Digifesto

Tag: positivism

Appearance, deed, and thing: meta-theory of the politics of technology

Flammarion engraving

Much is written today about the political and social consequences of technology. This writing often maintains that this inquiry into politics and society is distinct from the scientific understanding that informs the technology itself. This essay argues that this distinction is an error. Truly, there is only one science of technology and its politics.

Appearance, deed, and thing

There are worthwhile distinctions made between how our experience of the world feels to us directly (appearance), how we can best act strategically in the world (deed), and how the world is “in itself” or, in a sense, despite ourselves (individually) (thing).

Appearance

The world as we experience it has been given the name “phenomenon” (late Latin from Greek phainomenon ‘thing appearing to view’) and so “phenomenology” is the study of what we colloquially call today our “lived experience”. Some anthropological methods are a kind of social phenomenology, and some scholars will deny that there is anything beyond phenomenology. Those that claim to have a more effective strategy or truer picture of the world may have rhetorical power, powers that work on the lived experience of the more oppressed people because they have not been adequately debunked and shown to be situated, relativized. The solution to social and political problems, to these scholars, is more phenomenology.*

Deed

There are others that see things differently. A perhaps more normal attitude is that the outcomes of ones actions are more important that how the world feels. Things can feel one way now and another way tomorrow; does it much matter? If one holds some beliefs that don’t work when practically applied, one can correct oneself. The name for this philosophical attitude is pragmatism, (from Greek pragma, ‘deed’). There are many people, including some scholars, who find this approach entirely sufficient. The solution to social and political problems is more pragmatism. Sometimes this involves writing off impractical ideas and the people who hold them either useless or as mere pawns. It is their loss.

Thing

There are others that see things still differently. A perhaps diminishing portion of the population holds theories of how the world works that transcend both their own lived experience and individual practical applications. Scientific theories about the physical nature of the universe, though tested pragmatically and through the phenomena apparent to the scientists, are based in a higher claim about their value. As Bourdieu (2004) argues, the whole field of science depends on the accepted condition that scientists fairly contend for a “monopoly on the arbitration of the real”. Scientific theories are tested through contest, with a deliberate effort by all parties to prove their theory to be the greatest. These conditions of contest hold science to a more demanding standard than pragmatism, as results of applying a pragmatic attitude will depend on the local conditions of action. Scientific theories are, in principle, accountable to the real (from late Latin realis, from Latin res ‘thing’); these scientists may
be called ‘realists’ in general, though there are many flavors of realism as, appropriately, theories of what is real and how to discover reality have come and gone (see post-positivism and critical realism, for example).

Realists may or may not be concerned with social and political problems. Realists may ask: What is a social problem? What do solutions to these problems look like?

By this account, these three foci and their corresponding methodological approaches are not equivalent to each other. Phenomenology concerns itself with documenting the multiplicity of appearances. Pragmatism introduces something over and above this: a sorting or evaluation of appearances based on some goals or desired outcomes. Realism introduces something over and above pragmatism: an attempt at objectivity based on the contest of different theories across a wide range of goals. ‘Disinterested’ inquiry, or equivalently inquiry that is maximally inclusive of all interests, further refines the evaluation of which appearances are valid.

If this account sounds disparaging of phenomenology as merely a part of higher and more advanced forms of inquiry, that is truly how it is intended. However, it is equally notable that to live up to its own standard of disinterestedness, realism must include phenomenology fully within itself.

Nature and technology

It would be delightful if we could live forever in a world of appearances that takes the shape that we desire of it when we reason about it critically enough. But this is not how any but the luckiest live.

Rather, the world acts on us in ways that we do not anticipate. Things appear to us unbidden; they are born, and sometimes this is called ‘nature’ (from Latin natura ‘birth, nature, quality,’ from nat- ‘born’). The first snow of Winter comes as a surprise after a long warm Autumn. We did nothing to summon it, it was always there. For thousands of years humanity has worked to master nature through pragmatic deeds and realistic science. Now, very little of nature has been untouched by human hands. The stars are still things in themselves. Our planetary world is one we have made.

“Technology” (from Greek tekhnologia ‘systematic treatment,’ from tekhnē ‘art, craft’) is what we call those things that are made by skillful human deed. A glance out the window into a city, or at the device one uses to read this blog post, is all one needs to confirm that the world is full of technology. Sitting in the interior of an apartment now, literally everything in my field of vision except perhaps my own two hands and the potted plant are technological artifacts.

Science and technology studies: political appearances

According to one narrative, Winner (1980) famously asked the galling question “Do artifacts have politics?” and spawned a field of study** that questions the social consequences of technology. Science and Technology Studies (STS) is, purportedly, this field.
The insight this field claims as their own is that technology has social impact that is politically interesting, the specifics of this design determine these impacts, and that the social context of the design therefore influences the consequences of the technology. At its most ambitious, STS attempts to take the specifics of the technology out of the explanatory loop, showing instead how politics drives design and implementation to further political ends.

Anthropological methods are popular among STS scholars, who often commit themselves to revealing appearances that demonstrate the political origins and impacts of technology. The STS researcher might asked, rhetorically, “Did you know that this interactive console is designed and used for surveillance?”

We can nod sagely at these observations. Indeed, things appear to people in myriad ways, and critical analysis of those appearances does expose that there is a multiplicity of ways of looking at things. But what does one do with this picture?

The pragmatic turn back to realism

When one starts to ask the pragmatic question “What is to be done?”, one leaves the domain of mere appearances and begins to question the consequences of one’s deeds. This leads one to take actions and observe the unanticipated results. Suddenly, one is engaging in experimentation, and new kinds of knowledge are necessary. One needs to study organizational theory to understand the role of h technology within a firm, economics to understand how it interacts with the economy. One quickly leaves the field of study known as “science and technology studies” as soon as one begins to consider ones practical effects.

