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It Is What It Is (Until Notified Otherwise)

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The thing to always remember when one finds oneself in the middle of some historically intractable philosophical debate is that path-dependency is somehow to blame. This is simply to say that the problem is historical in that squabbles regarding theoretical natures always arises from some background of relatively problem-free practical application. At some point, some turn is taken and things that seem trivially obvious suddenly seem stupendously mysterious. St. Augustine, in addition to giving us one of the most famous quotes in philosophy, gives us a wonderful example of this in The Confessions when he writes:

“What, then, is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” XI, XIV, 17

But the rather sobering fact is that this is the case with a great number of the second order questions we can pose. What is mathematics? What’s a rule? What’s meaning? What’s cause? And of course, what is phenomenal consciousness?

So what is it with second order interrogations? Why is ‘time talk’ so easy and effortlessly used even though we find ourselves gobsmacked each and every time someone asks what time qua time is? It seems pretty clear that either we lack the information required or the capacity required or some nefarious combination of both. If framing the problem like this sounds like a no-brainer, that’s because it is a no-brainer. The remarkable thing lies in the way it recasts the issue at stake, because as it turns out, the question of the information and capacity we have available is a biological one, and this provides a cognitive ecological means of tackling the problem. Since practical solving for time (‘timing’) is obviously central to survival, it makes sense that we would possess the information access and cognitive capacity required to solve a wide variety of timing issues. Given that theoretical solving for time (qua-time) isn’t central to survival (no species does it and only our species attempts it), it makes sense that we wouldn’t possess the information access and cognitive capacity required, that we would suffer time-qua-time blindness.

From a cognitive ecological perspective, in other words, St. Augustine’s perplexity should come as no surprise at all. Of course solving time-qua-time is mystifying: we evolved the access and capacity required for solving the practical problems of timing, and not the theoretical problem of time. Now I admit if the cognitive ecological approach ground to a halt here it wouldn’t be terribly illuminating, but there’s quite a bit more to be said: it turns out cognitive ecology is highly suggestive of the different ways we might expect our attempts to solve things like time-qua-time to break down.

What would it be like to reach the problem-solving limits of some practically oriented problem-solving mode? Well, we should expect our assumptions/intuitions to stop delivering answers. My daughter is presently going through a ‘cootie-catcher’ phase and is continually instructing me to ask questions, then upbraiding me when my queries don’t fit the matrix of possible ‘answers’ provided by the cootie-catcher (yes, no, and versions of maybe). Sometimes she catches these ill-posed questions immediately, and sometimes she doesn’t catch them until the cootie-catcher generates a nonsensical response.


Now imagine your child never revealed their cootie-catcher to you: you asked questions, then picked colours or numbers or animals, and it turned out some were intelligibly answered, and some were not. Very quickly you would suss out the kinds of questions that could be asked, and the kinds that could not. Now imagine unbeknownst to you that your child replaced their cootie-catcher with a computer running two separately tasked, distributed AlphaGo type programs, the first trained to provide well-formed (if not necessarily true) answers to basic questions regarding causality and nothing else, the second trained to provide well-formed (if not necessarily true) answers to basic questions regarding goals and intent. What kind of conclusions would you draw, or more importantly, assume? Over time you would come to suss out the questions generating ill-formed answers versus questions generating well-formed ones. But you would have no way of knowing that two functionally distinct systems were responsible for the well-formed answers: causal and purposive modes would seem the product of one cognitive system. In the absence of distinctions you would presume unity.

Think of the difference between Plato likening memory to an aviary in the Theaetetus and the fractionate, generative memory we now know to be the case. The fact that Plato assumed as much, unity and retrieval, shouts something incredibly important once placed in a cognitive ecological context. What it suggests is that purely deliberative attempts to solve second-order problems, to ask questions like what is memory-qua-memory, will almost certainly run afoul the problem of default identity, the identification that comes about for the want of distinctions. To return to our cootie-catcher example, it’s not simply that we would report unity regarding our child’s two AlphaGo type programs the way Plato did with memory, it’s that information involving its dual structure would play no role in our cognitive economy whatsoever. Unity, you could say, is the assumption built into the system. (And this applies as much to AI as it does to human beings. The first ‘driverless fatality’ died because his Tesla Model S failed to distinguish a truck trailer from the sky.)

