Tag: Horkheimer

Instrumentality run amok: Bostrom and Instrumentality

Narrowing our focus onto the crux of Bostrom’s argument, we can see how tightly it is bound to a much older philosophical notion of instrumental reason. This comes to the forefront in his discussion of the orthogonality thesis (p.107):

The orthogonality thesis
Intelligence and final goals are orthogonal: more or less any level of intelligence could in principle be combined with more or less any final goal.

Bostrom goes on to clarify:

Note that the orthogonality thesis speaks not of rationality or reason, but of intelligence. By “intelligence” we here mean something like skill at prediction, planning, and means-ends reasoning in general. This sense of instrumental cognitive efficaciousness is most relevant when we are seeking to understand what the causal impact of a machine superintelligence might be.

Bostrom maintains that the generality of instrumental intelligence, which I would argue is evinced by the generality of computing, gives us a way to predict how intelligent systems will act. Specifically, he says that an intelligent system (and specifically a superintelligent) might be predictable because of its design, because of its inheritance of goals from a less intelligence system, or because of convergent instrumental reasons. (p.108)

Return to the core logic of Bostrom’s argument. The existential threat posed by superintelligence is simply that the instrumental intelligence of an intelligent system will invest in itself and overwhelm any ability by us (its well-intentioned creators) to control its behavior through design or inheritance. Bostrom thinks this is likely because instrumental intelligence (“skill at prediction, planning, and means-ends reasoning in general”) is a kind of resource or capacity that can be accumulated and put to other uses more widely. You can use instrumental intelligence to get more instrumental intelligence; why wouldn’t you? The doomsday prophecy of a fast takeoff superintelligence achieving a decisive strategic advantage and becoming a universe-dominating singleton depends on this internal cycle: instrumental intelligence investing in itself and expanding exponentially, assuming low recalcitrance.

This analysis brings us to a significant focal point. The critical missing formula in Bostrom’s argument is (specifically) the recalcitrance function of instrumental intelligence. This is not the same as recalcitrance with respect to “general” intelligence or even “super” intelligence. Rather, what’s critical is how much a process dedicated to “prediction, planning, and means-ends reasoning in general” can improve its own capacities at those things autonomously. The values of this recalcitrance function will bound the speed of superintelligence takeoff. These bounds can then inform the optimal allocation of research funding towards anticipation of future scenarios.

In what I hope won’t distract from the logical analysis of Bostrom’s argument, I’d like to put it in a broader context.

Take a minute to think about the power of general purpose computing and the impact it has had on the past hundred years of human history. As the earliest digital computers were informed by notions of artificial intelligence (c.f. Alan Turing), we can accurately say that the very machine I use to write this text, and the machine you use to read it, are the result of refined, formalized, and materialized instrumental reason. Every programming language is a level of abstraction over a machine that has no ends in itself, but which serves the ends of its programmer (when it’s working). There is a sense in which Bostrom’s argument is not about a near future scenario but rather is just a description of how things already are.

Our very concepts of “technology” and “instrument” are so related that it can be hard to see any distinction at all. (c.f. Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology“) Bostrom’s equating of instrumentality with intelligence is a move that makes more sense as computing becomes ubiquitously part of our experience of technology. However, if any instrumental mechanism can be seen as a form of intelligence, that lends credence to panpsychist views of cognition as life. (c.f. the Santiago theory)

Meanwhile, arguably the genius of the market is that it connects ends (through consumption or “demand”) with means (through manufacture and services, or “supply”) efficiently, bringing about the fruition of human desire. If you replace “instrumental intelligence” with “capital” or “money”, you get a familiar critique of capitalism as a system driven by capital accumulation at the expense of humanity. The analogy with capital accumulation is worthwhile here. Much as in Bostrom’s “takeoff” scenarios, we can see how capital (in the modern era, wealth) is reinvested in itself and grows at an exponential rate. Variable rates of return on investment lead to great disparities in wealth. We today have a “multipolar scenario” as far as the distribution of capital is concerned. At times people have advocated for an economic “singleton” through a planned economy.

It is striking that contemporary analytic philosopher and futurist Nick Bostrom’s contemplates the same malevolent force in his apocalyptic scenario as does Max Horkheimer in his 1947 treatise “Eclipse of Reason“: instrumentality run amok. Whereas Bostrom concerns himself primarily with what is literally a machine dominating the world, Horkheimer sees the mechanism of self-reinforcing instrumentality as pervasive throughout the economic and social system. For example, he sees engineers as loci of active instrumentalism. Bostrom never cites Horkheimer, let alone Heidegger. That there is a convergence of different philosophical sub-disciplines on the same problem suggests that there are convergent ultimate reasons which may triumph over convergent instrumental reasons in the end. The question of what these convergent ultimate reasons are, and what their relationship to instrumental reasons is, is a mystery.

structuralism and/or functionalism

Previous entries detailing the arguments of Arendt, Horkheimer, and Beniger show these theorists have what you might call a structural functionalist bent. Society is conceived as a functional whole. There are units of organization within it. For Arendt, this social organization begins in the private household and expands to all of society. Horkheimer laments this as the triumph of mindless economic organization over genuine, valuable individuality.

Structuralism, let alone structural functionalism, is not in fashion in the social sciences. Purely speculatively, one reason for this might be that to the extent that society was organized to perform certain functions, more of those functions have been delegated to information processing infrastructure, as in Beniger’s analysis. That leaves “culture” more a domain of ephemerality and identity conflict, as activity in the sphere of economic production becomes if not private, opaque.

My empirical work on open source communities is suggestive (though certainly not conclusively so) that these communities are organized more for functional efficiency than other kinds of social groups (including academics). I draw this inference from the degree dissortativity of the open source social networks. Disassortativity suggests the interaction of different kinds of people, which is against homophilic patterns of social formation but which seems essential for economic activity where the interact of specialists is what creates value.

Assuming that society its entirety (!!) is very complex and not easily captured by a single grand theory, we can nevertheless distinguish difference kinds of social organization and see how they theorize themselves. We can also map how they interact and what mechanisms mediated between them.

Land and gold (Arendt, Horkheimer)

I am thirty, still in graduate school, and not thrilled about the prospects of home ownership since all any of the professionals around me talk about is the sky-rocketing price of real estate around the critical American urban centers.

It is with a leisure afforded by graduate school that I am able to take the long view on this predicament. It is very cheap to spend ones idle time reading Arendt, who has this to say about the relationship between wealth and property:

The profound connection between private and public, manifest on its most elementary level in the question of private property, is likely to be misunderstood today because of the modern equation of property and wealth on one side and propertylessness and poverty on the other. This misunderstanding is all the more annoying as both, property as well as wealth, are historically of greater relevance to the public realm than any other private matter or concern and have played, at least formally, more or less the same role as the chief condition for admission to the public realm and full-fledged citizenship. It is therefore easy to forget that wealth and property, far from being the same, are of an entirely different nature. The present emergence everywhere of actually or potentially very wealthy societies which at the same time are essentially propertyless, because the wealth of any single individual consists of his share in the annual income of society as a whole, clearly shows how little these two things are connected.

For Arendt, beginning with her analysis of ancient Greek society, property (landholding) is the condition of ones participation in democracy. It is a place of residence and source of ones material fulfilment, which is a prerequisite to ones free (because it is unnecessitated) participation in public life. This is contrasted with wealth, which is a feature of private life and is unpolitical. In ancient society, slaves could own wealth, but not property.

If we look at the history of Western civilization as a progression away from this rather extreme moment, we see the rise of social classes whose power is based on in landholding but in wealth. Industrialism and the economy based on private ownership of capital is a critical transition in history. That capital is not bound to a particular location but rather is mobile across international boundaries is one of the things that characterizes global capitalism and brings it in tension with a geographically bounded democratic state. It is interesting that a Jeffersonian democracy, designed with the assumption of landholding citizens, should predate industrial capitalism and be consitutionally unprepared for the result, but nevertheless be one of the models for other democratic governance structures throughout the world.

If private ownership of capital, not land, defines political power under capitalism, then wealth, not property, becomes the measure of ones status and security. For a time, when wealth was as a matter of international standard exchangeable for gold, private ownership of gold could replace private ownership of land as the guarantee of ones material security and thereby grounds for ones independent existence. This independent, free rationality has since Aristotle been the purpose (telos) of man.

In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 Executive Order 6102 forbade the private ownership of gold. The purpose of this was to free the Federal Reserve of the gold market’s constraint on increasing the money supply during the Great Depression.

A perhaps unexpected complaint against this political move comes from Horkheimer (Eclipse of Reason, 1947), who sees this as a further affront to individualism by capitalism.

