“As the body assimilates what is homogeneous to it, so will a man retain what interests him; in other words, what coincides with his system of thought or suits his ends.”
Schopenhauer argued the world is a representation, Vorstellung. His work followed Kant's claim that our knowledge and experience of the world is always indirect. Everything that exists, said Schopenhauer in 1818, exists as an object in relation to a subject.
Fast forward to 1986, the year archie first came on the scene. Part ingenuity, part serendipity, Peter Deutsch and Alan Emtage ended up working their way up the Internet space creating the possibility that became web search. “People are starving for information,” said Deutsch.
At the time, Deutsch was systems manager for the School of Computer Science at McGill University in Montreal. For centuries, libraries and universities have been the places where to acquire knowledge. The appeal of technology for the efficient archive and retrieval of information was compelling.
From humble beginnings, search has become the dominant technology of our time. However, as Schopenhauer noted, “every one has aims, but very few have anything approaching a system of thought.” The need to classify, classify, classify to find things has meant the death of God and ideology.
Facts have to play the role of “god” now;
we must have certainty or the world disappears.
But how do you demonstrate facts when everyone has a different experience? How can we begin to construct arguments when thought itself has become fragmented? Physicist David Bohm said: “you can't arrive at truth if the meaning is incoherent.”
The Myth of Neutral Technology
Shortly after the first successes with archie, Deutsch and Emtage founded Bunyip Information Systems. It was 1992. While free to the entire community, “we had to start charging if we were to continue to support the archie software.” Service providers could pass through the cost of individual queries.
“Once we have more valuable information—not just better formatted filenames in archie, I mean quality reference works and so on—you're going to find people will be willing to pay something for tools that help them tame Cyberspace. This in turn will bring in more information, which will feed the cycle… and we're off to the races.”#
And indeed, that's largely how it happened. Ask Jeeves was the rare search engine to use human editors to try to match search queries.# But we already know how the story ends. Larry Page and Sergey Brin registered Google.com in 1997. A short year later, investor-funded search became available to all—free of charge.
Page and Brin used a system similar to academic paper citations for their algorithm. PageRank determines a website's relevance by the number and the importance of the pages that link to it. Peer review is a key component of academic publishing. Ethical guidelines a critical aspect of peer reviews. But what about the web?
Digital communities existed before blogs became popular. But between 1999 and 2003 the availability of blogging software that was easy to use for non-technical people exploded the number of articles and commentary posted online. PageRank was a valuable tool to visibility. Does peer review exist online?
Many of the tactics used early on—blogrolls, links to relevant sources, conversation threads across blogs, etc.—were soon forgotten to favor automation and scale. While Creative Commons established a legal framework for digital publishing, governance on the Internet became challenging.
The algorithm always gets what it wants—prioritizing activity over all else. Whether the activity is ethical, beneficial, leading to positive change, that is our problem. AdWords and AdSense were Google's answer to making money while keeping search free. Social media followed the same business model.
Technology is not neutral. Danah Boyd is a Partner Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. She says, “As we think about the importance of accountability in algorithmic systems, I want us to keep track of how certain decisions we make will have unexpected ripple effects.”#
To build the tools of accountability will take work and thoughtfulness. In a short span, the world wide web has changed how we read, write, shop, and talk to each other. But have we become more creative, collaborative, communicative, and knowledgeable?
How knowledge compounds
In 2010, Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly published What Technology Wants about the needs technology could help us satisfy. Things like immediacy, personalization, accessibility, findability, and interpretation. We could use technology to provide high-value work. There's also the question of attention.
Kelly believes we overestimate the effects of technology in the short term, but underestimate them in the long term. But we also underestimate the power of exploration. Kelly:
“Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, creating, and exploring. None of these fare well under the scrutiny of productivity. That is why science and art are so hard to fund. But they are also the foundation to long term growth. Yet our notions of jobs, of work, of the economy, don't include a lot of space for wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.”
Knowledge compounds too, but not algorithmically or linearly. Ironically, we still teach a linear curriculum.
The first libraries dating back millennia also consisted of archives, of the earliest form of writing. “We like lists because we don't want to die,” said Umberto Eco, lists create culture. Eco founded of the Department of Media Studies at the University of the Republic of San Marina, was President of the Graduate School for the Study of the Humanities, University of Bologna, and member of the Accademia dei Lincei and an Honorary Fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford.
