Digifesto

Category: academia

Horkheimer and Wiener

[I began writing this weeks ago and never finished it. I’m posting it here in its unfinished form just because.]

I think I may be condemning myself to irrelevance by reading so many books. But as I make an effort to read up on the foundational literature of today’s major intellectual traditions, I can’t help but be impressed by the richness of their insight. Something has been lost.

I’m currently reading Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) and Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason (1947). The former I am reading for the Berkeley School of Information Classics reading group. Norbert Wiener was one of the foundational mathematicians of 20th century information technology, a colleague of Claude Shannon. Out of his own sense of social responsibility, he articulated his predictions for the consequences of the technology he developed in Human Use. This work was the foundation of cybernetics, an influential school of thought in the 20th century. Terrell Bynum, in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Computer and Information Ethics“, attributes to Wiener’s cybernetics the foundation of all future computer ethics. (I think that the threads go back earlier, at least through to Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology.) It is hard to find a straight answer to the question of what happened to cybernetics?. By some reports, the artificial intelligence community cut their NSF funding in the 60’s.

Horkheimer is one of the major thinkers of the very influential Frankfurt School, the postwar social theorists at the core of intellectual critical theory. Of the Frankfurt School, perhaps the most famous in the United States is Adorno. Adorno is also the most caustic and depressed, and unfortunately much of popular critical theory now takes on his character. Horkheimer is more level-headed. Eclipse of Reason is an argument about the ways that philosophical empiricism and pragmatism became complicit in fascism. Here is an interested quotation.

It is very interesting to read them side by side. Published only a few years apart, Wiener and Horkheimer are giants of two very different intellectual traditions. There’s little reason to expect they ever communicated (a more thorough historian would know more). But each makes sweeping claims about society, language, and technology and contextualizes them in broader intellectual awareness of religion, history and science.

Horkheimer writes about how the collapse of the Enlightment project of objective reason has opened the way for a society ruled by subjective reason, which he characterizes as the reason of formal mathematics and scientific thinking that is neutral to its content. It is instrumental thinking in its purest, most rigorous form. His descriptions of it sound like gestures to what we today call “data science”–a set of mechanical techniques that we can use to analyze and classify anything, perfecting our understanding of technical probabilities towards whatever ends one likes.

I find this a more powerful critique of data science than recent paranoia about “algorithms”. It is frustrating to read something over sixty years old that covers the same ground as we are going over again today but with more composure. Mathematized reasoning about the world is an early 20th century phenomenon and automated computation a mid-20th century phenomenon. The disparities in power that result from the deployment of these tools were thoroughly discussed at the time.

But today, at least in my own intellectual climate, it’s common to hear a mention of “logic” with the rebuttal “whose logic?“. Multiculturalism and standpoint epistemology, profoundly important for sensitizing researchers to bias, are taken to an extreme the glorifies technical ignorance. If the foundation of knowledge is in ones lived experience, as these ideologies purport, and one does not understand the technical logic used so effectively by dominant identity groups, then one can dismiss technical logic as merely a cultural logic of an opposing identity group. I experience the technically competent person as the Other and cannot perceive their actions as skill but only as power and in particular power over me. Because my lived experience is my surest guide, what I experience must be so!

It is simply tragic that the education system has promoted this kind of thinking so much that it pervades even mainstream journalism. This is tragic for reasons I’ve expressed in “objectivity is powerful“. One solution is to provide more accessible accounts of the lived experience of technicality through qualitative reporting, which I have attempted in “technical work“.

But the real problem is that the kind of formal logic that is at the foundation of modern scientific thought, including its most recent manifestation ‘data science’, is at its heart perfectly abstract and so cannot be captured by accounts of observed practices or lived experience. It is reason or thought. Is it disembodied? Not exactly. But at least according to constructivist accounts of mathematical knowledge, which occupy a fortunate dialectical position in this debate, mathematical insight is built from embodied phenomenological primitives but by their psychological construction are abstract. This process makes it possible for people to learn abstract principles such as the mathematical theory of information on which so much of the contemporary telecommunications and artificial intelligence apparatus depends. These are the abstract principles with which the mathematician Norbert Wiener was so intimately familiar.

Horkheimer, pragmatism, and cognitive ecology

In Eclipse of Reason, Horkheimer rips into the American pragmatists Peirce, James, and Dewey like nobody I’ve ever read. Normally seen as reasonable and benign, Horkheimer paints these figures as ignorant and undermining of the whole social order.