The age of vast industrial power, by eliminating the perspectives of a stable past and future that grew out of ostensibly permanent property relations, is the process of liquidating the individual. The deterioration of his situation is perhaps best measured in terms of his utter insecurity as regards to his personal savings. As long as currencies were rigidly tied to gold, and gold could flow freely over frontiers, its value could shift only within narrow limits. Under present-day conditions the dangers of inflation, of a substantial reduction or complete loss of the purchasing power of his savings, lurks around the next corner. Private possession of gold was the symbol of bourgeois rule. Gold made the burgher somehow the successor of the aristocrat. With it he could establish security for himself and be reasonable sure that even after his death his dependents would not be completely sucked up by the economic system. His more or less independent position, based on his right to exchange goods and money for gold, and therefore on the relatively stable property values, expressed itself in the interest he took in the cultivation of his own personality–not, as today, in order to achieve a better career or for any professional reason, but for the sake of his own individual existence. The effort was meaningful because the material basis of the individual was not wholly unstable. Although the masses could not aspire to the position of the burgher, the presence of a relatively numerous class of individuals who were governed by interest in humanistic values formed the background for a kind of theoretical thought as well as for the type of manifestions in the arts that by virtue of their inherent truth express the needs of society as a whole.

Horkheimer’s historical arc, like many Marxists, appears to ignore its parallels in antiquity. Monetary policy in the Roman Empire, which used something like a gold standard, was not always straightforward. Inflation was sometimes a severe problem when generals would print money to pay the soldiers hat supported their political coups. So it’s not clear that the modern economy is more unstable than gold or land based economies. However, the criticism that economic security is largely a matter of ones continued participation in a larger system, and that there is little in the way of financial security besides this, holds. He continues:

The state’s restriction on the right to possess gold is the symbol of a complete change. Even the members of the middle class must resign themselves to insecurity. The individual consoles himself with the thought that his government, corporation, association, union, or insurance company will take care of him when he becomes ill or reaches the retiring age. The various laws prohibiting private possession of gold symbolize the verdict against the independent economic individual. Under liberalism, the beggar was always an eyesore to the rentier. In the age of big business both beggar and rentier are vanishing. There are no safety zones on society’s thoroughfares. Everyone must keep moving. The entrepreneur has become a functionary, the scholar a professional expert. The philosopher’s maxim, Bene qui latuit, bene vixit, is incompatible with the modern business cycles. Everyone is under the whip of a superior agency. Those who occupy the commanding positions have little more autonomy than their subordinates; they are bound by the power they wield.

In an academic context, it is easy to make a connection between Horkheimer’s concerns about gold ownership and tenure. Academic tenure is or was the refuge of the individual who could in theory develop themselves as individuals in obscurity. The price of this autonomy, which according the philosophical tradition represents the highest possible achievement of man, is that one teaches. So, the developed individual passes on the values developed through contemplation and reflection to the young. The privatization of the university and the emphasis on teaching marketable skills that allow graduates to participate more fully in the economic system is arguably an extension of Horkheimer’s cultural apocalypse.

The counter to this is the claim that the economy as a whole achieves a kind of homeostasis that provides greater security than one whose value is bound to something stable and exogenous like gold and land. Ones savings are secure as long as the system doesn’t fail. Meanwhile, the price of access to cultural materials through which one might expand ones individuality (i.e. videos of academic lectures, the arts, or music) decrease as a consequence of the pervasiveness of the economy. At this point one feels one has reached the limits of Horkheimer’s critique, which perhaps only sees one side of the story despite its sublime passion. We see echoes of it in contemporary feminist critique, which emphasizes how the demands of necessity are disproportionately burdened by women and how this affects their role in the economy. That women have only relatively recently, in historical terms, been released from the private household into the public world (c.f. Arendt again) situates them more precariously within the economic system.

What remains unclear (to me) is how one should conceive of society and values when there is an available continuum of work, opportunity, leisure, individuality, art, and labor under conditions of contemporary technological control. Specifically, the notion of inequality becomes more complicated when one considers that society has never been equal in the sense that is often aspired to in contemporary American society. This is largely because the notion of equality we use today draws from two distinct sources. The first is the equality of self-sufficient landholding men as they encounter each other freely in the polis. Or, equivalently, as self-sufficient goldholding men in something like the Habermasian bourgeois public sphere. The second is equality within society, which is economically organized and therefore requires specialization and managerial stratification. We can try to assure equality to members of society insofar as they are members of society, but not as to their function within society.