Default identity, I think, can play havoc with even the most careful philosophical interrogations—such as the one Eric Schwitzgebel gives in the course of rebutting Keith Frankish, both on his blog and in his response in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, “Phenomenal Consciousness, Defined and Defended as Innocently as I Can Manage.”

According to Eric, “Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness” presents the phenomenal realist with a dilemma: either they commit to puzzling ontological features such as simple, ineffable, intrinsic, or so on, or they commit to explaining those features away, which is to say, some variety of Illusionism. Since Eric both believes that phenomenal consciousness is real, and that the extraordinary properties attributed to it are likely not real, he proposes a third way, a formulation of phenomenal experience that neither inflates it into something untenable, nor deflates into something that is plainly not phenomenal experience. “The best way to meet Frankish’s challenge,” he writes, “is to provide something that the field of consciousness studies in any case needs: a clear definition of phenomenal consciousness, a definition that targets a phenomenon that is both substantively interesting in the way that phenomenal consciousness is widely thought to be interesting but also innocent of problematic metaphysical and epistemological assumptions” (2).

It’s worth noting the upshot of what Eric is saying here: the scientific study of phenomenal consciousness cannot, as yet, even formulate their primary explanandum. The trick, as he sees it, is to find some conceptual way to avoid the baggage, while holding onto some semblance of a wardrobe. And his solution, you might say, is to wear as many outfits as he possibly can. He proposes that definition by example is uniquely suited to anchor an ontologically and epistemologically innocent concept of phenomenal consciousness.

He has but one caveat: any adequate formulation of phenomenal consciousness has to account or allow for what Eric terms its ‘wonderfulness’:

If the reduction of phenomenal consciousness to something physical or functional or “easy” is possible, it should take some work. It should not be obviously so, just on the surface of the definition. We should be able to wonder how consciousness could possibly arise from functional mechanisms and matter in motion. Call this the wonderfulness condition. 3

He concedes the traditional properties ascribed to phenomenal experience outrun naturalistic credulity, but the feature of begging belief remains to be explained. This is the part of Eric’s position to keep an eye on because it means his key defense against eliminativism is abductive. Whatever phenomenal consciousness is, it seems safe to say it is not something easily solved. Any account purporting to solve phenomenal consciousness that leaves the wonderfulness condition unsatisfied is likely missing phenomenal consciousness altogether.

And so Eric provides a list of positive examples including sensory and somatic experiences, conscious imagery, emotional experience, thinking and desiring, dreams, and even other people, insofar as we continually attribute these very same kinds of experiences to them. By way of negative examples, he mentions a variety of intimate, yet obviously not phenomenally conscious processes, such as fingernail growth, intestinal lipid absorption, and so on.

He writes:

Phenomenal consciousness is the most folk psychologically obvious thing or feature that the positive examples possess and that the negative examples lack. I do think that there is one very obvious feature that ties together sensory experiences, imagery experiences, emotional experiences, dream experiences, and conscious thoughts and desires. They’re all conscious experiences. None of the other stuff is experienced (lipid absorption, the tactile smoothness of your desk, etc.). I hope it feels to you like I have belabored an obvious point. Indeed, my argumentative strategy relies upon this obviousness. 8

Intuition, the apparent obviousness of his examples, is what he stresses here. The beauty of definition by example is that offering instances of the phenomenon at issue allows you to remain agnostic regarding the properties possessed by that phenomenon. It actually seems to deliver the very metaphysical and epistemological innocence Eric needs to stave off the charge of inflation. It really does allow him to ditch the baggage and travel wearing all his clothes, or so it seems.

Meanwhile the wonderfulness condition, though determining the phenomenon, does so indirectly, via the obvious impact it has on human attempts to cognize experience-qua-experience. Whatever phenomenal consciousness is, contemplating it provokes wonder.

And so the argument is laid out, as spare and elegant as all of Eric’s arguments. It’s pretty clear these are examples of whatever it is we call phenomenal consciousness. Of course, there’s something about them that we find downright stupefying. Surely, he asks, we can be phenomenal realists in this austere respect?

For all its intuitive appeal, the problem with this approach is that it almost certainly presumes a simplicity that human cognition does not possess. Conceptually, we can bring this out with a single question: Is phenomenal consciousness the most folk psychologically obvious thing or feature the examples share, or is it obvious in some other respect? Eric’s claim amounts to saying the recognition of phenomenal consciousness as such belongs to everyday cognition. But is this the case? Typically, recognition of experience-qua-experience is thought to be an intellectual achievement of some kind, a first step toward the ‘philosophical’ or ‘reflective’ or ‘contemplative’ attitude. Shouldn’t we say, rather, that phenomenal consciousness is the most obvious thing or feature these examples share upon reflection, which is to say, philosophically?

This alternative need only be raised to drag Eric’s formulation back into the mire of conceptual definition, I think. But on a cognitive ecological picture, we can actually reframe this conceptual problematization in path-dependent terms, and so more forcefully insist on a distinction of modes and therefore a distinction in problem-solving ecologies. Recall Augustine, how we understand time without difficulty until we ask the question of time qua time. Our cognitive systems have no serious difficulty with timing, but then abruptly break down when we ask the question of time as such. Even though we had the information and capacity required to solve any number of practical issues involving time, as soon as we pose the question of time-qua-time that fluency evaporates and we find ourselves out-and-out mystified.

Eric’s definition by example, as an explicitly conceptual exercise, clearly involves something more than everyday applications of experience talk. The answer intuitively feels as natural as can be—there must be some property X these instances share or exclude, certainly!—but the question strikes most everyone as exceptional, at least until they grow accustomed to it. Raising the question, as Augustine shows us, is precisely where the problem begins, and as my daughter would be quick to remind Eric, cootie-catchers only work if we ask the right question. Human cognition is fractionate and heuristic, after all.


All organisms are immersed in potential information, difference making differences that could spell the difference between life and death. Given the difficulties involved in the isolation of causes, they often settle for correlations, cues reliably linked to the systems requiring solution. In fact, correlations are the only source of information organisms have, evolved and learned sensitivities to effects systematically correlated to those environmental systems relevant to reproduction. Human beings, like all other living organisms, are shallow information consumers adapted to deep information environments, sensory cherry pickers, bent on deriving as much behaviour from as little information as possible.

We only have access to so much, and we only have so much capacity to derive behaviour from that access (behaviour which in turn leverages capacity). Since the kinds of problems we face outrun access, and since those problems and the resources required to solve them are wildly disparate, not all access is equal.

Information access, I think, divides cognition into two distinct forms, two different families of ‘AlphaGo type’ programs. On the one hand we have what might be called source sensitive cognition, where physical (high-dimensional) constraints can be identified, and on the other we have source insensitive cognition, where they cannot.

Since every cause is an effect, and every effect is a cause, explaining natural phenomena as effects always raises the question of further causes. Source sensitive cognition turns on access to the causal world, and to this extent, remains perpetually open to that world, and thus, to the prospect of more information. This is why it possesses such wide environmental applicability: there are always more sources to be investigated. These may not be immediately obvious to us—think of visible versus invisible light—but they exist nonetheless, which is why once the application of source sensitivity became scientifically institutionalized, hunting sources became a matter of overcoming our ancestral sensory bottlenecks.

