Commentary, Man / Machine, The man / machine series

Simone Weil’s principles for automation (Man / Machine VI)

Philosopher and writer Simone Weil laid out a few principles on automation in her fascinating and often difficult book Need for Roots. Her view as positive, and she noted that among workers in factories the happiest ones seemed to be the ones that worked with machines. She had strict views on the design of these machines however, and her views can be summarized in three general principles. First, these tools of automation need to be safe. Safety comes first, and should also be weighed when thinking about what to automate first – the idea that automation can be used to protect workers is an obvious, but sometimes neglected one. Second, the tools of automation need to be general purpose. This is an interesting principle, and one that is not immediately obvious. Weil felt that this was important – when it came to factories – because they could then be repurposed for new social needs, and respond to changing social circumstances – most pressingly, and in her time acute, war. Third, the machine needs to be designed so that it is used and operated by man. The idea that you would substitute man by machine she found ridiculous for several reasons, but not least because we need to work to finds purpose and meaning, and any design that eliminates us from the process of work would be socially detrimental. All Weil’s principles are applicable and up for debate in our time. I think the safety principle is fairly accepted, but we…

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Attention, Commentary, Fake news, The Fake News Notes, Writing

Notes on attention, fake news and noise #3: The Noise Society 10 years later

This February it is 10 years since I defended my doctoral thesis on what I then called the Noise Society. The main idea was that the idea of an orderly, domesticated and controllable information society – modeled on the post-industrial visions of Bell and others – probably was wrongheaded, and that we would see a much wilder society characterized by an abundance of information and a lack of control, and in fact: we would see information grow to a point where the value of it actually collapsed as the information itself collapsed into noise. Noise, I felt then, was a good description not only of individual disturbances in the signal, but also the cost for signal discovery over all. A noise society would face very different challenges than an information society. Copyright in a noise society would not be an instrument of encouraging the production of information so much as a tool for controlling and filtering information in different ways. Privacy would not be about controlling data about us as much as having the ability to consistently project a trusted identity. Free expression would not be about the right to express yourself, but about the right not to be drowned out by others. The design of filters would become key in many different ways. Looking back now, I feel that I was right in some ways and wrong in many, but that the overall conclusion – that the increase in information and the consequences of this information wealth are at…

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Commentary

Ginzburg V: Bertillonian word portraits in the age of tag clouds

Ginzburg dwells on the use of signs to identify individuals in his essay. His main example is the emergence of fingerprinting as a semiotic practice to identify and diversify crowds into individuals. But he also looks at how graphology grew out of the understanding of one’s characters – in writing – reflected one’s character – in psychology. Through the series of examples of signs and symptoms used to identify the individual (also used to warn us of recidivist criminals, like in Dumas) he tries to show that our need for a connection between the semiotic and the biological is a need that has roots in our need for accountability, and legal responsibility. In passing, Ginzburg also mentions Bertillon’s use of word portraits, a practice that was suggested to escape the simplistic physiognomic descriptions in early criminal records. And here we find something interesting. Bertillon suggested that a linguistic description of an individual would be more interesting than one in which we try to measure a few biological qualities. He immediately ran into two problems: one was the problem of linguistic ambiguity – how do you create a literal description of an individual that can be used for uniquely identifying that individual? The other was the problem that the system was, as Ginzburg notes, wholly negative. Someone who did not fulfill the description could be eliminated, but would a word portrait really uniquely identify someone? Anyone who has read a description of criminal or seen a so-called phantom image of a…

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Commentary

Ginzburg IV: The origins of narrative

A large part of Ginzburg’s essay concerns the nature and origin of narrative. Ginzburg’s hypothesis is as daring as it can be controversial. He writes: “Perhaps indeed the idea of a narrative, as opposed to spell or exorcism or invocation (Seppilli 1962), originated in a hunting society, from the experience of interpreting tracks. […]The hunter could have been the first ‘to tell a story’ because only hunters knew how to read a coherent sequence of events from the silent (even imperceptible) signs left by their pray” (p 89) This idea, that gatherers invoked, prayed and casts spells, whereas the real story tellers were hunters, opens a whole space for speculation about the role of narrative in our societies, and helps explain the rise and growth of the detective story to its prominence. The detective story is the hunt, in this case for human prey and predator, and remains a dominating narrative form. The tracing of prey, the interpretation of tracks across the sands of time becomes the main form of narration. The appeal of this hypothesis is that it also seems to suggest an explanation of the communal nature of narrative. Why do we, as a species, prefer to share stories to the extent that our cultural consumption more or less describes a power law distribution? If we believe that it is because stories originated as hunters’ tales then we know that sharing these meant sharing a set of communal ideas, insights and histories that could be used to create…

