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  • Profile photo of feedwordpress

    feedwordpress 14:21:33 on 2018/12/21 Permalink
    Tags: , , , biology, , , , , , , , , distrust, distrustworthy, document, documentation, documents, , , , , , , , gatekeeper, homo sapiens, , , , , information and communications technology, , , , , , ordinary language, plain language, plain talk, , , , publication, , , , , , , , , , , , , transparent, , trustworthiness, , vernacular, , written   

    Some Reflections on the Revolution in Propaganda 


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    More or less exactly ten generations after Edmund Burke’s treatise concerning the French Revolution and roughly about twenty generations after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, I would like to give you a small update on the state of news, media and publishing following the advent of modern computers on the dissemination landscape.

    In this endeavor, I will utilize a case study involving a podcast video on the interwebs, in particular youtube.com, which I hope will help by providing a graphic illustration of what’s going on right now. The case in point is a discussion between an evolutionary biologist, William von Hippel, and a media magnate, Joe Rogan, concerning the publication of Mr. von Hippel’s new neato book titled “The Social Leap”. I shared a link to the entire discussion a couple weeks ago, here I wish to focus on a short segment starting at 2:08:55.

    Originally, my fascination with the topic centered on the origins of human language, but unfortunately there was hardly any discussion of this during the podcast. Although there are many fascinating points regarding the evolution of homo sapiens, very little (if anything at all) was directly related to the genesis of human language. I have often noted that the very first line in the Bible’s book of Genesis directly indicates “the word” as being at the beginning of human history, but exactly how this first word was ever spoken remains an enigma. My own hunch is that it followed other types of expression – such as body language, facial expressions and the like – and that several rather complex communicative norms needed to become institutionalized (and that language was therefore perhaps far more difficult to develop than other technologies). I imagine that three evolutionary developments might have been particularly advantageous, namely: 1. increased brain size; 2. “whites” of eyes; and 3. improved vocal apparatus. Mr. von Hippel also mentions the first two of these developments.

    I have heard Noam Chomsky give a ball-park estimate of ca. 75 thousand years ago for the approximate beginnings of language. Most of the developments mentioned by Mr. von Hippel predate that by a longshot, but the segment I mentioned above (2:08:55) has to do with a development that is undoubtedly much newer, since it is about reasoning and argumentation (which as far as I know must require language). The segment begins with a discussion of confirmation bias, and Mr. von Hippel then mentions a 2011 paper written by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, saying the paper shows that humans actually evolved to use confirmation bias to persuade each other of their own opinions rather than actually trying to find out what is actually true. I was shocked by this statement and read the original article. Upon doing so, it became clear to me that Mr. von Hippel had misrepresented the original findings – and I have contacted Hugo Mercier and he assures me that my shock was indeed warranted.

    Mercier & Sperber (2011), on the contrary, contends that while the confirmation bias may very well be active when producing arguments, it is largely inactive during the evaluation of arguments. This symbiotic relationship is crucial, and to overlook it is a gross distortion of the findings. Why did this happen?

    I believe the answer to this question involves yet another development in the history of human languages, perhaps even newer than the “Why do humans reason?” development of argumentation proposed by Mercier & Sperber. Perhaps the earliest records of writing date back to cave paintings and sculptures made by humans tens of thousands of years ago, but the development of writing systems standardized enough to be used for communication across larger stretches of space and time required the development of more advanced social institutionalization – perhaps dating back no further than just about 10,000 years (in other words, only ca. 500 generations).

    For most of this time, writing was extremely limited and was only available to the most educated classes. Therefore, any ideas shared would only be written down if they passed the muster of such highly educated gatekeepers. In my humble opinion, this recurring process led to the development of something I wish to refer to as a publication bias – a “believability” of ideas that have been written down. Shortly after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press a little over 500 years ago, the world up to that point was shaken up briefly… but that came to an end when copyright law was established and the production of large-scale printing presses became prohibitively expensive. For the past several hundred years, the publication bias has largely been reinstitutionalized, though the publishing industry became highly fragmented (from a church monopoly before 1500 to a plethora of publishing gatekeepers thereafter). The new gatekeepers were governed by many laws, and thereby it was possible to control the dissemination of information. Early modern information technologies such as telegraph, telephone, radio, television, etc. did little to change that.

    What did change it was the advent of the personal computer. Desktop publishing was hardly a challenge to traditional publishing, but electronic publishing is marching forwards in leaps and bounds on its way to completely eradicating the titans of the paper era. Day after day, the cost of publishing information across the entire globe continues to new record-setting lows. It is a well-known, commonplace fact that publishing technology has now also been birthed from Pandora’s box, and that it is now nearly everywhere, cheap and easy to use… for anyone.

    And therein lies the rub: The days of publishing gatekeepers are finally over. Clicking a button is not at all difficult to do… and so everyone’s doing it.

    The result we need to face today is that the publication bias – the naive trust in written information – is (or at least should be) also gone, probably forever (or at least for the “foreseeable future”).

