They Did Their Own ‘Research.’ Now What? – The New York Times

In spheres as disparate as medicine and cryptocurrencies, “do your own research,” or DYOR, can quickly shift from rallying cry to scold.

The New York Times has a nice essay by John Herrman on They Did Their Own ‘Research.’ Now What? The essay talks about the loss of trust in authorities and the uses/misuses of DYOR (Do Your Own Research) gestures especially in discussions about cryptocurrencies. DYOR seems to act rhetorically as:

  • Advice that readers should do research before making a decision and not trust authorities (doctors, financial advisors etc).
  • A disclaimer that readers should not blame the author if things don’t turn out right.
  • A scold to or for those who are not committed to whatever it is that is being pushed as based on research. It is a form of research signalling – “I’ve done my research, if you don’t believe me do yours.”
  • A call to join a community of instant researchers who are skeptical of authority. If you DYOR then you can join us.
  • A call to process (of doing your own research) over truth. Enjoy the research process!
  • Become an independent thinker who is not in thrall to authorities.

The article talks about a previous essay about the dangers of doing one’s own research. One can become unreasonably convinced one has found a truth in a “beginner’s bubble”.

DYOR is an attitude, if not quite a practice, that has been adopted by some athletes, musicians, pundits and even politicians to build a sort of outsider credibility. “Do your own research” is an idea central to Joe Rogan’s interview podcast, the most listened to program on Spotify, where external claims of expertise are synonymous with admissions of malice. In its current usage, DYOR is often an appeal to join in, rendered in the language of opting out.

The question is whether reading around is really doing research or whether it is selective listening. What does it mean to DYOR in the area of vaccines? It seems to mean not trusting science and instead listening to all sorts of sympathetic voices.

What does this mean about the research we do in the humanities. Don’t we sometimes focus too much on discourse and not give due weight to the actual science or authority of those we are “questioning”? Haven’t we modelled this critical stance where what matters is that one overturns hierarchy/authority and democratizes the negotiation of truth? Irony, of course, trumps all.

Alas, to many the humanities seem to be another artful conspiracy theory like all the others. DYOR!

The Internet is Made of Demons

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is is not what you think it is.

Sam Kriss has written a longish review essay on Justin E.H. Smith’s The Internet is Not What You Think It Is with the title The Internet is Made of Demons. In the first part Kriss writes about how the internet is possessing us and training us,

Everything you say online is subject to an instant system of rewards. Every platform comes with metrics; you can precisely quantify how well-received your thoughts are by how many likes or shares or retweets they receive. For almost everyone, the game is difficult to resist: they end up trying to say the things that the machine will like. For all the panic over online censorship, this stuff is far more destructive. You have no free speech—not because someone might ban your account, but because there’s a vast incentive structure in place that constantly channels your speech in certain directions. And unlike overt censorship, it’s not a policy that could ever be changed, but a pure function of the connectivity of the internet itself. This might be why so much writing that comes out of the internet is so unbearably dull, cycling between outrage and mockery, begging for clicks, speaking the machine back into its own bowels.

Then Kriss makes the case that the Internet is made of demons – not in a paranoid conspiracy sort of way, but in a historical sense that ideas like the internet often involve demons,

Trithemius invented the internet in a flight of mystical fancy to cover up what he was really doing, which was inventing the internet. Demons disguise themselves as technology, technology disguises itself as demons; both end up being one and the same thing.

In the last section Kriss turns to Justin E.H. Smith’s book and reflects on how the book (unlike the preceding essay “It’s All Over”) are not what the internet expects. The internet, for Smith, likes critical essays that present the internet as a “rupture” – something like the industrial revolution, but for language – while in fact the internet in some form (like demons) has been with us all along. Kriss doesn’t agree. For him the idea of the internet might be old, but what we have now is still a transformation of an old nightmare.

If there are intimations of the internet running throughout history, it might be because it’s a nightmare that has haunted all societies. People have always been aware of the internet: once, it was the loneliness lurking around the edge of the camp, the terrible possibility of a system of signs that doesn’t link people together, but wrenches them apart instead. In the end, what I can’t get away from are the demons. Whenever people imagined the internet, demons were always there.

Replication, Repetition, or Revivification

A short essay I wrote with Stéfan Sinclair on “Recapitulation, Replication, Reanalysis, Repetition, or Revivification” is now up in preprint form. The essay is part of a longer work on “Anatomy of tools: A closer look at ‘textual DH’ methodologies.” The longer work is a set of interventions looking at text tools. These came out of a ADHO SIG-DLS (Digital Literary Studies) workshop that took place in Utrecht in July 2019.

Our intervention at the workshop had the original title “Zombies as Tools: Revivification in Computer Assisted Interpretation” and concentrated on practices of exploring old tools – a sort of revivification or bringing back to life of zombie tools.

The full paper should be published soon by DHQ.

