At FOO East, at a small session, I gave a brief re-cap of what “Too Big to Know” is supposed to be about, and asked for help, particularly with the chapter I’m about to start writing (on “difference”), and with an upcoming chapter on how we make decisions. The “difference” chapter deals with the question the prior chapter — a history of facts — leaves the reader with: If we no longer (at least in many fields) have the comfortof thinking thatt what we know of the world rests on a bedrock of facts, then what do we about the, um, fact that we don’t collectively agree about anything?
The discussion was quite helpful about those two chapters, especially the one on decisions. I may blog about that later, but something quite disturbing happened during the hour-long discussion. About three-quarters of the way in, someone (let’s call him Seth because that’s not his name), said, kindly, “I understand what this book is about, but with your other books I knew why they mattered. I’m not getting why this one does.”
The problem is that Seth is just about my ideal reader. He even liked my other books. So, if I can’t explain to him face to face why 2b2k matters, then I have a problem.
Now, maybe I just did a lousy job in my overview. And, actually, I did. I got snared by some abstract points I happen to find interesting. Plus, since it was an overview, I didn’t go through the examples in the various chapters, which made the book sound more theoretical than it is. But Seth’s problem is real and worrisome.
His comment bothers me particularly because I worry that I am peculiarly hung up about knowledge. I think we’re undergoing a revolution in knowledge, but most of the world doesn’t think about it in those terms, and most of the world has been making the transition in a pragmatic and effective way anyway. This is one reason why the topic of expertise is better for the book than the topic of knowledge, although the book has slipped its leash and now seems to be chasing knowledge through the underbrush. People know that the role of experts and expertise matters.
So, here’s what I’m going to do. For now I’m going to leave chapter 3 — the history of facts chapter that’s actually about removing the hope of hitting bedrock in our arguments — as is (especially since I just finished a draft of it three days ago). I’m going to make sure that the next chapter, on the inevitability of difference and disagreement, gets pulled back toward pragmatic questions. Inevitably, in that chapter I’m going to talk about the assumptions that underlie our belief that since diversity is good for decisions, radical diversity is even better. Some of that will be theoreticalish. But I will be sure to stress practical considerations, especially how to scope difference, i.e., how much diversity of opinion is good and when does too much diversity get in the way of progress towards accepted goals. (Scott Page’s “The Difference” is useful here.) I hope also to talk about homophily, serendipity, and curiosity (= demand-side serendipity).
Addressing Seth’s question makes the chapter on decisions especially important, because decisions are where the questions of knowledge come to a head. Difference, diversity, blah blah blah, but now does this affect me at the moment when I have to say yes or no?
Here’s a post from last July â€” ok, so I’m a little behind in my reading â€” that describes the Tuttle Club’s first consulting engagement. An open, self-selected group of people converge for an open session with the potential client. They talk, sketch, and do some improv, out of which emerges a set of topics and people for more focused discussion.
This is semi-emergent expertise. I add the “semi” because the initial starting conditions are quite focused, so the potential areas of collaboration and outcomes are thus fairly constrained. But compared to traditional Calf Sock Expertise (i.e., highly paid and trained men in blue suits who believe that focus is the only efficient way to proceed), this is wildly emergent.
I find myself conflicted about the topic. Although I am an occasional consultant and adviser, I don’t think of myself as giving advice. Sometimes I know stuff (or think that I do) or have opinions that I’ll offer if asked (or, in a blog post, unasked): “I had bad luck with this vendor,” or “Don’t over-specify it at launch, so it can be more emergent,” or “I use Kayak. It’s faster and it doesn’t clutter itself up trying to sell me stuff.” I suppose those all count as advice, but they don’t feel like very interesting cases of advice: The first is a datum with an implied conclusion, the second is a bromide, and the third is a personal preference with a justification statement. I think of “giving advice” as something loftier, larger, and more coherent.
And that larger sense of advice seems to me not to be a self-contained activity, but a process and a social interaction. Giving advice generally (?) means helping someone try on futures. “What would it be like if â€¦?” Maybe at the end of that there’s a recommendation, but that recommendation is the least interesting part of the advice, because it only says, “And here’s what I think.” That’s why I’ve never been able to come up with a “Seven Steps to Miscellaneousness or Cluetrainhood” that would have helped my books.
Anyway, I liked Marginal Revolution’s post, and especially liked the recognition that giving advice is a social activity, not merely a transfer of purported knowledge.
Jos Schuurmans usefully coins “Amplification is the new circulation.” And then he usefully worries about how to handle the fact that with each amplification, the link to the source becomes more tenuous.