The reason is that he believes that they reduce epistemology to a kind a instrumentalism. But that’s selling their position a bit short. Dewey’s moral epistemology is pragmatist in that it is driven by particular, situated interests and concerns, but these are ingredients to moral inquiry and not conclusions in themselves.

So to the extent that Horkheimer is looking to dialectic reason as the grounds to uncovering objective truths, Dewey’s emphasis on the establishing institutions that allow for meaningful moral inquiry seems consistent with Horkheimer’s view. The difference is in whether the dialectics are trancendental (as for Kant) or immanent (as for Hegel?).

The tension around objectivity in epistemology that comes up in the present academic environment is that all claims to objectivity are necessarily situated and this situatedness is raised as a challenge to their objective status. If the claims or their justification depend on conditions that exclude some subjects (as they no doubt do; whether or not dialectical reason is transcendental or immanent is requires opportunities for reflection that are rare–privileged), can these conclusions be said to be true for all subjects?

The Friendly AI research program more or less assumes that yes, this is the case. Yudkowsky’s notion of Coherent Extrapolated Volition–the position arrived at by simulated, idealized reasoners, is a 21st century remake of Peirce’s limiting consensus of the rational. And yet the cry from standpoint theorists and certain anthropologically inspired disciplines is a recognition of the validity of partial perspectives. Haraway, for example, calls for an alliance of partial perspectives. Critical and adversarial design folks appear to have picked up this baton. Their vision is of a future of constantly vying (“agonistic”) partiality, with no perspective presuming to be settled, objective or complete.

If we make cognitivist assumptions about the computationality of all epistemic agents, then we are forced to acknowledge the finiteness of all actually existing reasoning. Finite capacity and situatedness become two sides of the same coin. Partiality, then, becomes a function of both ones place in the network (eccentricity vs. centrality) as well as capacity to integrate information from the periphery. Those locations in the network most able to valuably integrate information, whether they be Google’s data centers or the conversational hubs of research universities, are more impartial, more objective. But they can never be the complete system. Because of their finite capacity, their representations can at best be lossy compressions of the whole.

Horkheimer dreams of an objective truth obtainable by a single subject through transcendental dialectic. Perhaps he thinks this is unattainable today (I have to read on). But if there’s hope in this vision, it seems to me it must come from one of two possibilities:

  • The fortuitously fractal structure of the sociotechnical world such that an adequate representation of it can be maintained in its epistemic hubs through quining, or
  • A generative grammar or modeling language of cognitive ecology such that we can get insights into the larger interactive system from toy models, and apply these simplified models pragmatically in specific cases. For this to work and not suffer the same failures as theoretical economics, these models need to have empirical content. Something like Wolpert, Lee, and Bono’s Predictive Game Theory (for which I just discovered they’ve released a Python package…cool!) may be critical here.

Eclipse of Reason

I’m starting to read Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason. I have had high hopes for it and have not been disappointed.

The distinction Horkheimer draws in the first section, “Means and Ends”, is between subjective reason and objective reason.

Subjective reason is the kind of reasoning that is used to most efficiently achieve ones goals, whatever they are. Writing even as early as 1947, Horkheimer notes that subjective reason has become formalized and reduced to the computation of technical probabilities. He is referring to the formalization of logic in the Anglophone tradition by Russell and Whitehead and its use in early computer science, most likely. (See Imre Lakatos and programming as dialectic for more background on this, as well as resonant material on where this is going)

Objective reason is, within a simple “means/ends” binary, most simply described as the reasoning of ends. I am not very far through the book and Horkheimer is so far unspecific about what this entails in practice but instead articulates it as an idea that has fallen out of use. He associates it with Platonic forms. With logos–a word that becomes especially charged for me around Christmas and whose religious connotations are certainly intertwined with the idea of objectivity. Since it is objective and not bound to a particular subject, the rationality of correct ends is the rationality of the whole world or universe, it’s proper ordering or harmony. Humanity’s understanding of it is not a technical accomplishment so much an achievement of revelation or wisdom achieved–and I think this is Horkheimer’s Hegelian/Marxist twist–dialectically.

Horkheimer in 1947 believes that subjective reason, and specifically its formalization, have undermined objective reason by exposing its mythological origins. While we have countless traditions still based in old ideologies that give us shared values and norms simply out of habit, they have been exposed as superstition. And so while our ability to achieve our goals has been amplified, our ability to have goals with intellectual integrity has hollowed out. This is a crisis.

