May 23, 2010
The world is less curious, reasonable, fun and awesome now that Martin Gardner has died.
Date: May 23rd, 2010 dw
May 23, 2010
The world is less curious, reasonable, fun and awesome now that Martin Gardner has died.
Categories: misc Tagged with: childrens books • debunking • doggerel • games • logic • magic • mathematics • paradox • philosophy • physics • poetry • pseudoscience • puzzles • religion • science • skepticism • wordplay
Date: May 23rd, 2010 dw
April 22, 2010
A mailing list I’m on had a discussion about the movie “Only a God Can Save Us” (amazon) about Martin Heidegger’s Nazism. One of the contributors to the mailing list quoted a length from a personal communication with Jeffrey Van Davis, the creator of the film. I wrote to Jeffrey and asked permission to post the following lightly edited version (removing some of the comments that pertained to the person who posted it to the list), because I thought it might be of interest to others. (I have not seen the film.)
April 10, 2010
I woke up this morning with an odd tweet in my head: Just about everything in the universe is bigger than we are.
I didn’t tweet it because it’s false: There’s an awful lot of dust in the universe. But I was pleasantly surprised to find (via Leiter Reports) an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, by Samuel Newlands, sort of on that topic. It’s about Haiti, Leibniz, and the problem of evil.
The problem of evil is the philosophical way of referring to the fact that an awful lot of bad sh*t happens to innocent people for a world supposedly watched over by a benevolent deity. Traditionally, there are a number of ways to resolve the problem. You can say that people get what they deserve, so that what looks unfair in fact is not. That’s a little hard to square with the death of babies, but people have certainly tried. Then there are the big three properties of G-d: All powerful, all knowing, all loving. Take away one of those three, and you can explain why bad things happen to good people: G-d is powerless to prevent it (Leibniz’s answer, in a clever form), G-d can’t predict it, or G-d just doesn’t care.
If I were to believe in a god, I think the only one I could muster up any loyalty to would be one who created us but not the universe. The Earth looked like a good place to plant us, so the Deity set us down carefully, gave us some useful texts to get us started, and then left us on our own.
Beyond that, it’s a mystery to me. But, then, it’s supposed to be a mystery. After all, most of the universe is bigger than we are.
Categories: philosophy Tagged with: atheism • haiti • leibniz • philosophy • religion
Date: April 10th, 2010 dw
January 26, 2010
Julie Cohen is giving a Berkman lunch on “configuring the networked self.” She’s working on a book that “explores the effects of expanding copyright, pervasive surveillance, and the increasingly opaque design of network architectures in the emerging networked information society.” She’s going to talk about a chapter that “argues that “access to knowledge” is a necessary but insufficient condition for human flourishing, and adds two additional conditions.” (Quotes are from the Berkman site.) [NOTE: Ethan Zuckerman's far superior livebloggage is here.]
The book is motivated by two observations of the discourse around the Net, law, and policy in the U.S.
1. We make grandiose announcements about designing infrastructures that enable free speech and free markets, but at the end of the day, many of the results are antithetical to the interests of the individuals in that space by limiting what they can do with the materials they encounter.
2. There’s a disconnect between the copyright debate and the privacy debate. The free culture debate is about openness, but that can make it hard to reconcile privacy claims. We discuss these issues within a political framework with assumptions about autonomous choice made by disembodied individuals…a worldview that doesn’t have much to do with reality, she says. It would be better to focus on the information flows among embodied, real people who experience the network as mediated by devices and interfaces. The liberal theory framework doesn’t give us good tools. E.g., it treats individuals as separate from culture.
Julie says lots of people are asking these questions. They just happen not to be in legal studies. One purpose of her book is to unpack post modern literature to see how situated, embodied users of networks experience technology, and to see how that affects information law and policy. Her normative framework is informed by Martha Nussbaum‘s ideas about human flourishing: How can information law and policy help human flourishing by providing information to information and knowledge? Intellectual property laws should take this into account, she says. But, she says, this has been situated within the liberal tradition, which leads to indeterminate results. You lend it content by looking at the post modern literature that tells us important things about the relationship between self and culture, self and community, etc. By knowing how those relationships work, you can give content to human flourishing, which informs which laws and policies we need.
