Digifesto

Tag: objectivity

Horkheimer and Wiener

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

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

I’m currently reading Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) and Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason (1947). The former I am reading for the Berkeley School of Information Classics reading group. Norbert Wiener was one of the foundational mathematicians of 20th century information technology, a colleague of Claude Shannon. Out of his own sense of social responsibility, he articulated his predictions for the consequences of the technology he developed in Human Use. This work was the foundation of cybernetics, an influential school of thought in the 20th century. Terrell Bynum, in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Computer and Information Ethics“, attributes to Wiener’s cybernetics the foundation of all future computer ethics. (I think that the threads go back earlier, at least through to Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology. (EDIT: Actually, QCT was published, it seems, in 1954, after Weiner’s book.)) It is hard to find a straight answer to the question of what happened to cybernetics?. By some reports, the artificial intelligence community cut their NSF funding in the 60’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

objective properties of text and robot scientists

One problem with having objectivity as a scientific goal is that it may be humanly impossible.

One area where this comes up is in the reading of a text. To read is to interpret, and it is impossible to interpret without bringing ones own concepts and experience to bear on the interpretation. This introduces partiality.

This is one reason why Digital Humanities are interesting. In Digital Humanities, one is using only the objective properties of the text–its data as a string of characters and its metadata. Semantic analysis is reduced to a study of a statistical distribution over words.

An odd conclusion: the objective scientific subject won’t be a human intelligence at all. It will need to be a robot. Its concepts may never be interpretable by humans because any individual human is too small-minded or restricted in their point of view to understand the whole.

Looking at the history of cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, we can see the progression of a science dedicated to understanding the abstract properties of an idealized, objective learner. That systems such as these underly the infrastructure we depend on for the organization of society is a testament to their success.

objectivity is powerful

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

This is too bad because objectivity is great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They don’t though.

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

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

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

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

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