Eco divided his time between an apartment in Milan and a vacation house near Urbino, Italy—both residences have extensive libraries (30,000 volumes and 20,000 volumes). Books are what I call long-form explorations. Not all, but the enduring ones. Like the Essays of Schopenhauer, Dante's Divina Commedia, and so many more.
“However vast any person's basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that she has not read,” says Italo Calvino. We underutilize the value of compounding knowledge re-reading the classics we've loved. Calvino felt one should read the text directly, rather than try to get meaning from reviews.
But in many cases, we don't. We read summaries, or bits by others, online. A while back, Peter Tunjic asked the question: What happens when answers to all things—individually, politically, socially—exceed the questions posed of all things? Infinite possibilities for explanation reduced to those within the googled universe. Answers exhaust possibility.
In 1980, artificial Intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky wrote that “that intelligence is not the product of any singular mechanism but comes from the managed interaction of a diverse variety of resourceful agents.” The Society of Mind. This is an interesting concept for using the knowledge we already have.
What about discovering new things?
Power of questions
John Seely Brown was Chief Scientist at Xerox Corp. and director of its Palo Alto Research Lab. He's now independent co-chairman of Deloitte Center for the Edge and a visiting scholar at USC. A self-appointed Chief of Confusion, Seely Brown “helps people ask the right questions.”
In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, Seely Brown says:
I think what’s happening in STEM education is a tragedy. Art enables us to see the world in different ways. I’m riveted by how Picasso saw the world. How does being able to imagine and see things differently work hand-in-hand? Art education, and probably music too, are more important than most things we teach. Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical.Yet how are we training tomorrow’s scientists? By boring the hell out of them in formulaic mathematics – and don’t forget I am trained as a theoretical mathematician.
If all we do is go search for answers, that's bad enough without a base of knowledge to evaluate the information we find. But if we can't imagine something new, then we'll keep getting stuck in the current situation. It's a failure to recognize that imagination is the primary gift of human consciousness.
Add to that that to periods of brilliance in human thought seem to follow periods of delusion. Instead of a solid effort to seek clarity and truth, we seem to steer towards what Schopenhauer called “being imposing.” When trying to be brilliant, people often escalate to hyperbolic. There's a good word for it: Sophistry.
Using mere rhetoric to persuade others, sophists rely on complacency. Though we talk about autonomy as an ingrained human need, the majority of people is always waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. Someone with even a superficial answer. Sophistry is how we get stuck in our progress.
Contrast that with philosophy, which offers arguments to establish truth.
We need to work in the real world
A small book by Harry G. Frankfurt captured the highlight accomplishments of sophistry. On Bullshit describes it as a deliberate attempt of the liar to manipulate and subvert the truth. Frankfurt is a professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University.
Politics is a topic that seems to be fertile ground for BS. In his search for explanations, Frankfurt comes across what the Oxford English Dictionary calls bull sessions, defined as “informal conversations or discussion, esp of a group of males.” In his view, what is distinctive about bull sessions is that while the discussion may be intense, the participants understand it is not “for real.”
But those sessions have real world consequences. We need to get better at detecting BS. It's not just a matter of becoming more skeptical. We also need to improve our ability to discern vagueness in statements, think more critically, and work on our verbal intelligence.
When you consider that search, as the dominant technology of our time, drives the need to classify and break down everything into binary code, we have our work cut out for us. Frankfurt himself provided some help with his follow-up book On Truth. In it, he argues that we must be both responsible and devoted to the truth lest we hurt ourselves, others, or the whole of society by creating a world that is essentially too small for us.
One can hope. “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it—always,” said Mahatma Gandhi.
Truth is a staple of religious training—we used to get a weekly dose at Sunday School. The decline in religious observance and the decline in appreciation for and understanding of truth in general seem to mirror each other. As the dominant technology of our time, search has replaced God with facts.
We seek certainty in everything from facts. Truth then has practical utility. But if the meaning of answers and evidence is incoherent, you will not arrive at truth. If meaning is so important to us that we seek it everywhere—at work, in corporations, on vacation, in conversation, alone—then we will need to do things differently.
“Bohr and Einstein probably should have had a dialogue,” says David Bohm. “In a dialogue they might have listened properly to each other's opinion. And perhaps they both would have suspended their opinions, and moved out beyond relativity and beyond quantum theory into something new.” Truth is shared meaning.
But we can get there only when we stop searching for answers and start asking more questions.