[I'm having trouble hearing her. She's given two "political reference points," but I couldn't hear either. :(]
[I think one of them is everyday practice.] Everyday practice is not linear, often not animated by overarching strategies.
The third political reference point is play. Play is an important concept, but the discussion of intentional play needs to be expanded to include “the play of circumstances.” Life puts random stuff in your way. That type of play is often the actual source of creativity. We should be seeking to foster play in our information policy; it is a structural condition of human flourishing.
Access to knowledge isn’t enough to supply a base for human flourishing because it doesn’t get you everything you need, e.g., right to re-use works. We also need operational transparency: We need to know how these digital architectures work. We need to know how the collected data will be used. And we also need semantic discontinuity: Formal incompleteness in legal and technical infrastructures. E.g., wrt copyright to reuse works you shouldn’t have to invoke a legal defense such as fair use; there should be space left over for play. E.g., in privacy, rigid arbitrary rules against transacting and aggregating personal data so that there is space left over for people to play with identity. E.g., in architecture, question the norm that seamless interoperability makes life better, because it means that data about you moves around without your having the ability to stop it. E.g., interoperability among social networks changes the nature of social networks. We need some discontinuity for flourishing.
Q: People need the freedom to have multiple personas. We need more open territory.
Q: [charlie nesson] How do you create this space of playfulness when it comes to copyright?
JPalfrey asks CNesson what he thinks. Charlie says that having to assert fair use, to fend off lawsuits, is wrong. Fair uyse ought to be the presumption.
Q: [csandvig] Fascinating. The literature that lawyers denigrate as pomo makes me think of a book by an anthropologist and sociologist called “The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach.” It’s about embodied, local, enculturated understanding of the Net. Their book was about Trinidad, arguing that if you’re in Trinidad, the Net is one thing, and if you’re not, it’s another thing. And, they say, we need many of these cultural understandings. But it hasn’t happened. Can you say more about the lit you referred to?
A: [I missed salil's question; sorry] We could build a system of randomized incompatibilities, but there’s value in having them emerge otherwise than by design, and there’s value to not fixing some of the ones that exist in the world. The challenge is how to design gaps.
Q: [me] I used to be a technodeterminist; I recognize the profound importance of cultural understandings/experience. So, the Internet is different in Trinidad than in Beijing or Cambridge. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking that some experiences of the Net are important and cross cultural, e.g., that Ideas are linked, there’s lots to see, people disagree, people like me can publish, etc.
A: Network space changes based on what networks can do. 200 yrs ago, you wouldn’t have said PAris is closer to NY than Williamsburg VA, but today you might because lots of people go NY – Paris.
Q: [doc] You use geographic metaphors. Much of the understanding of the Net is based on plumbing metaphors.
[Missed a couple of questions]
A: Any good educator will have opinions about how certain things are best reserved for closed environments, e.g., in-class discussions, what sorts of drafts to share with which other people, etc. There’s a value to questioning the assumption that everything ought to be open and shared.
Q: [wseltzer] Why is it so clear that it the Net isn’t plumbing? We make bulges in the pipe as spaces where we can be more private…
Q: [jpalfrey] You’re saying that much of what we take as apple pie is in conflict, but that if we had the right toolset, we could make progress…
Categories: culture, infohistory Tagged with: 2b2k • architecture • ethics • flourishing • information • interoperable • law • philosophy • play • policy • privacy
Date: January 26th, 2010 dw
January 4, 2010
I’ve put Chapter 1 aside for two whole days after several weeks of compulsive daily writing and unwriting (usually in the other order). In the meantime I read Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia. I had skimmed it a couple of years ago, but this time I went through it more slowly because his caveats about group deliberation are important.
Infotopia follows up on his 2001 Republic.com, which famously worries about the formation of online “echo chambers” on the Net that causes people to become more extreme and less open in their views. Infotopia asks whether and how groups of people can learn and make good decisions. While Sunstein professes to be optimistic, the book reads pretty much like a catalog of how groups make themselves stupider. Worse, the book is evidence-based. There are a lot of studies that support him.