Horkheimer on engineers

Horkheimer’s comment on engineers:

It is true that the engineer, perhaps the symbol of this age, is not so exclusively bent on profitmaking as the industrialist or the merchant. Because his function is more directly connected with the requirements of the production job itself, his commands bear the mark of greater objectivity. His subordinates recognize that at least some of his orders are in the nature of things and therefore rational in a universal sense. But at bottom this rationality, too, pertains to domination, not reason. The engineer is not interested in understanding things for their own sake or the sake of insight, but in accordance to their being fitted into a scheme, no matter how alien to their own inner structure; this holds for living beings as well as for inanimate things. The engineer’s mind is that of industrialism in its streamlined form. His purposeful rule would make men an agglomeration of instruments without a purpose of their own.

This paragraph sums up much of what Horkheimer stands for. His criticism of engineers, the catalysts of industrialism, is not that they are incorrect. It is that their instrumental rationality is not humanely purposeful.

This humane purposefulness, for Horkheimer, is born out of individual contemplation. Though he recognizes that this has been a standpoint of the privileged (c.f. Arendt on the Greek polis), he sees industrialism as successful in bringing many people out of a place of necessity but at the cost of marginalizing and trivializing all individual contemplation. The result is an efficient machine with nobody in charge. This bodes ill because such a machine is vulnerable to being co-opted by an irrational despot or charlatan. Individuality, free of material necessity and also free of the machine that liberated it from that necessity, is the origin of moral judgement that prevents fascist rule.

This is very different from the picture of individuality Fred Turner presents in The Democratic Surround. In his account of how United States propaganda created a “national character” that was both individual enough to be anti-fascist and united enough to fight fascism, he emphasizes the role of art installations that encourage the view to stitch themselves synthetically into a large picture of the nation. One is unique within a larger, diverse…well, we might use the word society, borrowing from Arendt, who was also writing in the mid-century.

If this is all true, then this dates a transition in American culture from one of individuality to one of society. This coincides with the tendency of information organization traced assiduously by Beniger.

We can perhaps trace an epicycle of this process in the history of the Internet. In it’s “wild west” early days, when John Perry Barlow could write about the freedom of cyberspace, it was a place primarily occupied by the privileged few. Interestingly, many of these were engineers, and so were (I’ll assume for the sake of argument) but materially independent and not exclusively focused on profit-making. Hence the early Internet was not unlike the ancient polis, a place where free people could attempt words and deeds that would immortalize them.

As the Internet became more widely used and commercialized, it became more and more part of the profiteering machine of capitalism. So today we see it’s wildness curtailed by the demands of society (which includes an appeal to an ethics sensitive both to disparities in wealth and differences in the body, both part of the “private” realm in antiquity but an element of public concern in modern society.)

resisting the power of organizations

“From the day of his birth, the individual is made to feel there is only one way of getting along in this world–that of giving up hope in his ultimate self-realization. This he can achieve solely by imitation. He continuously responds to what he perceives about him, not only consciously but with his whole being, emulating the traits and attitudes represented by all the collectivities that enmesh him–his play group, his classmates, his athletic team, and all the other groups that, as has been pointed out, enforce a more strict conformity, a more radical surrender through complete assimilation, than any father or teacher in the nineteenth century could impose. By echoing, repeating, imitating his surroundings, by adapting himself to all the powerful groups to which he eventually belongs, by transforming himself from a human being into a member of organizations, by sacrificing his potentialities for the sake of readiness and ability to conform to and gain influence in such organizations, he manages to survive. It is survival achieved by the oldest biological means necessary, mimicry.” – Horkheimer, “Rise and Decline of the Individual”, Eclipse of Reason, 1947

Returning to Horkheimer‘s Eclipse of Reason (1947) after studying Beniger‘s Control Revolution (1986) serves to deepen ones respect for Horkheimer.

The two writers are for the most part in agreement as to the facts. It is a testament to their significance and honesty as writers that they are not quibbling about the nature of reality but rather are reflecting seriously upon it. But whereas maintains a purely pragmatic, unideological perspective, Horkheimer (forty years earlier) correctly attributes this pragmatic perspective to the class of business managers to whom Beniger’s work is directed.