Since every natural phenomena has natural constraints, explaining natural phenomena in terms of something other than natural constraints entails neglect of natural constraints. Source insensitive cognition is always a form of heuristic cognition, a system adapted to the solution of systems absent access to what actually makes them tick. Source insensitive cognition exploits cues, accessible information invisibly yet sufficiently correlated to the systems requiring solution to reliably solve those systems. As the distillation of specific, high-impact ancestral problems, source insensitive cognition is domain-specific, a way to cope with systems that cannot be effectively cognized any other way.

(AI approaches turning on recurrent neural networks provide an excellent ex situ example of the necessity, the efficacy, and the limitations of source insensitive (cue correlative) cognition. Andrei Cimpian’s lab and the work of Klaus Fiedler (as well as that of the Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition Research Group more generally) are providing, I think, an evolving empirical picture of source insensitive cognition in humans, albeit, absent the global theoretical framework provided here.)

So what are we to make of Eric’s attempt to innocently (folk psychologically) pose the question of experience-qua-experience in light of this rudimentary distinction?

If one takes the brain’s ability to cognize its own cognitive functions as a condition of ‘experience talk,’ it becomes very clear very quickly that experience talk belongs to a source insensitive cognitive regime, a system adapted to exploit correlations between the information consumed (cues) and the vastly complicated systems (oneself and others) requiring solution. This suggests that Eric’s definition by example is anything but theoretically innocent, assuming, as it does, that our source insensitive, experience-talk systems pick out something in the domain of source sensitive cognition… something ‘real.’ Defining by example cues our experience-talk system, which produces indubitable instances of recognition. Phenomenal consciousness becomes, apparently, an indubitable something. Given our inability to distinguish between our own cognitive systems (given ‘cognition-qua-cognition blindness’), default identity prevails; suddenly it seems obvious that phenomenal experience somehow, minimally, belongs to the order of the real. And once again, we find ourselves attempting to square ‘posits’ belonging to sourceless modes of cognition with a world where everything has a source.

We can now see how the wonderfulness condition, which Eric sees working in concert with his definition by example, actually cuts against it. Experience-qua-experience provokes wonder precisely because it delivers us to crash space, the point where heuristic misapplication leads our intuitions astray. Simply by asking this question, we have taken a component from a source insensitive cognitive system relying (qua heuristic) on strategic correlations to the systems requiring solution to solve, and asked a completely different, source sensitive system to make sense of it. Philosophical reflection is a ‘cultural achievement’ precisely because it involves using our brains in new ways, applying ancient tools to novel questions. Doing so, however, inevitably leaves us stumbling around in a darkness we cannot see, running afoul confounds we have no way of intuiting, simply because they impacted our ancestors not at all. Small wonder ‘phenomenal consciousness’ provokes wonder. How could the most obvious thing possess so few degrees of cognitive freedom? How could light itself deliver us to darkness?

I appreciate the counterintuitive nature of the view I’m presenting here, the way it requires seeing conceptual moves in terms of physical path-dependencies, as belonging to a heuristic gearbox where our numbness to the grinding perpetually convinces us that this time, at long last, we have slipped from neutral into drive. But recall the case of memory, the way blindness to its neurocognitive intricacies led Plato to assume it simple. Only now can we run our (exceedingly dim) metacognitive impressions of memory through the gamut of what we know, see it as a garden of forking paths. The suggestion here is that posing the question of experience-qua-experience poses a crucial fork in the consciousness studies road, the point where a component of source-insensitive cognition, ‘experience,’ finds itself dragged into the court of source sensitivity, and productive inquiry grinds to a general halt.

When I employ experience talk in a practical, first-order way, I have a great deal of confidence in that talk. But when I employ experience talk in a theoretical, second-order way, I have next to no confidence in that talk. Why would I? Why would anyone, given the near-certainty of chronic underdetermination? Even more, I can see of no way (short magic) for our brain to have anything other than radically opportunistic and heuristic contact with its own functions. Either specialized, simple heuristics comprise deliberative metacognition or deliberative metacognition does not exist. In other words, I see no way of avoiding experience-qua-experience blindness.

This flat out means that on a high dimensional view (one open to as much relevant physical information as possible), there is just no such thing as ‘phenomenal consciousness.’ I am forced to rely on experience related talk in theoretical contexts all the time, as do scientists in countless lines of research. There is no doubt whatsoever that experience-talk draws water from far more than just ‘folk psychological’ wells. But this just means that various forms of heuristic cognition can be adapted to various experimentally regimented cognitive ecologies—experience-talk can be operationalized. It would be strange if this weren’t the case, and it does nothing to alleviate the fact that solving for experience-qua-experience delivers us, time and again, to crash space.

One does not have to believe in the reality of phenomenal consciousness to believe in the reality of the systems employing experience-talk. As we are beginning to discover, the puzzle has never been one of figuring out what phenomenal experiences could possibly be, but rather figuring out the biological systems that employ them. The greater our understanding of this, the greater our understanding of the confounds characterizing that perennial crash space we call philosophy.

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1812 days ago
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Arthur Chu Would Like To Make Lawyers Richer and You Quieter and Poorer


Arthur Chu, noted for being able to frame things in the form of a question and for being easily agitated, has launched very silly broadside against one of the most important American laws about the internet: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Chu invokes Reagan, asking President Obama to "tear down this shield." He should have looked elsewhere in Reagan's oeuvre: "facts are stubborn things."

The core of Section 230 is simple: it says that a computer service provider can't be treated as the publisher or speaker of information provided by someone else. When you go on Facebook and say your neighbor strangles squirrels, your neighbor can sue you (assuming it's false) but not Facebook. I'm responsible for what I write on Popehat, but not for what you pack of gibbering malcontents puke up onto the comments. contents. This doesn't protect sites that host stolen intellectual property — the Digital Millennium Copyright Act covers that. But it means that Facebook, and Twitter, and anyone who runs a blog or a forum or a site with comments, can't be sued over what visitors say there. The Electronic Frontier Foundation does not exaggerate when it calls Section 230 the most important law protecting internet speech.

Chu objects to this state of affairs because it makes it difficult to shut down speech he doesn't like. Some of the stuff he doesn't like — SWATTing, true threats, and genuine harassment — would be shunned by any decent person, and the perpetrators ought to face consequences. But Chu isn't focused on them facing consequences directly. He wants to be able to punish any site on which they post. He wants people to be able to sue Facebook, or Twitter, or any web site on the internet based on what visitors post there. Moreover, if you read his angry rant you may conclude, as I did, that he opposes more than just unprotected speech.

Chu airily waves away concerns that ditching Section 230 will make censorship easier. We have just the institution to sort the good claims from the bad, he says: lawyers and courts.

We have, here in the United States, a system by which wronged parties can seek redress from those who wronged them, and those who willfully enabled that wrong, without proactive control by government bureaucrats. It’s one that even ardent libertarians imagine as being part of how their ideal “small government” would work. And it’s a highly American tradition: one that’s been identified as central to American culture since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville.

I’m talking, of course, about lawsuits. Civil litigation. Bringing in the lawyers.

Yes, by all means, bring on the lawyers. Speaking as one of them — in fact, one who handles the sort of litigation at issue here — let me explain why this is stick-your-hand-in-the-blender naive.

The court system is broken, perhaps irretrievably so. Justice may not depend entirely on how much money you have, but that is probably the most powerful factor. A lawsuit — even a frivolous one — can be utterly financially ruinous, not to mention terrifying, stressful, and health-threatening. What do I mean by financially ruinous? I mean if you are lucky as you can possibly be and hire a good lawyer who gets the suit dismissed permanently immediately, it will cost many thousands, possibly tens of thousands. If you're stuck in the suit, count on tens or hundreds of thousands.

The suggestion that this system will ease the chaos that would result from the loss of Section 230 is nothing short of lunacy.

