Compliance at the Dryden

The Eastman House calendar had this to say:

The disturbing true story of a prank call delivered to a fast food restaurant comes to life in Craig Zobel's (The Great World of Sound) controversial new film. Night manager Sandra — convinced that the police have fingered one of her employees — falls victim to the persuasive and commanding voice on the phone. Grimly depicting human readiness to obey higher authority, Zobel's provocative film is a sure conversation-starter.

As I've mentioned to people, it was kind of preaching to the converted. In the post-screening discussion, there were skeptics: "people aren't that impressionable," or "I wouldn't do that", or "the filmmaker took liberties as things didn't get that bad". But I was pretty sure things did get that bad (although according to the moderator of the post-film discussion, it was in the worst of the 70 some-odd occurrences, and actually less-severely portrayed on film), people do fall for that, and even I could be manipulated that way. (Although my disdain for claimed "authority" makes me a tad more resistant.)

So let me back up a little.

The perpetrator – in this case, a man calling himself Officer Daniels – was using the known techniques of social engineering to manipulate his victims. It's a technique most frequently used in crimes of technology, and it rarely involves more than a brief conversation. One might call a bank (presumably with what looks like an internal number) for instance, and ask innocently, "oh, is this computer support?", "no, dang. Do you have the number handy?" Then they call that number, jot down the name of the person who answers, and ask, "Jim, hey — is it possible to get my Kindle on the network?", "no, I figured I'd ask anyway." Then jee calls someone else, "hi, this is Jim from computer support. I just,want to take a minute to check your IP address." I think you can see how with a large organization, it's easy to get small pieces of information out of a number of people which, when aggregated, is a tremendous amount of knowledge about the organization as a whole.

The exotic thing about this perpetrator is that he would stay on the phone for a long time — not only in the total duration, but with each individual person. One thing he was exploiting was to use an actor as a vetted source. At the start of the most disturbing segment, Sandra hands the phone to her boyfriend with the terse instruction, "this is Officer Daniels. He's a police officer. Do what he says." In that, he used Sandra to artificially create authority in the boyfriend's mind. Imagine if, with no explanation, your significant other handed you a phone and said that? Would your first thought really be, "I'm going to assume this is a stranger and figure it out for myself"? Of course not. Just like when you're introduced with a line, "this is my father", you automatically bestow respect — you don't say, "prove it."

Being part of the labor series, the moderator (whose name I can't remember and can't find off hand) tried to steer the discussion to one that damns the authoritarian hierarchy of low-level jobs, particularly fast-food employers. While I have disdain for that structure, I thought the reason for the behaviors portrayed had much more to do with human nature: it is in our nature as social creatures to want to help one another and that we take shortcuts to validate trust. Without those mechanisms, our society would be in a constant state of deadlock. Authoritarian hierarchy exploits those traits to business advantage, and in that way is a contributing factor to the efficiency by which "Officer Daniels" could dispatch his psychopathic plan.

What is there to thwart this behavior, though? In general, I think it is to respect anonymity of technology. A voice on the phone — just like the letters of a text message or e-mail — are not equivalent to a face-to-face conversation. If we treat indirect communication as an unreliable source, we can help avoid such situations.

It is also important to remember that we grant authority and that it is not bestowed, for the other key piece of the story is "Officer" Daniels' impersonation of a police officer. When authority is granted, there is always an option for independent thought and personal responsibility, but if it's believed to be bestowed, then an officer can bestow authority, and assume responsibility, both of which are but dangerous illusions.


David White Discusses the New Age at the Bertrand Russell Society Meeting

I stopped by at Verb Café at Writers and Books (740 University Ave.) for the meeting of The Bertrand Russell Society. David White was there to talk about Joseph Butler and Ken Wilber. White brought faith in the possibility of a "New Age" — where humans would work together toward common goals using a far more fluid communication method than the chunks of individual works produced today.

His evidence is the proliferation of conversational communication across vast distances. Essentially things like text messaging and blogging where the works are specifically brief. He teaches a course which exploits this: rather than asking students to summarize a work in an elaborate essay, they are invited to explore it then to respond to a small part of it that they found particularly interesting or inspiring. The aggregate of these responses is a new cumulative learning.

I feel that the development of a global consciousness is likely, but the form it will take will be much more subtle. I disagree with the notion that it will be guided by any person claiming to be a guide although some will migrate in that direction. Rather, I feel it will form organically and naturally only through careful nurturing.

One of the concepts that's poison to this idea is one of failure. We seem to have this collective notion that there are people who fail — and with at least a subtle negative connotation — and others who succeed — the pinnacle of existence. This dichotomy is entirely wrong.

The nature of a rewarding life is to constantly try. And that means — at least in this parlance — failing. As such, this "failure" is not "failure" at all, but evidence of actually trying. Not failing is not trying which is a much worse fate.

White cited Plato's Allegory of the Cave as an analogy to the difference between thinking like today and thinking like the "New Age". People who think like today — like individuals competing to survive — are like Plato's prisoners in the cave, resigned to seeing the world as simply shadows on the cave wall. Those who think in a "New Age" manner are analogous to those who escape and return to describe the world outside, explaining the shadows. Unfortunately, the prisoners are certain their form of reality is correct and reject the new information.

I think White was trying to act as a guide: that by taking the prisoners through the steps to the outside that he could teach them the more complete truth. However, I believe more in human behavior based on Plato's cave: that people will nearly-unanimously reject the notion of a "New Age" and of thinking in a different way.

As such, I think a better way is to reject the concept of failure as it applies to a person's life. In this way, the prisoners are released and free to go. Admittedly, convincing people that failure is false is nearly as difficult a task, but I'll argue that it is already ingrained in the culture of the U.S. West Coast with their "it's all good" kind of philosophy.