Digifesto

Tag: classics

Seeing Like a State: problems facing the code rural

I’ve been reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed for, once again, Classics. It’s just as good as everyone says it is, and in many ways the counterpoint to James Beniger’s The Control Revolution that I’ve been looking for. It’s also highly relevant to work I’m doing on contextual integrity in privacy.

Here’s a passage I read on the subway this morning that talks about the resistance to codification of rural land use customs in Napoleonic France.

In the end, no postrevolutionary rural code attracted a winning coalition, even amid a flurry of Napoleonic codes in nearly all other realms. For our purposes, the history of the stalemate is instructive. The first proposal for a code, which was drafted in 1803 and 1807, would have swept away most traditional rights (such as common pasturage and free passage through others’ property) and essentially recast rural property relations in the light of bourgeois property rights and freedom of contract. Although the proposed code pefigured certain modern French practices, many revolutionaries blocked it because they feared that its hands-off liberalism would allow large landholders to recreate the subordination of feudalism in a new guise.

A reexamination of the issue was then ordered by Napoleon and presided over by Joseph Verneilh Puyrasseau. Concurrently, Depute Lalouette proposed to do precisely what I supposed, in the hypothetical example, was impossible. That is, he undertook to systematically gather information about all local practices, to classify and codify them, and then to sanction them by decree. The decree in question would become the code rural. Two problems undid this charming scheme to present the rural poplace with a rural code that simply reflected its own practices. The first difficulty was in deciding which aspects of the literally “infinite diversity” or rural production relations were to be represented and codified. Even if a particular locality, practices varied greatly from farm to farm over time; any codification would be partly arbitrary and artificially static. To codify local practices was thus a profoundly political act. Local notables would be able to sanction their preferences with the mantle of law, whereas others would lose customary rights that they depended on. The second difficulty was that Lalouette’s plan was a mortal threat to all state centralizers and economic modernizers for whom a legible, national property regime was the procondition of progress. As Serge Aberdam notes, “The Lalouette project would have brought about exactly what Merlin de Douai and the bourgeois, revolutionary jurists always sought ot avoid.” Neither Lalouette nor Verneilh’s proposed code was ever passed, because they, like their predecessor in 1807, seemed to be designed to strengthen the hand of the landowners.

(Emphasis mine.)

The moral of the story is that just as the codification of a land map will be inaccurate and politically contested for its biases, so too a codification of customs and norms will suffer the same fate. As Borges’ fable On Exactitude in Science mocks the ambition of physical science, we might see the French attempts at code rural to be a mockery of the ambition of computational social science.

On the other hand, Napoleonic France did not have the sweet ML we have today. So all bets are off.

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Mathematics and materiality in Latour and Bourdieu’s sociology of science

Our next reading for I School Classics is Pierre Bourdieu’s Science of Science and Reflexivity (2004). In it, rock star sociologist Bourdieu does a sociology of science, but from a perspective of a sociologist who considers himself a scientist. This is a bit of an upset because so much of sociology of science has been dominated by sociologists who draw more from the humanities traditions and whose work undermines the realism the scientific fact. This realism is something Bourdieu aims to preserve while at the same time providing a realistic sociology of science.

Bourdieu’s treatment of other sociologists of science is for the most part respectful. He appears to have difficulty showing respect for Bruno Latour, who he delicately dismisses as having become significant via his rhetorical tactics while making little in the way of a substantive contribution to our understanding of the scientific process.

By saying facts are artificial in the sense of manufactured, Latour and Woolgar intimate that they are fictious, not objective, not authentic. The success of this argument results from the ‘radicality effect’, as Yves Gingras (2000) has put it, generated by the slippage suggested and encouraged by skillful use of ambiguous concepts. The strategy of moving to the limit is one of the privileged devices in pursuit of this effect … but it can lead to positions that are untenable, unsustainable, because they are simply absurd. From this comes a typical strategy, that of advancing a very radical position (of the type: scientific fact is a construction or — slippage — a fabrication, and therefore an artefact, a fiction) before beating a retreat, in the face of criticism, back to banalities, that is, to the more ordinary face of ambiguous notions like ‘construction’, etc.

In the contemporary blogosphere this critique has resurfaced through Nicholas Shackel under the name “Motte and Bailey Doctrine” [1, 2], after the Motte and Bailey castle.

A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of pleasantly habitable land (the Bailey), which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier, such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible, and so neither is the Bailey. Rather, one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.