Let's take a look at some of the stories Popehat has covered so you can see how Arthur Chu's proposal would have changed the result. While you read these stories, evaluate Chu's central thesis — that what he is doing will protect the weak, the abused.

Angry comic book artist Randy Queen could sue the site Escher Girls because commenters there said things he didn't like about his improbably-breasted comic girls.

Angry lawyer Carl David Cedar could sue Scott Greenfield for comments on Scott's blog making fun of him.

The infamous Prenda Law could sue Reddit, TechDirt, Twitter, Facebook, anyplace that held the flood of critical comments about its conduct.

The infamous Charles Carreon could sue every site on the internet on which commenters criticized them — which is, effectively, all of them.

Ol' seemed-crazy-at-the-time-but-in-2015-terms-almost-normal Jack Thompson could have pursued his claims against Facebook for people making fun of him there.

The creepy AIDS denialist could have sued not just the guy exposing him as a fraud, but the webhost the blog used.

And there are so many more. Arthur Chu angrily and oddly tries to portray Section 230 as protecting bigoted white men at the expense of women and minorities, but that's nonsense. Section 230 protects every one of us with a blog or web site directly. It also protects everyone who uses the internet indirectly, because it makes user-input websites feasible.

Section 230 doesn't keep sites from being sued for visitor comment ever. There are still frivolous suits ignoring the law. What Section 230 does is deter most baseless lawsuits against the site, and offer a quick-and-painless-as-possible way out of the those frivolous lawsuits that get filed. With Section 230, if someone sues you for visitor comments, you're funding a motion to dismiss. Without it, you're funding an entire lawsuit defense.

How would getting rid of Section 230 impact the internet? Let's consider:

1. Every single web site out there would have to monitor every single visitor comment or forum post or Tweet or Facebook update — or face liability if the item is actionable. Unless you're running a blog that gets a couple of comments per day, it's impossible to do that, practically. Also, the site doesn't have the knowledge to evaluate whether the statement is actionable. If I post "Joe Blow ran over my cat" on your blog, do you need to investigate before you approve the comment and publish it? Also, are you a lawyer? How are you going to evaluate what visitor comments are potentially actionable? If you're a millionaire you could hire lawyers to do it, but that's an expensive hobby. Hope you're up to speed on the distinction between fact and opinion, parody and defamation, criticism and harassment, and so forth. Maybe the best thing would be never to approve a comment that could be offensive to anyone ever. Good thing modern Americans have such thick skins!

2. Sites will take down visitor comment when someone demands it, because it's too expensive not to. Result: it will become easy to get any content mentioning you, or your actions, or your business taken down. Yelp? Dead as a doornail. Any site allowing users to say anything remotely critical about identifiable people? Unusable. Would Arthur Chu like to call out particular named harassers and talk about them? He's going to need to spraypaint it on a big rock, because at the first complaint his platforms are going to take it down.

3. Arthur Chu seems to think that removing Section 230 will help end online harassment, because forums and sites and blogs will take down nasty things said about people he supports. Maybe. But does Arthur think that harassers won't just as quickly use this new tool he's kindly given them? Does Arthur have a blog? If he does, folks can use anonymous proxies to post mean and nasty criticism on that blog against, say, me — and then I can rush in and sue Arthur. "But I didn't post it! It wasn't up that long! How could I know it was false? It's not really actionable harassment, is it?" Great arguments Arthur. You've got a real shot with those at the summary judgment hearing 18 months and $150,000 from now. Do you really think, Arthur, that the scumbags who threaten and harass and abuse and SWATT people will scruple for a moment about abusing your new less restrictive legal system to harass women and minorities for their online expression? Then you're a damned fool.

What's the result? Web platforms that take down content the minute anyone demands it. The death of any platforms discussing inherently controversial and anger-provoking things. And do you think people abuse complaint systems to shut up their enemies now? Just you wait.