So, it’s directly relevant to the book I’m writing. I will undoubtedly draw upon it for both its warnings and its advice. The advice in fact seems to be to recognize what groups are good at and what they’re not, and to make sure diversity is encouraged and rewarded. (I am oversimplifying, of course.) No argument from me on those points!
I found the book useful for a couple of other reasons, too.
First, overall the book warns that deliberation is not always the best way to get to truth. Sunstein knows that he’s here arguing against deeply held Enlightenment beliefs and against some of the notions that founded this country.
Second, underneath that is a notion of knowledge that I think is being challenged; it’s the task of my book to try to figure out what that challenge actually is and what it does to our idea/ideal of knowledge. I hereby freely admit that I don’t have a good sense of what I’m driving at. But, I think the difference is between thinking (a) there is a realm of fixed and true knowledge (even if deliberation is not always the best tool for uncovering it); and (b) knowledge is always in contention and is never settled.
Now, let me add the qualifiers to that last point, because they are so broad that they may well obviate the point entirely. There is clearly a realm of facts about which one can be simply right or wrong. If that’s all we me mean by knowledge, then (a) is correct. But, if so, then knowledge isn’t nearly as elevated as we’ve thought it is. It’s just facts. As we go up a level from facts (and facts about facts may still be facts, so this is a confusing way of putting it), issues are more contentious and more important. I don’t know if we want to call that contentious realm “knowledge” in any sense, nor do I care very much. The picture of the world is different no matter what you call it: Either (a) the contention is an inferior, preparatory state that has value because knowledge emerges it, or (b) the contention is the normal, natural and inevitable condition of us humans, out of which some facty knowledge occasionally precipitates and becomes commoditized.
Or, in the terms that I have using when I think about this for myself, knowledge squeezes differences out, while networked knowledge works by including differences.
By the way, Sunstein also concludes that group deliberation works best if it includes differences. But his idea of working best is that it drives out differences and settles the issue. I am suggesting that knowledge includes differences. I’m just not sure that I’m right, that it’s an interesting point, or that it actually means anything at all.
I had the whole book plotted out carefully, but the first chapter changed things. So, I’m trying to figure out what goes in the next chapter. I think I have a rough idea now. I think I have to explain what it means to say that knowledge is becoming a property of networks, which means showing how traditional knowledge arises from the printed medium. Then I think I have to talk about what this does to experts and expertise. Which actually is fairly close to my original outline. Well what do you know!
I’m working on figuring out how to open the chapter. I have an idea but I have to review some notes first…
Categories: everythingIsMiscellaneous, experts, too big to know Tagged with: 2b2k • cass sunstein • echo chambers • enlightenment • philosophy • social networks
Date: January 4th, 2010 dw
November 11, 2009
I’ve been honored with one of Ethan Zuckerman’s incredible liveblog postings. I gave a 45 min talk at the Berkman Center yesterday. I spoke quickly, waved my hands a lot, and spewed. [Rough draft here.] Even so, Ethan was able to commit an amazing act of streaming journalism, with very few places where I would even quibble with his summary and analysis.
He posted it immediately after I spoke, which I can attest to because if you read it you would never think that it was an unedited draft. It’s too thoughtful and well-written for that. This is Ethan writing on the fly, not merely typing or transcribing. Amazing.
independent of all that, I am very fortunate to be able to call Ethan a close friend.
[Later that day: Here's the video of the webcast.]
Categories: culture, everythingIsMiscellaneous, infohistory, philosophy Tagged with: berkman • ethan zuckerman • ethanz • history of information • infohist • philosophy
Date: November 11th, 2009 dw
September 6, 2009
Terry Jones has an excellent post that lists the problems introduced by maintaining a hard distinction between metadata and data.
Terry cites Everything Is Miscellaneous (thanks, Terry), which argues that the distinction, which is hard-coded in the Age of Databases, becomes a merely functional difference in the Age of Messy Links: Metadata is what you know and data is what you’re looking for. For example, the year of a CD is metadata about the CD if you know the year a Bob Dylan CD came out but you don’t remember the title, and the title can be metadata if you know the title but want to find the year. And in both cases, it could all be metadata in your search for lyrics.
