Philosophy, Technology

Autonomy, technology and prediction I: some conceptual remarks

“How would you feel if a computer could predict what you would buy, how you would vote and what kinds of music, literature and food you would prefer with an accuracy that was greater than that of your partner?” Versions of this question has been thrown at me in different fora over the last couple of months. It contains much to be unpacked, and turns out to be a really interesting entry into a philosophical analysis of autonomy. Here are a few initial thoughts. We don’t want to be predictable. There is something negative about that quality that is curious…

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Reading Notes

Simon I: From computers to cognicity

In the essay “The steam engine and the computer” Simon makes a number of important, and interesting points about technological revolution. It is an interesting analysis and worthwhile reading – it is quite short – but I will summarize a few points, and throw out a concept idea. Simon notes that revolutions – their name notwithstanding – take a lot of time. The revolution based on the steam engine arguably took more than 150 years to really change society. Our own information revolution is not even half way there. We have sort of assumed that the information revolution is over…

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Philosophy

Agency and autonomy IV: Agency and religion

So, let’s go back to Wittgenstein’s quote. In the second part of the investigations, now called Philosophy of Psychology, a fragment, chapter iv section 22 he writes: “My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.” In section 23 he continues: “Religion teaches us that the soul can exist when the body has disintegrated. Now do I understand what it teaches? – Of course I understand it – I can imagine various things in connection with it. After all, pictures of these things have been painted. And why…

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Philosophy

Agency and Autonomy III: The consequences of agency

Let’s assume that we have designed a good way of determining agency. How would we, then, determine the consequences of liability where we have established that there is agency? Here we encounter an interesting observation. It feels wholly unsatisfactory to assign agency and thus liability to a system that cannot recognize that it is being held responsible. Think about it: assume that we say that a system killed a man by, say, scheduling the working of a machine in the wrong way, and that we have determined that it did so to kill the man – because it found him…

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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…

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Philosophy

Agency and autonomy II: Sorrow, pain and soul

The problem with determining agency is that it looks as if we are determining a quality in an actor in the moment. In fact, that is not what is happening. When Wittgenstein examines psychological states he notes that some of them have what he refers to as “Echte Dauer” – real duration – and some do not. Hence, it works to ask when pain starts and stops, or to speak of an instant of extreme pain, but if we were to do the same when it comes to sorrow the result would be almost comical. “Do you feel sorrow now?…

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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…

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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…

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Philosophy

Agency and autonomy I: Agency and an attitude to a soul

The notion of agency is essential to understanding our society. If we cannot say who did something, or what it means to be the one actual acting in a specific case, then all of the language games of legal liability, contractual freedom and intellectual property – to name but a few subjects – falter and fail. Agency lies at the core of our legal philosophies, it is a concept so deeply entrenched that it is easy to miss. What, then, does it mean to be an agent, to act, to have agency? There is no simple answer here, but there…

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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…

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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…

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