Digifesto

Robert Post on Data vs. Dignitary Privacy

I was able to see Robert Post present his article, “Data Privacy and Dignitary Privacy: Google Spain, the Right to Be Forgotten, and the Construction of the Public Sphere”, today. My other encounter with Post’s work was quite positive, and I was very happy to learn more about his thinking at this talk.

Post’s argument was based off of the facts of the Google Spain SL v. Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (“Google Spain”) case in the EU, which set off a lot of discussion about the right to be forgotten.

I’m not trained as a lawyer, and will leave the legal analysis to the verbatim text. There were some broader philosophical themes that resonate with topics I’ve discussed on this blog andt in my other research. These I wanted to note.

If I follow Post’s argument correctly, it is something like this:

  • According to EU Directive 95/46/EC, there are two kinds of privacy. Data privacy rules over personal data, establishing control and limitations on use of it. The emphasis is on the data itself, which is property reasoned about analogously to. Dignitary privacy is about maintaining appropriate communications between people and restricting those communications that may degrade, humiliate, or mortify them.
  • EU rules about data privacy are governed by rules specifying the purpose for which data is used, thereby implying that the use of this data must be governed by instrumental reason.
  • But there’s the public sphere, which must not be governed by instrumental reason, for Habermasian reasons. The public sphere is, by definition, the domain of communicative action, where actions must be taken with the ambiguous purpose of open dialogue. That is why free expression is constitutionally protected!
  • Data privacy, formulated as an expression of instrumental reason, is incompatible with the free expression of the public sphere.
  • The Google Spain case used data privacy rules to justify the right to be forgotten, and in this it developed an unconvincing and sloppy precedent.
  • Dignitary privacy is in tension with free expression, but not incompatible with it. This is because it is based not on instrumental reason, but rather on norms of communication (which are contextual)
  • Future right to be forgotten decisions should be made on the basis of dignitary privac. This will result in more cogent decisions.

I found Post’s argument very appealing. I have a few notes.

First, I had never made the connection between what Hildebrandt (2013, 2014) calls “purpose binding” in EU data protection regulation and instrumental reason, but there it is. There is a sense in which these purpose clauses are about optimizing something that is externally and specifically defined before the privacy judgment is made (cf. Tschantz, Datta, and Wing, 2012, for a formalization).

This approach seems generally in line with the view of a government as a bureaucracy primarily involved in maintaining control over a territory or population. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but in a literal way of considering control as feedback into a system that steers it to some end. I’ve discussed the pervasive theme of ‘instrumentality run amok’ in questions of AI superintelligence here. It’s a Frankfurt School trope that appears to have made its way in a subtle way into Post’s argument.

The public sphere is not, in Habermasian theory, supposed to be dictated by instrumental reason, but rather by communicative rationality. This has implications for the technical design of networked publics that I’ve scratched the surface of in this paper. By pointing to the tension between instrumental/purpose/control based data protection and the free expression of the public sphere, I believe Post is getting at a deep point about how we can’t have the public sphere be too controlled lest we lose the democratic property of self-governance. It’s a serious argument that probably should be addressed by those who would like to strengthen rights to be forgotten. A similar argument might be made for other contexts whose purposes seem to transcend circumscription, such as science.

Post’s point is not, I believe, to weaken these rights to be forgotten, but rather to put the arguments for them on firmer footing: dignitary privacy, or the norms of communication and the awareness of the costs of violating them. Indeed, the facts behind right to be forgotten cases I’ve heard of (there aren’t many) all seem to fall under these kinds of concerns (humiliation, etc.).

What’s very interesting to me is that the idea of dignitary privacy as consisting of appropriate communication according to contextually specific norms feels very close to Helen Nissenbaum’s theory of Contextual Integrity (2009), with which I’ve become very familiar in past year through my work with Prof. Nissenbaum. Contextual integrity posits that privacy is about adherence to norms of appropriate information flow. Is there a difference between information flow and communication? Isn’t Shannon’s information theory a “mathematical theory of communication”?

The question of whether and under what conditions information flow is communication and/or data are quite deep, actually. More on that later.

For now though it must be noted that there’s a tension, perhaps a dialectical one, between purposes and norms. For Habermas, the public sphere needs to be a space of communicative action, as opposed to instrumental reason. This is because communicative action is how norms are created: through the agreement of people who bracket their individual interests to discuss collective reasons.

Nissenbaum also has a theory of norm formation, but it does not depend so tightly on the rejection of instrumental reason. In fact, it accepts the interests of stakeholders as among several factors that go into the determination of norms. Other factors include societal values, contextual purposes, and the differentiated roles associated with the context. Because contexts, for Nissenbaum, are defined in part by their purposes, this has led Hildebrandt (2013) to make direct comparisons between purpose binding and Contextual Integrity. They are similar, she concludes, but not the same.