Unlike more contemporary critiques, Horkheimer’s position is not to dismiss this perspective as ideological. He is not working within the postmodern context that sees all knowledge as contestable because it is situated. Rather, he is working with the mid-20th acknowledgment that objectivity is power. This is a necessary step in the criticality of the Frankfurt School, which is concerned largely with the way (real) power shapes society and identity.

It would be inaccurate to say that Beniger celebrates the organization. His history traces the development of social organization as evolving organism. Its expanding capacity for information processing is a result of the crisis of control unleashed by the integration of its energetic constituent components. Globalization (if we can extend Beniger’s story to include globalization) is the progressive organization of organizations of organization. It is interesting that this progression of organization is a strike against Weiner’s prediction of the need for society to arm itself against entropy. This conundrum is one we will need to address in later work.

For now, it is notable that Horkheimer appears to be responding to just the same historical developments later articulated by Beniger. Only Horkeimer is writing not as a descriptive scientist but as a philosopher engaged in the process of human meaning-making. This positions him to discuss the rise and decline of the individual in the era of increasingly powerful organizations.

Horkheimer sees the individual as positioned at the nexus of many powerful organizations to which he must adapt through mimicry for the sake of survival. His authentic identity is accomplished only when alone because submission to organizational norms is necessary for survival or the accumulation of organizational power. In an era where pragmatic ability to manipulate people, not spiritual ideals, qualifies one for organization power, the submissive man represses his indignation and rage at this condition and becomes an automoton of the system.

Which system? All systems. Part of the brilliance of both Horkheimer and Beniger is their ability to generalize over many systems to see their common effect on their constituents.

I have not read Horkheimer’s solution the individual’s problem of how to maintain his individuality despite the powerful organizations which demand mimicry of him. This is a pressing question when organizations are becoming ever more powerful by using the tools of data science. My own hypotheses, which is still in need of scientific validation, is that the solution lies in the intersecting agency implied by the complex topology of the organization of organizations.

‘Bad twitter’ : exit, voice, and social media

I made the mistake in the past couple of days of checking my Twitter feed. I did this because there are some cool people on Twitter and I want to have conversations with them.

Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I started to read things that made me upset.

I used to think that a benefit of Twitter was that it allowed for exposure to alternative points of view. Of course you should want to see the other side, right?

But then there’s this: if you do that for long enough, you start to see each “side” make the same mistakes over and over again. It’s no longer enlightening. It’s just watching a train wreck in slow motion on repeat.

Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is relevant to this. Presumably, over time, those who want a higher level of conversation Exit social media (and its associated news institutions, such as Salon.com) to more private channels, causing a deterioration in the quality of public discourse. Because social media sites have very strong network effects, they are robust to any revenue loss due to quality-sensitive Exiters, leaving a kind of monopoly-tyranny that Hirschman describes vividly thus:

While of undoubted benefit in the case of the exploitative, profit-maximizing monopolist, the presence of competition could do more harm than good when the main concern is to counteract the monopolist’s tendency toward flaccidity and mediocrity. For, in that case, exit-competition could just fatally weaken voice along the lines of the preceding section, without creating a serious threat to the organization’s survival. This was so for the Nigerian Railway Corporation because of the ease with which it could dip into the public treasury in case of deficit. But there are many other cases where competition does not restrain monopoly as it is supposed to, but comforts and bolsters it by unburdening it of its more troublesome customers. As a result, one can define an important and too little noticed type of monopoly-tyranny: a limited type, an oppression of the weak by the incompetent and an exploitation of the poor by the lazy which is the more durable and stifling as it is both unambitious and escapable. The contrast is stark indeed with totalitarian, expansionist tyrannies or the profit-maximizing, accumulation-minded monopolies which may have captured a disproportionate share of our attention.

It’s interesting to compare a Hirschman-inspired view of the decline of Twitter as a function of exit and voice to a Frankfurt School analysis of it in terms of the culture industry. It’s also interesting to compare this with boyd’s 2009 paper on “White flight in networked publics?” in which she chooses to describe the decline of MySpace in terms of the troubled history of race and housing.*

In particular, there are passages of Hirschman in which he addresses neighborhoods of “declining quality” and the exit and voice dynamics around them. It is interesting to me that the narrative of racialized housing policy and white flight is so salient to me lately that I could not read these passages of Hirschman without raising an eyebrow at the fact that he didn’t mention race in his analysis. Was this color-blind racism? Or am I now so socialized by the media to see racism and sexism everywhere that I assumed there were racial connotations when in fact he was talking about a general mechanism. Perhaps the salience of the white flight narrative to me has made me tacitly racist by making me assume that the perceived decline in neighborhood quality is due to race!