One reason this is a crisis is because (to paraphrase) the functions once performed by objectivity or authoritarian religion or metaphysics are now taken on by the reifying apparatus of the market. This is a Marxist critique that is apropos today.

It is not hard to see that Horkheimer’s critique of “formalized subjective reason” extends to the wide use of computational statistics or “data science” in the vast ways it is now. Moreover, it’s easy to see how the “Internet of Things” and everything else instrumented–the Facebook user interface, this blog post, everything else–participates in this reifying market apparatus. Every critique of the Internet and the data economy from the past five years has just been a reiteration of Horkheimer, whose warning came loud and clear in the 40’s.

Moreover, the anxieties of the “apocalyptic libertarians” of Sam Franks article, the Less Wrong theorists of friendly and unfriendly Artificial intelligence, are straight out of the old books of the Frankfurt School. Ironically, todays “rationalists” have no awareness of the broader history of rationality. Rather, their version of rationality begins with Von Neummann, and ends with two kinds of rationality, “epistemic rationality”, about determining correct beliefs, and “instrumental rationality”, about correctly reaching ones ends. Both are formal and subjective, in Horkheimer’s analysis; they don’t even have a word for ‘objective reason’, it has so far fallen away from their awareness of what is intellectually possible.

But the consequence is that this same community lives in fear of the unfriendly AI–a superintelligence driven by a “utility function” so inhuman that it creates a dystopia. Unarmed with the tools of Marxist criticism, they are unable to see the present economic system as precisely that inhuman superintelligence, a monster bricolage of formally reasoning market apparati.

For Horkheimer (and I’m talking out of my butt a little here because I haven’t read enough of the book to really know; I’m going on some context I’ve read up on early) the formalization and automation of reason is part of the problem. Having a computer think for you is very different from actually thinking. The latter is psychologically transformative in ways that the former is not. It is hard for me to tell whether Horkheimer would prefer things to go back the way they were, or if he thinks that we must resign ourselves to a bleak inhuman future, or what.

My own view, which I am worried is deeply quixotic, is that a formalization of objective reason would allow us to achieve its conditions faster. You could say I’m a logos-accelerationist. However, if the way to achieve objective reason is dialectically, then this requires a mathematical formalization of dialectic. That’s shooting the moon.

This is not entirely unlike the goals and position of MIRI in a number of ways except that I think I’ve got some deep intellectual disagreements about their formulation of the problem.

Reflecting on “Technoscience and Expressionism” by @FractalOntology

I’ve come across Joseph Weissman’s (@FractalOntology) “Technoscience and Expressionism” and am grateful for it, as its filled me in on a philosophical position that I missed the first time around, accelerationism. I’m not a Deleuzian and prefer my analytic texts to plod, so I can’t say I understood all of the essay. On the other hand, I gather the angle of this kind of philosophizing is intentionally psychotherapeutic and hence serves and artistic/literary function rather than one that explicitly guides praxis.

I am curious about the essay because I would like to see a thorough analysis of the political possibilities for the 21st century that gets past 20th century tropes. The passions of journalistic and intellectual debate have an atavistic tendency due to a lack of imagination that I would like to avoid in my own life and work.

Accelerationism looks new. It was pronounced in a manifesto, which is a good start.

Here is a quote from it:

Democracy cannot be defined simply by its means — not via voting, discussion, or general assemblies. Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-​mastery. This is a project which must align politics with the legacy of the Enlightenment, to the extent that it is only through harnessing our ability to understand ourselves and our world better (our social, technical, economic, psychological world) that we can come to rule ourselves. We need to posit a collectively controlled legitimate vertical authority in addition to distributed horizontal forms of sociality, to avoid becoming the slaves of either a tyrannical totalitarian centralism or a capricious emergent order beyond our control. The command of The Plan must be married to the improvised order of The Network.

Hell yeah, the Enlightenment! Sign me up!

The manifesto calls for an end to the left’s emphasis on local action, transparency, and direct democracy. Rather, it calls for a muscular hegemonic left that fully employs and deploys “technoscience”.

It is good to be able to name this political tendency and distinguish it from other left tendencies. It is also good to distinguish it from “right accelerationism”, which Weissman identifies with billionaires who want to create exurb communities.