It would be easy to say that the public sphere is a context in Nissenbaum’s sense, with a purpose, which is the formation of public opinion (which seems to be Post’s position). Properly speaking, social purposes may be broad or narrow, and specially defined social purposes may be self-referential (why not?), and indeed these self-referential social purposes may be the core of society’s “self-consciousness”. Why shouldn’t there be laws to ensure the freedom of expression within a certain context for the purpose of cultivating the kinds of public opinions that would legitimize laws and cause them to adapt democratically? We could possibly make these frameworks more precise if we could make them a little more formal and could lose some of the baggage; that would be useful theory building in line with Nissenbaum and Post’s broader agendas.

A test of this perhaps more nuanced but still teleological (indeed, instrumental, but maybe actually more properly speaking pragmatic (a la Dewey), in that it can blend several different metaethical categories) is to see if one can motivate a right to be forgotten in a public sphere by appealing to the need for communicative action, thereby especially appropriate communication norms around it, and dignitary privacy.

This doesn’t seem like it should be hard to do at all.

References

Hildebrandt, Mireille. “Slaves to big data. Or are we?.” (2013).

Hildebrandt, Mireille. “Location Data, Purpose Binding and Contextual Integrity: What’s the Message?.” Protection of Information and the Right to Privacy-A New Equilibrium?. Springer International Publishing, 2014. 31-62.

Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press, 2009.

Post, Robert, Data Privacy and Dignitary Privacy: Google Spain, the Right to Be Forgotten, and the Construction of the Public Sphere (April 15, 2017). Duke Law Journal, Forthcoming; Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 598. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2953468 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2953468

Tschantz, Michael Carl, Anupam Datta, and Jeannette M. Wing. “Formalizing and enforcing purpose restrictions in privacy policies.” Security and Privacy (SP), 2012 IEEE Symposium on. IEEE, 2012.

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A short introduction to existentialism

I’ve been hinting that a different moral philosophical orientation towards technical design, one inspired by existentialism, would open up new research problems and technical possibilities.

I am trying to distinguish this philosophical approach from consequentialist approaches that aim for some purportedly beneficial change in objective circumstances and from deontological approaches that codify the rights and duties of people towards each other. Instead of these, I’m interested in a philosophy that prioritizes individual meaningful subjective experiences. While it is possible that this reduces to a form of consequentialism, because of the shift of focus from objective consequences to individual situations in the phenomenological sense, I will bracket that issue for now and return to it when the specifics of this alternative approach have been fleshed out.

I have yet to define existentialism and indeed it’s not something that’s easy to pin down. Others have done it better than I will ever do; I recommend for example the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the subject. But here is what I am getting at by use of the term, in a nutshell:

In the mid-19th century, there was (according to Badiou) a dearth of good philosophy due to the new prestige of positivism, on the one hand, and the high quality of poetry, on the other. After the death of Hegel, who claimed to have solved all philosophical problems through his phenomenology of Spirit and its corollary, the science of Logic, arts and sciences became independent of each other. And as it happens during such periods, the people (of Europe, we’re talking about now) became disillusioned. The sciences undermined Christian metanarratives that had previously given life its meaningful through the promise of a heavenly afterlife to those who lived according to moral order. There was what has been called by subsequent scholars a “nihilism crisis”.

Friedrich Nietzsche began writing and shaking things up by proposing a new radical form of individualism that placed self-enhancement over social harmony. An important line of argumentation showed that the moral assumptions of conventional philosophy in his day contained contradictions and false promises that would lead the believer to either total disorientation or life-negating despair. What was needed was an alternative, and Nietzsche began working on one. It made the radical step of not grounding morality in abolishing suffering (which he believed was a necessary part of life) but rather in life itself. In his conception, what was most characteristic of life was the will to power, which has been characterized (by Bernard Reginster, I believe) as a second-order desire to overcome resistance in the pursuit of other, first-order desires. In other words, Nietzsche’s morality is based on the principle that the greatest good in life is to overcome adversity.

Nietzsche is considered one of the fathers of existentialist thought (though he is also considered many other things, as he is a writer known for his inconsistency). Another of these foundational thinkers is Søren Kierkegaard. Now that I look him up, I see that his life falls within what Badiou characterizes” the “age of poets” and/or the darkp age of 19th century philosophy, and I wonder if Badiou would consider him an exception. A difficult thing about Kierkegaard in terms of his relevance to today’s secular academic debates is that he was explicitly and emphatically working within a Christian framework. Without going too far into it, it’s worth noting a couple things about his work. In The Sickness Unto Death (1849), Kierkegaard also deals with the subject of despair and its relationship to ones capabilities. For Kierkegaard, a person is caught between their finite (which means “limited” in this context) existence with all of its necessary limitations and their desire to transcend these limitations and attain the impossible, the infinite. In his terminology, he discusses the finite self and the infinite self, because his theology allows for the idea that there is an infinite self, which is God, and that the important philosophical crisis is about establishing ones relationship to God despite the limitations of ones situation. Whereas Nietzsche proposes a project of individual self-enhancement to approach what was impossible, Kierkegaard’s solution is a Christian one: to accept Jesus and God’s love as the bridge between infinite potential and ones finite existence. This is not a universally persuasive solution, though I feel it sets up the problem rather well.

