 9:39 AM on June 26, 2016 [7 favorites]


I'm thinking that isolating technologists, feeding them only soylent, restricting communication to Second Life, etc might be more useful to society.


Seems like a fair number of them do this to themselves already.
posted by louche mustachio at 10:07 AM on June 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Toilet paper: $50/year

Soap/shampoo: $50/year

Lysol wipes (all you’d need to keep the cell clean, given how little there is): $50/year

Laundry (every two days you get a fresh jumpsuit and drawers, and every week a towel: I’d outsource the laundry to FlyCleaners to save on facilities and admin. Estimated cost: $350/year


So, no bras or tampons, then?
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:47 AM on June 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


Tampons can be replaced by a solitary diva cup and lysol wipes and bras are unneccessary if you're not going outside. Shame on you for suggesting that maybe Snow hadn't thought this all the way through.
posted by Bobicus at 7:00 PM on June 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


There's an interesting question here:

How miserable should prison be?

And you know, as a society (with "Cruel and Unusual Punishment") we actually have decided "Not as miserable as it could be".

Given that decision -- the right one, by the way -- it's absolutely an interesting question to consider things like VR. We've got this enormous population whose sanity actually needs to be managed. We also have an enormous population that wants to be separated from prisoners. VR, unlike the web, but like TV, doesn't necessarily involve reconnecting (and doesn't necessarily not).

I'm not going to dignify the Soylent talk, but I'm forced to defend VR here. We really need to be thinking, and talking more about what the hell we're doing with this prison system.
posted by effugas at 4:35 AM on June 27, 2016


This reminds me of a classic example of the narrow thinking associated with some engineers, as exemplified by a letter computing machine inventor Charles Babbage wrote to Tennyson a few years ago:

http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi879.htm
posted by morspin at 9:37 PM on June 27, 2016


That Babbage letter is more about being needlessly pedantic. (And he was likely doing it for a joke.)

"VR + Soylent == better prison" is more like this recent thread. Which is maybe best summarized with "don't mistake the map for the territory."
posted by RobotHero at 8:52 AM on June 29, 2016


- it's absolutely an interesting question to consider things like VR.

Interesting, yes. Anything to do with the actual problems in US prisons, no.

One can contemplate VR as an addition to decent, safe and supportive prisons. The idea that VR should or could be substitute for acceptable prison conditions is pure fantasy.
posted by howfar at 12:52 AM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


The idea that VR should or could be substitute for acceptable prison conditions is pure fantasy.

That's one part of his whole plan I find interesting. He takes a bunch of ideas that, conceivably, could be part of a larger prison reform and... just mushes them together into a 90s cyberpunk dystopia instead.

I look at VR specifically as possibly a great tool for people who are marginalised from the increasingly urban global mainstream purely by distance. People in very rural areas are often left out of what's going on in the world simply because they are so far away. I have a friend who works in distance education with kids who live in remote communities in Alberta and while the internet has been amazing in how it can break down barriers in accessing information, there is still a big gap between what resources are available online versus a big city (e.g. museums, plays, etc that you attend in person). Maybe cheap VR can be the next incremental step. Prisoners fit into this because they are physically removed from society as well, and shouldn't we want prisoners to have access to resources that enrich their lives and give them the tools they need to build a life for themselves outside of prison?

So yeah, when I think of VR in this context I'm imagining the old technoutopian promise where we put on our VR goggles and dive into a fluorescent cyberspace that eliminates the importance of physical distance (and we have dolphins hooked up to VR for some reason too, oh the 90s).

Anyways it feels like we both read the same sci fi growing up but he's taking the cautionary tale chapters of mans technological hubris and saying "yeah! Lets do that!"
posted by selenized at 11:17 AM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


« Older “This was not Holocaust education but miseducation...   |   100+ years of Holmes & Watson movies, in one... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments