Sunday, November 14, 2010

Marco! Polo!

I have recently been rereading The Complete Sherlock Holmes.  It is a wonderful submersion in the life and language of a past century.  It is amazing how many witnesses in Holmes’ cases were unable to testify because of a sudden onset of “brain fever.”  And yes, the game seems always afoot.

I am currently in the midst of one of the lesser-known short stories, The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, written in 1921.  As with all artistic creations, the meaning of the piece is a co-creation of author and reader.  The author wrote wrapped in the meaning of his mind and time; I unfold the story within the context of mine.  Different fogs inform us. Doyle creates in the mists of London between the wars.  This time, I read the story through the Kindle application on my Droid phone.  A delicious dialectic, not?

With similar irony, an old friend and I were recently emailing each other bemoaning our students’ seeming addiction to social media.  I mused that my intuitive sense of the issue was that students begin to feel a significant amount of angst when they are separated from their social media - despite the fact that the messages exchanged within the environment are trivial. An apt analogy emerged.  You know the game Marco Polo that kids play in a swimming pool? They close their eyes and the kid who is "it" hollers "Marco!" and the other kids holler "Polo!"  The kid who is “it” then tries to catch the others in a boisterous human imitation of the echo-location skills of bats, whales, porpoises, et. al. 

There is an early episode of the television show Bones [Season 1. #22: The Woman in Limbo] that puts an insightful twist on the game. Temperance is trying to reconnect with her older brother – there is a long backstory to the episode that is unimportant to the current observation.  The relevant idea is that after their parents disappeared, her brother became her protector. She would be sitting in class at school, or out on the playground and she would hear him call "Marco!" When she could she would respond "Polo!"  But even when she couldn't echo “Polo!” - she felt connected to him, she felt "taken care of."  I think that feeling of “being connected” blends into the same emotional space as “being taken care of”, of being “OK,” and lends significant import to social media's seemingly shallow interactions. I post "Marco" and the "friends" respond "Polo."  I believe it is that security, that feeling of "belonging" in a fractured world, to which my students, and many others, are addicted.

And, what, you may rightly ask, does that have to do with The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone? Elementary.  In the opening scene of the story Watson is upset to see Holmes looking even more gaunt and emaciated than was his custom.  When Watson asks why he does not eat when deep in a case, Holmes replies that digestion takes blood away from the brain, the blood necessary for his unparalleled feats of intellectual sleuthing.  He concludes: “I am a brain Watson.  The rest of me is a mere appendix.”  But he then goes on to express real pleasure at seeing Watson, the only friend Holmes ever acknowledges.  He entreats the good doctor, “Let me see you once more in the customary armchair.”

As the pages scroll past on my Droid, I am again struck by the fact that the Internet with its myriad social networks, through which we are wont to holler “Marco” to scattered “avataristic” friends in digital space, is in many ways “mere appendix.”  We hear the electronically multiplied “Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo Polo” of Facebook.  We may even find comfort in that cacophony. But I am increasingly inclined to believe that the tide will turn again - and sooner than we might expect – to the notion that a true friend is the one we see “once more in the customary armchair” sharing real warmth from a real fireplace, taking real shared comfort in a real room.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Varying Degrees of Intrusion

It is, no doubt, another innovation designed to deliver us from our more slothful evil twins.  And, come Monday, thousands of folks will roll out of bed, unaware that their clock radios had automatically “Fallen Back” in the tiny hours of Sunday morning.  They will head off to work right on time, with clock radio, computer and cell phone throbbing along in silent syncopation with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Personally, I found it just a bit creepy.

I have come to accept that my cell phone will keep track of the vagaries of time zones as I wander around the country or the world.  That falls within its job description, that’s why no one wears a watch anymore, except for bling appeal.  A cell phone is supposed to “reach out and touch someone” as Ma Bell was wont to say, back in the less politically correct 1980s.  But my clock radio?  How did it know that it was supposed to “fall back” at 2:00 a.m. on this particular Sunday morning?  My wristwatch in the drawer didn’t know it was supposed to “fall back.” The microwave didn’t know it was supposed to “fall back.” The oven clock didn’t know it was supposed to “fall back.”  How did the clock radio know it was supposed to “fall back”?  To whom, or to what, is my clock radio talking in the middle of the night?

I realize that it is probably no great feat of programming to tell a machine when “Spring Forward,” 2:00 a.m. on the second Sunday in March; and “Fall Back,” 2:00 a.m. on the first Sunday in November, will occur for the next gazillion years and put it on a chip the size of a gnat’s eyelash.  But how does the radio know what “today” is?  I didn’t “set up” the date when I pulled it out of the box.  I just plugged it in and toggled up the correct time.  So how did it know where it was, in its infinite calendar, the moment I plugged it in?  How did the radio know if it was June, July or January?  You see, it had to know that if it was going to "Fall Back" at just the right instant.  If the answer is “the chip just knows,” we are neither comforted nor amused.  What else does the chip know?