The next great existentialist thinker, and indeed to one who promoted the term “existentialism” as a philosophical brand, is
Jean-Paul Sartre. However, I find Sartre uninspiring and will ignore his work for now.

On the other hand, Simone de Beauvoir, who was closely associated with Sartre, has one of the best books on ethics and the human condition I’ve ever read, the highly readable The Ethics of Ambiguity (1949), the Marxists have kindly put on-line for your reading pleasure. This work lays out the ethical agenda of existentialism in phenomenological terms that resonate well with more contemporary theory. The subject finds itself in a situation (cf. theories of situated learning common now in HCI), in a place and time and a particular body with certain capacities. What is within the boundaries of their conscious awareness and capacity for action is their existence, and they are aware that beyond the boundaries of their awareness is Being, which is everything else. And what the subject strives for is to expand their existence in being, subsuming it. One can see how this synthesizes the positions of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Where de Beauvoir goes farther is the demonstration of how one can start from this characterization of the human condition and derive from it an substantive ethics about how subjects should treat each other. It is true that the subject can never achieve the impossible of the infinite…alone. However, by investing themselves through their “projects”, subjects can extend themselves. And when these projects involve the empowerment of others, this allows a finite subject to extend themselves through a larger and less egoistic system of life.

De Beauvoirian ethics are really nice because they are only gently prescriptive, are grounded very closely in the individual’s subjective experience of their situation, and have social justice implications that are appealing to many contemporary liberal intellectuals without grounding these justice claims in resentment or zero-sum claims for reparation or redistribution. Rather, its orientation is the positive-sum, win-win relationship between the one who empowers another and the one being empowered. This is the relationship, not of master and slave, but of master and apprentice.

When I write about existentialism in design, I am talking about using an ethical framework similar to de Beauvoir’s totally underrated existentialist ethics and using them as principles for technical design.

References

Brown, John Seely, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid. “Situated cognition and the culture of learning.” Educational researcher 18.1 (1989): 32-42.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The ethics of ambiguity, tr. Citadel Press, 1948.

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press, 1991.

Subjectivity in design

One of the reason why French intellectuals have developed their own strange way of talking is because they have implicitly embraced a post-Heideggerian phenomenological stance which deals seriously with the categories of experience of the individual subject. Americans don’t take this sort of thing so seriously because our institutions have been more post-positivist and now, increasingly, computationalist. If post-positivism makes the subject of science the powerful bureaucratic institution able leverage statistically sound and methodologically responsible survey methodology, computationalism makes the subject of science the data analyst operating a cloud computing platform with data sourced from wherever. These movements are, probably, increasingly alienating to “regular people”, including humanists, who are attracted to phenomenology precisely because they have all the tools for it already.

To the extent that humanists are best informed about what it really means to live in the world, their position must be respected. It is really out of deference to the humble (or, sometimes, splendidly arrogant) representatives of the human subject as such that I have written about existentialism in design, which is really an attempt to ground technical design in what is philosophically “known” about the human condition.

This approach differs from “human centered design” importantly because human centered design wisely considers design to be an empirically rigorous task that demands sensitivity to the particular needs of situated users. This is wise and perfectly fine except for one problem: it doesn’t scale. And as we all know, the great and animal impulse of technology progress, especially today, is to develop the one technology that revolutionizes everything for everyone, becoming new essential infrastructure that reveals a new era of mankind. Human centered designers have everything right about design except for the maniacal ambition of it, without which it will never achieve technology’s paramount calling. So we will put it to one side and take a different approach.

The problem is that computationalist infrastructure projects, and by this I’m referring to the Googles, the Facebooks, the Amazons, Tencents, the Ali Babas, etc., are essentially about designing efficient machines and so they ultimately become about objective resource allocation in one sense or another. The needs of the individual subject are not as relevant to the designers h of these machines as are the behavioral responses of their users to their use interfaces. What will result in more clicks, more “conversions”? Asking users what they really want on the scale that it would affect actual design is secondary and frivolous when A/B s testing can optimize practical outcomes as efficiently as they do.

I do not mean to cast aspersions at these Big Tech companies by describing their operations so baldly. I do not share the critical perspective of many of my colleagues who write as if they have discovered, for the first time, that corporate marketing is hypocritical and that businesses are mercenary. This is just the way things are; what’s more, the engineering accomplishments involved are absolutely impressive and worth celebrating, as is the business management.

What I would like to do is propose that a technology of similar scale can be developed according to general principles that nevertheless make more adept use of what is known about the human condition. Rather than be devoted to cheap proxies of human satisfaction that address his or her objective condition, I’m proposing a service that delivers something tailored to the subjectivity of the user.

Alain Badiou and artificial intelligence

Last week I saw Alain Badiou speak at NYU on “Philosophy between Mathematics and Poetry”, followed by a comment by Alexander Galloway, and then questions fielded from the audience.