In the metaphor, the Bailey here is the radical antirealist scientific position wherein facts are fiction, the Motte is the banal recognition that science is a social process. Schackel writes that “Diagnosis of a philosophical doctrine as being a Motte and Bailey Doctrine is invariably fatal.” While this might be true in the world of philosophical scrutiny, this is unfortunately not sociologically correct. Academic traditions die hard, even long after the luminaries who started them have changed their minds.

Latour has repudiated his own radical position in “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matter of Concern” (2004), his “Tarde’s idea of quantification” (2010) offers an insightful look into the potential of quantified sociology when we have rich qualitative data sets that show us the inner connectivity of the societies. Late Latour is bullish about the role of quantification in sociology, though he believes it may require a different use of statistics than has been used traditionally in the natural sciences. Recently developed algorithmic methods for understanding network data prove this point in practice. Late Latour has more or less come around to “Big Data” scientific consensus on the matter.

This doesn’t stop Latour from being used rather differently. Consider boyd and Crawford’s “Critical Questions for Big Data: Provocations for a Cultural, Technological, and Scholarly Phenomenon” (2012), and its use of this very paper of Latour:

‘Numbers, numbers, numbers,’ writes Latour (2010). ‘Sociology has been obsessed by the goal of becoming a quantitative science.’ Sociology has never reached this goal, in Latour’s view, because of where it draws the line between what is and is not quantifiable knowledge in the social domain.

Big Data offers the humanistic disciplines a new way to claim the status of quantitative science and objective method. It makes many more social spaces quantifiable. In reality, working with Big Data is still subjective, and what it quantifies does not necessarily have a closer claim on objective truth – particularly when considering messages from social media sites. But there remains a mistaken belief that qualitative researchers are in the business of interpreting stories and quantitative researchers are in the business of producing facts. In this way, Big Data risks reinscribing established divisions in the long running debates about scientific method and the legitimacy of social science and humanistic inquiry.

While Latour (2010) is arguing for a richly quantified sociology and has moved away from his anti-realist position about scientific results, boyd and Crawford fall back into the same confusing trap set by earlier Latour of denying scientific fact because it is based on interpretation. boyd and Crawford have indeed composed their “provocations” effectively, deploying ambiguous language that can be interpreted as a broad claim that quantitative and humanistic qualitative methods are equivalent in their level of subjectivity, but defended as the banality that there are elements of interpretation in Big Data practice.

Bourdieu’s sociology of science provides a way out of this quagmire by using his concept of the field to illuminate the scientific process. Fields are a way of understanding social structure: they define social positions or roles in terms of their power relations as they create and appropriate different forms of capital (economic, social, etc.) His main insight which he positions above Latour’s is that while a sociological investigation of lab conditions will reveal myriad interpretations, controversies, and farces that may convince the Latourian that the scientists produce fictions, an understanding of the global field of science, with its capital and incentives, will show how it produces realistic, factual results. So Bourdeiu might have answered boyd and Crawford by saying that the differences in legitimacy between quantitative science and qualitative humanism have more to do with the power relations that govern them in their totality than in the local particulars of the social interactions of which they are composed.

In conversation with a colleague who admitted to feeling disciplinary pressure to cite Latour despite his theoretical uselessness to her, I was asked whether Bourdieu has a comparable theory of materiality to Latour’s. This is a great question, since it’s Latour’s materialism that makes him so popular in Science and Technology Studies. The best representation I’ve seen of Bourdieu’s materiality so far is this passage:

“The ‘art’ of the scientist is indeed separated from the ‘art’ of the artist by two major differences: on the one hand, the importance of formalized knowledge which is mastered in the practical state, owing in particular to formalization and formularization, and on the other hand the role of the instruments, which, as Bachelard put it, are formalized knowledge turned into things. In other words, the twenty-year-old mathematician can have twenty centuries of mathematics in his mind because formalization makes it possible to acquire accumulated products of non-automatic inventions, in the form of logical automatisms that have become practical automatisms.

The same is true as regards instruments: to perform a ‘manipulation’, one uses instruments that are themselves scientific conceptions condensed and objectivated in equipment functioning as a system of constraints, and the practical mastery that Polanyi refers to is made possible by an incorporation of the constraints of the instrument so perfect that one is corporeally bound up with it, one responds to its expectations; it is the instrument that leads. One has to have incorporated much theory and many practical routines to be able to fulfil the demands of the cyclotron.”

