November 23, 2009

Commensuration, Computing and Algorithms [9:09 am]

Currents - Are Metrics Blinding Our Perception? (pdf)

Computers have become an extension of us: that is a commonplace now. But in an important way we may be becoming an extension of them, in turn. Computers are digital — that is, they turn everything into numbers; that is their way of seeing. And in the computer age we may be living through the digitization of our minds, even when they are offline: a slow-burning quantification of human affairs that promises or threatens, depending on your outlook, to crowd out other categories of the imagination, other ways of perceiving.

Maybe, although the complexities of metrics go well beyond what this article discusses. For example, see this Clay Shirky speculation on authority: A Speculative Post on the Idea of Algorithmic Authority

The social characteristic of deciding who to trust is a key feature of authority — were you to say “I have it on good authority that Khotyn is a town in Moldova”, you’d be saying that you trust me to know and disclose that information accurately, not just because you trust me, but because some other group has vouched, formally or informally, for my trustworthiness.

This is a compressed telling, and swerves around many epistemological potholes, such as information that can’t be evaluated independently (”I love you”), information that is correct by definition (”The American Psychiatric Association says there is a mental disorder called psychosis”), or authorities making untestable propositions (”God hates it when you eat shrimp.”) Even accepting those limits, though, the assertion that Khotyn is in Moldova provides enough of an illustration here, because it’s false. Khotyn is in Ukraine.

And this is where authority begins to work its magic. If you told someone who knew better about the Moldovan town of Khotyn, and they asked where you got that incorrect bit of information, you’d have to say “Some guy on the internet said so.” See how silly you’d feel?

Now imagine answering that question “Well, Encyclopedia Britannica said so!” You wouldn’t be any less wrong, but you’d feel less silly. (Britannica did indeed wrongly assert, for years, that Khotyn was in Moldova, one of a collection of mistakes discovered in 2005 by a boy in London.) Why would you feel less silly getting the same wrong information from Britannica than from me? Because Britannica is an authoritative source.

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