It was wonderful to see Badiou speak as ever since I’ve become acquainted with his work (which was rather recently, Summer of 2016) I have seen it as a very hopeful direction for philosophy. As perhaps implied by the title of his talk, Badiou takes mathematics very seriously, perhaps more seriously than most mathematicians, and this distinguishes him from many other philosophers for whom mathematics is somewhat of an embarrassment. There are few fields more intellectually rarified than mathematics, philosophy, and poetry, and yet somehow Badiou treats each fairly in a way that reflects how broader disciplinary and cultural divisions between the humanities and technical fields may be reconciled. (This connects to some of my work on Philosophy of Computational Social Science)

I have written a bit recently about existentialism in design only to falter at the actual definition of existentialism. While it would I’m sure be incorrect to describe Badiou as an existentialist, there’s no doubt that he represents the great so-called Continental philosophical tradition, is familiar with Heidegger and Nietzsche, and so on. I see certain substantive resonances between Badiou and other existentialist writers, though I think to make the comparison now would be putting the cart before the horse.

Badiou’s position, in a nutshell, is like this:

Mathematics is a purely demonstrative form of writing and thinking. It communicates by proof, and has a special kind of audience to it. It is a science. In particular it is a science of all the possible forms of multiplicity, which is the same thing as saying as it is the science of all being, or ontology.

Poetry, on the other hand, is not about being but rather about becoming. “Becoming” for Badiou is subjective: the conscious subject encounters something new, experiences a change, sees an unrealized potential. These are events, and perhaps the greatest contribution of Badiou is his formulation and emphasis on the event as a category. In reference to earlier works, the event might be when through Hegelian dialectic a category is sublated. It could also perhaps correspond to when existence overcomes being in de Beauvoir’s ethics (hence the connection to existentialism I’m proposing). Good poetry, in Badiou’s thought, shows how the things we experience can break out of the structures that objectify them, turning the (subjectively perceived) impossible into a new reality.

Poetry is also, perhaps because it is connected to realizing the impossible but perhaps just because it’s nice to listen to (I’m unclear on Badiou’s position on this point) is “seductive”, encouraging psychological connections to the speaker (such as transference) whether or not it’s “true”. Classically, poetry meant epic poems and tragic theater. It could be cinema today.

Philosophy has the problem that it has historically tried to be both demonstrative, like mathematics, and seductive, like poetry. It’s this impurity or tension that defines it. Philosophers need to know mathematics because it is ontology, but have to go beyond mathematics because their mission is to create events in subjectively experienced reality, which is historically situated, and therefore not merely a matter of mathematical abstraction. Philosophers are in the business of creating new forms of subjectivity, which is not the same as creating a new form of being.

I’m fine with all this.

Galloway made some comments I’m somewhat skeptical of, though I may not have understood them since he seems to build mostly on Deleuze and Lacan, who are two intellectual sources I’ve never gotten into. But Galloway’s idea is to draw a connection between the “digital”, with all of its connections to computing technology, algorithms, the Internet, etc., with Badiou’s understanding of the mathematical, and to connect the “analog”, which is not discretized like the digital, to poetry. He suggested that Badiou’s sense of mathematics was arithmetic and excluded the geometric.

I take this interpretation of Galloway’s as clever, but incorrect and uncharitable. It’s clever because it co-opts a great thinker’s work into the sociopolitical agenda of trying to bolster the cultural capital of the humanities against the erosion of algorithmic curation and diminution relative to the fortunes of technology industries. This has been the agenda of professional humanists for a long time and it is annoying (to me) but I suppose necessary for the maintenance of the humanities, which are important.

However, I believe the interpretation is incorrect and uncharitable to Badiou because though Badiou’s paradigmatic example of mathematics is set theory, he seems to have a solid enough grasp of Kurt Godel’s main points to understand that mathematics includes the great variety of axiomatic systems and these, absolutely, indisputably, include geometry and real analysis and all the rest. The fact that logical proof is a discrete process which can be reduced to and from Boolean logic and automated in an electric circuit is, of course, the foundational science of computation that we owe to Turing, Church, Von Neumann, and others. It’s for these reasons that the potential of computation is so impressive and imposing: it potentially represents all possible forms of being. There are no limits to AI, at least none based on these mathematical foundations.

There were a number of good questions from the audience which led Badiou to clarify his position. The Real is relational, it is for a subject. This distinguishes it from Being, which is never relational (though of course, there are mathematical theories of relations, and this would seem to be a contradiction in Badiou’s thought?) He acknowledges that a difficult question is the part of Being in the the real.

Meanwhile, the Subject is always the result of an event.

Physics is a science of the existing form of the real, as opposed to the possible forms. Mathematics describes the possible forms of what exists. So empirical science can discover which mathematical form is the one that exists for us.

Another member of the audience asked about the impossibility of communism, which was on point because Badiou has at times defended communism or argued that the purpose of philosophy is to bring about communism. He made the point that one could not mathematically disprove the possibility of communism.

The real question, I may be so bold as to comment afterwards, is whether communism can exist in our reality. Suppose that economics is like physics in that it is a science of the real as it exists for us. What if economics shows that communism is impossible in our reality?