    And yet likewise we see virtually on a daily basis that the publication bias is actually very far from gone. On the contrary: not only do old habits die hard, but now we have even more, new and improved, of such biases. Perhaps leading the pack is the modern brand name – completely vacuous and empty, but highly valued, exclusive and nearly impenetrable to most rational thought processes. Brands carry the weight of innumerable imaginary people, built up over years, decades if not centuries. Such colossal weight bogs the average human’s mind, and the most popular brands are revered as gods, never to be doubted or questioned. What previously had been delegated to print, today can fly as high as Coca-cola, Apple, Amazon, Facebook or Google or YouTube or untold other brands. No longer is the sky the limit, either – no, these fantastic companies will fly to the moon, Mars and far beyond into space, reaching for the stars.

    Will ordinary humans ever come back down to earth? How will we ever be able to re-introduce a modicum of rationality into our species? Perhaps we should untie ourselves from our slavery to brands, brand names, megalithic monopolistic enterprises and such. Maybe we should return to ordinary communications – straight talk, free of mumbo jumbo.

    Luckily, the founders of the Internet apparently did have enough foresight to foresee the potential dangers of centralized information resources. The technology at the basis of modern civilization today is actually not the problem. The problem is modern human behavior, especially the way modern humans behave in groups. We have seen this time and again throughout the 20th Century, now we must “human up” and become more reasonable.

    We must learn to recognize the difference between fake and real. This is actually not as difficult as it sounds. What makes it relatively simple is when we simply recognize that the human languages we use on a daily basis are our own, and that we are free to communicate our ideas, wants and needs as we please. We don’t need no central authority to control our thoughts. We don’t need no dictator to figure out the truth. We can rely on what we understand from humans, and also that we will be understood by humans. Humans are rational beings – and that means they will rationalize their ideas, each according to their own language. Mutual understanding among humans is the primary goal we must strive for. Regular ordinary straight talk is the basis of human rationality, and it is time we recognize this fact and reestablish regular ordinary straight talk into our daily lives, our information and communication technologies and our entire media landscape.

    We should not trust that Joe Rogan or William von Hippel are right. We should not feel secure that the big data algorithms of YouTube or Google will watch out for us. We need to open our own eyes for ourselves and take a good hard look at reality – because that is what matters.

    One last point I wish to address is an issue that I feel could easily lead to a misunderstanding. While I argue that brand names are inadequate as symbols of trust or reliability, brand names do serve a constructive purpose, function and useful role in the modern social order. These labels and identifiers enable us to refer to individuals, individual entities, individual processes and distinct, unique phenomena we engage with and participate in on a daily basis. Therefore, they serve an integral role in our entire social fabric. Note, though, that our ability to reference such entities and phenomena has very little to do with the trustworthiness of the entities or phenomena themselves, but rather with the trustworthiness of the social order – for example, a well-functioning legal framework that forms the basis of such well-established social institutions as private property, fair trade, open communications, etc.

    Meaningful information requires language, and meaningful accounting requires itemization. Bringing both of these phenomena together is a matter of dovetailing information organized via language with the accountability of big data bases. If you would like to participate in helping to make this happen, I invite you to get up and sign up with phenomenonline.com!

     
  • Profile photo of nmw

    nmw 13:20:03 on 2015/07/23 Permalink
    Tags: author, authors, book, books, , , catalogs, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , written   

    To Read or to Be Read 


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    When I was a kid, I used to go to the library a lot… and read books. Before reading them, I would need to find them. For those of you unfamiliar with this process: This was the prototype for most search engines (back then, people studying this process went to “library schools”, graduate programs for “information science” — and the field specifically focused on what is today referred to “search”, back then it was called “information retrieval”).

    But reading is not really something “for specialists only”. Before graduating high school, regular folks also had to learn about publishing. For example: They needed to know that books have authors, that they were published by publishing companies, and so on.

    Online, titles, authors and publishing houses became domain names. There are also numbers which refer to computers — perhaps this is roughly equivalent to the way people would refer to specific shelves where specific books were stored (this system of naming shelves, which was used in the earliest libraries, would later give way to so-called “call-numbers”, a system whereby a book was given a specific sequential number where it could be found). The biggest difference between traditional libraries and the Internet is probably the fact that online, the cataloging and indexing systems are integrated into the same system as the writing that they catalog / index. Although professional abstracting and indexing services also published such volumes (which looked very much like “regular” books), and these books were usually also given call numbers, putting them on par with the more ordinary literature, the librarian was the person who made this decision… and the librarian was the person ultimately responsible for maintaining the catalog (and also for choosing what would be included in the library’s collection).

    I guess only quite novice users would assume that if something was not in the library (and/or the library’s catalogs) that it would not exist.

    Contrast that with today — where there is now an entire generation of kids who seem to believe that if something cannot be found in Google, that it doesn’t exist.

