Friday, 4 December 2009

The Hippies vs. The Straights: Information/Knowledge, Internalism/Externalism

Knowledge is of two kinds: we know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.
Samuel Johnson
A few years ago there was a heated folksonomy vs. taxonomy debate between the vague, jargon-spewing web 2.0-ers and the scared, curmudgeonly old-guard Information Architects. Then there was a mess of talk and some patrician lamentation about the death of the expert (e.g. encyclopedias) at the hands of wise crowds (e.g. Wikipedia). And we’re still chattering about the imminent shuttering of hoary old knowledge-disseminating institutions like newspapers and magazines driven to the brink by upstart “open knowledge” aggregators like Twitter and the blogosphere.

Let’s call the two camps in these debates the Hippies – the folksonomizing Tweeters – and the Straights – the taxonomizing encyclopedists. Sort of by definition of “debate” they take opposing sides. But the problem is, they’re usually talking past each other for ideological reasons, which means we’ll never really get any satisfactory answers about the issues. So, though there are legitimate points of difference between these two groups, I’d rather look at a distinction and a faux dichotomy at the heart of the debates they keep having in hopes of getting clear on foundational issues as opposed to the positions taken. The first is the distinction between information and knowledge, the second is the apparent dichotomy between an internalist viewpoint and an externalist one.
  • Information vs. Knowledge: Let’s say that information is data potentially pertinent to your projects or interests (as opposed to noise, which is wholly superfluous). Knowledge is something more than information. It’s information that you believe in some sense; it actually is true or genuinely appropriate or morally/ethically reasonable, etc.; and it arrives via reliable channels. So, knowledge necessarily incorporates our beliefs, desires and projects. But it necessarily includes something else as well. We evaluate items items we've solid reason to believe as knowledge – as opposed to just information – against some appropriate "disinterested" measure or guarantor. Information’s being knowledge isn’t just up to you, your beliefs and your interests; it’s up to something about the way the world is, whether physically, socially or culturally.
  • Internalism vs. Externalism: Internalists (or individualists) hold the traditional view that cognition, knowledge, meaning, perception, etc. are necessarily the result of internal, valid, inferences and calculations on some representations wholly inside the head of the thinker, knower, speaker/hearer, perceiver, etc. Externalists generally believe that cognition, knowledge, meaning, perception, etc. extend outside of the head and into the environment (physical, social, cultural, etc.) of the thinker, knower, speaker/hearer, perceiver, etc. Basically the dichotomy comes down to the following question: are the cognitive and epistemic abilities that make us the creatures we are “all in the head” or are they somehow extended “out there” into the social and cultural world?
A lot of the sturm und drang surrounding debates on the effects of the web on intelligence, democracy, culture, etc. comes down to differing intuitions and flat out misunderstandings about these foundational issues. Furthermore, entertaining rhetoric aside, we won’t get satisfying answers to the issues being debated until the Hippies and the Straights stop allowing ideological commitments to drag them to opposite poles of the distinction or rigidify the actually soft "dichotomy."

Informational Markets

Let’s start by stating the obvious: Many of our actions are based on what we take to be knowledge. And when asked to justify our actions, if we have a choice between justificatory facts – being pieces of true information that we’re in a position to know – or unsubstantiated justificatory hearsay, we use the former because the latter lacks any real foundation. The former is knowledge: information that we’re justified in believing, meaning that it’s come to us via a reliable channel, and is true or appropriate or reasonable, etc. Knowledge, as distinct from plain old information, is obviously incredibly important.

But unfortunately, it’s also an ideal that doesn’t weather the constraints of reality all that well. As Russell Hardin notes in his new book (which, though not too informative and wrong in equating belief and knowledge, presents an interesting thesis), there’s an economy of constraints on knowledge search: we’ve limited resources of time and attention and our incentives to attain knowledge are determined almost exclusively by our current instrumental needs or desires and our many non-knowledge based prior beliefs. That is, we tend to stop looking for knowledge when we find information that’s just good enough. And we usually find this information through inexpert, simply familiar or comfortable, i.e. not necessarily reliable, channels. What’s more, we really don’t make much of an effort to determine truth or falsity or optimality provided the new information fits with our past presumed knowledge. Why should we, after all? We’re busy, limited beings and if our non-knowledge works well enough or helps us get by, the only incentive to push further seems purely academic.