Inaugural Lord Renwick Memorial Lecture w/ Vint Cerf

From Humanist I learned about the Inaugural Lord Renwick Memorial Lecture w/ Vint Cerf : Digital Policy Alliance : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. This lecture is available also in a text transcript here (PDF). Vint Cerf is one of the pioneers of the Internet and in this lecture he talks about the “five alligators of the Internet. They are 1) Technology, 2) Regulation, 3) Institutions, 4) the Digital Divide, and 5) Digital Preservation.

Under Technology he traces a succinct history of the internet as technology pointing out how important the ALOHAnet project was to the eventual design of the Internet. Under regulation he talked about different levels of regulation and the pros and cons of regulation. Later there are some questions about the issue of anonymity and civil discourse. All said, the talk does a great job of covering the issues facing the internet today.

Here is his answer to a question about  how to put more humanity into the Internet.

The first observation I would make is that civility is a social decision that we either choose or don’t. Creating norms is very important. I think norms are not necessarily backed up by, you know, law enforcement for example, they’re considered societal values, and I fear that openness in the Internet has led to a, let’s say, a diminution, erosion, of civil discourse. I would suggest to you, however, that it’s possibly understandable in the following analog. Those of you who drive cars may, like I do, say things to the other drivers, or about the other drivers, that I would never say face to face, but there’s this windshield separating me from the other drivers, and I feel free to express myself, in ways that I would not if I were face to face. Sometimes I think the computer screen acts a little bit like the windshield of the car and allows us to behave in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise if we were right there with the target of our comments. Somehow we have to infuse back into society the value of civil discourse, and the only way to do that I think is to start very early on in school to introduce children, and their parents, and adults, to the value of civility in terms of making progress in coming together, finding common ground, finding solutions to things, as opposed to simply firing our 45 caliber Internet packets at each other. I really hope that the person asking the question has some ideas for introducing incentives for exactly that behavioral change. I will point out that seatbelts and smoking has possibly some lessons to teach, where we incorporated not only advice but we also said, by the way, if we catch you smoking in this building, there will be consequences, because we said you shouldn’t do it. So, maybe we have to have some kind of social consequence for bad behavior. (p. 13-4)

Later on he talks about license plates following the same analogy of how we behave when driving. Your car gives you some anonymity, but the license plate can be used to identify you if you go too far.

Diggin’ in the Carts: Japanese video game music history

Meet the men and women responsible for creating the most iconic tunes in video game history.

We finished up the Replaying Japan 2021 conference today. The conference was online using Zoom and Gather Town where there was a hidden easter egg with a link to Diggin’ in the Carts: Japanese video game music history, a 5 part documentary from Red Bull that is quite good. The 5 15 minute episodes are part of the first season. Not sure if there will be other seasons, but there is a related radio show with multiple seasons. The documentary episodes nicely feature the composers and experts talking about the Japanese history along with other musicians commenting on the influence of the early music which would have been heard over and over in houses with Japanese consoles.

The creator of the show is Nick Dwyer who is interviewed here about the documentary and associated radio show..

Trump Tweet Archive

All 50,000+ of Trump’s tweets, instantly searchable

Thanks to Kaylin I found the Trump Twitter Archive: TTA – Search. Its a really nice clean site that lets you search or filter Trump’s tweets from when he was elected to when his account was shut down on January 8th, 2021. You can also download the data if you want to try other tools.

I find reading his tweets now to be quite entertaining. Here are two back to back tweets that seems to almost contradict each other. First he boasts about the delivery of vaccines, and then talks about Covid as Fake News!

Jan 3rd 2021 – 8:14:10 AM EST: The number of cases and deaths of the China Virus is far exaggerated in the United States because of @CDCgov’s ridiculous method of determination compared to other countries, many of whom report, purposely, very inaccurately and low. “When in doubt, call it Covid.” Fake News!

Jan 3rd 2021 – 8:05:34 AM EST: The vaccines are being delivered to the states by the Federal Government far faster than they can be administered!

What Ever Happened to IBM’s Watson? – The New York Times

IBM’s artificial intelligence was supposed to transform industries and generate riches for the company. Neither has panned out. Now, IBM has settled on a humbler vision for Watson.

The New York Times has a story about What Ever Happened to IBM’s Watson? The story is a warning to all of us about the danger of extrapolating from intelligence behaviour in one limited domain to others. Watson got good enough at trivia question answering (or posing) to win at Jeopardy!, but that didn’t scale out.

IBM’s strategy is interesting to me. Developing an AI to win at a game like Jeopardy! was what IBM did with Deep Blue that won at chess in 1997. Winning at a game considered paradigmatically a game of intelligence is a great way to get public relations attention.

Interestingly what seems to be working with Watson is not the moon shot game playing type of service, but the automation of basic natural language processing tasks.