A left-accelerationist impulse is today playing out dramatically against a right-accelerationist one. And the right-accelerationists are about as dangerous as you may imagine. With silicon valley VCs, and libertarian technologists more generally reading Nick Land on geopolitical fragmentation, the reception or at least receptivity to hard-right accelerants seems problematically open (and the recent $2M campaign proposing the segmentation of California into six microstates seems to provide some evidence for this.) Billionaires consuming hard-right accelerationist materials arguing for hyper-secessionism undoubtedly amounts to a critically dangerous situation. I suspect that the right-accelerationist materials, perspectives, affect, energy expresses a similar shadow, if it is not partly what is catalyzing the resurgence of micro-fascisms elsewhere (and macro ones as well — perhaps most significant to my mind here is the overlap of right-acceleration with white nationalism, and more generally what is deplorably and disingenuously called “race realism” — and is of course simply racism; consider Marine le Pen’s fascist front, which recently won 25% of the seats in the French parliament, UKIP’s resurgence in Great Britain; while we may not hear accelerationist allegiances and watchwords explicitly, the political implications and continuity is at the very least somewhat unsettling…)

There is an unfortunate conflation of several different points of view here. It is too easy to associate racism, wealth, and libertarianism as these are the nightmares of the left’s political imagination. If ideological writing is therapeutic, a way of articulating ones dreams, then this is entirely appropriate with a caveat. The caveat being that every nightmare is a creation of ones own psychology more so than a reflection of the real world.

The same elisions are made by Sam Frank in his recent article thematizing Silicon Valley libertarianism, friendly artificial intelligence research, and contemporary rationalism as a self-help technique. There are interesting organizational ties between these institutions that are validly worth investigating but it would be lazy to collapse vast swathes of the intellectual spectrum into binaries.

In March 2013 I wrote about the Bay Area Rationalists:

There is a good story here, somewhere. If I were a journalist, I would get in on this and publish something about it, just because there is such a great opportunity for sensationalist exploitation.

I would like to say “I called it”–Sam Frank has recently written just such a sensationalist, exploitative piece in Harper’s Magazine. It is thoroughly enjoyable and I wouldn’t say it’s inaccurate. But I don’t think this is the best way to get to know these people. A better one is to attend a CFAR workshop. It used to be that you could avoid the fee with a promise to volunteer, but that there was a money-back guarantee which extended to ones promise to volunteer. If that’s still the case, then one can essentially attend for free.

Another way to engage this community intellectually, which I would encourage the left accelerationists to do because it’s interesting, is to start participating on LessWrong. For some reason this community is not subject to ideological raids like so many other community platforms. I think it could stand for an influx of Deleuze.

Ultimately the left/right divide comes down to a question of distribution of resources and/or surplus. Left accelerationist tactics appear from here to be a more viable way of seizing resources than direct democracy. However, the question is whether accelerationist tactics inevitably result in inequalities that create control structures of the kind originally objected to. In other words, this may simply be politics as usual and nothing radical at all.

So there’s an intersection between these considerations (accelerationist vs. … decelerationism? Capital accumulation vs. capital redistribution?) and the question of decentralization of decision-making process (is that the managerialism vs. multistakeholderism divide?) whose logic is unclear to me. I want to know which affinities are necessary and which are merely contingent.

Discourse theory of law from Habermas

There has been at least one major gap in my understanding of Habermas’s social theory which I’m just filling now. The position Habermas reaches towards the end of Theory of Communicative Action vol 2 and develops further in later work in Between Facts and Norms (1992) is the discourse theory of law.

What I think went on is that Habermas eventually gave up on deliberative democracy in its purest form. After a career of scholarship about the public sphere, the ideal speech situation, and communicative action–fully developing the lifeworld as the ground for legitimate norms–but eventually had to make a concession to “the steering media” of money and power as necessary for the organization of society at scale. But at the intersection between lifeworld and system is law. Lawserves as a transmission belt between legitimate norms established by civil society and “system”; at it’s best it is both efficacious and legitimate.

Law is ambiguous; it can serve both legitimate citizen interests united in communicative solidarity. It can also serve strong powerful interests. But it’s where the action is, because it’s where Habermas sees the ability for lifeworld to counter-steer the whole political apparatus towards legitimacy, including shifting the balance of power between lifeworld and system.