I want to go so far as to say that in these two paragraphs we have the entire crux of the debate about scientific (and especially data scientific) method and its relationship to qualitative humanism (which Bourdieu would perhaps consider an ‘art’.) For here we see that what distinguishes the sciences is not merely that they quantify their object (Bourdieu does not use the term ‘quantification’ here at all), but rather because it revolves around cumulative mathematical formalism which guides both practice and instrument design. The scientific field aims towards this formalization because that creates knowledge as a capital that can be transferred efficiently to new scientists, enabling new discoveries. In many ways this is a familiar story from economics: labor condenses into capital, which provides new opportunities for labor.

The simple and realistic view that formal, technical knowledge is a kind of capital explains many of the phenomena we see today around data science in industry and education. It also explains the pervasiveness of the humanistic critique of science as merely another kind of humanism: because it is an advertising campaign to devalue technical capital and promote alternative forms of capital associated with the humanities as an alternative. The Bailey of desirable land is intellectual authority in an increasingly technocratic society; the Motte is banal observation of social activity.

This is not to say that the cultural capital of the humanities is not valuable in its own right. However, it does raise questions about the role of habitus in determining taste for the knowledge as art, a topic discussed in depth in Bourdieu’s Distinction. My own view is that while there is a strong temptation towards an intellectual factionalism, especially in light of the unequal distribution of capital (of various kinds) in society, this is ultimately a pernicious trend. I would prefer a united field.

repopulation as element in the stability of ideology

I’m reading the fourth section of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, about ‘Prison’, for the first time for I School Classics

A striking point made by Foucault is that while we may think there is a chronology of the development of penitentiaries whereby they are designed, tested, critiqued, reformed, and so on, until we get a progressively improved system, this is not the case. Rather, at the time of Foucault’s writing, the logic of the penitentiary and its critiques had happily coexisted for a hundred and fifty years. Moreover, the failures of prisons–their contribution to recidivism and the education and organization of delinquents, for example–could only be “solved” by the reactivation of the underlying logic of prisons–as environments of isolation and personal transformation. So prison “failure” and “solution”, as well as (often organized) delinquency and recidivism, in addition to the architecture and administration of prison, are all part of the same “carceral system” which endures as a complex.

One wonders why the whole thing doesn’t just die out. One explanation is repopulation. People are born, live for a while, reproduce, live a while longer, and die. In the process, they must learn through education and experience. It’s difficult to rush personal growth. Hence, systematic errors that are discovered through 150 years of history are difficult to pass on, as each new generation will be starting from inherited priors (in the Bayesian sense) which may under-rank these kinds of systemic effects.

In effect, our cognitive limitations as human beings are part of the sociotechnical systems in which we play a part. And though it may be possible to grow out of such a system, there is a constant influx of the younger and more naive who can fill the ranks. Youth captured by ideology can be moved by promises of progress or denunciations of injustice or contamination, and thus new labor is supplied to turn the wheels of institutional machinery.

Given the environmental in-sustainability of modern institutions despite their social stability under conditions of repopulation, one has to wonder…. Whatever happened to the phenomenon of eco-terrorism?

Hannah Arendt on the apoliticality of science

The next book for the Berkeley School of Information’s Classics reading group is Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, 1958. We are reading this as a follow-up to Sennett’s The Craftsman, working backwards through his intellectual lineage. We have the option to read other Arendt. I’m intrigued by her monograph On Violence, because it’s about the relationship between violence and power (which is an important thing to think about) and also because it’s comparatively short (~100 pages). But I’ve begun dipping into The Human Condition today only to find an analysis of the role of science in society. Of course I could not resist writing about it here.

Arendt opens the book with a prologue discussing the cultural significance of the Apollo mission. She muses at shift in human ambition that has lead to its seeking to leave Earth. Having rejected Heavenly God as Father, she sees this as a rejection of Earth as Mother. Poetic stuff–Arendt is a lucid writer, prose radiating wisdom.

Then Arendt begins to discuss The Problems with Science (emphasis mine):

While such possibilities [of space travel, and of artificial extension of human life and capabilities] still may lie in a distant future, the first boomerang effects of science’s great triumphs have made themselves felt in a crisis within the natural sciences themselves. The trouble concerns the fact that the “truths” of the modern scientific world view, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought. The moment these “truths” are spoken of conceptually and coherently, the resulting statements will be “perhaps not as meaningless as a ‘triangular circle,’ but much more so than a ‘winged lion'” (Erwin Schödinger). We do not yet know whether this situation is final. But it could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we are dwellers of the universe, will forever be unable to unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do. In this case, it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking. If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.