This is all very squishy and messy because the distinction is, as Terry says, artificial. It comes from thinking about experience as content that gets processed, as if we worked the way computers do. More exactly, it comes from thinking about experience as a set of Experience Atoms that then have to be assembled; metadata are the labels that tell you that Atom A goes into Atom Z. But experience is far more like language than like particle physics or Ikea assembly instructions. And that’s for a very good reason: linguistic creatures’ experience cannot be understood apart from language. Language doesn’t neatly separate into content and meta-content. It all comes together and it’s all intertwingled. Language is so very non-atomic that it makes atoms realize how lonely they’ve been.
That doesn’t mean that computer software that separates metadata from data is useless. Lord knows I love a good database. But it also means that computer software that can treat anything as metadata depending on what we’re trying to do opens up some interesting possibilities…
Categories: Uncategorized Tagged with: databases • everythingIsMiscellaneous • everything_is_miscellaneous • fluiddb • knowledge • language • metadata • philosophy
Date: September 6th, 2009 dw
July 19, 2009
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?
In short: Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links. Now our medium can.
Categories: Uncategorized Tagged with: digital culture • education • epistemology • everythingIsMiscellaneous • expertise • journalism • knowledge • media • objectivity • philosophy • science • transparency
Date: July 19th, 2009 dw
July 18, 2009
That’s a reasonable response (leaving out everything after the “despite”), but I think it’s fundamentally wrong, since it assumes there is a way to rank order legal minds. There isn’t, because there is no such order.
Look at the current Justices. You may be able to say that one particular Justice’s “legal mind” is not as good as the rest (“Judge So-and-So just isn’t up to snuff”), but there isn’t any real way to rank them in order (except perhaps by ow well their decisions accord with political sides). With heart surgeons, maybe you can look at the survival rates of their patients â€” and there are problems with that â€” but for judges, there aren’t criteria that result in a reliable, accurate, and agreed-upon quantitative ranking. Likewise, who would think there’s any sense in trying to numerically rank philosophers, historians, or chefs? You can see that a particular one isn’t in the top rank or is out of her league, but within that top rank, there isn’t a numeric ordering.
So, for nominees to the Supreme Court, the idea that we should take “the best legal minds” actually means that we should choose from among those who are highly qualified for the job. Since that class is far larger than nine, we get to choose our Justices based on many considerations, including the likely effect they’ll have on the political balance of the court and â€” yes â€” the likely effect they’ll have by bringing a diversity of experience and outlook. For the wisdom of a group is enhanced by including difference within it.
In fact, it would be interesting to see how the degree of qualification (based on whatever criteria one wants to suggest) going into the Court matches with the performance of the Justice over the course of her or his term.
Categories: misc Tagged with: diversity • everything_is_miscellaneous • misc • philosophy • sotomayor
Date: July 18th, 2009 dw
June 18, 2009
Yesterday, I was sitting in the comfy chair, waiting for the dentist to come back with a larger mallet, browsing around on my Blackberry (“Your Knothole to the Web!”). I settled on part 5 of Akma’s series on exegesis. I like Akma, I’m interested in how we interpret texts, Akma’s Christian perspective deeply respects its differences with others, Akma is a genuine scholar, and he is a lovely, funny writer. What could be bad? Nothin’ that doesn’t have the word “dentist” in it!
So, there I am, in a three-minute interstice. Before the Web, I’d have been contemplating my aching stub of a tooth. Now I’m getting to spend time with a wise friend talking about something I barely understand. It feels like the Web has made Time itself better.
Sure, I’m just as likely to have clicked on a link to some gossip or a joke. Telling you about Akma served my twin nefarious purposes of pointing you at his series on exegesis and making me sound smart by reference. But, while the Web is not ubiquitous, it’s worth remembering how wonderful it is to for those of us who have ubiquitous access to it. That’s all. Just a little moment of thanks.
Categories: misc Tagged with: digital culture • everything_is_miscellaneous • philosophy
Date: June 18th, 2009 dw