The quote that keeps me going every day.
Episteme, Techne, and the Panopticon: (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the NSA)
By Jeff Falls
“The Internet of Us” by Michael Patrick Lynch (2016, Liveright Publishing).
I’ve been redoing all my websites in the past few weeks and in the process of doing so, I’ve read a few books on information theory and contemporary web design.
Thanks to the influence of Dr. Silberman, my college philosophy and critical thinking professor (who was born in the 19th century in Vienna, a contemporary and friend of Sigmund Freud’s and a holocaust survivor), I am very biased towards always starting with the Greeks when parsing a complex subject so Dr. Lynch’s book was a natural for me to want to read.
In Reddit speak, TL/DR means “Too Long, Didn’t Read” so if that’s your situation, let me boil it down to 2 words and a symbol for you.
TL/DR Version: Data ≠ Knowledge
Author Michael Patrick Lynch is a philosophy professor and the director of the Humanities Institute at the University of Connecticut so it’s not surprising that his book is grounded in classical philosophy. This relatively short book is actually a terrific and informed read and I recommend it highly.
Dr. Lynch’s thesis comes down to this: data is not knowledge, a fact well known to the Greeks but apparently not as well understood by your crazy Uncle Eddie, the majority of the public and unfortunately for us all, most governments.
And of course, a very topical corollary to that would be:
Fake News ≠ News
Before getting into the topic of what it means to transfer information (and perhaps knowledge) electronically via the web, we need to talk about what knowledge is in the first place. And there’s never a better place to start with this than with the Greeks, who spent a lot of time thinking about this and whose insights remain the gold standard even today.
It might be especially worthwhile to look at how Plato, Socrates and Aristotle parsed human understanding, particularly in an age when we are presented on a daily basis with binary choices and told that these are the only choices and where the reasoning behind arguments in our public discourse is often soft at best and where a̶ ̶c̶a̶n̶d̶i̶d̶a̶t̶e̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶p̶r̶e̶s̶i̶d̶e̶n̶t̶ the president elect bases his opinions on the foundation of “People are saying….”. The Greeks had a word for that too – psithurismos – literally, “a malicious whispering,” or gossip as we call it today.
Gossip ain’t knowledge.
The Greek conception of Knowledge
“The School of Athens” c1510 by Raphael.
There are undoubtedly a few humanities majors who will argue with me (hi Brad!), but in general, the classical Greeks divided knowledge into numerous categories, the main 5 of which are: Sophia, Episteme, Techne, Phronesis and Praxis. These ideas are central to the concepts articulated by Socrates and his student Plato in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. This (like a lot of other information) is most clear if we look at a chart or infographic:
Sophia, means “wisdom”, what we might call the aspirational aspect of knowledge, often sought after and seldom gained, i.e., true insight – the all too rare moment of clarity where we put all the pieces together.
Techne, the Greek root of our modern word “technology” means knowledge in the sense of knowledge of a craft, whether that craft is carpentry or database management. It is a specific skillset which can be taught and learned by anyone with the proper training. “I know how to bake a cake because my mother taught me how to bake a cake and I’ve done it hundreds of times.”
Episteme, on the other hand, refers to a broader kind of knowledge, particularly knowledge that can be verified by using what we today call “the scientific method,” or the theoretical aspect of knowledge grounded in rationality and empiricism. “I am aware of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its impact on our use of energy resources.”
Phronesis means the practical application of wisdom and is often translated as “prudence”, as in “My cumulative life experience suggests that walking down this alley at 3:00 a.m. may be unwise so I shall choose another course of action.”
And finally, Praxis, which is the practical doing aspect of applying the preceding or what me might today called “applied knowledge.” Praxis is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. The first four knowledge paradigms are used in planning (at least we hope so) and praxis is where we put it to work in the real world.
The Allegory of the Twice Divided Line
In “The Republic,” Plato tells the story of the dialogue between Glaucon and Socrates, which has come to be known as the “Allegory of the Divided Line.”
Chart Source: https://sites.google.com/site/phil1300e/Home/metaphysics/universals-and-particulars/plato-s-forms
In Plato’s worldview, he believed that the “forms” were more real than the ephemera that we encounter with our senses, a philosophical viewpoint (known as “Idealism”) that has largely fallen out of favor today although it’s being somewhat revived by the more philosophical discussions of quantum mechanics which suggest that our perceptions of reality are in fact radically different than reality itself. But that’s another article.
The important thing isn’t that metaphysical detail, but rather that Plato – 2400 years ago – was very aware of the difference between “opinions” and “knowledge”, something that also appears to have fallen out of favor today.
Socrates most famous saying was “I know one thing: That I know nothing.” And then, since he was the wisest man in Athens, naturally, they killed him. Please bear that in mind the next time you feel compelled to share your wisdom with the world.