This is interesting because:

  • Habermas is like the last living heir of the Frankfurt School mission and this is a mature and actionable view nevertheless founded in the Critical Theory tradition.
  • If you pair it with Lessig’s Code is Law thesis, you get a framework for thinking about how technical mediation of civil society can be legitimate but also efficacious. I.e., code can be legitimized discoursively through communicative action. Arguably, this is how a lot of open source communities work, as well as standards bodies.
  • Thinking about managerialism as a system of centralized power that provides a framework of freedoms within it, Habermas seems to be presenting an alternative model where law or code evolves with the direct input of civil stakeholders. I’m fascinated by where Nick Doty’s work on multistakeholderism in the W3C is going and think there’s an alternative model in there somewhere. There’s a deep consistency in this, noted a while ago (2003) by Froomkin but largely unacknowledged as far as I can tell in the Data and Society or Berkman worlds.

I don’t see in Habermas anything about funding the state. That would mean acknowledging military force and the power to tax. But this is progress for me.

References

Zurn, Christopher. “Discourse theory of law”, in Jurgen Habermas: Key Concepts, edited by Barbara Fultner

Some research questions

Last week was so interesting. Some weeks you just get exposed to so many different ideas that it’s trouble to integrate them. I tried to articulate what’s been coming up as a result. It’s several difficult questions.

  • Assuming trust is necessary for effective context management, how does one organize sociotechnical systems to provide social equity in a sustainable way?
  • Assuming an ecology of scientific practices, what are appropriate selection mechanisms (or criteria)? Are they transcendent or immanent?
  • Given the contradictory character of emotional reality, how can psychic integration occur without rendering one dead or at least very boring?
  • Are there limitations of the computational paradigm imposed by data science as an emerging pan-constructivist practice coextensive with the limits of cognitive or phenomenological primitives?

Some notes:

  • I think that two or three of these questions above may be in essence the same question. In that they can be formalized into the same mathematical problem, and the solution is the same in each case.
  • I really do have to read Isabelle Stengers and Nancy Nersessian. Based on the signals I’m getting, they seem to be the people most on top of their game in terms of understanding how science happens.
  • I’ve been assuming that trust relations are interpersonal but I suppose they can be interorganizational as well, or between a person and an organization. This gets back to a problem I struggle with in a recurring way: how do you account for causal relationships between a macro-organism (like an organization or company) and a micro-organism? I think it’s when there are entanglements between these kinds of entities that we are inclined to call something an “ecosystem”, though I learned recently that this use of the term bothers actual ecologists (no surprise there). The only things I know about ecology are from reading Ulanowicz papers, but those have been so on point and beautiful that I feel I can proceed with confidence anyway.
  • I don’t think there’s any way to get around having at least a psychological model to work with when looking at these sorts of things. A recurring an promising angle is that of psychic integration. Carl Jung, who has inspired clinical practices that I can personally vouch for, and Gregory Bateson both understood the goal of personal growth to be integration of disparate elements. I’ve learned recently from Turner’s The Democratic Surround that Bateson was a more significant historical figure than I thought, unless Turner’s account of history is a glorification of intellectuals that appeal to him, which is entirely possible. Perhaps more importantly to me, Bateson inspired Ulanowicz, and so these theories are compatible; Bateson was also a cyberneticist following Wiener, who was prescient and either foundational to contemporary data science or a good articulator of its roots. But there is also a tie-in to constructivist epistemology. DiSessa’s epistemology, building on Piaget but embracing what he calls the computational metaphor, understands the learning of math and physics as the integration of phenomenological primitives.
  • The purpose of all this is ultimately protocol design.
  • This does not pertain directly to my dissertation, though I think it’s useful orienting context.

objectivity is powerful

Like “neoliberal”, “objectivity” in contemporary academic discourse is only used as a term of disparagement. It has fallen out of fashion to speak about “objectivity” in scientific language. It remains in fashion to be critical of objectivity in those disciplines that have been criticizing objectivity since at least the 70’s.

This is too bad because objectivity is great.

The criticism goes like this: scientists and journalists both used to say that they were being objective. There was a lot to this term. It could mean ‘disinterested’ or it could mean so rigorous as to be perfectly inter-subjective. It sounded good. But actually, all the scientists and journalists who claimed to be objective were sexist, racist, and lapdogs of the bourgeoisie. They used ‘objectivity’ as a way to exclude those who were interested in promoting social justice. Hence, anyone who claims to be objective is suspicious.

