Friday, 29 May 2009

Being-on-the-web: Weinberger's "infrastructure of meaning"

Writing about the web is increasingly “post-utopianist” meaning that it doesn’t expressly argue for the essential goodness of the web; doesn’t assume we’ve no real responsibilities as designers and consumers; and doesn’t assume that people are always nice or positively prosocial in their behavior online. Writers like Cass Sunnstein and Clay Shirky are at least trying to get past the breathlessness of the early days of communitarian-turned-capitalist web boosterism to a more realistic – but still hopeful – place. This is great and it’s exactly what was needed.

Dystopianism – the view that the web is essentially for the worse – is clearly the wrong reaction to utopianism. But if you can get past the panicky, paternalist fist-shaking and general curmudgeonliness of a lot of the dystopianist writing, their arguments tend to be of two types: appeals to popular, romantically conservative conceptions of individuality, creativity and culture or arguments showing that the boosters’ optimism is actually misplaced and the web doesn’t work the way they claim. The latter arguments are actually helpful, just showing that, if you’re attempting to draw evaluative conclusions from theoretical arguments, you can’t simply rely on your assumptions about what we all consider positive. For example, you can’t just assume that removing barriers to “publication” is good in and of itself, regardless of whether or not this is an increase in overall “freedom.” Some might not like the idea that there’s no longer a practically imposed institutional filter on publication because it results in enormous choice and verity problems. In addition, we’ve no real proof – plus a lot of theoretical objections and some disconfirming experimental data – that the web’s structural “solutions” to the problems of choice and truth actually work.

The other dystopian “arguments,” however, tend to be limited to dismayed hand wringing and unkind caricature about the state of culture, creativity and taste. So ultimately, the dystopianist/utopianist battle boils down to competing intuitions about what we should value and what we’re giving up or gaining by embracing this new and powerful medium. David Wienberger, a brilliant and proud utopianist, casts this battle in political terms as conservative dystopianists versus liberal utopianists. Of course, analogizing to a dichotomy in another domain doesn’t really clear things up. It’s a rhetorical move trying to get you to cast your lot either with the progressive forces of liberalism (yay!) or with the regressive deadweight of conservativism (boo!). But along the way he throws a third type into the mix, realists. He defines realists as the pragmatists in the middle, rational, level-headed and myopically obsessed with facts, data and history, i.e. boring. Supposedly, the realists feel that the web isn’t that different from other media, that the rhetoric on either side is hysterical and needlessly sensational. We just need to step back and think rationally about this new medium.

Weinberger thinks that the realists are valuable but essentially wrong about the web. That is, they’re wrong about the essence of the web, which is totally different and wholly revolutionary. Realists’ calmly rational judgment of its potential and possibilities will only blind us to its true innovative potential in the long run. For example, thinking of, judging or predicting the web’s impact and future in terms of past media may keep us locked in old patterns and thus foreclose potentially valuable new paths. So realists are valuable advisors and functionaries, but they shouldn’t be allowed to steer the ship or even navigate. After all, you’ll never discover new worlds by reading old maps... or something like that.

Anyway, if we define the realist as somebody who feels that the rhetoric on either side is overheated, that the whole debate needs a dose of reality and that the web isn’t really all that different or revolutionary, then I’m clearly not a realist. The web is indeed different in many respects, mainly in its decentralized structure, wickedly low entry cost and sudden ubiquity. I do think we need a dose of reality, but not in the way Weinberger’s realist thinks. Sure, reality is about facts, a claim most utopianists belittle via scare quotes, but these are facts about mechanisms – what structures foster and propagate knowledge, truth and quality and what we can expect from interacting agents, etc. – and not necessarily facts about history, which really are subject to biased “framing narratives.”

Finally, both utopianists and dystopianists agree that the web is revolutionary, but the former consider it a positive revolution, while the latter consider it negative. The realists, in contrast, don’t think it’s revolutionary at all, but rather more of the same only louder. Unlike Weinberger’s realists, I think the the web is revolutionary, but I use this word advisedly and without the attached evaluation, good or bad. Normatively evaluating a fact is clearly a case of interpretation, it’s identifying a fact as good or bad according to some evaluative scheme. It’s the interpretation that makes the difference. So what’s Weinberger’s interpretation?

Like Shirky, Weinberger analogizes the web revolution to the socio-cultural impact of the printing press or rather moveable type. Just as the printing press led not only to affordable books but also the dissolution of old social/labor orders and the growth of a literate, educated public, so too the web is leading to a boom in bottom-up social organization, individual creation and the general overthrow of old-guard cultural gatekeepers and entrenched hierarchies.