Though it wasn’t quite made explicitly, here is the subtle point of departure Badiou makes from what is otherwise conventionally unobjectionable. He would argue, I believe, that the purpose of philosophy is to create a new subjective reality where the impossible is made real, and he doesn’t see this process as necessarily bounded by, say, physics in its current manifestation. There is the possibiliity of a new event, and of seizing that event, through, for example, poetry. This is the article of faith in philosophy, and in poets, that has established them as the last bastion against dehumanization, objectification, reification, and the dangers of technique and technology since at least Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology.

Which circles us back to the productive question: how would we design a technology that furthers this objective of creating new subjective realities, new events? This is what I’m after.

education and intelligibility

I’ve put my finger on the problem I’ve had with scholarly discourse about intelligibility over the years.

It is so simple, really.

Sometimes, some group of scholars, A, will argue that the work of another group of scholars, B, is unintelligible. Because it is unintelligible, it should not be trusted. Rather, it has to be held accountable to the scholars in A.

Typically, the scholars in B are engaged in some technical science, while the scholars in A are writers.

Scholars in B meanwhile say: well, if you want to understand what we do, then you could always take some courses in it. Here (in the modern day): we’ve made an on-line course which you can take if you want to understand what we do.

The existence of the on-line course or whatever other resources expressing the knowledge of B tend to not impress those in A. If A is persistent, they will come up with reasons why these resources are insufficient, or why there are barriers to people in A making proper use of those resources.

But ultimately, what A is doing is demanding that B make itself understood. What B is offering is education. And though some people are averse to the idea that some things are just inherently hard to understand, this is a minority opinion that is rarely held by, for example, those who have undergone arduous training in B.

Generally speaking, if everybody were educated in B, then there wouldn’t be so much of a reason for demanding its intelligibility. Education, not intelligibility, seems to be the social outcome we would really like here. Naturally, only people in B will really understand how to educate others in B; this leaves those in A with little to say except to demand, as a stopgap, intelligibility.

But what if the only way for A to truly understand B is for A to be educated by B? Or to educate itself in something essentially equivalent to B?

“To be great is to be misunderstood.”

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — `Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. –
Emerson, Self-Reliance

Lately in my serious scientific work again I’ve found myself bumping up against the limits of intelligibility. This time, it is intelligibility from within a technical community: one group of scientists who are, I’ve been advised, unfamiliar with another, different technical formalism. As a new entrant, I believe the latter would be useful to understand the domain of the former. But to do this, especially in the context of funders (who need to explain things to their own bosses in very concrete terms), would be unproductive, a waste of precious time.

Reminded by recent traffic of some notes I wrote long ago in frustration at Hannah Arendt, I found something apt about her comments. Science in the mode of what Kuhn calls “normal science” must be intelligible to itself and its benefactors. But that is all. It need not be generally intelligible to other scientists; it need not understand other scientists. It need only be a specialized and self-sustaining practice, a discipline.

Programming (which I still study) is actually quite different from science in this respect. Because software code is a medium used for communication by programmers, and software code is foremost interpreted by a compiler, one relates as a programmer to other programmers differently than the way scientists relate to other scientists. To some extent the productive formal work has moved over into software, leaving science to be less formal and more empirical. This is, in my anecdotal experience, now true even in the fields of computer science, which were once one of the bastions of formalism.

Arendt’s criticism of scientists, that should be politically distrusted because “they move in a world where speech has lost its power”, is therefore not precisely true because scientific operations are, certainly, mediated by language.

But this is normal science. Perhaps the scientists who Arendt distrusted politically were not normal scientists, but rather those sorts of scientists that were responsible for scientific revolutions. These scientist must not have used language that was readily understood by their peers, at least initially, because they were creating new concepts, new ideas.

Perhaps these kinds of scientists are better served by existentialism, as in Nietzsche’s brand, as an alternative to politics. Or by Emerson’s transcendentalism, which Sloterdijk sees as very spiritually kindred to Nietzsche but more balanced.

A quick recap: from political to individual reasoning about ends

So to recap:

Horkheimer warned in Eclipse of Reason that formalized subjective reason that optimizes means was going to eclipse “objective reason” about social harmony, the good life, the “ends” that really matter. Technical efficacy which is capitalism which is AI would expose how objective reason is based in mythology and so society would be senseless and miserable forever.

There was at one point a critical reaction against formal, technical reason that was called the Science Wars in the 90’s, but though it continues to have intellectual successors it is for the most part self-defeating and powerless. Technical reasoning is powerful because it is true, not true because it is powerful.

It remains an open question whether it’s possible to have a society that steers itself according to something like objective reason. One could argue that Habermas’s project of establishing communicative action as a grounds for legitimate pluralistic democracy was an attempt to show the possibility of objective reason after all. This is, for some reason, an unpopular view in the United States, where democracy is often seen as a way of mediating agonistic interests rather than finding common ones.

