February 24, 2010

On the degradation of friendship

While I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed Facebook at times, this passage from Jaron Lanier’s “The Serfdom of Crowds,” appearing in Harper’s, February 2010, only confirms some of the obvious shortcomings of living through databases and digital texting. It also takes a few  stabs at No Child Left Behind and the AI industry.

"Personal reductionism has always been present in information systems. You have to declare your status in reductive ways when you file a tax return. Most people are aware of the difference between reality and database entries when they file taxes, yet you perform the same kind of self-reduction in order to create a profile on a social-networking site. You fill in the data: profession, relationship status, and location. In this case digital reduction becomes a causal element, mediating between new friends with whom most information is exchanged online. That is new.

It might at first seem that the experience of youth is now sharply divided between the old world of school and parents and the new world of social networking on the Internet, but actually school now belongs on the new side of the ledger. Education has gone through a parallel transformation, and for similar reasons. Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality. Demand more from information than it can give and you end up with monstrous designs. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, for example, U.S. teachers are forced to choose between teaching general knowledge and “teaching the test.” The best teachers are thereby often disenfranchised by the improper use of educational-information systems.

What computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database. Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do. Whether one expects computers to improve in the future is a different issue. In a less idealistic atmosphere it would go without saying that software should be designed only to perform tasks that can be successfully carried out at a given time. That is not the atmosphere in which Internet software is designed, however. When technologists deploy a computer model of something like learning or friendship in a way that has an effect on real lives, they are relying on faith. When they ask people to live their lives through their models, they are potentially reducing life itself."

February 14, 2010

...even on a public street


Public and private realms have coalesced while also having expanded their reach into democratic procedures more than ever before. So the result has not at all been a reduction of state power, or “big government,” but rather its exercise and tightening grip as a mutated form. Have a listen…