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Tag: Wittgenstein

Descartes, Skepticism & the UnNetworked Personal Computer

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes published his Discourse on the Method in 1637. In order to create a solid foundation for the natural sciences, Descartes employed a radical skepticism. He stripped away every piece of the world around him until he was left with his doubt, his thought and a single existence. This was expressed as: “Dubito, cogito ergo sum, I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am. The thinking, doubting ego was all that was left as a certainty, a monologue echoing through the darkness. When I visualize that moment I think of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, or of much of his later work, Imagination Dead, Imagine, for example.

It wasn’t until I listened to a Philosophy Bites podcast with Barry Smith on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein that I understood the willful solipsism of Descartes’ approach. Wittgenstein’s critique is simple and beautiful, the tools of doubt and thought are social. Language is social, there is no such thing as a private language. If there can be no private language, Descartes simply became a hermit. He believed he cut every tie, but the knife was borrowed from society. Billie Whitelaw demonstrates, in Beckett’s Not I, even as we are alone in the darkness; we frantically reach out to the world.

The first commercial personal computer wasn’t part of a network. There’s a sense in which it was an instantiation of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method. The software product and hardware peripheral ecosystem that developed around it reflected this disconnected state. And while from a technical point of view it was unconnected, from the human side it was always already connected to the Network. The conception that the computer was ever alone, disconnected in the darkness; computing, crunching numbers, writing to a hard disk in its own private Idaho was false at its point of origin. In the beginning, there was sneakernet.

Sneaker Net

The beginning of this train of thought began not with Descartes, but with Microsoft. The first era of Microsoft was created to supply products to the unNetworked computer. If you examine the products that provide the dominant share of revenue, Windows and Office, they don’t require the Network for purchase or use. Microsoft’s thought is deeply rooted in the image of the solitary computer. Wittgenstein once defined philosophy as the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. Microsoft is in the middle of a titanic struggle with the bewitchment of its intelligence. If there is to be a Ray Ozzie era of Microsoft, it will signal the shift from the solipsistic computer to the Network, the creation of roots and rhizomes spreading into the Network, and the establishment of revenue streams that are fundamentally of the Network. Microsoft’s current set of competitors are already living off the Network, the brain trust at Microsoft has had a large margin for error, but the door is closing.

There’s a wonderful story that Barry Smith tells about a conversation between Elizabeth Anscombe and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Anscombe says to Wittgenstein that she can understand why people thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Wittgenstein thinks for a moment, and says “and why is that?” Anscombe continues, “Well it looks that way.” Wittgenstein smiles and says, “And how would it look if the Earth revolved around the Sun?”

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@cshirky > Promiscuous Reading > Contra Solipsism > Here Comes Everybody

This isn’t a review. I’m not sure that reviews are very useful beyond the basics: Here Comes Everybody is an important book. Some people will choose to read it, but that doesn’t really matter because it’s in the air we breath. You’ll absorb the book’s insights through some sense organ within the next few years. Clay Shirky has written about network theory in a style that might appeal to a broader audience; and it will directly reach more people than books by Duncan Watts or Albert-László Barabási. However reading will not be the primary diffusion model.

One criteria I have for judging the quality of a book is the number of times I have to stop reading. This generally occurs when some string of words in the flow of the book makes a strong connection either to concepts from another text, or to something I’ve scribbled in one of my notebooks. The monologue of the text is interrupted by a conversation racing across a network of intertextuality. While this slows reading as an act of consumption, it opens the door to reading as a full-duplex, 2-way engagement. And that’s where its real value is revealed; in this sense, I found Here Comes Everybody to be a very promiscuous book. There were connections everywhere.

The obvious literary reference would be to Joyce, but instead Rilke provided the more forceful connection with his fragment “We are the bees of the invisible:”

Transform? Yes, for it is our task to impress this provisional, transient earth upon ourselves so deeply, so agonizingly, and so passionately that its essence rises up again “invisibly” within us. We are the bees of the invisible. We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible.

There’s a sense in which this describes the process by which poetry is crafted, but it also seems to inform the way we build the collective experience and history of a group. We have a collective story we tell each other about the importance of the individual, but stories about family, tribe and society are on the rise again. Shirky points out that the transaction cost of organizing a group has declined nearly to zero through the tools available on the Network. He goes on to note that low transaction costs are not sufficient — a plausible promise around purpose and a mutually beneficial membership bargain are equally necessary for a living community. 

Two factors suppressed in the current commercial infatuation with the social graph are the ownership of the products of the community and the emotional volatility of a group. These are high risk ingredients in the recipe, human elements that need to be purged to sell the current business models. And those services without explicit business models continually run up against these issues. Can you sell what isn’t solely yours to sell?