The problem is that the amplification metaphor only captures part of the phenomenon. Yes, a post from a low-traffic site that gets re-broadcast by a big honking site has had its signal amplified. But the amplification happens by being passed through more hands, with each transfer potentially introducing noise, as in the archetypical game of “telephone” or “gossip.” On the other hand, because this is not mere signal-passing, each transfer can also introduce more meaning; the signal/noise framing doesn’t actually work very well here.
Retweeting is a good example and a possibly better metaphor: Noise gets introduced as people drop words and paraphrase the original, and as the context loses meaning because the original tweeter is now a dozen links away. But, as people pare down the original tweet, the signal may get stronger, and as they add their own take and introduce it into their own context, the original tweet can gain meaning.
But, Jos is particularly worried about the loss of source. As the original idea gets handed around, the link to its source may well break or be dropped. “TMZ says Brittany Murphy dead http://bit.ly/6biEQg” becomes “TMZ says Brittany Murphy is dead” becomes “Brittany Murphy dead!!!!!!!!!” and then maybe even “Brittany dead!!!,” and “Britney Spears is dead!!!” Sources almost inevitably will be dropped as messages are passed because we are passing the message for what it says, not because of the metadata about its authenticity.
So, what do we do? I have a three part plan.
Part one: Continue to innovate. For example, there’s probably already some service that is following the tracks of retweets, so that if you want to see where a RT began, you can. Of course, any such service will be imperfect. But the all of the Internet’s strengths come from its imperfection.
Part Two: Try to be responsible. When it matters, include the source. This will also be a highly imperfect solution.
Part Three: Cheer up. Yes, it sucks that amplification results in source loss. But, it’s way better than it was before the Internet when all sorts of bullcrap was passed around without any practical way of checking it out. The Net amplifies bullcrap but also makes it incredibly easy to check it out, whether it’s a computer virus warning passed along by your sweet elderly aunt or a rumor about the spread of a real virus. Also, see Part Two: Try to be responsible. Check out rumors before committing to them. When amplifying, reintroduce lost sources.
As Jos says, amplification is the new circulation. And the new circulation tends towards source loss. It also increases both noise and meaning. And it occurs in a system with astounding tools â€” e.g., your favorite search engine â€” for the reinsertion of source.
Anil Dash, a person I both like and admire, has become the head of a new project under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with MacArthur Foundation backing. Expert Labs will be a platform that enables federal agencies (and eventually others) to pose questions and get answers from social networks of credentialed experts and the public. I’m excited about this because I think it will do good things, because I’m writing about networked expertise these days, because I like to see knowledge addressed socially, and because the White House stimulated the creation of this project. (I was at the initial discussions between the White House, the AAAS, and some people they pulled in for a day of brainstorming.)
This is one of the half dozen interviews I did at Supernova, which I will be posting as I get around to uploading them.
According to Amazon’s review of Richard Hamblyn’s The Invention of Clouds, we only began thinking clouds could be categorized in 1802 when Luke Howard started giving public lectures. The very idea that clouds â€” the paradigm of uncatchable â€” could be divided into groups was (apparently) fascinating and thrilling. (Lamarck had also categorized clouds, but it didn’t catch on.)
A quick googly scan makes it seem that the cloud taxonomy is pretty messy. For example, the University of Illinois’ “cloud types” page lists four broad categories, and a list of miscellaneous clouds, each of which is categorized under one of the four basic types, evoking a “Huh?” reaction from at least one of us. The cloud taxonomy page at Univ. Missouri-Columbia lists eight types. Do you categorize by what they look like, how high they are, what they do (rain or not?), which celebrity profiles they resemble …? Categorizing clouds is truly a Borgesian task.
And, dammit, wouldn’t you know? Here’s a poem by Jorge Luis Borges called: “Clouds (II)” (with the line-endings probably removed):
Placid mountains meander through the air, or tragic cordilleras cast a pall, overshadowing the day. They are what we call clouds. And their shapes are often strange and rare. Shakespeare observed one once. It seemed to be a dragon. That one cloud of an afternoon still kindles in his words and blazes down, so that we go on seeing it today. What are the clouds? An architecture of chance? Perhaps they are the necessary things from which God weaves his vast imaginings, threads of a web of infinite expanse. Maybe the cloud is emptiness returning, just like the man who watches it this morning.
(translated by Richard Barnes. B; Robert Mezey; Richard Barnes. “Clouds (II). (poem).” The American Poetry Review. World Poetry, Inc. 1996. HighBeam Research. 11 Oct. 2009 v)
RecapTheLaw.org has a Firefox extension that both gives access to public docket records and makes them actually publicly accessible. The courts charge for access to these dockets, including every time you search and for every page of search results. The system is called PACER. RECAP gives you access to PACER (and is PACER spelled backwards). When you use RECAP to view a docket through PACER, RECAP uploads it into the Internet Archive, since the docket info is in the public domain even though the courts charge you for accessing it. The next time someone goes through RECAP to find that docket, she’ll get it for free from the Internet Archive. RECAP also adds helpful headers and other metadata.