We hear a lot about privacy in digital spaces these days.  It usually centers around the improper use of information that we, at some point via some device, intentionally tossed out into “Cyber Cloud Cuckooland.”  This sentient radio is, to my somewhat paranoid mind, a bird of a different feather.  The radio – without my instructions or permission, mind you – appears to be in communication with some entity that feeds information into this appliance in my home.  “Well, duh.  What does a radio do, dude? It brings stuff into your home – like music and words.”  True, but we did not request this channel. We were not informed of this channel.  "Back channels" are supposed to be the stuff of spy novels.

Perhaps my paranoia stems from my deep understanding that communication is transactional.  If a device can store or receive “Spring Forward” or “Fall Back” data without my instruction, it is technological child’s play to give it transmission capacity as well.  Want to walk a little way down that path with me?  Consider Microsoft’s new gaming rave, the Kinect.  It sounds awesome.  Three cameras peer into your home and allow you to interact with games as if you were actually up there on the screen.  No wires, no remote, you move, it sees you and reacts.  Now consider that last sentence all by itself: No wires, no remote, you move, it sees you and reacts.  You perceive, perhaps, the reason a shiver just ran down my spine.

When someone seems to look the latest multi-gigabyte gizmo gift horse in the mouth, it is easy to cry “Luddite!” and trot out the myriad wonders that technology has given us.  I do not deny them.  I have no desire to live in some seemingly bucolic past where we spent most of our lives finding or raising food, where, in lieu of vaccines, children died of the measles, and, think about it – there was no Novocain! But, I must repeat a favorite mantra: the role of technology in society is a continual negotiation, we ask and the engineers respond.  The first part of the equation must dominate.  We must be thoughtful when we make demands, and bestow limitless trust upon, the technologists who create our toys.  Our most powerful tools can also be our most dangerous weapons.  Human intent defines the difference.

Garth Brooks wrote, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” There is an oblique B-side to that hit: “Be careful what you ask for, you may get it.”

Monday, November 1, 2010

Can it Scratch Glass?, or Of Scarcity and Value

Major cultural transformations occur when events create imbalances in traditional social relationships.  Those imbalances eventually find new equilibrium, but the interim can be unsettling.  This early evolution of the Internet in American culture is one such event.  The Internet’s complex interweaving with all aspects of our lives nudges any number of traditional relationships towards reconsideration.  Among those is the dynamic that has long existed between scarcity and value.

On its surface that relationship is a straightforward one – the scarcer a resource, the greater its value.  Of course, scratching that surface reveals the details in which the devil revels.  The first obvious proviso is that the resource possesses intrinsic characteristics that make it desirable – we can eat it, or clothe ourselves with it, communicate with it, it is beautiful, or powerful, or makes us so.  Those intrinsic characteristics, in combination with its scarcity, make the resource valuable.

Complicating the equation further is the notion that all scarcity is not the same.  There are at least three important variants.  The default definition is natural scarcity – characteristics, elements and resources that simply do not occur that often.  About 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch, that is a naturally occurring scarcity, and one whose value increases if that one person also happens to be musically gifted, hence piling scarcity upon scarcity.  Second, there is manufactured scarcity.  Nobel Prize winners are of this type of scarce resource.  Only 543 have been awarded to date out of a world population of about 6.8 billion souls.  Talk about scarce!  However, the value of a Nobel Prize winner is an iffy calculation.  They are of significant value to research institutions and universities who point to “their” Nobel Prize winners as evidence of organizational excellence.  But to the average person on the street these incredibly scarce individuals have no greater inherent value than the next passer-by.  

The final type of scarcity is manipulated scarcity.  Manipulated scarcity occurs when an already scarce resource is artificially manipulated to increase its scarcity and hence its value. Diamonds are often accused of possessing this manipulated scarcity.  Data are sketchy in this area, as a matter-of-fact, I occasionally wonder if the purported information about the number of diamonds in the world is itself being manipulated to establish a "diamond mythology" that adds to the value of the gems.  The "mythology" narrative is based in the accepted natural scarcity of diamonds.  You don’t plough them up in the back garden when putting in tomatoes.  However, delicious rumors circulate that DeBeers has a stash of diamonds secreted away that exceeds the number of diamonds currently in circulation.  One also hears tales of discoveries of massive new diamond finds in this or that remote locale.  The icing on the cake is, of course, blood diamonds – a political manipulation of scarcity.  If the world market “de-legitimizes” diamonds from certain sources, scarcity, and value, of "legitimate" diamonds spiral.