Worse (!), the pragmatist quickly discovers that discovering the impact of ones deeds requires an analysis of probabilities and the difficulty techniques of sampling data and correcting for bias. These techniques have been proven through the vigorous contest of the realists, and the pragmatist discovers that many tools–technologies–have been invented and provisioned for them to make it easier to use these robust strategies. The pragmatist begins to use, without understanding them, all the fruits of science. Their successes are alienated from their narrow lived experience, which are not enough to account for the miracles the= world–one others have invented for them–performs for them every day.

The pragmatist must draw the following conclusions. The world is full of technology, is constituted by it. The world is also full of politics. Indeed, the world is both politics and technology; politics is a technology; technology is form of politics. The world that must be mastered, for pragmatic purposes, is this politico-technical*** world.

What is technical about the world is that it is a world of things created through deed. These things manifest themselves in appearances in myriad and often unpredictable ways.

What is political about the world is that it is a contest of interests. To the most naive student, it may be a shock that technology is part of this contest of interests, but truly this is the most extreme naivete. What adolescent is not exposed to some form of arms race, whether it be in sports equipment, cosmetics, transportation, recreation, etc. What adult does not encounter the reality of technology’s role in their own business or home, and the choice of what to procure and use.

The pragmatist must be struck by the sheer obviousness of the observation that artifacts “have” politics, though they must also acknowledge that “things” are different from the deeds that create them and the appearances they create. There are, after all, many mistakes in design. The effects of technology may as often be due to incompetence as they are to political intent. And to determine the difference, one must contest the designer of the technology on their own terms, in the engineering discourse that has attempted to prove which qualities of a thing survive scrutiny across all interests. The pragmatist engaging the politico-technical world has to ask: “What is real?”

The real thing

“What is real?” This is the scientific question. It has been asked again and again for thousands of years for reasons not unlike those traced in this essay. The scientific struggle is the political struggle for mastery over our own politico-technical world, over the reality that is being constantly reinvented as things through human deeds.

There are no short cuts to answering this question. There are only many ways to cop out. These steps take one backward into striving for ones local interest or, further, into mere appearance, with its potential for indulgence and delusion. This is the darkness of ignorance. Forward, far ahead, is a horizon, an opening, a strange new light.

* This narrow view of the ‘privilege of subjectivity’ is perhaps a cause of recent confusion over free speech on college campuses. Realism, as proposed in this essay, is a possible alternative to that.

** It has been claimed that this field of study does not exist, much to the annoyance of those working within it.

*** I believe this term is no uglier than the now commonly used “sociotechnical”.

References

Bourdieu, Pierre. Science of science and reflexivity. Polity, 2004.

Winner, Langdon. “Do artifacts have politics?.” Daedalus (1980): 121-136.

data science is not positivist, it’s power

Naively, we might assume that contemporary ‘data science’ is a form of positivist or post-positivist science. The scientist gathers data and subsumes it under logical formulae–models with fitted parameters. Indeed this is the case when data science is applied to natural phenomena, such as stars or the human genome.

The question of what kind of science ‘data science’ is becomes much more complex when we start to look at its application to social phenomena. This includes its application to the management of industrial and commercial technology–the so called “Internet of Things“. (Technology in general, and especially technology as situated socially, being a social phenomenon.)

There are (at least) two reasons why data science in these social domains is not strictly positivist.

The first is that, according to McKinsey’s Michael Chui, data science in the Internet of Things context is main about either real-time control or anomaly detection. Neither of these depends on the kind of nomothetic orientation that positivism requires. The former requires only an objective function over inputs to guide the steering of the dynamic system. The latter requires only the detection of deviation from historically observed patterns.

‘Data science’ applied in this context isn’t actually about the discovery of knowledge at all. It is not, strictly speaking, a science. Rather, it is a process through which the operations of existing technologies are related and improved by further technological interventions. Robust positivist engineering knowledge is applied to these cases. But however much the machines may ‘learn’, what they learn is not propositional.

Perhaps the best we can say is that ‘data science’ in this context is the science of techniques for making these kinds of interventions. As learning these techniques depends on mathematical rigor and empirical prototyping, we can say perhaps of the limited sense of ‘pure’ (not applied) data science that it is a positivist science.

But the second reason why data science is not positivist comes about as a result of its application. The problem is that when systems controlled by complex computational processes interact, the result is a more complex system. In adversarial cases, the interacting complex systems become the subject matter of cybersecurity research, towards which data science is one application. But as soon as on starts to study phenomena that are aware of the observer and can act in ways that respond to its presence, you get out of positivist territory.

A better way to think about data science might be to think of it in terms of perception. In, the visual system, data that comes in through the eye goes through many steps of preprocessing before it becomes the subject of attention. Visual representations feed into the control mechanisms of movement.

If we see data science not as a positivist attempt to discover natural laws, but rather as an extension of agency by expanding powers of perception and training skillful control, then we can get a picture of data science that’s consistent with theories of situated and embodied cognition.

These theories of situated and embodied cognition are perhaps the best contenders for what can displace the dominant paradigm as imagined by critics of cognitive science, economics, etc. Rather than being a rejection of explanatory power of naturalistic theories of information processing, these theories extend naive theories to embrace the complexity of how agents cognition is situated in a body in time, space, and society.

If we start to think of ‘data science’ not as a kind of natural science but as the techniques and tools for extending the information processing that is involved in ones individual or collective agency, then we can start to think about data science as what it really is: power.

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.