Having recently read Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation I must say that the choice of the name “Watson” grates. Thomas Watson was responsible for IBM’s ongoing engagement with the Nazi’s for which he got a medal from Hitler in 1937. Watson didn’t seem to care how IBM’s data processing technology was being used to manage people especially Jews. I hope the CEOs of AI companies today are more ethical.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

I finally finished watching the BBC documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head by Adam Curtis. It is hard to describe this series which is cut entirely from archival footage with Curtis’ voice interpreting and linking the diverse clips. The subtitle is “An Emotional History of the Modern World” which is true in that the clips are often strangely affecting, but doesn’t convey the broad social-political connections Curtis makes in the narration. He is trying out a set of theses about recent history in China, the US, the UK, and Russia leading up to Brexit and Trump. I’m still digesting the 6 part series, but here are some of the threads of theses:

  • Conspiracies. He traces our fascination and now belief in conspiracies back to a memo by Jim Garrison in 1967 about the JFK assassination. The memo, Time and Propinquity: Factors in Phase I presents results of an investigative technique built on finding patterns of linkages between fragments of information. When you find strange coincidences you then weave a story (conspiracy) to join them rather than starting with a theory and checking the facts. This reminds me of what software like Palantir does – it makes (often coincidental) connections easy to find so you can tell stories. Curtis later follows the evolution of conspiracies as a political force leading to liberal conspiracies about Trump (that he was a Russian agent) and alt-right conspiracies like Q-Anon. We are all willing to surrender our independence of thought for the joys of conspiracies.
  • Big Data Surveillance and AI. Curtis connects this new mode of investigation to what the big data platforms like Google now do with AI. They gather lots of fragments of information about us and then a) use it to train AIs, and b) sell inferences drawn from the data to advertisers while keeping us anxious through the promotion of emotional content. Big data can deal with the complexity of the world which we have given up on trying to control. It promises to manage the complexity of fragments by finding patterns in them. This reminds me of discussions around the End of Theory and shift from theories to correlations.
  • Psychology. Curtis also connects this to emerging psychological theories about how our minds may be fragmented with different unconscious urges moving us. Psychology then offers ways to figure out what people really want and to nudge or prime them. This is what Cambridge Analytica promised – the ability to offer services we believed due to conspiracy theories. Curtis argues at the end that behavioural psychology can’t replicate many of the experiments undergirding nudging. Curtis suggests that all this big data manipulation doesn’t work though the platforms can heighten our anxiety and emotional stress. A particularly disturbing part of the last part is the discussion of how the US developed “enhanced” torture techniques based on these ideas after 9/11 to create “learned helplessness” in prisoners. The idea was to fragment their consciousness so that they would release a flood of these fragments, some of which might be useful intelligence.
  • Individualism. A major theme is the rise of individualism since the war and how individuals are controlled. China’s social credit model of explicit control through surveillance is contrasted to the Western consumer driven platform surveillance control. Either way, Curtis’ conclusion seems to be that we need to regain confidence in our own individual powers to choose our future and strive for it. We need to stop letting others control us with fear or distract us with consumption. We need to choose our future.

In some ways the series is a plea for everyone to make up their own stories from their fragmentary experience. The series starts with this quote,

The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently. (David Graeber)

Of course, Curtis’ series could just be a conspiracy story that he wove out of the fragments he found in the BBC archives.

Time Travel and Blink (Doctor Who)

I recently finished listening to James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History. Gleick wrote the best book on The Information there is and this book is almost as good. He weaves the science together with the fictions about time travel starting with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and using that to then look at how science started treating time as a dimension that they allowed us to seriously talk about traveling on that dimension. It is historical ontology done really well.

Near the end he talks about the brilliant Doctor Who episode  Blink (Doctor Who) with Carey Mulligan where she has a conversation with Doctor Who (Tennant) mediated by Easter Eggs on DVDs and transcribed onto paper. That transcription she hands to the Doctor at the end of the episode so he can put the video onto the DVDs in the past for her to talk to. It is brilliant.

Part of what I like about Gleick is he shows the connections between science and how we imagine ideas like time through literature and film. He ends by suggesting that we have time travel in our stories and imagination.

It might be fair to say that all we perceive is change—that any sense of stasis is a constructed illusion. Every moment alters what came before. We reach across layers of time for the memories of our memories.

“Live in the now,” certain sages advise. They mean: focus; immerse yourself in your sensory experience; bask in the incoming sunshine, without the shadows of regret or expectation. But why should we toss away our hard-won insight into time’s possibilities and paradoxes? We lose ourselves that way. (Gleick, James. Time Travel, p. 308)

What was Gamergate? The lessons we still haven’t learned

Gamergate should have armed us against bad actors and bad-faith arguments. It didn’t.

Vox has an important article connecting the storming of the US Capitol with Gamergate, What was Gamergate? The lessons we still haven’t learned.  The point is that Gamergate and the storming are the visible symptoms of something deeper. I would go further and connect these with activities that progressives approve of like some of the Anonymous initiatives. For that matter, the recent populist retail investor campaign around stocks like GameStop has similar roots in new forms of organizing and new ironic ideologies.

Continue reading What was Gamergate? The lessons we still haven’t learned