The scarcity/value dynamic currently being disrupted by the Internet that raises my concern is the one that plays out among the variables of information, knowledge and wisdom. I have talked about this phenomenon before, but let me refresh it for you

Information:  This is the “Dragnet” part of the dynamic: “All we want are the facts, ma'am.” Information equals facts, the data as we are best able to discern it.  The boiling point of water at sea level.  The number of traffic tickets written in San Francisco in February, 2009.  Data, facts, information.

Knowledge: Knowledge grows from an inspection and ordering of the information.  It is the recognition of patterns in the information that allow us to make assertions regarding the relationship between behavior and outcomes; “if/then statements.”  If 10,000 traffic tickets are written in February in San Francisco, and if the average fine is $20.00 and if the average rate of payment is 68% within 30 days, then one might assume that approximately $13,600.00 in revenue will be available from those tickets by the end of March.  

Wisdom:  Put most simply, wisdom is the ability to discern from among all the potential “if/then statements” those that should be affirmed and pursued to result in the greatest good.  The end of wisdom is thoughtful, compassionate belief and felicitous policy.   The absence of both in most human endeavors is, at least, indirect evidence of the paucity of wisdom currently in play in our world.  Agreement regarding the nature of wisdom will always be slippery, but I am concerned that the Internet increases wisdom’s scarcity by flooding the world with component parts – information and knowledge – of questionable validity.  Let me explain.

Prior to the Internet there were cultural hedges to the dissemination of raw information.  Census data, the data from the Hubble telescope, satellite images from all over the world – none of this raw information was available to distract the private citizen.  Those data streams were gathered and analyzed by individuals and organizations with recognized expertise in the interpretation of that data.  The next step in the process – turning information into knowledge – also rested primarily in the hands of specialists who vetted the “if/then statements” that form the core of all professional literature.  The concerned private citizen then could, ideally, peruse the various conclusions of the experts and make a rational decision regarding which version of knowledge struck closest to truth and could, in rare instances, follow that truth to wisdom.

Now let us return to diamonds for a moment.  How do we know that a diamond is a diamond? Cubic zirconia and other faux diamonds are getting very good, and manufactured diamonds are reaching gem quality.  The informed consumer can make good calls based on brilliance, clarity, color, etc.  But if one is buying or insuring a diamond, your great aunt Lady Rutherford’s opinion isn’t quite enough.  You want a gemologist to break out the scientific instruments to peer into the depths of the stone, to note any flaws, to certify quality, color, and perhaps place of origin.  For a thing to have value you must, at the very beginning of the process, know that the thing is the thing it claims to be.

Back to the Internet.  Peter Steiner drew an iconic cartoon published in The New Yorker on July 5, 1993, that showed a dog seated before a computer, turning to a dog on the floor.  The dog at the computer says, “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog.”  As recent news stories about Facebook and RapLeaf make clear, that assumption is now bogus.  The contemporary Internet now knows not only if you are a dog, it knows your breed and the most intimate details of your pedigree.  Reality has inverted.  The problem now is that it is difficult for us, the users of the Internet, to know if the page on our screen was composed by a purebred canine or a mutt. Is it a diamond, cubic zirconia or cut glass?

Imagine you walk into a handball court, filled knee-deep with stones that appear to be diamonds.  As a matter of fact there are several hundred perfect diamonds scattered throughout the glittering hoard.  If you can find them, you can keep them.  What do you do?  And, no, the back wall is Plexiglas, all the gems can scratch it.  This is what currently confounds our use of the Internet – there is a surfeit of information, an excess of asserted knowledge, and no reliable path to wisdom.  The cubic zirconia is pretty and may well get us the best route to tonight’s concert venue.  The online reviews, however, reviews are cut glass tossed into the court – some by the bands publicity staff masquerading as discerning fans, others, perhaps vitriol lobbed in by competitors or former lovers.  Not much chance of consistently informed opinion, less still of encountering wisdom .  .  . the odds of grabbing a diamond are one in hundreds of thousands. 

Still, the diamonds are there – that is what drives me crazy.  Out there, in a medium designed for distraction, amidst the masses of trivial, self-serving, ignorant, foolish, bogus, and malicious pretenders, are diamonds of exquisite perfection.  Finding them, however, does not lie within the purview of search algorithms or crowd sourcing, both of which are driven by well-intentioned but fatally flawed bias.  So how do we find them? How do we mine for diamonds instead of data?  I do not know.  But there is something sparkly over there .  .  .  . maybe if I rub it against the other pretty pebbles .  .  .  .

The problem with this "aimlessness" is that we tend not to tolerate it for long. We are inclined to a desire for certainty.  Hence, in lieu of a reliable path through information to knowledge and on to wisdom - we grab the bauble that catches our eye, that seems to fit best with our other gems, regardless of source or pedigree.  We stuff it in our pocket and walk out of the handball court:

"Wisdom be damned, don't I look good with this stuff?"