Digifesto

Tag: philosophy

The Shame or Shine Lotto

Consider the following Massively Multiplier On-line Game:

  • The game is strictly opt in. Nobody is forced to play the game.
  • Upon joining, some set of personal details is tracked and saved by the game. Purchasing data, tax records, …hell, legal record, personal messages?
  • Once per day, N players are selected at random and the data available on them are released into the public domain.
  • Members can look up to see whether others are playing the game. In addition to identifying information, they can see what information a player has agreed to have tracked.

It’s the Shame or Shine Lotto! Every day, there is a chance you will be roasted or toasted for the information you’ve agreed to uncertainly share.

Would you play this game?

Defining information with Dretske

I prepared these slides to present Fred Dretske’s paper “The Epistemology of Belief” to a class I’m taking this semester, ‘Concepts of Information’, taught by Paul Duguid and Geoff Nunberg.

Somewhere along the line I realised that if I was put on earth for one reason and one reason only, it was to make slide decks about epistemology.

I’ve had a serious interest in philosophy as a student and as a…hobbyist? can you say that?…for my entire thinking life. I considered going to graduate school for it before tossing the idea for more practical pursuits. So it comes as a delightful surprise that I’ve found an opportunity to read and work with philosophy at a graduate level through my program.

A difficult issue for a “School of Information” is defining what information is. I’ve gathered from conversations with faculty that there is an acknowledged intellectual tussle over the identity of iSchools which hinges in part on the meaning of the word. There seems to me to be roughly two ideologies at play: the cyberneticist ideology that sought to unify Shannon’s information theory, computer science, management science, economics, AI, and psychology under a coherent definition of information on the one hand, and the softer social science view that ‘information’ is a polysemous term which refers variously to newspapers and the stuff mediated by “information technology” in a loose sense but primarily as a social phenomenon.

As I’ve been steeped in the cyberneticist tradition but still consider myself literate in English and capable of recognizing social phenomena, it bothers me that people don’t see all this as just talking about the same thing in different ways.

I figured coming into the program that this was an obvious point that was widely accepted. It’s in a way nice to see that this is controversial and the arguments for this view are either unknown, unarticulated, or obscure, because that means I have some interesting work ahead of me.

This slide deck was a first stab at the problem: tying Dretske’s persuasive account of a qualitative definition of ‘information about’ to the relevant concept of Shannon’s information theory. I hope to see how far I can push this in later work. (At the point where is proves impossible, as opposed to merely difficult or non-obvious, then we’ll have discovered something new!)

Dewey’s Social Ethics

From Elizabeth Andersons’ excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on (John) Dewey’s Moral Philosophy. Emphasis mine:

As a progressive liberal, Dewey advocated numerous social reforms such as promoting the education, employment, and enfranchisement of women, social insurance, the progressive income tax, and laws protecting the rights of workers to organize labor unions. However, he stressed the importance of improving methods of moral inquiry over advocating particular moral conclusions, given that the latter are always subject to revision in light of new evidence.

Thus, the main focus of Dewey’s social ethics concerns the institutional arrangements that influence the capacity of people to conduct moral inquiry intelligently. Two social domains are critical for promoting this capacity: schools, and civil society. Both needed to be reconstructed so as to promote experimental intelligence and wider sympathies. Dewey wrote numerous works on education, and established the famous Laboratory School at the University of Chicago to implement and test his educational theories. He was also a leading advocate of the comprehensive high school, as opposed to separate vocational and college prepatory schools. This was to promote the social integration of different economic classes, a prerequisite to enlarging their mutual understanding and sympathies. Civil society, too, needed to be reconstructed along more democratic lines. This involved not just expanding the franchise, but improving the means of communication among citizens and between citizens and experts, so that public opinion could be better informed by the experiences and problems of citizens from different walks of life, and by scientific discoveries (PP). Dewey regarded democracy as the social embodiment of experimental intelligence informed by sympathy and respect for the other members of society (DE 3, 89–94). Unlike dictatorial and oligarchic societies, democratic ones institutionalize feedback mechanisms (free speech) for informing officeholders of the consequences for all of the policies they adopt, and for sanctioning them (periodic elections) if they do not respond accordingly.

Dewey’s moral epistemology thus leads naturally to his political philosophy. The reconstruction of moral theory is accomplished by replacing fixed moral rules and ends with an experimental method that treats norms for valuing as hypotheses to be tested in practice, in light of their widest consequences for everyone. To implement this method requires institutions that facilitate three things: (1) habits of critical, experimental inquiry; (2) widespread communication of the consequences of instituting norms, and (3) extensive sympathy, so that the consequences of norms for everyone are treated seriously in appraising them and imagining and adopting alternatives. The main institutions needed to facilitate these things are progressive schools and a democratic civil society. Experimentalism in ethics leads to a democratic political philosophy.

My suspicion is that John Dewey’s ethics would provide a substantive philosophical foundation for the latest swathe of open government and “Gov 2.0” initiatives, if anyone bothered looking for one.