We can read into Arendt a Heideggerian concern about man’s enslavement of himself through technology, and equally a distrust mathematical formalism that one can also find in Horkheimer‘s Eclipse of Reason. It’s fair to say that the theme of technological menace haunted the 20th century; this is indeed the premise of Beniger‘s The Control Revolution, whose less loaded account described how the advance of technical control could be seen as nothing less or more than the continuing process of life’s self-organization.

What is striking to me about Arendt’s concerns, especially after having attended SciPy 2015, a conference full of people discussing their software code as a representation of scientific knowledge, is how ignorant Arendt is about how mathematics is used by scientists. (EDIT: The error here is mine. A skimming of the book past the prologue (always a good idea before judging the content of a book or its author…) makes it clear that this comment about mathematical formalism is not a throwaway statement at the beginning of the book to motivate a discussion of political action, but rather something derived from her analysis of political action and the history of science. Ironically, I’ve read her “speech” and interpreted it politically (in the narrow sense of implicating identities of “the scientist”, a term which she does seem to use disparagingly or distancingly elsewhere, when another more charitable reading (one that was more sensitive to how she is “technically” defining her terms (though I expect she would deny this usage)–“speech” being rather specialized for Arendt, not being merely ‘utterances’–wouldn’t be as objectionable. I’m agitated by the bluntness of my first reading, and encouraged to read further.)

On the one hand, Arendt wisely situates mathematics as an expression of know-how, and sees technology as an extension of human capacity not as something autonomous from it. But it’s strange to read her argue essentially that mathematics and technology is not something that can be discussed. This ignores the daily practice of scientists, mathematicians, and their intellectual heirs, software engineers, which involves lots of discussion about about technology. Often these discussions are about the political impact of technical decisions.

As an example, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the NumPy community at SciPy. NumPy is one of the core packages for scientific computing in Python which implements computationally efficient array operations. Much of the discussion hinged on whether and to what extent changes to the technical interface would break downstream implementations using the library, angering their user base. This political conflict, among other events, lead to the creation of sempervirens, a tool for collecting data about how people are using the library. This data will hopefully inform decisions about when to change the technical design.

Despite the facts of active discourse about technology in the mathematized language of technology, Arendt maintains that it is the inarticulateness of science that makes it politically dangerous.

However, even apart from these last and yet uncertain consequences, the situation created by the sciences is of great political significance. Wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being. If we would follow the advice, so frequently urged upon us, to adjust our cultural attitudes to the present status of scientific achievement, we would in all earnest adopt a way of life in which speech is no longer meaningful. For the sciences today have been forced to adopt a “language” of mathematical symbols which, though it was originally meant only as an abbreviation for spoken statements, now contains statements that in no way can be translated back into speech. The reason why it may be wise to distrust the political judgment of scientists qua scientists is not primarily their lack of “character”–that they did not refuse to develop atomic weapons–or their naivete–that they did not understand that once these weapons were developed they would be the last to be consulted about their use–but precisely the fact that they move in a world where speech has lost its power. And whatever men do or know or experience can make sense only to the extent that it can be spoken about. There may be truths beyond speech, and they may be of great relevance to man in the singular, that is, to man in so far as he is not a political being, whatever else he may be. Men in the plural, that is, men in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.

There is an element of truth to this analysis. But there is also a deep misunderstanding of the scientific process as one that somehow does not involve true speech. Here we find another root of a much more contemporary debate about technology in society reflected in recent concern about the power of ‘algorithms’. (EDIT: Again, after consideration, shallowly accusing Arendt of a “deep misunderstanding” at this stage is hubris. Though there does seem to be a connection between some of the contemporary debate about algorithms to Arendt’s view, it’s wrong to project historically backwards sixty years when The Human Condition is an analysis of the shifting conditions over the preceding two millennia.

Arendt claims early on that the most dramatic change in the human condition that she can anticipate is humanity’s leaving the earth to populate the universe. I want to argue that the creation of the Internet has been transformative of the human condition in a different way.)