Now, Weinberger and Shirky, never tell us how to define institutions (or norms, conventions, etc.) – the socio-cultural structures overthrown by these revolutions – but to me they’re just self-reinforcing patterns of conditioned preferences and expectations structuring our repeated interactions. They aren’t etched in stone or handed down from on high. Rather they are slowly coordinated upon by generations of locally interacting humans. Thus, they’re contingently coordinated upon interaction and preference structures suited to the circumstances in which they developed. Change the situation or circumstances, and there will be pressure to change the institutions, norms, etc. If the situation changes radically, they will crumble and chaos will ensue, lasting just until new institutions and norms are either coordinated upon or imposed. This is a revolution.

But Weinberger in particular – echoing Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong and my old teacher Greg Ulmer among others – likes to point out that media transform our ways of thinking, thus a revolutionary medium will radically change us. I agree, but only insofar as new media destroy old and foster new norms, conventions and institutions of creation and consumption. It’s the old and new norms and institutions that structure our interactions, inform our preferences and cement our expectations. So we agree on a lot, but notice, we’ve yet to see anything in this revolution that would lead us to evaluate it positively, i.e. as a utopian revolution (conservative old dystopianists, on the other hand, started frowning the second institutions felt pressure). Disruption, difference and impact don’t necessarily equal good. So how does Weinberger get from revolution to positive evolution?

Well, I can’t definitively say, but there are hints throughout his writing. Take this passage:
...Access to printed books gave many more people access to knowledge, changed the economics of knowledge, undermined institutions that were premised on knowledge being scarce and difficult to find, altered the nature and role of expertise, and established the idea that knowledge is capable of being chunked into stable topics. These in turn affected our ideas about what it means to be a human and to be human together. But these are exactly the domains within which the Web is bringing change. Indeed, it is altering not just the content of knowledge but our sense of how ideas go together, for the Web is first and foremost about connections.

And in what way is it altering “our sense of how ideas go together?” In his wickedly clever Everything is Miscellaneous Weinberger claims that the web is an “infrastructure of meaning” as opposed to just stodgy old knowledge. He trots out the philosopher, Nazi and all around dour grump Martin Heidegger to explain his notion of meaning. Basically, it comes down to the humanly grounded, intricately woven, real-world web of warm significance that we actually live in daily as opposed to the cold, objectified, brutally subdivided grid of "official" knowledge. Just as printing initiated a revolution that separated knowledge from the lived world and brought us the evils of categorization, specialization and scientism, so the web – with its personalizing “tags” and ability to instantly pair even the most unlikely contents regardless of official taxonomies – is initiating a sort of counter-revolution in which content and knowledge are re-imbued with subtle, non-taxonomic human significance. Thus, the web – particularly the user-enhanced, user-responsive (if jargony) “Web 2.0” – is an “infrastructure of meaning” insofar as the thickening accretion of human metadata on boundlessly linkable content makes it implicitly available for officially unintended but humanly significant purposes.

So, the foundation of his normative claim that the web is essentially for the best seems to be the idea that it’s instituting a new, souped-up version of the old pre-printing press, pre-Enlightenment notion of situated and subtle human – as opposed to "rational" or scientific – knowledge. The web reclaims knowledge from the alienating pretensions of science, reason and “rationality.”

Versions of this idea have been around for a while. As Weinberger mentions, McLuhan argued for the human impact of media, as did the Jesuit scholar Walter J. Ong. Ong’s book Orality and Literacy was expressly devoted to the cognitive, epistemic and human impact of media types. You could interpret Michel Foucault’s claim that knowledge structures are imposed power structures as a version as well. I even agree with part of Weinberger’s application of it to the web: the web really is revolutionary in the extent to which it puts knowledge at people’s fingertips and allows them to find, add to, connect and forward it at will. And this is a far more human – essentially human – way of interacting with and handling knowledge.

I just don’t agree that the “human” way is necessarily good. It could be great, leading to broader minds and deeper understanding of the world and ourselves. Or it could lead to increasing factionalization, self-absorption and distrust. After all, research suggests that, left to our own devices, people – humans – only seek out and retain confirmation of previously held opinions. So much so that we often ignore the true in favor of the convenient or comfortable. We’re also significantly biased toward things we’re already familiar with. It’s also unfortunately true that our moderate views tend to become more extreme in the sorts of echo-chambers the previous phenomena set up: seeking out confirmation from like-minded people and sources and the discomfort at differing opinions (justified and reinforced by the ready agreement of our like-minded contacts) tends to make our views ever more entrenched, absolute and resilient against contradictory fact.

Just because people can connect content in wickedly exciting but subtle new ways and access highly specialized information in seconds, that doesn’t mean they will be exposed to a breadth of opinion or even – sadly – the truth. The web, because of its native responsiveness to our individual desires, allows each of us to create a cozy cocoon of confirmation and reinforcement.

