Archive for October, 2012

[2b2k] The moment for science

And one more thing about my previous post: I understand that when Heidegger was writing Being and Time in the 1920s, it was important to try to relax our culture’s commitment to scientific objectivity in order to allow more types of truths to appear – more ways that the world shows itself to us.

Almost a hundred years later, with a brand new medium for knowledge, truth, and disclosure, it is time to re-assert science’s privileged (yet still human and imperfect) position as we try to come to agreement across cultures about what we need to do in order to live together on this earth.

In my opinion.

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[2b2k] Facts, truths, and meta-knowledge

Last night I gave a talk at the Festival of Science in Genoa (or, as they say in Italy, Genova). I was brought over by Codice Edizioni, the publisher of the just-released Italian version of Too Big to Know (or, as they say in Italy “La Stanza Intelligente” (or as they say in America, “The Smart Room”)). The event was held in the Palazzo Ducale, which ain’t no Elks Club, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t know what I mean, what I mean is that it’s a beautiful, arched, painted-ceiling room that holds 800 people and one intimidated American.

genova - palazzo ducale


After my brief talk, Serena Danna of Corriere della Serra interviewed me. She’s really good. For example, her first question was: If the facts no longer have the ability to settle arguments the way we hoped they would, then what happens to truth?


Yeah, way to pitch the ol’ softballs, Serena!


I wasn’t satisfied with my answer, which had three parts. (1) There are facts. The world is one way and not all the other ways that it isn’t. You are not free to make up your own facts. [Yes, I'm talking to you, Mitt!] (2) The basing of knowledge primarily on facts is a relatively new phenomenon. (3) I explicitly invoked Heidegger’s concept of truth, with a soupçon of pragmatism’s view of truth as a tool intended to serve a purpose.


Meanwhile, I’ve been watching The Heidegger Circle mailing list contort itself trying to understand Heidegger’s views about the world that existed before humans entered the scene. Was there Being? Were there beings? It seems to me that any answer has to begin by saying, “Of course the world existed before we did.” But not everyone on the list is comfortable with a statement that simple. Some seem to think that acknowledging that most basic fact somehow diminishes Heidegger’s analysis of the relation of Being and disclosure. Yo, Heideggerians! The world shows itself to us as independent of us. We were born into it, and it keeps going after we’ve died. If that’s a problem for your philosophy, then your philosophy is a problem. And for all of the problems with Heidegger’s philosophy, that just isn’t one. (To be fair, no one on the list suggests that the existence of the universe depends upon our awareness of it, although some are puzzled about how to maintain Heidegger’s conception of “world” (which does seem to depend on us) with that which survives our awareness of it. Heidegger, after all, offers phenomenological ontology, so there is a question about what Being looks like when there is no one to show itself to.)


So, I wasn’t very happy with what I said about truth last night. I said that I liked Heidegger’s notion that truth is the world showing itself to us, and it shows itself to us differently depending on our projects. I’ve always liked this idea for a few reasons. First, it’s phenomenologically true: the onion shows itself differently whether you’re intending to cook it, whether you’re trying to grow it as a cash crop, whether you’re trying to make yourself cry, whether you’re trying to find something to throw at a bad actor, etc. Second, because truth is the way the world shows itself, Heidegger’s sense contains the crucial acknowledgement that the world exists independently of us. Third, because this sense of truth look at our projects, it contains the crucial acknowledgement that truth is not independent of our involvement in the world (which Heidegger accurately characterizes not with the neutral term “involvement” but as our caring about what happens to us and to our fellow humans). Fourth, this gives us a way of thinking about truth without the correspondence theory’s schizophrenic metaphysics that tells us that we live inside our heads, and our mental images can either match or fail to match external reality.


But Heidegger’s view of truth doesn’t do the job that we want done when we’re trying to settle disagreements. Heidegger observes (correctly in my and everybody’s opinion) that different fields have different methodologies for revealing the truth of the world. He speaks coldly (it seems to me) of science, and warmly of poetry. I’m much hotter on science. Science provides a methodology for letting the world show itself (= truth) that is reproducible precisely so that we can settle disputes. For settling disputes about what the world is like regardless of our view of it, science has priority, just as the legal system has priority for settling disputes over the law.