There are some more sophisticated arguments than this but their sophistication only weakens the main emotional thrust of the original criticism. The only reason for this sophistication is to be academically impressive, which is fundamentally useless, or to respond in good faith to criticisms, which is politically unnecessary and probably unwise.

Why is it unwise to respond in good faith to criticisms of a critique of objectivity? Because to concede that good faith response to criticism is epistemically virtuous would be to concede something to the defender of objectivity. Once you start negotiating with the enemy in terms of reasons, you become accountable to some kind of shared logic which transcends your personal subjectivity, or the collective subjectivity of those whose perspectives are channeled in your discourse.

In a world in which power is enacted and exerted through discourse, and in which cultural logics are just rules in a language game provisionally accepted by players, this rejection of objectivity is true resistance. The act of will that resists logical engagement with those in power will stymie that power. It’s what sticks it to the Man.

The problem is that however well-intentioned this strategy may be, it is dumb.

It is dumb because as everybody knows, power isn’t exerted mainly through discourse. Power is exerted through violence. And while it may be fun to talk about “cultural logics” if you are a particular kind of academic, and even fun to talk about how cultural logics can be violent, that is vague metaphorical poetry compared to something else that they could be talking about. Words don’t kill people. Guns kill people.

Put yourself in the position of somebody designing and manufacturing guns. What do you talk about with your friends and collaborators? If you think that power is about discourse, then you might think that these people talk about their racist political agenda, wherein they reproduce the power dynamics that they will wield to continue their military dominance.

They don’t though.

Instead what they talk about is the mechanics of how guns work and the technicalities of supply chain management. Where are they importing their gunpowder from and how much does it cost? How much will it go boom?

These conversations aren’t governed by “cultural logics.” They are governed by logic. Because logic is what preserves the intersubjective validity of their claims. That’s important because to successful build and market guns, the gun has to go boom the same amount whether or not the person being aimed at shares your cultural logic.

This is all quite grim. “Of course, that’s the point: objectivity is the language of violence and power! Boo objectivity!”

But that misses the point. The point is that it’s not that objectivity is what powerful people dupe people into believing in order to stay powerful. The point is that objectivity is what powerful people strive for in order to stay powerful. Objectivity is powerful in ways that more subjectively justified forms of knowledge are not.

This is not a popular perspective. There a number of reasons for this. One is that attain objective understanding is a lot of hard work and most people are just not up for it. Another is that there are a lot of people who have made their careers arguing for a much more popular perspective, which is that “objectivity” is associated with evil people and therefor we should reject it as an epistemic principal. There will always be an audience for this view, who will be rendered powerless by it and become the self-fulfilling prophecy of the demagogues who encourage their ignorance.

frustrations with machine ethics

It’s perhaps because of the contemporary two cultures problem of tech and the humanities that machine ethics is in such a frustrating state.

Today I read danah boyd’s piece in The Message about technology as an arbiter of fairness. It’s more baffling conflation of data science with neoliberalism. This time, the assertion was that the ideology of the tech industry is neoliberalism hence their idea of ‘fairness’ is individualist and against social fabric. It’s not clear what backs up these kinds of assertions. They are more or less refuted by the fact that industrial data science is obsessed with our network of ties for marketing reasons. If anybody understands the failure of the myth of the atomistic individual, it’s “tech folks,” a category boyd uses to capture, I guess, everyone from marketing people at Google to venture capitalists to startup engineers to IBM researchers. You know, the homogenous category that is “tech folks.”

This kind of criticism makes the mistake of thinking that a historic past is the right way to understand a rapidly changing present that is often more technically sophisticated than the critics understand. But critical academics have fallen into the trap of critiquing neoliberalism over and over again. One problem is that tech folks don’t spend a ton of time articulating their ideology in ways that are convenient for pop culture critique. Often their business models require rather sophisticated understandings of the market, etc. that don’t fit readily into that kind of mold.

What’s needed is substantive progress in computational ethics. Ok, so algorithms are ethically and politically important. What politics would you like to see enacted, and how do you go about implementing that? How do you do it in a way that attracts new users and is competitively funded so that it can keep up with the changing technology with which we use to access the web? These are the real questions. There is so little effort spent trying to answer them. Instead there’s just an endless series of op-ed bemoaning the way things continue to be bad because it’s easier than having agency about making things better.

more on algorithms, judgment, polarization

I’m still pondering the most recent Tufekci piece about algorithms and human judgment on Twitter. It prompted some grumbling among data scientists. Sweeping statements about ‘algorithms’ do that, since to a computer scientist ‘algorithm’ is about as general a term as ‘math’.