But Horkheimer’s Frankfurt School is just one particularly depressing and insightful view. Maybe there is some other way to go. For example, one could decide that society has always been disappointing, and that determining ones true “ends” is an individual, rather than collective, endeavor. Existentialism is one such body of work that posits a substantive moral theory (or at least works at one) that is distrustful of political as opposed to individual solutions.

Notes on Sloterdijk’s “Nietzsche Apostle”

Fascisms, past and future, are politically nothing than insurrections of energy-charged losers, who, for a time of exception, change the rules in order to appear as victors.
— Peter Sloterdijk, Nietzsche Apostle

Speaking of existentialism, today I finished reading Peter Sloterdijk’s Semiotext(e) issue, “Nietzsche Apostle”. A couple existing reviews can better sum it up than I can. These are just some notes.

Sloterdijk has a clear-headed, modern view of the media and cultural complexes around writing and situates his analysis of Nietzsche within these frames. He argues that Nietzsche created an “immaterial product”, a “brand” of individualism that was a “market maker” because it anticipated what people would crave when they realized they were allowed to want. He does this through a linguistic innovation: blatant self-aggrandizement on a level that had been previously taboo.

One of the most insightful parts of this analysis is Sloterdijk’s understanding of the “eulogistic function” of writing, something about which I have been naive. He’s pointing to the way writing increases its authority by referencing other authorities and borrowing some of their social capital. This was once done, in ancient times, through elaborate praises of kings and ancestors. There have been and continue to be (sub)cultures where references to God or gods or prophets or scriptures give a text authority. In the modern West among the highly educated this is no longer the case. However, in the academy citations of earlier scholars serves some of this function: citing a classic work still gives scholarship some gravitas, though I’ve noted this seems to be less and less the case all the time. Most academic work these days serves its ‘eulogistic function’ in a much more localized way of mutually honoring peers within a discipline and the still living and active professors who might have influence over ones hiring, grants, and/or tenure.

Sloterdijk’s points about the historical significance of Nietzsche are convincing, and he succeeds in building an empathetic case for the controversial and perhaps troubled figure. Sloterdijk also handles most gracefully the dangerous aspects of Nietzsche’s legacy, most notably when in a redacted and revised version his work was coopted by the Nazis. Partly through references to Nietzsche’s text and partly by illustrating the widespread phenomenon of self-serving redactionist uses of hallowed texts (he goes into depth about Jefferson’s bible, for example), he shows that any use of his work to support a movement of nationalist resentment is a blatant misappropriation.

Indeed, Sloterdijk’s discussion of Nietzsche and fascism is prescient for U.S. politics today (I’ve read this volume was based on a lecture in 2000). For Sloterdijk, both far right and far left politics are often “politics of resentment”, which is why it is surprisingly easy for people to switch from one side to the other when the winds and opportunities change. Nietzsche’s famously denounced “herd morality” as that system of morality that deplores the strong and maintains the moral superiority of the weak. In Nietzsche’s day, this view was represented by Christianity. Today, it is (perhaps) represented by secular political progressivism, though it may just as well be represented by those reactionary movements that feed on resentment towards coastal progressive elites. All these political positions that are based on arguments about who is entitled to what and who isn’t getting their fair share are the same for Sloterdijk’s Nietzsche. They miss the existential point.

Rather, Nietzsche advocates for an individualism that is free to pursue self-enhancement despite social pressures to the contrary. Nietzsche is anti-egalitarian, at least in the sense of not prioritizing equality for its own sake. Rather, he proposes a morality that is libertarian without any need for communal justification through social contract or utilitarian calculus. If there is social equality to be had, it is through the generosity of those who have excelled.

This position is bound to annoy the members of any political movement whose modus operandi is mobilization of resentful solidarity. It is a rejection of that motive and tactic in favor of more joyful and immediate freedom. It may not be universally accessible; it does not brand itself that way. Rather, it’s a lifestyle option for “the great”, and it’s left open who may self-identify as such.

Without judging its validity, it must be noted that it is a different morality than those based on resentment or high-minded egalitarianism.

Existentialism in Design: Comparison with “Friendly AI” research

Turing Test [xkcd]

I made a few references to Friendly AI research in my last post on Existentialism in Design. I positioned existentialism as an ethical perspective that contrasts with the perspective taken by the Friendly AI research community, among others. This prompted a response by a pseudonymous commenter (in a sadly condescending way, I must say) who linked me to a a post, “Complexity of Value” on what I suppose you might call the elite rationalist forum Arbital. I’ll take this as an invitation to elaborate on how I think existentialism offers an alternative to the Friendly AI perspective of ethics in technology, and particularly the ethics of artificial intelligence.

The first and most significant point of departure between my work on this subject and Friendly AI research is that I emphatically don’t believe the most productive way to approach the problem of ethics in AI is to consider the problem of how to program a benign Superintelligence. This is for reasons I’ve written up in “Don’t Fear the Reaper: Refuting Bostrom’s Superintelligence Argument”, which sums up arguments made in several blog posts about Nick Bostrom’s book on the subject. This post goes beyond the argument in the paper to address further objections I’ve heard from Friendly AI and X-risk enthusiasts.

