Sincerity, Ambiguity and The Automated Web of Inauthenticity
During last Sunday morning’s visit to the newsstand, I noticed a story listed on the cover of the most recent issue of the Atlantic magazine. It was the promise of finding out How The Web is Killing Truth that caused me to add the publication to my stack of Sunday morning purchases.
Sometime later I noticed a tweet by Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, that pointed to the same article online. The crux of the article concerns what happens when the crowd votes for the truth or falsity of a web page containing a news story. In particular, it deals with acts of collusion by right-wing operatives with regard to certain stories as they flowed through the Digg platform.
Digg depends on the authenticity and sincerity of its community to ‘digg’ or ‘bury’ stories based on their genuine thoughts and feelings. If the community were to break into ideological sub-communities that acted in concert to bury certain stories based on ideological principles, then the output of the platform could be systematically distorted.
For a time Digg withdrew the ‘bury’ button in response to this dilemma. The ‘bury’ button provided a tool for political activists to swiftboat opinion pieces and stories from the opposing ideological camp. Rather than a genuine expression of the crowd, the platform’s output was filtered through the prism of two ideologies fighting for shelf space at the top of a prioritized list.
Eric Schmidt’s interest in the story may have reflected his understanding of how this kind of user behavior might affect PageRank, especially as it begins to add a real-time/social component. Larry Page’s search algorithm is based on the idea that the number and quality of citations attached to a particular page should determine its rank in a list of search results. The predecessor to this concept was the reputation accorded to scholars whose academic papers were widely cited within the literature of a topic.
Google is already filtering link spam from its algorithm with varying levels of success. But if we examine the contents of the circulatory system of email, we can see where this is going. Through the use of scripted automated systems, it’s estimated that from 90 to 95% of all email can be described as spam. This process of filtering defines an interesting boundary within the flood of new content pouring into the Network. In a sense, Google must determine what is an authentic expression versus what is inauthentic. In the real-time social media world, it was thought that by switching from keyword-hyperlinks-to -pages to people-as-public-authors-of-short-hypertext-messages that users could escape spam (inauthentic hyperlinkages) through the unfollow. But once you venture outside a directed social graph into the world of keywords, topics, hashtags, ratings, comments and news you’re back into the world of entities (people or robots) you don’t know saying things that may or may not be sincere.
1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.1:6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.1:7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.1:8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.1:9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.1:10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good
And so Google saw the light, that it was good: and Google divided the light from the darkness. The good links that shed light from the bad links that dissemble and confuse. Of course, this is a very digital way of looking at language— a statement is either true or false. And with the exception of the spammers themselves, I think we can all agree that email, blog, twitter and any other kind of spam belongs on the other side of the line, over there in the darkness. When we say something is spam, we mean that it has no relevance to us and yet we, or our software agents, must process it. There is something false about spam.
The purely ideological gesture on a rating service is indistinguishable from the authentic gesture if one doesn’t have knowledge of the meta-game that is being played. Should meta-gamers be filtered from the mix? Ulterior motives dilute the data and may skew the results away from the authentic and genuine responses of the crowd/community. The question here is how do you know when someone is playing a different game than the one at hand? Especially if part of the meta-game is to appear to be playing the same game as everyone else.
The limits of my language are the limits of my world
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
When we limit our language to the purely sincere and genuine, what kind of language are we speaking? What kind of world are we spinning? Is it a world without ambiguity? Without jokes? Without irony, sarcasm or a deadpan delivery? Suddenly our world resembles the security checkpoint at the airport, no jokes please. Answer all questions sincerely and directly. Step this way into the scanning machine. Certainly when we’re trying to get somewhere quickly, we don’t want jokes and irony, we want straightforward and clear directions. It’s life as the crow flies.
There’s a sense in which human language reduces itself to fit into the cramped quarters of the machine’s language. Recently, a man named Paul Chambers lost an appeal in the United Kingdom over a hyperbolic comment he published on Twitter. Frustrated that the aiport was closed down and that he would not be able to visit a friend in Northern Ireland, Mr. Chambers threatened to blow up the airport unless they got it together. A routine Twitter search by an airport official turned up the tweet and it was submitted to the proper authorities. Mr. Chambers was convicted and has lost his appeal. Mr. Chambers was not being literal when he wrote and published that tweet. He was expressing his anger through the use of hyperbolic language. A hashtag protest has emerged under than keyword #iamspartacus. When Mr. Chambers’s supporters reproduce his original tweet word-for-word, how do they stand with respect to the law? If they add a hashtag, an LOL, or a emoticon does that tell the legal machine that the speaker is not offering a logical proposition in the form of a declarative sentence?
Imagine a filter that designated as nonsense all spam, ambiguity, irony, hyperbole, sarcasm, metaphor, metonymy, and punning. The sense we’d be left with would be expression of direct literal representation. This is unequivocally represents that. Google’s search algorithm has benefitted from the fact that, generally speaking, people don’t ironically hyperlink. But as the language of the Network becomes more real-time, more a medium through which people converse— the full range of language will come into play.
This learning, or re-learning, of what is possible with language gives us a sense of the difference between being a speaker of a language and an automated manipulator of symbols. It’s this difference that is making the giants of the Internet dance.