In later conversation, Tufekci clarified that when she was calling out the potential problems of algorithmic filtering of the Twitter newsfeed, she was speaking to the problems of a newsfeed curated algorithmically for the sake of maximizing ‘engagement’. Or ads. Or, it is apparent on a re-reading of the piece, new members. She thinks an anti-homophily algorithm would maybe be a good idea, but that this is so unlikely according to the commercial logic of Twitter to be a marginal point. And, meanwhile, she defends ‘human prioritizatin’ over algorithmic curation, despite the fact that homophily (not to mention preferential attachment) are arguable negative consequences of social system driven by human judgment.

I think inquiry into this question is important, but bound to be confusing to those who aren’t familiar in a deep way with network science, machine learning, and related fields. It’s also, I believe, helpful to have a background in cognitive science, because that’s a field which maintains that human judgment and computational systems are doing fundamentally commensurable kinds of work. When we think in sophisticated way about crowdsourced labor, we use this sort of thinking. We acknowledge, for example, that human brains are better at the computational task of image recognition, so then we employ Turkers to look at and label images. But those human judgments are then inputs to statistical proceses that verify and check those judgments against each other. Later, those determinations that result from a combination of human judgment and algorithmic processing could be used in a search engine–which returns answers to questions based on human input. Search engines, then, are also a way of combining human and purely algorithmic judgment.

What it comes down to is that virtually all of our interactions with the internet are built around algorithmic affordances. And these systems can be understood systematically if we reject the quantitative/qualitative divide at the ontological level. Reductive physicalism entails this rejection, but–and this is not to be underestated–pisses or alienates people who do qualitative or humanities research.

This is old news. C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures. The Science Wars. We’ve been through this before. Ironically, the polarization is algorithmically visible in the contemporary discussion about algorithms.*

The Two Cultures on Twitter?

It’s I guess not surprising that STS and cultural studies academics are still around and in opposition to the hard scientists. What’s maybe new is how much computer science now affects the public, and how the popular press appears to have allied itself with the STS and cultural studies view. I guess this must be because cultural anthropologists and media studies people are more likely to become journalists and writers, whereas harder science is pretty abstruse.

There’s an interesting conflation now from the soft side of the culture wars of science with power/privilege/capitalism that plays out again and again. I bump into it in the university context. I read about it all the time. Tufekci’s pessimism that the only algorihtmic filtering Twitter would adopt would be one that essentially obeys the logic “of Wall Street” is, well, sad. It’s sad that an unfortunate pairing that is analytically contingent is historically determined to be so.

But there is also something deeply wrong about this view. Of course there are humanitarian scientists. Of course there is a nuanced center to the science wars “debate”. It’s just that the tedious framing of the science wars has been so pervasive and compelling, like a commercial jingle, that it’s hard to feel like there’s an audience for anything more subtle. How would you even talk about it?

* I need to confess: I think there was some sloppiness in that Medium piece. If I had had more time, I would have done something to check which conversations were actually about the Tufekci article, and which were just about whatever. I feel I may have misrepresented this in the post. For the sake of accessibility or to make the point, I guess. Also, I’m retrospectively skittish about exactly how distinct a cluster the data scientists were, and whether its insularity might have been an artifact of the data collection method. I’ve been building out poll.emic in fits mainly as a hobby. I built it originally because I wanted to at last understand Weird Twitter’s internal structure. The results were interesting but I never got to writing them up. Now I’m afraid that the culture has changed so much that I wouldn’t recognize it any more. But I digress. Is it even notable that social scientists from different disciplines would have very different social circles around them? Is the generalization too much? And are there enough nodes in this graph to make it a significant thing to say about anything, really? There could be thousands of academic tiffs I haven’t heard about that are just as important but which defy my expectations and assumptions. Or is the fact that Medium appears to have endorsed a particular small set of public intellectuals significant? How many Medium readers are there? Not as many as there are Twitter users, by several orders of magnitude, I expect. Who matters? Do academics matter? Why am I even studying these people as opposed to people who do more real things? What about all the presumabely sane and happy people who are not pathologically on the Internet? Etc.

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