What superintelligence gives researchers is a simplified problem. Rather than deal with many of the inconvenient contingencies of humanity’s technically mediated existence, superintelligence makes these irrelevant in comparison to the limiting case where technology not only mediates, but dominates. The question asked by Friendly AI researchers is how an omnipotent computer should be programmed so that it creates a utopia and not a dystopia. It is precisely because the computer is omnipotent that it is capable of producing a utopia and is in danger of creating a dystopia.

If you don’t think superintelligences are likely (perhaps because you think there are limits to the ability of algorithms to improve themselves autonomously), then you get a world that looks a lot more like the one we have now. In our world, artificial intelligence has been incrementally advancing for maybe a century now, starting with the foundations of computing in mathematical logic and electrical engineering. It proceeds through theoretical and engineering advances in fits and starts, often through the application of technology to solve particular problems, such as natural language processing, robotic control, and recommendation systems. This is the world of “weak AI”, as opposed to “strong AI”.

It is also a world where AI is not the great source of human bounty or human disaster. Rather, it is a form of economic capital with disparate effects throughout the total population of humanity. It can be a source of inspiring serendipity, banal frustration, and humor.

Let me be more specific, using the post that I was linked to. In it, Eliezer Yudkowsky posits that a (presumeably superintelligent) AI will be directed to achieve something, which he calls “value”. The post outlines a “Complexity of Value” thesis. Roughly, this means that the things that we want AI to do cannot be easily compressed into a brief description. For an AI to not be very bad, it will need to either contain a lot of information about what people really want (more than can be easily described) or collect that information as it runs.

That sounds reasonable to me. There’s plenty of good reasons to think that even a single person’s valuations are complex, hard to articulate, and contingent on their circumstances. The values appropriate for a world dominating supercomputer could well be at least as complex.

But so what? Yudkowsky argues that this thesis, if true, has implications for other theoretical issues in superintelligence theory. But does it address any practical questions of artificial intelligence problem solving or design? That it is difficult to mathematically specify all of values or normativity, and that to attempt to do so one would need to have a lot of data about humanity in its particularity, is a point that has been apparent to ethical philosophy for a long time. It’s a surprise or perhaps disappointment only to those who must mathematize everything. Articulating this point in terms of Kolmogorov complexity does not particularly add to the insight so much as translate it into an idiom used by particular researchers.

Where am I departing from this with “Existentialism in Design”?

Rather than treat “value” as a wholly abstract metasyntactic variable representing the goals of a superintelligent, omniscient machine, I’m approaching the problem more practically. First, I’m limiting myself to big sociotechnical complexes wherein a large number of people have some portion of their interactions mediated by digital networks and data centers and, why not, smartphones and even the imminent dystopia of IoT devices. This may be setting my work up for obsolescence, but it also grounds the work in potential action. Since these practical problems rely on much of the same mathematical apparatus as the more far-reaching problems, there is a chance that a fundamental theorem may arise from even this applied work.

That restriction on hardware may seem banal; but it’s a particular philosophical question that I am interested in. The motivation for considering existentialist ethics in particular is that it suggests new kinds of problems that are relevant to ethics but which have not been considered carefully or solved.

As I outlined in a previous post, many ethical positions are framed either in terms of consequentialism, evaluating the utility of a variety of outcomes, or deontology, concerned with the consistency of behavior with more or less objectively construed duties. Consequentialism is attractive to superintelligence theorists because they imagine their AI’s to have to ability to cause any consequence. The critical question is how to give it a specification the leads to the best or adequate consequences for humanity. This is a hard problem, under their assumptions.

Deontology is, as far as I can tell, less interesting to superintelligence theorists. This may be because deontology tends to be an ethics of human behavior, and for superintelligence theorists human behavior is rendered virtually insignificant by superintelligent agency. But deontology is attractive as an ethics precisely because it is relevant to people’s actions. It is intended as a way of prescribing duties to a person like you and me.

With Existentialism in Design (a term I may go back and change in all these posts at some point; I’m not sure I love the phrase), I am trying to do something different.

I am trying to propose an agenda for creating a more specific goal function for a limited but still broad-reaching AI, assigning something to its ‘value’ variable, if you will. Because the power of the AI to bring about consequences is limited, its potential for success and failure is also more limited. Catastrophic and utopian outcomes are not particularly relevant; performance can be evaluated in a much more pedestrian way.

Moreover, the valuations internalized by the AI are not to be done in a directly consequentialist way. I have suggested that an AI could be programmed to maximize the meaningfulness of its choices for its users. This is introducing a new variable, one that is more semantically loaded than “value”, though perhaps just as complex and amorphous.

Particular to this variable, “meaningfulness”, is that it is a feature of the subjective experience of the user, or human interacting with the system. It is only secondarily or derivatively an objective state of the world that can be evaluated for utility. To unpack in into a technical specification, we will require a model (perhaps a provisional one) of the human condition and what makes life meaningful. This very well may include such things as the autonomy, or the ability to make one’s own choices.

