Alex Wright

Probability, Superstition and Ideology

December 19, 2005

Nick Carr makes the humanist case against Chris Anderson's defense of probabilistic systems like Google and Wikipedia, taking issue with Anderson's argument that qualitative criticisms of these systems fail to recognize the virtues of sacrificing "perfection at the microscale for optimization at the macroscale."

Maybe it's just the Christmas season, but all this talk of omniscience and inscrutability and the insufficiency of our mammalian brains brings to mind the classic explanation for why God's ways remain mysterious to mere mortals: "Man's finite mind is incapable of comprehending the infinite mind of God." Chris presents the web's alien intelligence as something of a secular godhead, a higher power beyond human understanding. Mystical beliefs about the power of technology are nothing new, of course (see: H.G. Wells, Teilhard de Chardin, and more recent apostles of technological transcendalism like Ray Kurzweil). But I'm not sure I agree with Carr that Anderson's faith in distributed systems amounts to a religious conviction. I think it has more to do with ideology.

As I wrote a few months ago in a slightly different context, "Ideas unmoored from the realities of human behavior are the stuff of ideology." Commenting on the hoopla then surrounding tagging systems, I suggested that "it's important to ground these discussions in the human dimension of real people using software; and to apply a healthy dose of skepticism in the face of ideological pronouncements." Anderson's insistence that a theoretical principle - N+1 intelligence - matters more than the occasional failure of a system for individual users - amounts to an ideological conviction.

Anderson's argument also raises a fundamental teleological question: Do we evaluate the benefits of technology in human terms, or in system terms? As an astute commenter on Carr's site named Deborah put it, "The argument that Wikipedia has value as a whole ignores the fact that knowledge only has value when it is operationalized. We do not operationalize the knowledge base of Wikipedia as whole. We can only operationalize the parts." That argument fails, of course, if we take the systems-centric view that the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

In Latin, the word fasces means a bundle of sticks. When you take a bunch of sticks and wrap them together, you get a powerful blunt instrument: a piece of technology more powerful than its individual components. But there's a tradeoff: when you strap a bunch of sticks together, a few sticks around the edges are likely to snap. In ancient Rome, the fasces was a political totem, used by consuls and other important personages as a symbol of their ability to marshall the collective power of the people. Eventually, the word became the etymological root of the term fascism.

The image of a powerful technology emerging through collectivist force, but incurring individual failures along the way, strikes me as a useful metaphor for networked information systems. The ideological rationale for these systems goes something like this: By banding our thoughts and experiences together more tightly, we benefit the greater social body; and if a few individual twigs get fractured around the edges then, well, small price to pay for the glorious revolution.

Now, I'm not arguing that Google and Wikipedia are the instruments of fascism, but I am suggesting that the current wave of relentless optimism surrounding these systems demands a lot more careful scrutiny and critical thinking. Fortunately, we have thoughtful writers like Carr and George Dyson sounding dystopian notes about the present rhetorical boom. In his recent essay Turing's Cathedral, written following a visit to Google, Dyson closes with an apocryphal quote from science fiction writer Simon Ings: "When our machines overtook us, too complex and efficient for us to control, they did it so fast and so smoothly and so usefully, only a fool or a prophet would have dared complain."

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File under: Informatics

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