The only way I could know for sure what was causing what would be to conduct a rigorous empirical analysis I don’t have time for. And I’m an academic whose job is to conduct rigorous empirical analyses! I’m forced to conclude that without a more thorough understanding of the facts, any judgment either way will be a waste of time. I’m just doing my best over here and when push comes to shove I’m a pretty nice guy, my friends say. Nevertheless, it’s this kind of lazy baggage-slinging that is the bread and butter of the mass journalist today. Reputations earned and lost on the basis of political tribalism! It’s almost enough to make somebody think that these standards matter, or are the basis of a reasonable public ethics of some kind that must be enforced lest society fall into barbarism!

I would stop here except that I am painfully aware that as much as I know it to be true that there is a portion of the population that has exited the morass of social media and put it to one side, I know that many people have not. In particular, a lot of very smart, accomplished friends of mine are still wrapped up in a lot of stupid shit on the interwebs! (Pardon my language!) This is partly due to the fact that networked publics now mediate academic discourse, and so a lot of aspiring academics now feel they have to be clued in to social media to advance their careers. Suddenly, everybody who is anybody is a content farmer! There’s a generation who are looking up to jerks like us! What the hell?!?!

This has a depressing consequence. Since politically divisive content is popular content, and there is pressure for intellectuals to produce popular content, this means that intellectuals have incentives to propagate politically divisive narratives instead of working towards reconciliation and the greater good. Or, alternatively, there is pressure to aim for the lowest common denominator as an audience.

At this point, I am forced to declare myself an elitist who is simply against provocation of any kind. It’s juvenile, is the problem. (Did I mention I just turned 30? I’m an adult now, swear to god.) I would keep this opinion to myself, but at that point I’m part of the problem by not exercising my Voice option. So here’s to blogging.

* I take a particular interest in danah boyd’s work because in addition to being one of the original Internet-celebrity-academics-talking-about-the-Internet and so aptly doubles as both the foundational researcher and just slightly implicated subject matter for this kind of rambling about social media and intellectualism (see below), she also shares an alma mater with me (Brown) and is the star graduate of my own department (UC Berkeley’s School of Information) and so serves as a kind of role model.

I feel the need to write this footnote because while I am in the scholarly habit of treating all academic writers I’ve never met abstractly as if they are bundles of text subject to detached critique, other people think that academics are real people(!), especially academics themselves. Suddenly the purely intellectual pursuit becomes personal. Multiple simultaneous context collapses create paradoxes on the level of pragmatics that would make certain kinds of communication impossible if they are not ignored. This can be awkward but I get a kind of perverse pleasure out of leaving analytic puzzles to whoever comes next.

I’m having a related but eerier intellectual encounter with an Internet luminary in some other work I’m doing. I’m writing software to analyze a mailing list used by many prominent activists and professionals. Among the emails are some written by the late Aaron Swartz. In the process of working on the software, I accepted a pull request from a Swiss programmer I had never met which has the Python package html2text as a dependency. Who wrote the html2text package? Aaron Swartz. Understand I never met the guy, am trying to map out how on-line communication mediates the emergent structure of the sociotechnical ecosystem of software and the Internet, and obviously am interested reflexively in how my own communication and software production fits into that larger graph. (Or multigraph? Or multihypergraph?) Power law distributions of connectivity on all dimensions make this particular situation not terribly surprising. But it’s just one of many strange loops.

a new kind of scientism

Thinking it over, there are a number of problems with my last post. One was the claim that the scientism addressed by Horkheimer in 1947 is the same as the scientism of today.

Scientism is a pejorative term for the belief that science defines reality and/or is a solution to all problems. It’s not in common use now, but maybe it should be among the critical thinkers of today.

Frankfurt School thinkers like Horkheimer and Habermas used “scientism” to criticize the positivists, the 20th century philosophical school that sought to reduce all science and epistemology to formal empirical methods, and to reduce all phenomena, including social phenomena, to empirical science modeled on physics.