I can anticipate some objections along the lines that what I am proposing still looks like a special case of more general AI ethics research. Is what I’m proposing really fundamentally any different than a consequentialist approach?

I will punt on this for now. I’m not sure of the answer, to be honest. I could see it going one of two different ways.

The first is that yes, what I’m proposing can be thought of as a narrow special case of a more broadly consequentialist approach to AI design. However, I would argue that the specificity matters because of the potency of existentialist moral theory. The project of specify the latter as a kind of utility function suitable for programming into an AI is in itself a difficult and interesting problem without it necessarily overturning the foundations of AI theory itself. It is worth pursuing at the very least as an exercise and beyond that as an ethical intervention.

The second case is that there may be something particular about existentialism that makes encoding it different from encoding a consequentialist utility function. I suspect, but leave to be shown, that this is the case. Why? Because existentialism (which I haven’t yet gone into much detail describing) is largely a philosophy about how we (individually, as beings thrown into existence) come to have values in the first place and what we do when those values or the absurdity of circumstances lead us to despair. Existentialism is really a kind of phenomenological metaethics in its own right, one that is quite fluid and resists encapsulation in a utility calculus. Most existentialists would argue that at the point where one externalizes one’s values as a utility function as opposed to living as them and through them, one has lost something precious. The kinds of things that existentialism derives ethical imperatives from, such as the relationship between one’s facticity and transcendence, or one’s will to grow in one’s potential and the inevitability of death, are not the kinds of things a (limited, realistic) AI can have much effect on. They are part of what has been perhaps quaintly called the human condition.

To even try to describe this research problem, one has to shift linguistic registers. The existentialist and AI research traditions developed in very divergent contexts. This is one reason to believe that their ideas are new to each other, and that a synthesis may be productive. In order to accomplish this, one needs a charitably considered, working understanding of existentialism. I will try to provide one in my next post in this series.

“The Microeconomics of Complex Economies”

I’m dipping into The microeconomics of complex economies: Evolutionary, institutional, neoclassical, and complexity perspectives, by Elsner, Heinrich, and Schwardt, all professors at the University of Bremen.

It is a textbook, as one would teach a class from. It is interesting because it is self-consciously written as a break from neoclassical microeconomics. According to the authors, this break had been a long time coming but the last straw was the 2008 financial crisis. This at last, they claim, showed that neoclassical faith in market equilibrium was leaving something important out.

Meanwhile, “heterodox” economics has been maturing for some time in the economics blogosphere, while complex systems people have been interested in economics since the emergence of the field. What Elsner, Heinrich, and Schwardt appear to be doing with this textbook is providing a template for an undergraduate level course on the subject, legitimizing it as a discipline. They are not alone. They cite Bowles’s Microeconomics as worthy competition.

I have not yet read the chapter of the Elsner, Heinirch, and Schwardt book that covers philosophy of science and its relationship to the validity of economics. It looks from a glance at it very well done. But I wanted to note my preliminary opinion on the matter given my recent interest in Shapiro and Varian‘s information economics and their claim to be describing ‘laws of economics’ that provide a reliable guide to business strategy.

In brief, I think Shapiro and Varian are right: they do outline laws of economics that provide a reliable guide to business strategy. This is in fact what neoclassical economics is good for.

What neoclassical economics is not always great at is predicting aggregate market behavior in a complex world. It’s not clear if any theory could ever be good at predicting aggregate market behavior in a complex world. It is likely that if there were one, it would be quickly gamed by investors in a way that would render it invalid.

Given vast information asymmetries it seems the best one could hope for is a theory of the market being able to assimilate the available information and respond wisely. This is the Hayekian view, and it’s not mainstream. It suffers the difficulty that it is hard to empirically verify that a market has performed optimally given that no one actor, including the person attempting the verify Hayekian economic claims, has all the information to begin with. Meanwhile, it seems that there is no sound a priori reason to believe this is the case. Epstein and Axtell (1996) have some computational models where they test when agents capable of trade wind up in an equilibrium with market-clearing prices and in their models this happens under only very particular an unrealistic conditions.

That said, predicting aggregate market outcomes is a vastly different problem than providing strategic advice to businesses. This is the point where academic critiques of neoclassical economics miss the mark. Since phenomena concerning supply and demand, pricing and elasticity, competition and industrial organization, and so on are part of the lived reality of somebody working in industry, formalizations of these aspects of economic life can be tested and propagated by many more kinds of people than the phenomena of total market performance. The latter is actionable only for a very rare class of policy-maker or financier.

References

Bowles, S. (2009). Microeconomics: behavior, institutions, and evolution. Princeton University Press.

Elsner, W., Heinrich, T., & Schwardt, H. (2014). The microeconomics of complex economies: Evolutionary, institutional, neoclassical, and complexity perspectives. Academic Press.

Epstein, Joshua M., and Robert Axtell. Growing artificial societies: social science from the bottom up. Brookings Institution Press, 1996.