This matters a lot not just because of the spectacular good that science does, but because the question of truth only arises because we sense that something is hidden from us. Science does not uncover all truths but it uniquely uncovers truths about which we can agree. It allows the world to speak in a way that compels agreement. In that sense, of all the disciplines and methodologies, science is the closest to giving the earth we all share its own authentic voice. That about which science cannot speak in a compelling fashion across all cultures and starting points is simply not subject to scientific analysis. Here the poets and philosophers can speak and should be heard. (And of course the compulsive force science manifests is far from beyond resistance and doubt.)


But, when we are talking about the fragmenting of belief that the Internet facilitates, and the fact that facts no longer settle arguments across those gaps, then it is especially important that we commit to science as the discipline that allows the earth to speak of itself in its most compelling terms.


Finally, I was happy that last night I did manage to say that science provides a model for trying to stay smart on the Internet because it is highly self-aware about what it knows: it does not simply hold on to true statements, but is aware of the methodology that led us to see those statements as true. This type of meta awareness — not just within the realm of science — is crucial for a medium as open as the Internet.

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[2b2k] Too Big to Know wins World Technology Award

I won the World Technology Award in the field of Media & Journalism for Too Big to Know last night in NYC. Awards are given from among a set of 5-7 nominees in each field, nominated by fellows of the World Technology Summit, which is to say, by previous nominees and winners. So, I’m proud ‘n’ happy. Thank you, WTA!

At the gala, I got to sit with Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg of HASTAC and the MacArthur Foundation, who won in the Education category, so I can say with confidence that at least one award last night was well deserved!

Actually, two. I also briefly saw Tim Wu, who won in the Law category. Not only was that richly deserved, but I can report that Tim looks like he was born to wear a tux. I’m a Tim Wu fan. (I inadvertently let out a “Woohoo!” when his name was announced and then was embarrassed.)

Here’s a complete list of winners.

(Just to be clear, and also to re-boast, this is different from the Get Abstract International Book of the Year award 2b2k won a couple of weeks ago. Please allow me to woohoo myself!)

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[2b2k] When peer review is publishing

As many have noted, we are entering a period in which we have not only traditional peer review, we also have review review after publishing. Generally people seem to mean by this the gathering of stats about usage that can then inform readers and the authors’ institutions about the received value of the works.

But there’s also a sense in which peer review — taken yet more broadly — is not being done before publication, nor after publication, but is the publishing. When I recommend an article to you by sending you the link in an email or by posting it on my blog or in a tweet, I am peer reviewing and publishing at the same time.

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[2b2k] Skepticism about stories

The phrase “story-telling” raises my skeptical scalp wisps. I am a sucker for stories, whether of the Moth/ This American Life sort, or the literary art of, say, a Philip Roth or my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis. But “story-telling” also sometimes refers to a belief that even I consider naive about the power of stories to overcome differences, or to the commercial use of stories to manipulate us.

So, I went to the new “Future of Story Telling” conference with my skeptical hazmat suit on. But, it turned out to be an outstanding event. At the very least it helped me understand my skepticism better.

The event, put on by Charlie Melcher, attracted a great set of about 300 folks, including artists, lots of marketers and advertisers, software designers, scientists, and performers. And it used an interesting format that worked out well: Before the event, the conference made a 5-10 minute video for each of the presenters. (Mine is here.) Attendees were asked to choose three one-hour sessions based on those videos. The sessions began with a viewing of the vids, and then a 10-15 minute informal talk by the speaker. The rest was open discussion. Each speaker held her or his session three times.

I tuned mine after each go-through, of course. By the second time, I was setting up the discussion as follows:

Bill Casebeer was at the conference talking about research that shows that the brain releases empathy-producing chemicals when we hear a story that follows the classic arc. This reaction is universal, and when I had a chance to talk with Bill the night before (he’s a brilliant, enjoyable, and — most of all — patient person) I learned that chimpanzee brains also seem to work this way. So, I began my session by pointing to those findings.

But, there are plenty of natural brain reactions that we work against. For example, if the impulse for revenge were a natural impulse, we would try to thwart it in the name of civilization. Likewise if rape were a natural impulse. (This is the old sociobiology debate from the ‘Seventies.) So, I told my session I wanted to raise two questions, not as a devil’s advocate but because I’m genuinely uncertain. First, should we be resisting our brain’s impulse to see and react to story arcs on the grounds that the story arc often is a simplification to the point of falsification? Second, whether or not we reject the arc, does the Internet offer possibilities for telling radically more complex (and therefore more truthful) stories?

