Category Archives: critique
Some debates are just so much older than our short forgetful minds allow us to recognize. In 1965 Jacques Barzun (still alive today at a biblical 102!) made the following statement:
What have the humanities been doing for thirty-five years except to do exactly what a computer would do, only with their own unaided card indexes and fountain pens? They have taken apart poetry, they have taken apart novels, they have counted images, they have followed symbols that are sometimes non-existent, they have destroyed their own subject matter by a pseudo-computer-like approach, and now they have only themselves to blame if they have to learn the tricks and the jargon of computerizing. (Jacques Barzun at a conference at Yale University, cited in. Taviss (ed.), The Computer Impact, 1970, p.199)
While I have not found the original document of Barzun’s talk, Bowler (ed.), Computers in Humanistic Research, 1967, p.232 has a summary of his three main points of critique:
First is the assumption of a false relation between the units defined and written and the reality they are supposed to represent. For example, 20 years ago, someone attempted to study genius by selecting names from Who’s Who in America, as being indicative of the quality of genius. Second is the fallacy of assessing importance by weight or numbers. The speaker mentioned a published census, again some 20 years ago, which indicated that the number of brownstone or frame houses in New York was much larger than the number of skyscrapers, giving the erroneous impression that the former represented the city’s characteristic architectural form. The third error is the attribution of meaning based upon only a partial study of the object in question. Two conspicuous examples of the faulty attribution of meaning to partial signs are the cases of machine translation and the objective tests given to school children and the people in business.
Would it be very hard to find contemporary examples that fit these three points?
…is so much easier if you’ve got a couple of popular pages to advertise on…
…and another one…
…browser wars all over again…
My colleague Theo Röhle and I went to the Computational Turn conference this week. While I would have preferred to hear a bit more on truly digital research methodology (in the fully scientific sense of the word “method”), the day was really quite interesting and the weather unexpectedly gorgeous. Most of the papers are available on the conference site, make sure to have a look. The text I wrote with Theo tried to structure some of the epistemological challenges and problems to take into account when working with digital methods. Here’s a tidbit:
…digital technology is set to change the way scholars work with their material, how they “see” it and interact with it. The question is, now, how well the humanities are prepared for these transformations. If there truly is a paradigm shift on the horizon, we will have to dig deeper into the methodological assumptions that are folded into the new tools. We will need to uncover the concepts and models that have carried over from different disciplines into the programs we employ today…
This spring worked on an R&D project that was really quite interesting but – as it happens with projects – took up nearly all of my spare time. La montre verte is based on the idea that pollution measurement can be brought down to street level if sensors can be made small enough to be carried around by citizens. Together with a series of partners from the private sector, the CiTu group of my laboratory came up with the idea to put an ozone sensor and a microphone (to measure noise levels) into a watch. That way, the device is not very intrusive and still in direct contact with the surrounding air. We built about 15 prototypes, based on the fact that currently, Paris’ air quality is measured by only a handful of (really high quality) sensors and even the low resolution devices we have in our watches should therefore be able to complement that data with a geographically more fine grained analysis of noise and pollution levels. The watch produces a georeferenced measurement (a GPS is built into the watch) every second and transmits the data via Bluetooth to a Java application on a portable phone, which then sends every data packet via GPRS to a database server.
My job in the project was to build a Web application that allows people to interact with and make sense of the data produced by the watches. Despite the help from several brilliant students from our professional Masters program, this proved to be a daunting task and I spent *at lot* of time programming. The result is quite OK I believe; the application allows users to explore the data (which is organized in localized “experiments”) in different ways, either in real-time or afterward. With a little more time (we had only about three month for the whole project and we got the hardware only days before the first public showcase) we could have done more but I’m still quite content with the result. Especially the heatmap (see image) algorithm was fun to program, I’ve never done a lot of visual stuff so this was new territory and a steep learning curve.
Unfortunately, the strong emphasis on the technological side and the various problems we had (the agile methods one needs for experimental projects are still not understood by many companies) cut down the time for reflection to a minimum and did not allow us to come up with a deeper analysis of the social and political dimensions of what could be called “distributed urban intelligence”. The whole project is embedded in a somewhat naive rhetoric of citizen participation and the idea that technological innovation can solve social problems, in this case matters of urban planning and local governance. A lesson I have learned from this is that the current emphasis in funding on short-term projects that bring together universities and the industry makes it very difficult to carve out an actual space for scientific practice between all the deadlines and the heavy technical demands. And by scientific practice, I mean a *critical* practice that does not only try to base specifications and prototyping on “scientifically valid” approaches to building tools and objects but which includes a reflection on social utility that takes a wider view than just immediate usefulness. In the context of this project, this would have implied a close look at how urban development is currently configured in respect to environmental concerns in order to identify structures of governance and chains of decision-making. This way, the whole project could have targeted issues more clearly and consciously, fine-tuning both the tools and the accompanying discourse to the social dimension it aimed at.