A friend asked me to post an explanation of what I meant when I said at PDF09 that “transparency is the new objectivity.” First, I apologize for the cliché of “x is the new y.” Second, what I meant is that transparency is now fulfilling some of objectivity’s old role in the ecology of knowledge.
Outside of the realm of science, objectivity is discredited these days as anything but an aspiration, and even that aspiration is looking pretty sketchy. The problem with objectivity is that it tries to show what the world looks like from no particular point of view, which is like wondering what something looks like in the dark. Nevertheless, objectivity — even as an unattainable goal — served an important role in how we came to trust information, and in the economics of newspapers in the modern age.
You can see this in newspapers’ early push-back against blogging. We were told that bloggers have agendas, whereas journalists give us objective information. Of course, if you don’t think objectivity is possible, then you think that the claim of objectivity is actually hiding the biases that inevitably are there. That’s what I meant when, during a bloggers press conference at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I asked Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Walter Mears whom he was supporting for president. He replied (paraphrasing!), “If I tell you, how can you trust what I write?,” to which I replied that if he doesn’t tell us, how can we trust what he blogs?
So, that’s one sense in which transparency is the new objectivity. What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.
This change is, well, epochal.
Objectivity used be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well-informed, you have sufficient reason to believe. The objectivity of the reporter is a stopping point for reader’s inquiry. That was part of high-end newspapers’ claimed value: You can’t believe what you read in a slanted tabloid, but our news is objective, so your inquiry can come to rest here. Credentialing systems had the same basic rhythm: You can stop your quest once you come to a credentialed authority who says, “I got this. You can believe it.” End of story.
We thought that that was how knowledge works, but it turns out that it’s really just how paper works. Transparency prospers in a linked medium, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links. You can look up the footnote, but that’s an expensive, time-consuming activity more likely to result in failure than success. So, during the Age of Paper, we got used to the idea that authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.
In the Age of Links, we still use credentials and rely on authorities. Those are indispensible ways of scaling knowledge, that is, letting us know more than any one of us could authenticate on our own. But, increasingly, credentials and authority work best for vouchsafing commoditized knowledge, the stuff that’s settled and not worth arguing about. At the edges of knowledge — in the analysis and contextualization that journalists nowadays tell us is their real value — we want, need, can have, and expect transparency. Transparency puts within the report itself a way for us to see what assumptions and values may have shaped it, and lets us see the arguments that the report resolved one way and not another. Transparency — the embedded ability to see through the published draft — often gives us more reason to believe a report than the claim of objectivity did.
In fact, transparency subsumes objectivity. Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.
Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?
Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O’Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.
Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.
However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.
Sotomayor is saying something designed to inspire those against whom expectations have run: In American culture, the image of a wise judge generally is that of an old white man. Sotomayor is asking her audience to embrace a different image. In fact, she says, the very life experiences that traditionally have worked to disempower people make one wiser than those who haven’t had those experiences. The unfortunate implication of Sotomayor’s rhetoric (or, at least the inference taken by some white male Senators) is that race is the differentiator, not the experiences…an inference that does not survive reading the rest of the passage. Clearly, Sotomayor is saying exactly what all Americans are taught: We are a melting pot made stronger by the diversity of our culture.
So, here’s what I’d ask the Republican Senators who are questioning her about that line in her speech:
Senator, would you be ok with an all white, all male Court?
That is, if all else were equal, Senator, would you prefer to have a Supreme Court made up of nine white men from similar backgrounds, or a Court that includes men and women, people of various hues, and people from a variety of backgrounds?
If you’re ok, Senator, with a lily-white, male Court, you may sit down. Thank you.
If, however, you think we are better now for having some diversity among our Justices, then don’t you agree that “a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench”? Don’t you agree that diversity strengths the Court — makes it wiser — because it brings different points of view to bear? So, Senator, you agree that one’s background affects one’s judgment, and that we are better off having multiple life-experiences represented on the Court.
So, Senator, don’t you think it’s a great for the Court to have, say, a wise Latina woman in the discussions? Me, too!
In creating a Supreme Court rather than one Supreme Justice, our founders recognized that wisdom is more reliably a property of a system than of an individual. Wisdom is most likely to emerge from a network that embraces diversity.
Steve Myers at Poynter has a good story about NPR’s crowd-sourcing Dollar Politics project. One element of it was a request for help identifying 200 people who attended a Senate hearing, some percentage of whom were lobbyists.