The Death of Socrates, 1787, Jacques-Louis David
A Brief Stop by Aristotle’s Place
Aristotle, who was Plato’s student and Alexander the Great’s tutor (pretty much the only situation in which I approve of home schooling) refined this idea even further. In “The Nichomachean Ethics”, Aristotle posited that there are 5 ways to arrive at the truth: Ars/Techne, Episteme, Nous and Phronesis. Again, a chart is more helpful in exploring this concept.
What’s interesting about this Aristotle’s paradigm of knowledge is how universal and relevant it remains today. The devil of course is in the details, particularly with phronesis, which Aristotle saw as the key virtue.
On the one hand, it is in fact the key virtue, the integration of the other four methods into a practical and hopefully virtuous manifestation of intelligence.
On the other hand, we’re all only human and practical wisdom can easily devolve into common sense, a much lower iteration that is prone to catastrophic error.
Common sense may tell you not to have that third shot of tequila or it might also tell you it’s a good idea to lock up all the Japanese-Americans when we’re at war with Japan. Proceed with caution, especially when politician’s tell you that the answer to complex problems is “just common sense.”
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
Receptive Knowledge is the Lowest Form of Knowledge
Dr. Lynch points out that this generation, in stark contrast to preceding generations, is subject to what he terms “information cascades” and are getting their information through “receptive knowledge acquisition” which is the lowest form of knowledge gathering. Babies do it, dogs do it and web surfers do it. Hence, the fake news crisis.
Thirty years ago, if I wanted to research a topic, I had to go to the library and spend hours looking for books, often putting in book requests for books that weren’t available locally which many times took months to arrive. When the books finally did arrive, I read them carefully and frequently copied key pages (illegally) on a copy machine. Information was hard to come by and it took effort but the upside was it was also much more reliable. It’s not that a book by Harvard University Press couldn’t make mistakes or even be totally wrong on a topic but even if that were the case it was going to be wrong in an informed way which is very different from being wrong in an uninformed way.
Now of course that’s entirely unnecessary. Google has changed the playing field forever. The problem is that information is not equal. Not by a long shot. Google has democratized knowledge but it has also democratized stupidity.
The other problem is that “information cascades” inherently lead to a mob mentality. “Going viral” might be a harmless pop cultural phenomenon (e.g. “Gangnam Style”) but it might also be the intellectual version of the mob of angry villagers bearing torches in Frankenstein.
“People are Saying”
What is even more concerning of course is that many of our citizens seem unable to distinguish truth from fiction due to this information cascade phenomenon. And more importantly, they seem unable to distinguish an informed view that they may disagree with from an uninformed view that they agree with. This is not only a threat to our democracy it’s a threat to the very foundations of human knowledge.
The fact that we have access to “all information” without “elites” telling us what to believe seems to me – at least from my experience – to be a very good argument for the existence of elites in the first place. Yes, a Princeton anthropology professor really does know more about the ancient Maya than your cousin Bethany who took MDMA at Chichen Itza one night on her honeymoon trip to Cancun. Their opinions are not equal.
Harry Beck, Subway Maps and Web Design
Who is Harry Beck? Harry Beck was a technical draftsman working for the London Underground (the subway) in the 1930s who realized that a map of London that looked like this (i.e., a traditional map) was decidedly unhelpful if you are trying to find your way around underground in a train station.
Harry’s brilliant insight was to createa much simpler map that eliminated the minute details which although accurate led to cognitive overload and made the map incomprehensible. He did his map off the clock in his spare time and presented it to the railroad administration who of course initially rejected it as “radical”. Eventually they came around and published it in 1933.
As anyone who has ever taken a subway map anywhere knows, this is now what every subway map in the world looks like. Why? Because it’s exactly consistent with the ways our brains need to process this information. (It’s also an excellent reference point for designing the navigation on a website, but that’s a different post.)
We don’t need to know where everything is – we just need to know how to get where we want to go. This is perhaps the single most crucial element in good web design.
New York City
And just to show that even a brilliant idea is not infallible, here is the absolutely inscrutable Tokyo subway map. Every time I’ve been to Tokyo, there are dozens of mostly Japanese people standing silently in front of these giant maps trying to make sense of them.
Tokyo Subway Map
Where is the Japanese Harry Beck who will find a solution for this? And just for the record, here’s the real Harry Beck. On behalf of subway riders everywhere, thank you!
Social Media – Facebook is The Panopticon, the Simulacrum and The Matrix all in One
Facebook is not reality. Instagram is not reality. Social Media is not reality. We do all agree on that, right? Well, maybe not… (In any case, do feel free to like my page.)
It’s probably an artifact of when and where I went to school but I’m a sucker for French post-structuralist/post-modernist thought. Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard – bring it on!
Here’s a ten minute intro if you’re not familiar with their work or general concepts (click to view in Slideshare):
Foucault’s Insight: Knowledge = Power
Michel Foucault’s basic insight was that “knowledge is power” which could also be phrased as what we perceive as our common body of received knowledge is entirely dictated because it serves the needs of those in power.