But this means that in real life we practice little or no epistemic hygiene; most of what we call knowledge is most often just information even though it’s the basis of our actions (including search and recognition criteria for future knowledge) and often serves as public and private “justification”.

Now, the key to the Hippies’ position – for example that the blogosphere could be a viable news source – is that “epistemic hygiene” is best left to market forces. Knowledge will automatically win in an open informational marketplace. Knowledge – the best, the truth – necessarily survives the winnowing effects of the market for information; if there’s a market for knowledge and it’s out there, the best way to ensure that it gets where it’s needed is to let the demand draw it from competing providers. When there’s a robustly discriminatory market for knowledge as distinct from just information, providers are thereby incentivized to provide it.

But the problem is, considering the economics of informational consumption, there’s not much of a market for knowledge as opposed to just information. That is, due to the economically constrained drives of real world infovores, people’s discernment isn’t such that they’ll seek out only knowledge. Thus they probably won’t provide enough pressure to drive the virtuous, knowledge-elevating market forces in the short term. But over the long term, the faintest of discriminating behavior will probably lead to knowledge boosting institutions. That is, it’s unclear if we have strong enough demand for knowledge, as opposed to just information, to ensure epistemic virtuousness right now.

At this point, the Straights swoop in claiming that epistemic virtuousness must be ensured from on high through the time honored institutions we’ve already got. But, of course, it’s clearly the case that placing all control in the hands of a small group of “deciders”, anointed moral shepherds to the riffraff, is simply ridiculous. Similarly, the institutions we have weren’t hatched fully formed with all of their knowledge preserving norms in place and operational. Indeed, all societies and cultures are, ultimately, bottom-up phenomena. Their seeming self-evidence notwithstanding, knowledge institutions (e.g. journalism and it’s vaunted social norm of objectivity) are the highly historically contingent result of blind, non-intentional coordination over the long term. Dissolution of the old institutions doesn’t mean that new, possibly better ones can’t be coordinated upon. The risk, if the search for new ones veers off an “equilibrium path,” is a period of turmoil as new institutions are coordinated upon. The real issue thus seems to be the cost, depth and length of the possible period of turmoil.

So, the Hippies don’t pay enough attention to the distinction between knowledge and information, particularly as it relates to the attentional economy of knowledge seekers. That is, they think that an open information market will necessarily result in an increase in knowledge. The Straights, on the other hand, misunderstand knowledge as something sacrosanct, existing only because of the (actually contingent) structures through which it currently flows. Thus those structures need to be shielded at all costs. In one direction lies possibly indefinite knowledge-mitigating turmoil but the potential for improved institutions, while in the other lies comfortable stability at the price of repressive stagnation.

Inside Out or Outside In?

The internalism/externalism distinction is at the heart of debates over whether, for example, Google makes us smarter or Facebook actually expands our social abilities. For the internalist, this is just a dumb question. Cognition is in the head and thus Google is simply a tool or resource the use of which must be weighed like any other. It possibly allows us to do things we couldn’t have before, but it doesn’t make us any smarter or dumber than a hammer does.

Externalists, on the other hand, view technologies like Google as more cognitive prostheses than simply tools. They extend our cognitive powers. In this sense, the same sense in which an amputee's artificial arm becomes his or her arm, Google is part of our cognitive apparatus. Just as the ability to do long division doesn’t mean the ability to do it exclusively in the head, without the aid of such external technologies as pencil, paper and the arabic numeral system, so our knowledge of, say, philosophy may actually be increased if we acquire the skill to find it at will. So Google, in a real sense, makes us smarter insofar as it’s a prosthetic memory bank.

People often balk at the metaphysical implications of saying our minds are somehow extended into the world. So to avoid that quagmire, let’s just say that culture actually augments cognition, that culture impacts, maybe even defines, our characteristically human minds. We, unlike most other critters, can actually use and build on what others have done and then in turn pass it along in detail for others to use and build on. This is similar to psychologist Michael Tomasello’s “Ratcheting,” the idea that humanity’s great cognitive distinctiveness is as much the result of cultural as physical evolution. Fudging a lot, we actually become smarter through the lateral (i.e. within a generation) transmission of skills, abilities and ultimately material artifacts. The stuff of culture, material and conceptual, expands our cognitive abilities.