I think it would be fair to say that Arendt, beloved a writer though she is, doesn’t know what she’s talking about when she’s talking about mathematical formalism. (EDIT: Again, a blunt conclusion. However, the role of formalism in, say, economics (though much debated) stands as a counterexample to Arendt in other ways.) And perhaps this is the real problem. When, for almost a century, theorists have tried to malign the role of scientific understanding in politics, it has been (incoherently) either on the grounds that it is secretly ideological in ways that have gone unstated, or (as for Arendt) that it is cognitively defective in a way that prevents it from participating in politics proper. (EDIT: This is a misreading of Arendt. It appears that what makes mathematical science apolitical for Arendt is precisely its universality, and hence its inability to be part of discussion about the different situations of political actors. Still, something seems quite wrong about Arendt’s views here. How would she think about Dwork’s “Fairness through awareness“?

The frustration for a politically motivated scientist is this: Political writers will sometimes mistake their own inability to speak or understand mathematical truths for their general intelligibility. On grounds of this alleged intelligibility they dismiss scientists from political discussion. They then find themselves apolitically enslaved by technology they don’t understand, and angry about it. Rather than blame their own ignorance of the subject matter, they blame scientists for being unintelligible. This is despite scientists intelligibility to each other.

An analysis of the politics of science will be incomplete without a clear picture of how scientists and non-scientists relate to each other and communicate. As far as I can tell, such an analysis is almost impossible politically speaking because of the power dynamic of the relation. Professional non-scientific intellects are loathe to credit scientists with an intellectual authority that they feel that they are not able to themselves attain, and scientific practice requires adhering to standards of rigor which give one greater intellectual authority; these standards by their nature require ahistorical analysis, dismissal of folk theorizing, etc. It has become politically impossible to ground an explanation of a social phenomenon on the basis that one population is “smarter” than another, despite this being a ready first approximation and one that is used in practice by the vast majority of people in private. Hence, the continuation of the tradition of treatises putting science in its place.

Beniger on anomie and technophobia

The School of Information Classics group has moved on to a new book: James Beniger’s 1986 The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. I’m just a few chapters in but already it is a lucid and compelling account of how the societal transformations due to information technology that are announced bewilderingly every decade are an extension of a process that began in the Industrial Revolution and just has not stopped.

It’s a dense book with a lot of interesting material in it. One early section discusses Durkheim’s ideas about the division of labor and its effect on society.

In a nutshell, the argument is that with industrialization, barriers to transportation and communication break down and local markets merge into national and global markets. This induces cycles of market disruption where because producers and consumers cannot communicate directly, producers need to “trust to chance” by embracing a potentially limitless market. This creates and unregulated economy prone to crisis. This sounds a little like venture capital fueled Silicon Valley.

The consequence of greater specialization and division of labor is a greater need for communication between the specialized components of society. This is the problem of integration, and it affects both the material and the social. The specifically, the magnitude and complexity of material flows result in a sharpening division of labor. When properly integrated, the different ‘organs’ of society gain in social solidarity. But if communication between the organs is insufficient, then the result is a pathological breakdown of norms and sense of social purpose: anomie.

The state of anomie is impossible wherever solidary organs are sufficiently in contact or sufficiently prolonged. In effect, being continguous, they are quickly warned, in each circumstance, of the need which they have of one another, and, consequently, they have a lively and continuous sentiment of their mutual dependence… But, on the contrary, if some opaque environment is interposed, then only stimuli of a certain intensity can be communicated from one organ to another. Relations, being rare, are not repeated enough to be determined; each time there ensues new groping. The lines of passage taken by the streams of movement cannot deepen because the streams themselves are too intermittent. If some rules do come to constitute them, they are, however, general and vague.

An interesting question is to what extent Beniger’s thinking about the control revolution extend to today and the future. An interesting sub-question is to what extent Durkheim’s thinking is relevant today or in the future. I’ll hazard a guess that’s informed partly by Adam Elkus’s interesting thoughts about pervasive information asymmetry.

An issue of increasing significance as communication technology improves is that the bottlenecks to communication become less technological and more about our limitations as human beings to sense, process, and emit information. These cognitive limitations are being overwhelmed by the technologically enabled access to information. Meanwhile, there is a division of labor between those that do the intellectually demanding work of creating and maintaining technology and those that do the intellectually demanding work of creating and maintaining cultural artifacts. As intellectual work demands the specialization of limited cognitive resources, this results in conflicts of professional identity due to anomie.

Long story short: Anomie is why academic politics are so bad. It’s also why conferences specializing in different intellectual functions can harbor a kind of latent animosity towards each other.