As we gather in tribes and loose associations across the Network, we invent ceremony, initiations, ritual, taboos and forms of justice to ensure the ongoing health of the system. We optimistically believe the rules, mores and sins of our fallen culture won’t simply be mapped on to the social space of the Network. Experience has shown that absent some form of persona or identity, the life of an online community will be nasty, brutal and short. Could the Network be the new world where individuals are judged by the character of their content? Or is it really just more of the same, a place where it’s not Metcalf’s law, but Sturgeon’s law that rules the day.

We’re in the middle of a shift in perspective. We’ve been focused on the individual, the physical limitations of an un-networked personal computer metaphorically defined the limits of our ability to think about the Network. In the area of identity we seem to only now be uncovering the idea of a relationship layer. The silo’d thinking of the technical community causes it to lay down cow paths on the well-paved roads of other disciplines. While Shirky’s book is written for the layman, its highest and best purpose may be in introducing technologists to the idea of society.

In the larger network of connections there are two that put themselves forward. In Saussureian Linguistics meaning is derived from the set of differences within a system. Here are a list of ideas that can help us overcome the solipsism of the hard drive:

  • “A sign is the basic unit of language (a given language at a given time). Every language is a complete system of signs. Parole (the speech of an individual) is an external manifestation of language.”
  • “A linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas.”
  • “The connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.”
  • “In language there are only differences, and no positive terms”
  • “Speaking of linguistic law in general is like trying to pin down a ghost”

The other charged connection is to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thoughts on the idea of Private Language. Like those who believe in Private Languages, we seem to be caught in the fly bottle. We don’t understand that language and communication is social at its core:

If the idea of a private language is incoherent, then it would follow that all language is essentially public: that language is at its core a social phenomenon. This would have profound implications for other areas of philosophical study. For instance, if one cannot have a private language, it might not make any sense to talk of private sensations such as qualia; nor might it make sense to talk of a word as referring to a concept, where a concept is understood to be a private mental representation.

Nor might it make sense to talk about identity apart from society, computing devices apart from the Network, or data (signifiers) apart from an economic and trading system of language. The end of our solipsistic weltanschauung is beginning; we are perhaps in the middle of the beginning of a general revolution. Some will ride the strong currents as they emerge, others will fight the current, grow tired, and eventually drown. And the looming danger ahead is the task of assuring and preserving the inalienable rights of the individual in this new Network. Once the technical perspective has been transformed from the one to the many, all the really important questions become political.

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The Precise Ambiguity of @megfowler ‘s definition of Twitter

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Meg Fowler threw up her hands and finally said, “This is what I do.” She was trying to explain how Twitter goes to some new users. It’s a question that surfaces naturally with the uninitiated. They examine the “rules” and the capabilities, and then answer the question “What are you doing?” But somehow that doesn’t seem to adequately represent the buzz of talk surrounding Twitter.

The first thing new users observe, once they start following veteran users is that the question about what one is doing is only occasionally answered. What are the rules they ask, what are the rules about what to put in to those 140 characters, if you’re not answering the question?

This is where words begin to fail us. How to explain all that is not answering a question? How to explain who hears and who doesn’t? How to explain the river of talk that one follows? To explain one’s experience of Twitter, is to explain one’s self. Everyone’s experience is slightly different.

Meg Fowler’s description brought to mind Ludwig Wittgenstein’s discussion of how we learn and use language in his book Philosophical Investigations. Certainly we can talk about rules when we speak of language. But that’s not how we learn and eventually use language. Rather than learning a set of rules, it’s more a case of “this is what I do,” and you must do what you do.

Asking what one should fill the 140 characters with is like asking what words one should fill one’s voice with. Many social network sites attempt to provide context and set the rules of engagement. Following rules is what machines do, not what people do. I’ve often thought of human-computer interaction as the encounter between a world purged of ambiguity with a world filled with ambiguity. Twitter thrives on the ambiguity of its purpose, it’s a machine that leaves room for the human.

And Meg Fowler, why look to her as an authoritative voice? In a medium where most of use are finding our way and learning the landscape, Ms. Fowler has filled in those 140 characters more than 11,646 times.

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How would it look if the earth revolved around the sun?

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I liked this podcast so much, I listened to it twice. And I may listen to it again. It’s a beautiful discussion about the philosophy and impact of Ludwig Wittgenstein. You can find this gem on the Philosophy Bites site. Regular hosts Dave Edmonds and Nigel Warburton discuss Wittgenstein with Barry Smith of Birkbeck College London.

I particularly like the discussion of Wittgenstein’s later work and the Philosophical Investigations. Although they even made the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus sound interesting. There’s a great story recounted about Elizabeth Anscombe saying to Wittgenstein, that she can “understand why people thought that the sun revolves around the earth.” Ludwig asks, “why?” Anscombe says, “Well, it looks that way.” Wittgenstein responds, “and how would it look if the earth revolved around the sun?”

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