    Even though the rate of illiteracy today is quite astounding already, I now observe also that in recent years an entirely new trend is catching on. People are becoming ever less concerned with reading or writing or behaving as functionally literate persons. Instead: They are becoming more obsessed with being read… — meaning that someone (or some company) is able to trace their moves. Whereas it is becoming ever more rare for people the read or write anything resembling written texts (and/or “literature”), it is becoming ever more commonplace for people to clutch on to gadgets which track everything such quantified fetishists seem to place such a high value on. The typical quantified fetishist will feel much the same way about their gadget fetish as a democratic idealist might view the sanctity of the voting booth.

    In this milieu, there seems to also be a widespread belief that the companies collecting this data will share it publicly out of the warmness of their hearts.

     
  • Profile photo of nmw

    nmw 10:10:38 on 2015/07/16 Permalink
    Tags: , , alive, , , dead, , , , , fashion, , formless, formlessness, forms, , , , , , , , , , , , written   

    WANTED: Is Written Language DEAD OR ALIVE? 


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    We are constantly altering the forms we have inherited from previous generations, and these changes are signs of life and vitality. Indeed: The things that don’t change, the forms that rigidify, come to look to us like death — and we destroy them.

    Robert Greene (“48 Laws of Power”)

    One of the sayings I find particularly enticing is the notion that “Written language is dead”. It appeals to our experiences of printed materials, tomes that appear as tombstones of bygone ideas. Yet today, this dogma itself is no longer valid.

    Today, written language exists in the present. Written language lives and breathes according to the whims of an invisible hand that sweeps our attention from hither to thither. “Bells and whistles” give way to “ringtones”, and “ringtones” also succumb to other newfangled applications of fashion.

    More and more writing is becoming less and less etched in stone, it increasingly billows among flyers scattered by the winds of change, becomes evermore formless, ephemeral and transient. Fixed data points give way to fluid data streams.

    There is no need for remorse or backwards oriented attachment to the dead tomes of yesteryear or the innumerable generations dating back to the ancient past. We are not amoeba. We are, here and now, living in the present… — and constantly changing in order to better adapt to the future.

     
  • Profile photo of feedwordpress

    feedwordpress 12:21:13 on 2013/08/30 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , written   

    In Language We Trust 


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    There is one point about that the Wisdom of the Language that seems confusing: It is apparently not clear to some which language is being referred to. I have left this open and ambiguous by choice, because it is not really a straightforward matter. Let me explain.

    I am not talking about English or German, Arabic or Chinese. The main issue I see is written vs. spoken language. I find it amazing that few people make this distinction, but it is a very important one. The difficulty, though, is how to truly nail it down. For example: When I speak into a telephone, the audio signal is transformed into an electrical signal. In many (if not most) cases, that electrical signal is then transformed into either a light signal or a radio signal. The light or radio signal is the one that usually travels most of the distance (as these travel the fastest), then the signals are trasformed back (first into an electrical signal and then into another audio signal). In other words: there are several cases of writing and rewriting of data involved — so this is actually a written (and often translated) message, even though it appears to us to be simply spoken.

    When I say “In Language We Trust”, I mean written language… even though writing is difficult to define. Is my genetic information a case of written language or not? Is the Magna Charta that gets printed in textbooks and encyclopedias across the globe the exact same text as the one written almost 800 years ago in England? Are the pictures etched into the Code of Hammurabi also writing? Why (or why not)?

    Of course I am playing Devil’s Advocate here. When I get a call on the telephone about some stupendous offer for me to save money, get rich quick or buy insurance to cover the risk that my cat might die in a car accident, I may ask them to send something in writing (though more likely I will simply hang up). I do not trust insurance salesman, and I do not trust statements uttered in spoken language as much as I trust information in writing.

    Written language seems to have a permanence that makes it more reliable. This is true in spades for a particular type of written content online: Domain names. We are all invested in domain names, much in the same way as we all have a stake in the English Language (or if some other language is your native language, then that language). When we say “house”, “tomorrow” or “water” in our native language to another person who speaks the same language as their native language, there is generally a trust that we are roughly speaking using the same names to mean the same things. Likewise, if I ask you to visit house.com, tomorrow.net or water.org, then there is little doubt that we are referring to the same thing (note, however, that the most of the information presented at tomorrow.net may very well be ads brought to you by Google, and that Google will probably deliver content that it feels will probably maximize profit for Google, Inc. — nonethless: this is what the administrator of tomorrow.net has decided, and the fact that the registrant of tomorrow.net is a company named “Oversee” and located in Los Angeles, California is public information, as is the company’s telephone number, street addess, etc.; there is no doubt that this company is ultimately responsible for any information presented at the URL “tomorrow.net” … and there is proof of this fact in writing). We often rely on the public nature of registries: the bank notes we use are numbered in this manner, the land upon which houses and other buildings are built are recorded in land registries, and so on. Registries are to ownership of private property much the same as dictionaries are to language — as a society we “buy into” both of these systems, in order to facilitate order and ease of use (in the case of property, to simplify commerce; and in the case of language, to simplify communication).

    This is probably far more detailed and complicated that what you were bargaining for when you decided to read this post. The plain and simple version might simply read: “In Language We Trust” refers to written language, not hot air! :D

     
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