Injustice, Reform, and Optimism

In the serendipitous manner that “way leads on to way” when you’re online, I came across a seemingly obscure essay by G.K. Chesterton titled, “The Vote and the House,” dealing, initially at least, with the rules governing canvassing for votes in England. The essay appeared in a collection published in 1908, although it may have been first published earlier. In any case, there were a few interesting passages that resonated with our present political climate.

The third rule for canvassing, Chesterton noted, told him that he must not “threaten a voter with any consequence whatever.” Chesterton, of course, knows what this intends to mean, but “as verbally and grammatically expressed,” he adds, “it certainly would cover those general threats of disaster to the whole community which are the main matter of political discussion.” For example:

“When a canvasser says that if the opposition candidate gets in the country will be ruined, he is threatening the voters with certain consequences. When the Free Trader says that if Tariffs are adopted the people in Brompton or Bayswater will crawl about eating grass, he is threatening them with consequences. When the Tariff Reformer says that if Free Trade exists for another year St. Paul’s Cathedral will be a ruin and Ludgate Hill as deserted as Stonehenge, he is also threatening. And what is the good of being a Tariff Reformer if you can’t say that? What is the use of being a politician or a Parliamentary candidate at all if one cannot tell the people that if the other man gets in, England will be instantly invaded and enslaved, blood be pouring down the Strand, and all the English ladies carried off into harems. But these things are, after all, consequences, so to speak.”

Ah, it would seem that this passage is, as they say, evergreen.

Then, after discussing the objections of “refined persons” to both canvassing in politics and interviewing in journalism, Chesterton comes to this conclusion:

“The whole error in both cases lies in the fact that the refined persons are attacking politics and journalism on the ground of vulgarity. Of course, politics and journalism are, as it happens, very vulgar. But their vulgarity is not the worst thing about them. Things are so bad with both that by this time their vulgarity is the best thing about them. Their vulgarity is at least a noisy thing; and their great danger is that silence that always comes before decay. The conversational persuasion at elections is perfectly human and rational; it is the silent persuasions that are utterly damnable.”

That whole paragraph is worth reading (link below).

Finally, I’ll leave you with the paragraph that was my impetus for writing this post in the first place. It’s a provocative reflection on the relative merits of optimism and pessimism with regards to reforming injustice. I pass it along to you as someone who does not think of himself as an optimist, generally speaking.

“For, in order that men should resist injustice, something more is necessary than that they should think injustice unpleasant. They must think injustice absurd; above all, they must think it startling. They must retain the violence of a virgin astonishment. That is the explanation of the singular fact which must have struck many people in the relations of philosophy and reform. It is the fact (I mean) that optimists are more practical reformers than pessimists. Superficially, one would imagine that the railer would be the reformer; that the man who thought that everything was wrong would be the man to put everything right. In historical practice the thing is quite the other way; curiously enough, it is the man who likes things as they are who really makes them better. The optimist Dickens has achieved more reforms than the pessimist Gissing. A man like Rousseau has far too rosy a theory of human nature; but he produces a revolution. A man like David Hume thinks that almost all things are depressing; but he is a Conservative, and wishes to keep them as they are. A man like Godwin believes existence to be kindly; but he is a rebel. A man like Carlyle believes existence to be cruel; but he is a Tory. Everywhere the man who alters things begins by liking things. And the real explanation of this success of the optimistic reformer, of this failure of the pessimistic reformer, is, after all, an explanation of sufficient simplicity. It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with a startled indignation. When the pessimist looks at any infamy, it is to him, after all, only a repetition of the infamy of existence. The Court of Chancery is indefensible—like mankind. The Inquisition is abominable—like the universe. But the optimist sees injustice as something discordant and unexpected, and it stings him into action. The pessimist can be enraged at wrong; but only the optimist can be surprised at it.”

You can read the whole essay here, although I couldn’t tell you why it was classified as a “short story.”

Fit the Tool to the Person, Not the Person to the Tool

I recently had a conversation with a student about the ethical quandaries raised by the advent of self-driving cars. Hypothetically, for instance, how would a self-driving car react to a pedestrian who stepped out in front of it? Whose safety would it be programmed to privilege?

The relatively tech-savvy student was unfazed. Obviously this would only be a problem until pedestrians were forced out of the picture. He took it for granted that the recalcitrant human element would be eliminated as a matter of course in order to perfect the technological system. I don’t think he took this to be a “good” solution, but he intuited the sad truth that we are more likely to bend the person to fit the technological system than to design the system to fit the person.