If we grant just this cultural ratcheting instead of the full blown extended mind thesis, then we can see how one could say that Google, for example, could make us smarter. Ratcheting works on exposure and imitation. Google lays bare the world’s information to a certain extent. The internalist on the other hand, says it makes us lazy – we should learn and store all of this info in our heads if we want to call it knowledge – and thus, as we know where to find it but never really try to, dumber or at least somehow culpable. Plus, there’s no guaranteeing that Google is “epistemically virtuous.”

Frankly, the first internalist argument doesn’t hold water. Whatever intelligence is, it’s clearly not a matter of facts stored in the head. If their gripe is that Google doesn’t force us to develop the strategies of inquiry and action that may actually impact intelligence, then they may have a point. But, at this historical moment, Google is a viable strategy.

Anyway, though externalism seems to make sense, the issue of epistemic virtuousness still remains. That is, cultural artifacts like Google seem to impact our cognitive abilities, but that doesn’t mean that the impact is automatically for the best. The mechanism or artifact we’re “extending our minds” with may be defective in that it doesn’t necessarily deliver an appreciable amount of knowledge per unit of information. So we’re back to knowledge, but with a significant twist. If technologies like Google actually are cognitive prostheses and it’s possible for us to impact the ratio of knowledge to non-knowledge, then we’ve a significant moral obligation to guarantee that it’s epistemically virtuous. So, the Hippies’ hope for a brighter tomorrow through a cognitively expanded humanity rests on the epistemic virtuousness of the technologies through which we’re expanding our minds and abilities. The Straights, on the other hand, are doubtful about the whole expanded mind thing (it encroaches on their cherished romantic individualism) and are certain we’re not up for the ethical obligations incurred if it is true.

The Empty Middle Ground

The Hippies and the Straights both present arguments that turn on the issues central to these distinctions. But the problem is, their commitments seem to drive them to take one side to the exclusion of the other. The Hippies trip out on the Information and Externalism side while the Straights hole up in the library of Knowledge and Internalism, pouting. And just clarifying the nature of the distinctions doesn’t give us the answer either.

There is, however, a methodological lesson to be learned in picking apart the issues. As we’ve seen, both groups use arguments drawn from these divisions, but both seem to only get half of the story. The criticisms they throw at each other often have value. But the object of critique usually does as well. What this suggests is that just because there’s a distinction or apparent dichotomy, you don’t have to choose one pole and fight against the other. You need to consider the issue as a whole and let that inform you, rather than working from an ideological place that forces your hand and thus opens you to attacks you could have foreseen otherwise.

For example, the Hippies – at least the ones who even countenance the distinction – have too rosy a view of our individual desire for knowledge. They assume we actively seek knowledge and actively discriminate against “non-knowledge” instead of just muddling through with good enough information. The Straights, on the other hand, are sticklers for knowledge and really pessimistic about our ability to find it unguided. The problem is, they’re too pessimistic and take too narrow a view of institutional history. They arbitrarily limit the prospects and vehicles for knowledge to institutions and structures that already exist, closing off potentially valuable new ones.

Similarly, the Straights are often, but not always, internalist. They think that the question of, say, Facebook expanding our real social ability is just silly hyperbole or metaphor madness. Facebook is just a tool that we engage with under the direction of our hermetically sealed, inviolable cognitive apparati. It doesn’t extend or expand that apparati. True, Hippies and Straights aren’t necessarily divided on the internalism/extenalism issue. For example when it comes to the “Google makes us smarter” debate, many Hippies say “yes” and Straights usually says “no”, but they can both be somewhat externalist. It’s just that the Hippies think that Google is epistemically virtuous, while the Straights don’t. Anyway, Straights tends to be traditional internalists or individualists. This means they’re a little reluctant to buy the pie in the sky visions of the Hippies, who seem to want externalism to be true out of a progressivist cyborg fantasy of human perfectibility, without considering or shouldering the ethical obligations that would come with its truth.

So what’s the answer? Chances are, the truth is being triangulated by the critiques hurled from either side. Blind faith in market forces isn’t too wise, but neither is stodgy old paternalism. If externalism is true, then we really should be concerned about the epistemic virtuousness of our cognitive prostheses right now. The lesson is that we shouldn’t be forced into taking sides out of ideological considerations, either utopianist or conservative. Instead we need to stop dreaming of panacea or suspecting decline and start looking at the mechanisms and policies by which we can both allow freedom and ensure knowledge in the short and long run.

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