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Commentary

Ginzburg III: On the serendipity engine

Ginzburg explores the role of traces in understanding the world, and usefully repeats the myth of the three sons of the King of Serendippo. The myth is originally found in several folk tales, and roughly goes like this, according to Ginzburg from a 1557 re-telling: the three princes of Serendippo meet a merchant and tells him that they think an animal has passed by. The Merchant, who is missing a camel, asks them to describe the animal and they go onto say that it is a lame camel, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. The merchant then thinks that they, since they know the camel so well, must be the ones who have stolen it – so he charges them. They manage to be acquitted when they show how they by simple inferences together deduced their description. The genealogical connection to Sherlock Holmes, and the detective story over all, is abundantly clear, and Ginzburg informs us that Horace Walpole later coined the term “serendipty” to refer to cases where “accident and sagacity” allow for knowledge discovery. Now, in discussions about the web today some have called for more accident – thinking that the increasing focus on filters will create bubbles around us. That, in itself, is an interesting discussion – but not one that Ginzburg engages in. What he does, however, is to suggest that the etymological genealogy of the word presents anyone who…

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Commentary

Ginzburg II: Complexity, clues and the emergence of conjectural computing

Ginzburg discusses the gulf between natural sciences and their increasing abstraction and the concreted and detailed nature of the human sciences, almost always engaged in the individual case, about which natural science almost always remains silent. The “individuum est ineffabile”-imperative will simply not work in history, for example, where the individual case remains a node in a network of clues used to understand and think about history. History, and the social sciences, Ginzburg seems to suggest, need to work from what he calls a conjectural paradigm – and we need to understand the merits and de-merits of that system rather than try for the mathematization of all disciplines. This particular discussion has developed even further in our time, where the computational turn in the humanities to some represent the logical end point for sciences suffering from physics envy, but now consigning themselves to uninteresting discoveries of patterns where deep insights were once to be had. Ginzburg writes: “Galileo has posed an awkward dilemma for human sciences. Should they achieve significant results from a scientifically weak position, or should they put themselves in a strong scientific position but get meager results?”(p 110) But Ginzburg’s warning should not, I think, be read as a warning against the use of computer models and methods in the human sciences, but rather as a reminder that what we need are models that allow for the messiness of the individual case. The computational turn can, in fact, mean that we can explore Morellian space for individual…

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Commentary

Ginzburg I: The exploration of Morellian space in the age of data science

Carlo Ginzburg explores, in a magnificent essay entitled “Clues: Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes” featured in The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce (ed. Eco, U and Sebeok, T, 1988), a series of ideas that not only touch deeply on the nature of semiotics and the divide between natural science and social as well as human science, but also on any number of very interesting threads that interest me deeply. In a series of posts, I will explore and discuss some of those threads – but for anyone interested in engaging with a fascinating piece of writing I can only recommend reading the essay and working through its rich ideas and complex structure carefully.  The focus of Ginzburg’s essay is the art historian Morelli, who, under a pseudonym published a work intended to help attribute paintings more accurately. Morelli’s method was simple, but a stroke of genius. Instead of focusing on the attributes that everyone associated with a master – i.e. the smile of Mona Lisa and others in Leonardo’s paintings – Morelli suggest that the attribution of authorship might actually be done more precisely and exactly by looking at details in the paintings that the masters were not associated with. Ginzburg reprints and shows a series of collections of ears, fingernails and noses that Morelli studied carefully and used to re-attribute a large number of works of art in an often spectacular way. Morelli’s method – focusing on the involuntary details and clues provided by the author of a…

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