Not too long ago, I made a similar observation:

… any system that encourages machine-like behavior from its human components, is a system poised to eventually eliminate the human element altogether. To give it another turn, we might frame it as a paradox of complexity. As human beings create powerful and complex technologies, they must design complex systemic environments to ensure their safe operation. These environments sustain further complexity by disciplining human actors to abide by the necessary parameters. Complexity is achieved by reducing human action to the patterns of the system; consequently, there comes a point when further complexity can only be achieved by discarding the human element altogether. When we design systems that work best the more machine-like we become, we shouldn’t be surprised when the machines ultimately render us superfluous.

A few days ago, Elon Musk put it all very plainly:

“Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk believes that cars you can control will eventually be outlawed in favor of ones that are controlled by robots. The simple explanation: Musk believes computers will do a much better job than us to the point where, statistically, humans would be a liability on roadways [….] Musk said that the obvious move is to outlaw driving cars. ‘It’s too dangerous,’ Musk said. ‘You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine.'”

Mind you, such a development, were it to transpire, would be quite a boon for the owner of a company working on self-driving cars. And we should also bear in mind Dale Carrico’s admonition “to consider what these nonsense predictions symptomize in the way of present fears and desires and to consider what present constituencies stand to benefit from the threats and promises these predictions imply.”

If autonomous cars become the norm and transportation systems are designed to accommodate their needs, it will not have happened because of some force inherent in the technology itself. It will happen because interested parties will make it happen, with varying degrees of acquiescence from the general public.

This was precisely the case with the emergence of the modern highway system that we take for granted. Its development was not a foregone conclusion. It was heavily promoted by government and industry. As Walter Lippmann observed during the 1939 World’s Fair, “General motors has spent a small fortune to convince the american public that if it wishes to enjoy the full benefit of private enterprise in motor manufacturing, it will have to rebuild its cities and its highways by public enterprise.”

Consider as well the film below produced by Dow Chemicals in support of the 1956 Federal Aid-Highway Act:

Whatever you think about the virtues or vices of the highway system and a transportation system designed premised on the primacy the automobile, my point is that such a system did not emerge in a cultural or political vacuum. Choices were made; political will was exerted; money was spent. So it is now, and so it will be tomorrow.

Data-Driven Regimes of Truth

Below are excerpts from three items that came across my browser this past week. I thought it useful to juxtapose them here.

The first is Andrea Turpin’s review in The Hedgehog Review of Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War, a new book by Andrew Jewett about the role of science as a unifying principle in American politics and public policy.

“Jewett calls the champions of that forgotten understanding ‘scientific democrats.’ They first articulated their ideas in the late nineteenth century out of distress at the apparent impotence of culturally dominant Protestant Christianity to prevent growing divisions in American politics—most violently in the Civil War, then in the nation’s widening class fissure. Scientific democrats anticipated educating the public on the principles and attitudes of scientific practice, looking to succeed in fostering social consensus where a fissiparous Protestantism had failed. They hoped that widely cultivating the habit of seeking empirical truth outside oneself would produce both the information and the broader sympathies needed to structure a fairer society than one dominated by Gilded Age individualism.

Questions soon arose: What should be the role of scientific experts versus ordinary citizens in building the ideal society? Was it possible for either scientists or citizens to be truly disinterested when developing policies with implications for their own economic and social standing? Jewett skillfully teases out the subtleties of the resulting variety of approaches in order to ‘reveal many of the insights and blind spots that can result from a view of science as a cultural foundation for democratic politics.’”

The second piece, “When Fitbit is the Expert,” appeared in The Atlantic. In it, Kate Crawford discusses how data gathered by wearable devices can be used for and against its users in court.

“Self-tracking using a wearable device can be fascinating. It can drive you to exercise more, make you reflect on how much (or little) you sleep, and help you detect patterns in your mood over time. But something else is happening when you use a wearable device, something that is less immediately apparent: You are no longer the only source of data about yourself. The data you unconsciously produce by going about your day is being stored up over time by one or several entities. And now it could be used against you in court.”

[….]

“Ultimately, the Fitbit case may be just one step in a much bigger shift toward a data-driven regime of ‘truth.’ Prioritizing data—irregular, unreliable data—over human reporting, means putting power in the hands of an algorithm. These systems are imperfect—just as human judgments can be—and it will be increasingly important for people to be able to see behind the curtain rather than accept device data as irrefutable courtroom evidence. In the meantime, users should think of wearables as partial witnesses, ones that carry their own affordances and biases.”

