Applying methods of data science to philosophy

[Firstly, I will admit that this post is part of the problem it diagnoses.] Recently watching Hans Rosling‘s rather fun “The Joy of Stats”, I encountered Microsoft Research‘s Head of Computational Science, Stephen Emmott, discussing how advances in statistics and computation are leading the way towards a new model of science. Where previously, he says, science worked according to experiment and hypothesis, our new ability to process vast amounts of data as never before is in fact opoening up new realms of study, allowing us to make new proposals and even to ask entirely new kinds of questions. We have changed the words, and now we are playing around with the syntax and grammar. (Link to Dr. Nico Sommerdijk of Eindhoven University of Technology discussing the same matter here) Continue reading

Open source, Rawls, and rights

Man survived the fierce test of the Ice Ages because he had the flexibility of mind to recognise inventions and to turn them into communal property.

Jacob BronowskiThe Ascent of Man, p 39

Let us pose a challenge to the prevalent attitude towards intellectual property. The society in which we live exists as a result of previous technological successes in overcoming environmental difficulties. Now, what if we are to posit some new difficulty on a par with the last Ice Ages. It would be a way of asking, with John Rawls,  in what type of society we want to live. How would we ideally cope with flows of information in such a world?

Imagine a new crisis. Take, for example, some purely hypothetical fatal disease with the annual death toll in the millions. (This is surely a stretch to imagine in these advanced and civilised times, but try to suspend disbelief with me) Continue reading

Making politics professional?

What qualifies you best to be a politician? The American political system seems to have made its choice, and accordingly the role is self-selecting: “out of the 535 members of the U.S. Congress, only 22 have science or engineering backgrounds, and of these only two might be considered experienced scientists or engineers.” [Source] Western democracies elsewhere have followed suit, and Ireland is no different. I ask this because Fencingwithkierkegaard rightly poses the question as to why politics is not regulated as a profession, with the following points for discussion: Continue reading

Networks and philosophical style

Does a new subject in philosophy lead to a new style in philosophy? Sometimes it does, because it causes us to drop previous disputes, or to take up preoccupations. This is the content however, as contrasted with its expression. How does new content lead to a new style, and is this only of interest in terms of aesthetics or rhetoric? Does a different style of philosophy imply new thought?

Continue reading

The Whig interpretation of Information: Is open source inevitable? I

The following is an attempt to trace some of the outlines of an element of the ideology of technology, it is not a detailed sociological analysis. The standard political model favoured by many interested in information technologies point to the supposed inevitability of openness. It is a techno-libertarianism that hovers over all discussion, our standard right-on refrain. Certainly it can be regarded as a goal, but more along the lines of a regulating ideal, rather than a Five Year Plan. This is a polite way of saying we don’t back any of this up with action. The argument for openness is in its essence a historical one, which notes that once there had been an information technology that somebody attempted to control, there followed a breakdown of this control, with a free and open exchange following. I draw a parallel with Herbert Butterfield’s

Continue reading

Perfect internet, algorithms and long tails

“There is no standard Google anymore”, “invisible, algorithmic editing of the web”, “The internet is showing us a world we want to see, not what we need to see.” This is what we all glory in, that whatever we want is available to us, the long tail in action. As in the post below, however, the tail has to be attached to something. The long tail says that you can profit from deviating from a norm, but the result of the algorithms that choose for us is that new norm are created. Thus we have the phenomenon of your Facebook page becoming an echo chamber. Such algorithmic editing has swallowed wholesale the arguments behind generation me, as well as the result of the culture wars where all norms are negative. What we have, then, is software as a crypto-morality. “There cannot be such a thing as a norm”, this narrative tells us, “because nobody has a right to tell me what’s normal!” There is a confusion in our conceptual apparatus, because a quantitive norm is being interpreted as a qualitative norm. There is a case where there is a cross-over, as Hegel tells us, but basic exchange of information requires this standard in terms of brute numbers. There is not a political or ethical agenda to this concept of the numerical norm.
The assumption behind algorithmic editing is that there is a perfect search result. It is a cybernetic version of Plato’s forms. There cannot be such a perfect internet experience, however, and we mislead ourselves in even imagining it is impossible. Perfect, in the sense of Lt. perfectus implies completion, of something being finished. This is nonsense, and so perhaps the ideology of perfection that underlies the thought and practice of  information technologies should be reminded of the irreducible reality of noise, of that which does not necessarily communicate a message, but without which the message cannot be communicated. We need to be able to go for a stroll with no particular destination in mind. We need that element of play in the hard sense, not hippy-dippy “y’know like whatever man”. StumbleUpon curiously tries to inhere play into an algorithm, but for me it lacks that spookily magic sense of achievement when you find something that hasn’t been linked by a thousand others already. We must realise there is a fundamental and structural contradiction in terms by attempting to make our online environment perfect for us in all ways because this leads to the isolation everyone on their own personal desert island. This simply establishes us in our own limits. Where then do we meet communally? Where do we have arguments? Where do we hear new stories, or jokes, or gossip? We need to have a norm from which we deviate, we need to have a same for there to be difference.

Is open source inevitable? II

[If open source is to have its day, some implications must be examined]

Technologies of privacy:

  • Old style : passive, reactive, the default position. 
  • New versions?: Opt-in, active privacy; specifically designed ways of deciding what we share, and with whom.

Transition away from previous economic models. Manufacturing and the mass ownership of capital has been on the wane for generations. Consider the MIT model of spinning-off industries. According to this study “Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT”, if one were to regard companies developed by MIT alumni, collectively they would form the 11th largest economy in the world. Technologies must be proven, thus they must be peer-reviewed as well as tested by the market. If everybody can use the same ideas (goodbye proprietary anything), if open source and the intellectual commons get their day, then the matter of ‘economic viability’ is set aside in favour of “technical viability” and ‘environmental viability’. The new models will have to incorporate recognition that there are diseconomies of scale, and what we called economies of scale were all too often a fetishization of size. This is a realization from the realm of network theory, which brings the long tail to bear on our everyday lives. It is not merely a niche element – the long tail is not long tail, as it were. (E.F. Schumacher had an intimation of this in his collection of essays, Small is Beautiful.)

How do we then differentiate between old and new? It becomes a matter of serviceWill digital mean that we are all eventually a part of the service economy? We may be able to set our businesses apart according to how we deal with our customers. It may be a matter of approach rather than cost. A fully open source world, with respect for the intellectual commons, is utopian. Too much seems to stand in its way, but elements of this can be used to consider alternatives to developing nations making the mistakes that the industrial and post-industrial nations have made. Consider the principle of the long tail applied to national economies. Of course there will factors that lead a country to be wealthy by virtue of some natural resource, as long as unsustainable practices are maintained, but an open principle towards information will in theory allow innovation to take place anywhere. We see this in the emergence of ‘regional hubs’ and ‘centres of excellence’, but the best example yet, in terms of something that will actually last (unlike Dubai), is Singapore. CNN has fifty reasons to account for this (about 20 are compelling, but that’s enough for me). For long enough have people considered the first part of McLuhan’s “Global Village”. We need now to give greater attention to the ‘village’ part. That is the locus of differentiation, and of what we can manage, to make our actions environmentally and socially sound.