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    nmw 15:27:59 on 2016/07/12 Permalink
    Tags: academia, academic, , , , , , , , bandwagon, bandwagon effect, , , , , , , , , , compute, , corrupt, corrupted, corruption, , , , , , , group think, groupthink, , , , , , , , , , , , , majority, , , , , populism, populist, , , rason, , , , , , , , , , systemic, , , trusted, , , universities, university, valid, validity, vote, votes, voting, ,   

    The Spectre of Populism 

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    There is a spectre haunting the Web: That spectre is populism.

    Let me backtrack a moment. This piece is a part of an ongoing series of posts about „rational media“ – a concept that is still not completely hard and fast. I have a hunch that the notion of „trust“ is going to play a central role… and trust itself is also an extremely complex issue. In many developed societies, trust is at least in part based on socially sanctioned institutions (cf. e.g. „The Social Construction of Reality“) – for example: public education, institutions for higher education, academia, etc. Such institutions permeate all of society – be it a traffic sign at the side of a road, or a crucifix as a central focal element on the alter in a church, or even the shoes people buy and walk around with on a daily basis.

    The Web has significantly affected the role many such institutions play in our daily lives. For example: one single web site (i.e. the information resources available at a web location) may be more trusted today than an encyclopedia produced by thousands of writers ever were – whether centuries ago, decades ago, or even still just a few years past.

    Similarly, another web site may very well be trusted by a majority of the population to answer any and all questions whatsoever – whether of encyclopedic nature or not. Perhaps such a web site might use algorithms – basically formulas – to arrive at a score for the „information value“ of a particular web page (the HTML encoded at one sub-location of a particular web site). A large part of this formula might involve a kind of „voting“ performed anonymously – each vote might be no more than a scratch mark presumed to indicate a sign of approval (an „approval rating“) given from disparate, unknown sources. Perhaps a company might develop more advanced methods in order to help guage whether the vote is reliable or whether it is suspect (for example: one such method is commonly referred to as a „nofollow tag“ – a marker indicating that the vote should not be trusted).

    What many such algorithms have in common is that on a very basic level, they usually rely quite heavily on some sort of voting mechanism. This means they are fundamentally oriented towards populism – the most popular opinion is usually viewed as the most valid point of view. This approach is very much at odds with logic, the scientific method and other methods that have traditionally (for several centuries, at least) be used in academic institutions and similar „research“ settings. At their core, such populist algorithms are not „computational“ – since they rely not on any kind of technological solution to questions, but rather scan and tally up the views of a large number of human (and/or perhaps robotic) „users“. While such populist approaches are heralded as technologically advanced, they are actually – on a fundamental level – very simplistic. While I might employ such methods to decide which color of sugar-coated chocolate to eat, I doubt very much that I, personally, would rely on such methods to make more important – for example: „medical“ – decisions (such as whether or not to undergo surgery). I, personally, would not rely on such populist methods much more than I would rely on chance. As an example of the kind of errors that might arise from employing such populist methods, consider the rather simple and straightforward case that some of the people voting could in fact be color-blind.

    Yet that is just the beginning. Many more problems lurk under the surface, beyond the grasp of merely superficial thinkers. Take, for example, the so-called „bandwagon effect“ – namely, that many people are prone to fall into a sort of „follow the leader“ kind of „groupthink“. Similarly, it is quite plausible that such bandwagon effects could even influence not only people’s answers, but even also the kinds of questions they feel comfortable asking (see also my previous post). On a more advanced level, complex systems may be also be influenced by the elements they comprise. For example: While originally citation indexes were designed with the assumption that such citation data ought to be reliable, over the years it was demonstrated that such citations are indeed very prone to be corrupted by a wide variety of corruption errors and that citation analysis is indeed not at all a reliable method. While citation data may have been somewhat reliable originally, it became clear that eventually citation fraud corrupted the system.

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    feedwordpress 16:23:21 on 2013/02/22 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , educational institutions, , , , , , , , , multinational, , , schools, , university   

    Liberating the Wheat from the Chaff 

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    In the first years of the World Wide Web, players in traditional media pooh-poohed the Internet, saying it was little more than a dogpile. They were quite wrong… — but not completely wrong.

    Back when I wrote the “Wisdom of the Language“, I actually predicted this, indicating that the Web was historically characterized by its academic legacy and North American population — and also saying that more and more of all the world’s “masses” would be coming online over the coming years.

    I have seen my predictions in this regard largely vindicated, and the process will still continue for some time to come. In a few years, being considered literate (i.e., achieving a certain level of literacy that is considered useful for business activity as well as also other activities) will be roughly equivalent with being able to use the Internet.

    Yet what has happened to the overall ability of those who are already using the Internet since the Internet became recognized as a viable media channel is — more or less: nothing. There are vastly more people using the Internet today than there were 10 years ago, but their level of literacy has hardly advanced at all. To put this into perspective very simply: In the past decade, the Internet has become yet another mass media channel. Whereas one or two decades ago, mass media channels were predominantly “traditional media” such as television stations, radio stations and newspapers, today Google and Facebook are just as much mass media channels as are national television networks or newspapers… — in some ways they are even more international than traditional international media channels which have traditionally also aspired to have such a global reach.

    The reason main reason why the Internet has not become a “two-way” or “interactive” media channel the way many had predicted is that the people who got online still by and large lack the basic literacy skills needed to be able to write online. The large multinational corporations operating in online media (such as Google) have basically stepped in to become scribes for people who lack the literacy skills to write without the aide of such a paternalistic “big brother” organization on which they so strongly depend. As such, Google today screens what its users are allowed to see throughout most of the world — and this not only affects illiterate individuals, but also most global businesses run by groups of people who are even more illiterate (mostly because most of the senior management of such global / multinational corporations never learned how to use computers effectively).

    As a result: Much of the world today is as dependent on Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Weibo — and maybe another handful of such companies which offer services to these illiterate masses — as people were dependent on the scribes hundreds and thousands of years ago; much in the same that “new media” companies do today,  traditional “scribe services” offered traditional writing services to the illiterate masses in earlier times.

    Five centuries ago, Martin Luther pleaded with princes and kings to establish libraries and schools, in order to teach the masses traditional literacy skills.

    Today, governments are very reluctant to do the same. On the contrary: Some governments have even declared it a crime for government officials to visit some websites. In other words, not only the masses, but governments are even prohibiting the use of basic online literacy skills within government organizations themselves — let alone educating people how to use “new media” technology.

    The ineptitude of backwards oriented governments is leading some people to acquire these skills on their own. Presently, it seems as though the vast masses of illiterate people will only be able to acquire basic literacy skills through their own initiative and/or through the initiative of family and/or friends who are willing to share these skills in a “peer to peer” manner.

    If this continues for several more decades, then I could see new schools and universities arising outside of the walls of traditional institutions of higher learning. Although I will probably never experience that in my own lifetime, I can imagine that my children might experience something like that… or perhaps my children will be among the ones to reform the outdated educational systems and establish better systems of education — systems which actually teach such basic literacy skills to everyone.

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