The final excerpt comes from an interview with Mathias Döpfner in the Columbia Journalism Review. Döfner is the CEO of the largest publishing company in Europe and has been outspoken in his criticisms of American technology firms such as Google and Facebook.

“It’s interesting to see the difference between the US debate on data protection, data security, transparency and how this issue is handled in Europe. In the US, the perception is, ‘What’s the problem? If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. We can share everything with everybody, and being able to take advantage of data is great.’ In Europe it’s totally different. There is a huge concern about what institutions—commercial institutions and political institutions—can do with your data. The US representatives tend to say, ‘Those are the back-looking Europeans; they have an outdated view. The tech economy is based on data.’”

Döpfner goes out of his way to indicate that he is a regulatory minimalist and that he deeply admires American-style tech-entrepreneurship. But ….

“In Europe there is more sensitivity because of the history. The Europeans know that total transparency and total control of data leads to totalitarian societies. The Nazi system and the socialist system were based on total transparency. The Holocaust happened because the Nazis knew exactly who was a Jew, where a Jew was living, how and at what time they could get him; every Jew got a number as a tattoo on his arm before they were gassed in the concentration camps.”

Perhaps that’s a tad alarmist, I don’t know. The thing about alarmism is that only in hindsight can it be definitively identified.

Here’s the thread that united these pieces in my mind. Jewett’s book, assuming the reliability of Turpin’s review, is about an earlier attempt to find a new frame of reference for American political culture. Deliberative democracy works best when citizens share a moral framework from which their arguments and counter-arguments derive their meaning. Absent such a broadly shared moral framework, competing claims can never really be meaningfully argued for or against, they can only be asserted or denounced. What Jewett describes, it seems, is just the particular American case of a pattern that is characteristic of secular modernity writ large. The eclipse of traditional religious belief leads to a search for new sources of unity and moral authority.

For a variety of reasons, the project to ground American political culture in publicly accessible science did not succeed. (It appears, by the way, that Jewett’s book is an attempt to revive the effort.) It failed, in part, because it became apparent that science itself was not exactly value free, at least not as it was practice by actual human beings. Additionally, it seems to me, the success of the project assumed that all political problems, that is all problems that arise when human beings try to live together, were subject to scientific analysis and resolution. This strikes me as an unwarranted assumption.

In any case, it would seem that proponents of a certain strand Big Data ideology now want to offer Big Data as the framework that unifies society and resolves political and ethical issues related to public policy. This is part of what I read into Crawford’s suggestion that we are moving into “a data-driven regime of ‘truth.'” “Science says” replaced “God says”; and now “Science says” is being replaced by “Big Data says.”

To put it another way, Big Data offers to fill the cultural role that was vacated by religious belief. It was a role that, in their turn, Reason, Art, and Science have all tried to fill. In short, certain advocates of Big Data need to read Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. Big Data may just be another God-term, an idol that needs to be sounded with a hammer and found hollow.

Finally, Döfner’s comments are just a reminder of the darker uses to which data can and has been put, particularly when thoughtfulness and judgement have been marginalized.

Thinking About Big Data

I want to pass on to you three pieces on what has come to be known as Big Data, a diverse set of practices enabled by the power of modern computing to accumulate and process massive amounts of data. The first piece, “View from Nowhere,” is by Nathan Jurgenson. Jurgenson argues that the aspirations attached to Big Data, particularly in the realm of human affairs, amounts to a revival of Positivism:

“The rationalist fantasy that enough data can be collected with the ‘right’ methodology to provide an objective and disinterested picture of reality is an old and familiar one: positivism. This is the understanding that the social world can be known and explained from a value-neutral, transcendent view from nowhere in particular.”

Jurgenson goes on to challenge these positivist assumptions through a critical reading of OkCupid CEO Christian Rudder’s new book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).

The second piece is an op-ed in the NY Times by Frank Pasquale, “The Dark Market for Personal Data.” Pasquale considers the risks to privacy associated with gathering and selling of personal information by companies equipped to mine and package such data. Pasquale concludes,

“We need regulation to help consumers recognize the perils of the new information landscape without being overwhelmed with data. The right to be notified about the use of one’s data and the right to challenge and correct errors is fundamental. Without these protections, we’ll continue to be judged by a big-data Star Chamber of unaccountable decision makers using questionable sources.”