Lots of people find this idea offensive for one reason or another. I’d argue that it’s a lot like the idea that algorithms can capture all of social reality or perform the work of scientists. In some sense, “data science” is a contemporary positivism, and the use of “algorithms” to mediate social reality depends on a positivist epistemology.

I don’t know any computer scientists that believe in the omnipotence of algorithms. I did get an invitation to this event at UC Berkeley the other day, though:

This Saturday, at [redacted], we will celebrate the first 8 years of the [redacted].

Current students, recent grads from Berkeley and Stanford, and a group of entrepreneurs from Taiwan will get together with members of the Social Data Lab. Speakers include [redacted], former Palantir financial products lead and course assistant of the [redacted]. He will reflect on how data has been driving transforming innovation. There will be break-out sessions on sign flips, on predictions for 2020, and on why big data is the new religion, and what data scientists need to learn to become the new high priests. [emphasis mine]

I suppose you could call that scientistic rhetoric, though honestly it’s so preposterous I don’t know what to think.

Though I would recommend to the critical set the term “scientism”, I’m ambivalent about whether it’s appropriate to call the contemporary emphasis on algorithms scientistic for the following reason: it might be that ‘data science’ processes are better than the procedures developed for the advancement of physics in the mid-20th century because they stand on sixty years of foundational mathematical work with modeling cognition as an important aim. Recall that the AI research program didn’t start until Chomsky took down Skinner. Horkheimer quotes Dewey commenting that until naturalist researchers were able to use their methods to understand cognition, they wouldn’t be able to develop (this is my paraphrase:) a totalizing system. But the foundational mathematics of information theory, Bayesian statistics, etc. are robust enough or could be robust enough to simply be universally intersubjectively valid. That would mean data science would stand on transcendental not socially contingent grounds.

That would open up a whole host of problems that take us even further back than Horkheimer to early modern philosophers like Kant. I don’t want to go there right now. There’s still plenty to work with in Horkheimer, and in “Conflicting panaceas” he points to one of the critical problems, which is how to reconcile lived reality in its contingency with the formal requirements of positivist or, in the contemporary data scientific case, algorithmic epistemology.

“Conflicting panaceas”; decapitation and dogmatism in cultural studies counterpublics

I’m still reading through Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason. It is dense writing and slow going. I’m in the middle of the second chapter, “Conflicting Panaceas”.

This chapter recognizes and then critiques a variety of intellectual stances of his contemporaries. Whereas in the first chapter Horkheimer takes aim at pragmatism, in this he concerns himself with neo-Thomism and positivism.

Neo-Thomism? Yes, that’s right. Apparently in 1947 one of the major intellectual contenders was a school of thought based on adapting the metaphysics of Saint Thomas Aquinas to modern times. This school of thought was apparently notable enough that while Horkheimer is generally happy to call out the proponents of pragmatism and positivism by name and call them business interest lapdogs, he chooses instead to address the neo-Thomists anonymously in a conciliatory footnote

This important metaphysical school includes some of the most responsible historians and writers of our day. The critical remarks here bear exclusively on the trend by which independent philosophical thought is being superseded by dogmatism.

In a nutshell, Horkheimer’s criticism of neo-Thomism is that it is that since it tries and fails to repurpose old ontologies to the new world, it can’t fulfill its own ambitions as an intellectual system through rigor without losing the theological ambitions that motivate it, the identification of goodness, power, and eternal law. Since it can’t intellectually culminate, it becomes a “dogmatism” that can be coopted disingenuously by social forces.

This is, as I understand it, the essence of Horkheimer’s criticism of everything: That for any intellectual trend or project, unless the philosophical project is allowed to continue to completion within it, it will have its brains slurped out and become zombified by an instrumentalist capitalism that threatens to devolve into devastating world war. Hence, just as neo-Thomism becomes a dogmatism because it would refute itself if it allowed its logic to proceed to completion, so too does positivism become a dogmatism when it identifies the truth with disciplinarily enforced scientific methods. Since, as Horkheimer points out in 1947, these scientific methods are social processes, this dogmatic positivism is another zombie, prone to fads and politics not tracking truth.

I’ve been struggling over the past year or so with similar anxieties about what from my vantage point are prevailing intellectual trends of 2014. Perversely, in my experience the new intellectual identities that emerged to expose scientific procedures as social processes in the 20th century (STS) and establish rhetorics of resistance (cultural studies) have been similarly decapitated, recuperated, and dogmatic. [see 1 2 3].