I think my point is that we (at least I) have to learn how to better include a humanities-based research agenda into very high-tech projects. We have known for a long time now that every technical project is in fact a socio-technical enterprise but research funding and the project proposals that it generates are still pretending that the “socio-” part is some fluffy coating that decorates the manly material core where cogs and wire produce tangible effects. As I programmer I know how difficult and time-consuming technical work can be but if there is to be a conscious socio-technical perspective in R&D we have to accept that the fluffy stuff takes even more time – if it is done right. And to do it right means not only reading every book and paper relevant to a subject matter but to take the time to reflect on methodology, to evaluate every step critically, to go back to the drawing board, and to include and to produce theory every step of the way. There is a cost to the scientific method and if that cost is not figured in, the result may still be useful, interesting, thought-provoking, etc. but it will not be truly scientific. I believe that we should defend these costs and show why they are necessary; if we cannot do so, we risk confining the humanities to liberal armchair commentary and the social sciences to ex-post usage analysis.
You’ve probably already read it somewhere (like here or here), amazon.com has blundered a little bit – for a couple of hours the search query “terrorist costume” brought up a single hit, a rubber mask with Obama’s face. I really don’t know how many people would have found out on their own but there’s some buzz going now and there actually is something worth pondering about the case. How it happened is quite easy to reconstruct: amazon allows users to label products (Folksonomy) and includes these tags into their general search engine. So somebody tagged the Obama mask with “terrorist” (“costume” was already a common keyword) and there you go. What I find interesting about this is not that there would be any real political consequence to this matter but the fact that folk-tagging can be as easily dragged into different directions as anything else. I’m currently working on a talk for the Deep Search conference (running late as so often these days) and I’ve been looking at Jimmy Wales’ project Wikia Search which uses community feedback in order to re-rank results. The question for me is how this system would be less pervasive to manipulation or SEO than today’s dominant principle, link analysis. The amazon case shows quite well that when you enter a contested field, there’s going to be fallout and the reason that there isn’t more of it already is probably because the masses are not yet aware of the mischief potential. And I don’t see how the “wisdom of the crowd” principle (whether that is folksonomy, voting, result re-ranking, etc.) cannot be hijacked by a determined individual or company that understands the workings of the algorithms that structure results (in the amazon case you would have needed to know that user tags are used in the general search). So what is really interesting about the Obama mask incident is how things continue at amazon (and other folksonomy based servives) – if user tags can be used to drive traffic to specific products, the marketeers will come in droves the moment the numbers are relevant…
The concept of self-organization has recently made quite a comeback and I find myself making a habit of criticizing it. Quite generally I use this blog to sort things out in my head by writing about them and this is an itch that needs scratching. Fortunately, political scientist Steven Weber, in his really remarkable book The Success of Open Source, has already done all the work. On page 132 he writes:
Self-organization is used too often as a placeholder for an unspecified mechanism. The term becomes a euphemism for “I don’t really understand the mechanism that holds the system together.” That is the political equivalent of cosmological dark matter.
This seems really right on target: self-organization is really quite often just a means to negate organizing principles in the absence of an easily identifiable organizing institution. By speaking of self-organization we can skip closer examination and avoid the slow and difficult process of understanding complex phenomena. Webers second point is perhaps even more important in the current debate about Web 2.0:
Self-organization often evokes an optimistically tinged “state of nature” narrative, a story about the good way things would evolve if the “meddling” hands of corporations and lawyers and governments and bureaucracies would just stay away.
I would go even further and argue that especially the digerati philosophy pushed by Wired Magazine equates self-organization with freedom and democracy. Much of the current thinking about Web 2.0 seems to be quite strongly infused by this mindset. But I believe that there is a double fallacy:
- Much of what is happening on the Social Web is not self-organization in the sense that governance is the result of pure micro-negotiations between agents; technological platforms lay the ground for and shape social and cultural processes that are most certainly less evident than the organizational structures of the classic firm but nonetheless mechanisms that can be described and explained.
- Democracy as a form of governance is really quite dependent on strong organizational principles and the more participative a system becomes, the more complicated it gets. Organizational principles do not need to be institutional in the sense of the different bodies of government; they can be embedded in procedures, protocols or even tacit norms. A code repository like SourceForge.net is quite a complicated system and much of the organizational labor in Open Source is delegated to this and other platforms – coordinating the work effort between that many people would be impossible without it.
My guess is that the concept of self-organization as “state of nature” narrative (nature = good) is much too often used to justify modes of organization that would imply a shift power from traditional institutions of governance to the technological elite (the readers and editors of Wired Magazine). Researchers should therefore be weary of the term and whenever it comes up take an even closer look at the actual mechanisms at work. Self-organization is an explanandum (something that needs to be explainend) and not an explanans (an explanation). This is why I find network science really very interesting. Growth mecanism like preferential attachment allow us to give an analytical content to the placeholder that is “self-organization” and examine, albeit on a very abstract level, the ways in which dynamic systems organize (and distribute power) without central control.