Finally, here is a journal article, “Obscurity and Privacy,” by Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hartzog. Selinger and Hartzog offer obscurity as an explanatory concept to help clarify our thinking about the sorts of issues that usually get lumped together as matters of privacy. Privacy, however, may not be a sufficiently robust concept to meet the challenges posed by Big Data.

“Obscurity identifies some of the fundamental ways information can be obtained or kept out of reach, correctly interpreted or misunderstood. Appeals to obscurity can generate explanatory power, clarifying how advances in the sciences of data collection and analysis, innovation in domains related to information and communication technology, and changes to social norms can alter the privacy landscape and give rise to three core problems: 1) new breaches of etiquette, 2) new privacy interests, and 3) new privacy harms.”

In each of these areas, obscurity names the relative confidence individuals can have that the data trail they leave behind as a matter of course will not be readily accessible:

“When information is hard to understand, the only people who will grasp it are those with sufficient motivation to push past the layer of opacity protecting it. Sense-making processes of interpretation are required to understand what is communicated and, if applicable, whom the communications concerns. If the hermeneutic challenge is too steep, the person attempting to decipher the content can come to faulty conclusions, or grow frustrated and give up the detective work. In the latter case, effort becomes a deterrent, just like in instances where information is not readily available.”

Big Data practices have made it increasingly difficult to achieve this relative obscurity thus posing a novel set social and personal challenges. For example, the risks Pasquale identifies in his op-ed may be understood as risks that follow from a loss of obscurity. Read the whole piece for a better understanding of these challenges. In fact, be sure to read all three pieces. Jurgenson, Selinger, and Pasquale are among our most thoughtful guides in these matters.

Allow me to wrap this post up with a couple of additional observations. Returning to Jurgenson’s thesis about Big Data–that Big Data is a neo-Positivist ideology–I’m reminded that positivist sociology, or social physics, was premised on the assumption that the social realm operated in predictable law-like fashion, much as the natural world operated according to the Newtonian world picture. In other words, human action was, at root, rational and thus predictable. The early twentieth century profoundly challenged this confidence in human rationality. Think, for instance, of the carnage of the Great War and Freudianism. Suddenly, humanity seemed less rational and, consequently, the prospect of uncovering law-like principles of human society must have seemed far more implausible. Interestingly, this irrationality preserved our humanity, insofar as our humanity was understood to consist of an irreducible spontaneity, freedom, and unpredictability. In other words, so long as the Other against which our humanity was defined was the Machine.

If Big Data is neo-Positivist, and I think Jurgenson is certainly on to something with that characterization, it aims to transcend the earlier failure of Comteian Positivism. It acknowledges the irrationality of human behavior, but it construes it, paradoxically, as Predictable Irrationality. In other words, it suggests that we can know what we cannot understand. And this recalls Evgeny Morozov’s critical remarks in “Every Little Byte Counts,”

“The predictive models Tucker celebrates are good at telling us what could happen, but they cannot tell us why. As Tucker himself acknowledges, we can learn that some people are more prone to having flat tires and, by analyzing heaps of data, we can even identify who they are — which might be enough to prevent an accident — but the exact reasons defy us.

Such aversion to understanding causality has a political cost. To apply such logic to more consequential problems — health, education, crime — could bias us into thinking that our problems stem from our own poor choices. This is not very surprising, given that the self-tracking gadget in our hands can only nudge us to change our behavior, not reform society at large. But surely many of the problems that plague our health and educational systems stem from the failures of institutions, not just individuals.”

It also suggests that some of the anxieties associated with Big Data may not be unlike those occasioned by the earlier positivism–they are anxieties about our humanity. If we buy into the story Big Data tells about itself, then it threatens, finally, to make our actions scrutable and predictable, suggesting that we are not as free, independent, spontaneous, or unique as we might imagine ourselves to be.

Thinking Without a Bannister

In politics and religion, especially, moderates are in high demand, and understandably so. The demand for moderates reflects growing impatience with polarization, extremism, and vacuous partisan rancor. But perhaps these calls for moderation are misguided, or, at best, incomplete.

To be clear, I have no interest in defending extremism, political or otherwise. But having said that, we immediately hit on part of the problem as I see it. While there are some obvious cases of broad agreement about what constitutes extremism–beheadings, say–it seems pretty clear that, in the more prosaic realms of everyday life, one person’s extremism may very well be another’s principled stand. In such cases, genuine debate and deliberation should follow. But if the way of the moderate is valued as an end in itself, then debate and deliberation may very well be undermined.

