Monthly Archives: July 2010
…but you can go ahead and waste everybody else – according to Google’s suggest function at least:
This is interesting because it is very obvious that Google erases certain queries in their suggest function (porn, etc.) and the idea that the Internet would “make” suggestible teenagers kill themselves is a recurring and media-fed scare that, as a consequence, is one of the few domains where censoring is near consensual. What I find interesting though is that all these other carnage scenarios do not get the DELETE FROM treatment, although one may argue that killing oneself is not more condemnable than killing somebody else.
But independently of this philosophical question (the only one worth pondering according to Camus, remember?), Google suggest is yet another way to query the closest thing to god there is: Google’s database; and the way certain queries are removed, most certainly by hand (BTW, “je veux me” on google.fr DOES suggest that you may want to end your life)…
Arstechnica is one of the reasons why I believe that there is a future for quality journalism online. Not only because they produce great copy but also because it is one of the few places on the Internet where I don’t want to start maiming myself when I accidentally stumble over the article comments. Ars talks about technology, sure, but there is more and more content on science and really great, well researched pieces on wedge topics (“wedgy” mostly in the US, but spreading) like climate change and evolution. In this article on the basic conceptual differences between studying weather and climate, I stumbled over a comment that I would like to (and probably will) frame and hang on my wall. User Andrei Juan writes:
Regarding the author’s remarks made in the first few paragraphs of the article about comments and commenters, it seems to me that the number of people who post comments to online articles is (perhaps to a lesser extent here on ArsTechnica) usually much larger than the number of people whose education — formal or not — allows them to understand the article well, let alone make meaningful comments.
This is, I think, but one manifestation of many people’s tendency to express themselves in many more situations than when they have something to express. Turned into habit, this leads to confusions like the one discussed by the article, which are IMO a natural outcome of situations in which people who barely passed their high school math and physics tests develop their own opinions (or parrot those of their peers) about topics like dynamic systems. Moreover, put this together with the openness of an online “debate” — which lures people into feeling welcome to discussions where they’re utterly out of their depth yet don’t realize it — and another interesting specimen appears: the person who’s opinionated without really having an opinion.
On soccer fields, we hear these people blowing in vuvuzelas; in the comment sections of online articles though, that option is unavailable, so they’re only left with (ab)using the “Leave a comment” option. Could we, perhaps, eliminate most meaningless comments by adding a button labeled “Blow a vuvuzela” next to the one that says “Leave a comment”?…
In that sense, the highly disturbing “like” and “retweet” buttons one can find on so many sites now may actually have the boon to prevent some people from posting a comment. Not the sophistication of Slashdot‘s karma based moderation system but potentially effective…
Over the last year, I have been reading loads of books in and on Information Science, paying special attention to key texts in the (pre)history of the discipline. Fritz Machlup and Una Mansfield’s monumental anthology The Study of Information (Wiley & Sons, 1983) has been a pleasure to read and there are several passages in the foreword that merit a little commentary. I have always wondered why Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication from 1948 has been such a reference point in the discipline I started out in, communication science. Talking about purely technological problems and pumped with formulas than very, very few social science scholars could make sense of, the whole things seems like a misunderstanding. The simplicity and clearness of the schema on page two – which has been built into the canonical sender-receiver model – cannot be the only reason for the exceptional (mostly second or third hand) reception the text has enjoyed. In Machlup & Mansfield’s foreword one can find some strong words on the question of why a work on engineering problems that excludes even the slightest reference to matters of human understanding came to be cited in probably every single introduction to communication science:
“When scholars were chiefly interested in cognitive information, why did they accept a supposedly scientific definition of ‘information apart from meaning’? One possible explanation is the fact that they were impressed by a definition that provided for measurement. To be sure, measurement was needed for the engineering purposes at hand; but how could anybody believe that Shannon’s formula would also measure information in the sense of what one person tells another by word of mouth, in writing, or in print?
We suspect that the failure to find, and perhaps impossibility of finding, any ways of measuring information in this ordinary sense has induced many to accept measurable signal transmission, channel capacity, or selection rate, misnamed amount of information, as a substitute or proxy for information. The impressive slogan, coined by Lord Kelvin, that ‘science is measurement’ has persuaded many researchers who were anxious to qualify as scientists to start measuring things that cannot be measured. As if under a compulsion, they looked for an operational definition of some aspect of communication or information that stipulated quantifiable operations. Shannon’s formula did exactly that; here was something related to information that was objectively measurable. Many users of the definition were smart enough to realize that the proposed measure – perfectly suited for electrical engineering and telecommunication – did not really fit their purposes; but the compulsion to measure was stronger than their courage to admit that they were not operating sensibly.” (p. 52)
For Machlup & Manfield – who, as trained (neoclassical) economists, should not be deemed closet postmodernists – this compulsion to measure is connected to implicit hierarchies in academia where mathematical rationality reigns supreme. A couple of pages further, the authors’ judgment becomes particularly harsh:
“This extension of information theory, as developed for communication engineering, to other quite different fields has been a methodological disaster – though the overenthusiastic extenders did not see it, and some of them, who now know that it was an aberration, still believe that they have learned a great deal from it. In actual fact, the theory of signal transmission or activating impulses has little or nothing to teach that could be extended of applied to human communication, social behavior, or psychology, theoretical or experimental.” (p. 56)
Shannon himself avoided the term “information theory” and his conception of communication obviously had nothing to do with what the term has come to mean in the social sciences and general discourse. But the need to show that the social sciences could be “real” sciences in search of laws formulated in mathematical terms proved stronger than the somewhat obvious epistemological mismatch.
Like many classic texts, Machlup & Manfield’s work offers a critique that is not based on dismissal or handbag relativism but on deep engagement with the complexities of the subject matter and long experience with interdisciplinary work, which, necessarily, makes one bump into unfamiliar concepts, methods, ontological preconceptions, modes of reasoning, vectors of explanation and epistemological urges (what is your knowledge itch? how do you want to scratch it?). The Study of Information is a pleasure to read because it brings together very different fields without proposing some kind of unifying meta-concept or imperialist definition of what science – the quest for knowledge – should look like.