Are these the hauntings of straw men? This is possible. Perhaps the intellectual currents I’ve witnessed are informal expressions, not serious intellectual work. But I think there is a deeper undercurrent which has turned up as I’ve worked on a paper resulting from this conversation about publics. It hinges on the interpretation of an influential article by Fraser in which she contests Habermas’s notion of the public sphere.

In my reading, Fraser more or less maintains the ideal of the public sphere as a place of legitimacy and reconciliation. For her it is notably inequitable, it is plural not singular, the boundaries of what is public and private are in constant negotiation, etc. But its function is roughly the same as it is for Habermas.

My growing suspicion is that this is not how Fraser is used by cultural studies today. This suspicion began when Fraser was introduced to me; upon reading her work I did not find the objection implicit in the reference to her. It continued as I worked with the comments of a reviewer on a paper. It was recently confirmed while reading Chris Wisniewski’s “Digital Deliberation ?” in Critical Review, vol 25, no. 2, 2013. He writes well:

The cultural-studies scholars and critical theorists interested in diversifying participation through the Internet have made a turn away from this deliberative ideal. In an essay first published in 1990, the critical theorist Nancy Fraser (1999, 521) rejects the idealized model of bourgeois public sphere as defined by Habermas on the grounds that it is exclusionary by design. Because the bourgeois public sphere brackets hierarchies of gender, race, ethnicity, class, etc., Fraser argues, it benefits the interests of dominant groups by default through its elision of socially significant inequalities. Lacking the ability to participate in the dominant discourse, disadvantaged groups establish alternative “subaltern counterpublics”.

Since the ideal speech situation does not acknowledge the socially significant inequalities that generate these counterpublics, Fraser argues for a different goal: a model of participatory democracy in which intercultural communications across socially stratified groups occur in forums that do not elide differences but intead allow diverse multiple publics the opportunity to determine the concerns or good of the public as a whole through “discursive contestations.” Fraser approaches thes subgroups as identity publics and aruges that culture and political debate are essentially power struggles among self-interested subgroups. Fraser’s ideas are similar to those prevalent in cultural studies (see Wisneiwski 2007 and 2010), a relatively young discipline in which her work has been influential.

Fraser’s theoretical model is inconsistent with studies of democratic voting behavior, which indicate that people tend to vote sociotropically, according to a perceived collective interest, and not in facor of their own perceived self-interest (e.g., Kinder and Kiewiet 1981). The argument that so-called “mass” culture excludes the interests of dominated groups in favor of the interests of the elites loses some of its valence if culture is not a site through which self-interested groups vie for their objective interests, but is rather a forum in which democratic citizens debate what constitutes, and the best way to achieve, the collective good. Diversification of discourse ceases to be an end in itself.”

I think Wisneiwski hits the nail on the head here, a nail I’d like to drive in farther. If culture is conceived of as consisting of the contests of self-interested identity groups, as this version of cultural studies does, then it will necessarily see itself as one of many self-interested identities. Cultural studies becomes, by its own logic, a counterpublic that exists primarily to advance its own interests.

But just like neo-Thomism, this positioning decapitates cultural studies by preventing it from intellectually confronting its own limitations. No identity can survive rigorous intellectual interrogation, because all identities are based on contingency, finitude, trauma. Cultural studies adopt and repurpose historical rhetorics of liberation much like neo-Thomists adopted and repurposed historical metaphysics of Christianity. The obsolescence of these rhetorics, like the obsolescence of Thomistic metaphysics, is what makes them dangerous. The rhetoric that maintains its own subordination as a condition of its own identity can never truly liberate, it can only antagonize. Unable to intellectually realize its own purpose, it becomes purposeless and hence coopted and recuperated like other dogmatisms. In particular, it feeds into “the politicization of absolutely everything”, in the language of Ezra Klein’s spot-on analysis of GamerGate. Cultural studies is a powerful ideology because it turns culture into a field of perpetual rivalry with all the distracting drama of reality television. In so doing, it undermines deeper intellectual penetration into the structural conditions of society.

If cultural studies is the neo-Thomism of today, a dogmatist religious revival of the profound theology of the civil rights movement, perhaps it’s the theocratic invocation of ‘algorithms’ that is the new scientism. I would have more to say about it if it weren’t so similar to the old scientism.