Then, I talked briefly about networked knowledge, because that’s what the organizers wanted me to talk about. Also, it’s a topic I like. So, I looked at Reddit (yes, again) as a place at which we see knowledge exhibited in its complexity, including the inevitable disagreements. My overall point was that our new medium is enabling knowledge to become more appropriately complex. If the Net is doing this to knowledge, perhaps it can and even should do this to story telling.

The groups at all three sessions focused on the question of whether story arcs falsify. I gave them the example of how your life is lived versus how it is retold in a biography. The bio finds an arc. But your life — or at least mine — is far more random and chaotic than that. One group usefully applied this to the concept of a “career,” a term that now we pretty much have to put in quotes. We don’t have careers so much as a series of hops, skips, and jumps. (“Career” has always carried class-implications, as did this discussion.) In fact, since (I’d hypothesized) everything is being reinterpreted as a network of the Internet sort, our path through jobs and among friends is itself beginning to look like a network. Small jobs loosely joined?

Some replied that even if your life does not consist of an heroic arc, every step of the way is a little arc. I’d agree that our experience is to a large degree characterized by intentionality (or, as Heidegger would say, by the fact that we care about what happens). But my understanding of the story arc is that it needs the intervention of an obstacle, but most of our plans go forward without a hitch, if only because we learn to be pretty good plan-makers. Further, I think the arc needs to contain a sense that it has more to say than what it literally says. “I went to a store for apples, but they were out, so I went to a different store” is not yet a story. It has to reveal something about the world or about myself: “I went to the store for apples, and the clerk was incredibly rude. Why can’t people be nice to each other? So, then…” Most of what we do has an intention, but not every intentional act is a story. That’s why I don’t see our lives as composed of little stories. And even if they were, putting those little stories together wouldn’t necessarily make the Big Stories we tell about ourselves true.

Some said that stories are not a matter of truth but of emotion. A woman from Odyssey Networks, a group that promotes interfaith understanding, told a story about hardened criminals tenderly caring for other prisoners. Quite moving. And I wouldn’t diminish the importance of stories for connecting us as creatures that feel, care, suffer, and rejoice. But I did want to raise the ethics of using a form of communication that appeals directly to our lizard brains. (Well, I’m pretty sure that’s the wrong portion of the brain. Lizards probably tell really cold-hearted stories.) I didn’t do a very effective job of raising this issue, but we could balance the prisoners’ story with a million propagandistic anecdotes from politicians (“I was in Phoenix when I met Josie Jones, a workin’ mom strugglin’ to make ends meet…”) and marketers. Maybe we should be really careful about using stories, since they can make us vulnerable to some very flawed thinking. And to be technical, I do worry also that the common ground that story-tellers find often may not be all that common after all. I have little confidence that we experience The Iliad the way the Greeks did.

It turned out that none of the three groups much wanted to talk much about the second question: the possibility of using the Net to tell more complex stories. That’s my fault. I couldn’t make the idea concrete enough because I don’t have a concrete-enough idea. In two of the sessions I did raise the possibility that some online multiplayer games are one place we might begin to look. I think there’s some value in that idea, for stories there are collaborative and emergent. But they also lack the coherence that a narrator brings to a story, and coherence may well be a requirement for a story. There are worthy experiments in having large groups collaborate on a single narrative, but that doesn’t scale stories so that they more accurately represent the chaotic and complex nature of life.

It may well be that stories need to be relatively simple and arced in the middle simply to be stories. And I would hate to lose the stories that come from artists, for great stories — or perhaps I should say truthful stories — transcend the simplicity the form imposes. But I continue to worry that story-telling outside of the aesthetic realm is a simplification that all too often falsifies. So, I wouldn’t want to give up stories. But I would be happier if we approached the form itself with a fundamental wariness.

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[2b2k] Our birds nest future

The always-readworthy Jeremy Wagstaff has a delightful, brief essay that uses our profound ignorance of the quotidian life of the past as a reminder of just how awful we are at predicting — or envisioning — our future.

I also like Jeremy’s essay because I find that I am much more interested in histories of daily life than in broad, sweeping explanations. I consider my lack of broad sweepiness to be a weakness, so I’m not recommending it. But I’m fascinated by how different our lived lives are and have been. And will be.

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[2b2k] Your business needs scholars

My latest column in KMWorld is about why your business needs scholars. In fact, though, it’s about why the idea of scholarship is more helpful than focusing your thinking on knowledge.

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