I use the phrase “the way of the moderate” in order to avoid using the word moderation. The reason for this is that moderation, to my mind anyway, suggests something a bit different than what I have in view here in talking about the hankering for moderates. Moderation, for instance, may be associated with Aristotle’s approach to virtue, which I rather appreciate.

But moderation in that sense is not really what I have in mind here. I may agree with Aristotle, for instance, that courage is the mean between cowardice on the one hand and foolhardiness on the other. But I’m not sure that such a methodology, which may work rather well in helping us understand the virtues, can be usefully transferred into other realms of life. To be more specific, I do not think that you can approach, to put it quaintly, matters of truth in that fashion, at least not as a rule.

In other words, it does not follow that if two people are arguing about a complex political, social, or economic problem I can simply split the difference between the two and thereby arrive at the truth. It may be that both are desperately wrong and a compromise position between the two would be just as wrong. It may be that one of the two parties is, in fact, right and that a compromise between the two would, again, turn out to be wrong.

The way of the moderate, then, amounts to a kind of intellectual triangulation between two perceived extremes. One need not think about what might be right, true, or just; rather, one takes stock of the positions on the far right and the far left and aims for some sort of mean between the two, even if the position that results is incoherent or unworkable. This sort of intellectual triangulation is also a form of intellectual sloth.

Where the way of the moderate is reflexively favored, it would be enough to successfully frame an opponent as being either “far right” or “far left.” Further debate and deliberation would be superfluous and mere pretense. And, of course, that is exactly what we see in our political discourse.

Again, given our political culture, it is easy to see why the way of the moderate is appealing and tempting. But, sadly, the way of the moderate as I’ve described it does not escape the extremism and rancor that it bemoans. In fact, it is still controlled by it. If I seek to move forward by triangulating a position between two perceived extreme coordinates, I am allowing those extremes to determine my own path. We may very well need a third path, or even a fourth and fifth, but we should not assume that such a path can be found by passing through the middle of the extremes we seek to avoid. Such an assumption is the very opposite of the “independence” that is supposedly demonstrated by pursuing it.

Paradoxically, then, we might understand the way of the moderate as the flip side of the extremism and partisanship it seeks to counteract. What they both have in common is thoughtlessness. On the one hand you get the thoughtlessness of sheer conformity; the line is toed, platitudes are professed, and dissent is silenced. On the other, you sidestep the responsibility for independent thought by splitting the presumed difference between the two perceived extremes.

We do not need moderation of this sort; we need more thought.

In the conference transcripts I mentioned a few days ago, Hannah Arendt was asked about her political leanings and her position on capitalism. She responded this way: “So you ask me where I am. I am nowhere. I am really not in the mainstream of present or any other political thought. But not because I want to be so original–it so happens that I somehow don’t fit.”

A little further on she went on to discuss what she calls thinking without a bannister:

“You said ‘groundless thinking.’ I have a metaphor which is not quite that cruel, and which I have never published but kept for myself. I call it thinking without a bannister. In German, Denken ohne Geländer. That is, as you go up and down the stairs you can always hold onto the bannister so that you don’t fall down. But we have lost this bannister. That is the way I tell it to myself. And this is indeed what I try to do.”

And she added:

“This business that the tradition is broken and the Ariadne thread is lost. Well, that is not quite as new as I made it out to be. It was, after all, Tocqueville who said that ‘the past has ceased to throw its light onto the future, and the mind of man wanders in darkness.’ This is the situation since the middle of the last century, and, seen from the viewpoint of Tocqueville, entirely true. I always thought that one has got to start thinking as though nobody had thought before, and then start learning from everybody else.”

I’m not sure that I agree with Arendt in every respect, but I think we should take her call to start thinking as though nobody had thought before quite seriously.

I’ll leave you with one more encouragement in that general direction, this one from a recent piece by Alan Jacobs.

“I guess what I’m asking for is pretty simple: for writers of all kinds, journalists as well as fiction writers, and artists and academics, to strive to extricate themselves from an ‘artificial obvious’ that has been constructed for us by the dominant institutions of our culture. Simple; also probably impossible. But it’s worth trying. Few things are more worth trying.”

One step in this direction, I think, is to avoid the temptation presented to us by the way of the moderate as I’ve described it here. Very often what is needed is to, somehow, break altogether from the false dilemmas and binary oppositions presented to us.