Foucault was a Marxist (his views were in fact a synthesis of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) but almost all Trump supporters would agree with it and in fact, that sentiment happens to be shared by virtually everyone on both the far-left and far-right and even a few in the middle. Probably because it’s probably at least somewhat true.
That sentiment is the essence of the movie “The Matrix.”
Laurence Fishbourne, in “The Matrix” (1999)
Baudrillard’s Insight: We are living in the Simulacrum
“Simulacra and Simulation” was a very short book by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard written in 1981 which posited the notion that contemporary society is in fact a manufactured synthesized representation of real life rather than real life itself. A “simulacra” is a model of a thing as a mannequin is a model of a human.
Baudrillard wrote this in the pre-internet era and although he was referring to TV and films (and consumer society in general) his work seems remarkably prescient given the rise of the true simulacrum, the internet.
Baudrillard’s point – more than 30 years ago – was not just that we were living in a simulation but that people know longer even knew what reality was. That is more true today than ever before.
Let’s face it, we all know people whose Facebook life is more real to them than their real life. This is no longer a theory, it’s a fact. Moreover, many of us know people who have lives that seem to be carefully constructed around social media and their representation in the simulation itself.
This is analogous to someone who is playing an online game and who has invested hours upon hours in their online character’s costume but who has unfortunately for us, not showered in days.
In “Discipline and Punish”, Michel Foucault wrote at length about the 18th Century Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon, a perfect prison where the prisoners could be watched all the time. It was, as the meme below states “power reduced to its ideal form.”
We have all voluntarily installed the Panopticon on our phones.
Google, Facebook and the NSA
And now we come to the main point, which is, who is in charge of The Matrix? Who is the Architect? What does it mean and what are the risks to us as citizens, not of the USA but of the planet?
More importantly, where does this lead? The Panopticon is on my phone! What’s next?
Facebook and Google are omnipresent and suck all the data off your device. Their motivations are quite clear – they want to sell you stuff. And they want to sell “you” – or at least your digital avatar – to other companies who want to buy “you”. That’s commerce and while intrusive, there are trade-offs that may make it worthwhile or at least not particularly threatening. It can lead to some odd results, artifacts of the top secret algorithms that these enterprises use.
As Exhibit A, I present the following, which popped up on my personal computer screen yesterday.
Well, OK, sure why not! She’s quite pretty. I am in the middle of a divorce and I’m partial to brunettes. I certainly could date Arab women. But why does Google think I want to date Arab women? I get that they know I’m getting divorced because they can extrapolate that from my google searches and my Gmail, but why are they recommending Arabic woman in particular?
I cannot read Arabic. I haven’t been reading any Arabic language websites. I don’t even have any Arabic friends. It’s a bit of a mystery.
Ah, but wait, I know where this is coming from. I just redid two of my photo websites and each website included a picture of a woman in hijab, such as the one below:
I’m guessing Google’s algorithm looks something like this:
Divorce + Dating + Hijab² = Arab women are a good match for this single dude
So, that’s kind of amusing. When I had one hijab picture, nothing happened, but when I posted two, I reached some kind of critical mass. Funny and interesting but ultimately harmless. (And if any beautiful Arabic women are reading this, by all means get in touch and we can discuss over some tea and sabzi ghormeh.)
Big Brother Exists, but He’s a Bro
This type of confusion may be funny with Google or Facebook making a mistake but what about the government? That’s not particularly funny.
As Edward Snowden’s leaks make painfully clear if you bother to read them, the government knows everything. Not a lot. Everything. Every phone call, every text message, every dick pic and every website you look at. They’re all stored on some server somewhere. Even keystrokes you delete. Stored. Archived. In the Utah desert. It’s the Tower of Babel of cheating spouses, embezzling accountants, drunken college students and CEOs who think James Bond villains are aspirational models. In short, of humanity itself.
Terrifying, right? Well, not so much. Let’s think this one through. One of the more memorable things I read that Snowden wrote is that his first week at the NSA was largely comprised of the other 20 something NSA geeks sharing their favorite amateur porn with each other that they had carefully curated. Yes, you heard that correctly. Young and hot and love showing off online? Good news, babe! You’re not only popular on Instagram, you’ve got your own file folder at NSA.
They have access to all the data in the world and what are they doing? They’re saving your really good personal sex pics to a folder which is probably named something like Brett_NSA_Best_Really_Good_Sex_Pics_2016. On a government server. They’re not Ryan Lochte, but they’d definitely hang with him.
Ryan Lochte, the bro of the moment? Or the Architect?
So who is the architect? There is no architect. Or we’re all the architect.
It’s outsourced to the hive mind. And the hive mind is too busy looking at pics of naked girls to bother with your ass, so party on, blithe spirit.
And don’t forget to post it to Instagram.
Data ≠ Knowledge
Jeff Falls, Labor Day, September 5, 2016