But maybe this isn’t all bad by Weinberger’s lights. Weinbereger adores Heidegger’s philosophy. Central to Heidegger’s understanding of meaning is the concept of Being-in-the-world: basically, the idea that all encounters with the world are already infected with our intentions, moods, cultural connotations, etc. and that there is no sense to the traditional notion of a pure object or subject. So meaning is pretty much an inescapable consequence of any encounter with the world. But this also suggests that context – physical, social, cultural and historical – is not only inescapable, but necessary for meaning. Objectivity becomes, literally, the view from nowhere, not just impossible, but unintelligible.

Maybe these cocoons of confirmation – these little webs of shared connotations and self-reinforced absolutist understandings, which I claim are negative aspects of a naturally biased humanity – are really what Heidegger’s beleaguered teacher Edmund Husserl called “lifeworlds:” the necessary and inescapable social, cultural and historical contexts within and through which we experience the world. Maybe so, but the problem is, these life worlds are hermetically sealed wholes of historical and cultural prejudice, incommensurable and unassailable. As Heidegger’s most influential student Hans-Georg Gadamer formulated it, prejudice – the historical, social and cultural “situatedness” we’re born into – is essential to Being-in-the-world. Outside of your lifeworld, your cocoon of prejudice, you simply aren’t... in the big metaphysical sense. Thus primordial prejudice – our cocoon of reinforcing ideas ever ready to disregard inconvenient or inconsistent “facts” – is the foundation of meaning in this Heideggerian sense.

Obviously Heidegger had nothing but disdain for the Enlightenment notions of reason, rationality and truth. It’s easy to see why. By his lights, there’s nothing over top of “Being-in-the-world” or “the lifeworld,” no outside facts to adjudicate between the “meanings” grounded in the various prejudice-composed contexts. The “lifeworld” or “Being-in-the-world” is the only ground of significance. Rationality, reason and science, on the other hand, are about seeking a global foundation (possibly in the real world) for the “intersubjectivity” that Heidegger seems to have thought only inheres in shared cultural, social and historical prejudices or contexts.

So maybe we who are stuck on the old-fashioned liberal hope of finding some common, testable ground of meaning, knowledge and intergroup understanding have it terribly, inhumanly wrong. We shouldn’t think of people’s natural drive to willful ignorance and reinforced, non-verifiable absolutism as an unfortunate legacy of our evolutionary past. They aren’t something that we as designers working in a world that desperately needs people to stop embracing local superstition, prejudice and dangerously out of sync norms have a responsibility to mitigate for the good of humanity. Rather we should just realize that these prejudices are the only foundation of truly human meaning and not pretend that there’s anything outside of them. Maybe this is the way Weinberger intends his “infrastructure of meaning” to be interpreted.

So, back to Weinberger’s utopianism. Remember that utopianism is the idea that the web is essentially good or for the best. Specifically that it’s native capacity to allow users to add metadata to content and make subtle, personal connections and relations is fundamentally and wholly positive. I’ve suggested that certain biases in humans – we only like what we know, we only want to be agreed with, agreement makes our prejudices even stronger and we’ll ignore the truth if it violates either of the first two – mitigate the positive prospects. In other words, because of the way we are, the web alone isn’t going to lead us to the promise land. That said, Weinberger’s rosy optimism seems to make sense only if you choose one of the following two options:
  • Ignore the unfortunate facts about humans’ tendency to avoid disconfirmation and neglect what some would call the truth for cognitive comfort and personal consistency.
  • Or, as his preferred philosophical tradition might recommend, embrace these tendencies as a prerequisite of authentic, human meaning. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.
You do either one of those and I could see how Weinberger’s web utopianism might work. Personally, I find neither particularly appealing.

Of course, I’ve fudged along the way. Heidegger wrote extensively about “authenticity” as a refusal to unreflectively live the conventional life your peers demand etc. Also, “Being-in-the-world,” “lifeworlds” and even Gadamer’s prejudice soaked “horizons” aren’t exactly like the little cocoons of auto-agreement people tend to create around themselves and which the web makes ever easier and more complete. But fudging aside, this doesn’t alter the basic thrust of this popular philosophical tradition’s radical perspectivism. I just wanted to investigate whether this could be what Weinberger has in mind given that he probably knows people aren’t as reasonable as we could hope. Finally, it could be that Weinberger is just trying to say that the web provides wicked cool new ways of getting people to content. Which it does. But I think he’s going for something more.


David said...

Shannon, thanks so much for this! Wonderful!

I've posted a response on my site because it was too long for a comment box:

-- David Weinberger

Anonymous said...

Nice piece.

Taboo is largely presumed to be necessary for the coherence of any society, large or small. Thus, assuming taboo places limits on such things (as I believe is reasonable to do without proving), a carefully guarded clamp on connectedness and suture of profligate openness is a prerequisite for citizen's perception of openness and connectedness.

This is not a paradox, and has absolutely nothing to do with the web.