And the flood of lawsuits! Oh, the lawsuits. See, lawsuits are about leveraging the expense and brokenness of the system to shake money out of people. Even if you figure out who HurrHurrFeminitzSuck on Twitter is, he's probably a dude living out of a storage locker. No money to be gained suing him, especially if his comment is close to the line between defamation and non-defamation. But if you can sue Twitter, too, when he talks? Deep pockets ahoy. Now it makes sense to sue, because even if you have a shitty case on the merits, Twitter may settle for a few thousand bucks to avoid the cost of protracted litigation. There are lots of idle lawyers out there, friend. Do you have a house? If so, you better not have comments on your blog.

Should threats and harassment and abuse be addressed? Absolutely. Convince private companies like Twitter and Facebook to offer better tools, and to expel bad actors. Vote with your feet from one platform to others that handle abuse better. Work together to track and whenever possible stomp the bad actors.

But eliminate Section 230 because you think the legal system is made of rainbows and children's laughter? Ridiculous.

Internet harassment and free speech are serious issues, but Arthur Chu is not a serious person.

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2258 days ago
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The most popular stuff on the web isn't journalism and that's fine

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Andrew Marantz has an entertaining and informative profile of Emerson Spartz, the entrepreneur behind Dose.com, a successful viral Facebook aggregation shop. It's a great piece that provides a lot of important insights into the evolving media landscape. But it's marred, as a lot of recent media commentary is, by a desire to contrast emerging Facebook hits with the Glorious Values of Real Journalism. The whole thing reads a bit as if the New Yorker told John Connor to write a profile of Skynet. Marantz goes out of his way to draw a contrast between Dose's rise and the The New York Times' struggles to make the transition to a digital universe. Many journalists who read the piece have tweeted reactions that make it clear the story is being read in an ominous way. Dose is not only successful, it's allegedly threatening to the values all serious people hold dear.

These kind of scare stories about Real Journalism In The Digital Age miss some fundamental realities about media. It's absolutely true that digital distribution, Facebook sharing, and web aggregation are changing journalism. But looking at the explosive traffic of a site like Dose doesn't tell us anything useful about how those changes are playing out or why. The success of Dose simply goes to show something we should have known all along — entertainment is more popular than journalism.

Here are three reasons why.

1) Most media isn't journalism and never has been

Profiles of successful but not-really-journalism websites generally have a shocked tone about the discovery that people are reading stuff that isn't Real Journalism. But journalism has always been only one part of the media mix — and a distinctly minority part.

On network television there are many more hours of the day dedicated to entertainment and sports programming than to news, and there always have been. On cable, there are many more sports and entertainment channels than news stations, and there always have been. The radio is dominated by sports and music, not news. Documentary films exist, but they're far less popular than action-packed blockbusters or laugh-a-minute comedies and they always have been. Detective thrillers, romance novels, and self-help books outsell longform nonfiction on weighty subjects and always have. Among magazine periodicals People and TV Guide and Cosmo always had higher circulations than the Economist. The Economist.

The lone exception to this trend is the world of daily newspapers. Periodicals printed and distributed on cheap newsprint seven days a week, 365 days a year are mostly news. Even tabloids on the sillier end of the spectrum like the The New York Post are much more substantive and newsy than the median fare offered on television, radio, cinema, or book publishing. That digital publishing more closely resembles everything-that's-not-a-newspaper than it does newspapers is an interesting fact about newspapers not about digital publishing.

2) Newspapers are only partially about journalism

The medium of newspapers is much newsier than any other medium, of the past or present. It's even there in the name. Newspaper.

Even so, a typical American newspaper contains an awful lot of stuff that isn't Real Journalism. Newspapers have funny pages, gossip columns, horoscopes, crossword puzzles, recipes, real estate porn, and many other elements that are non-journalistic or quasi-journalistic in nature. This kind of fun and reader service was long integral to the circulation strategy of newspaper publishing companies, just as many successful online journalism enterprises also publish fun stuff and reader service items that are less journalistically ambitious.

3) The web blurs lines

The web breaks down barriers between mediums that were historically distinct. Newspapers distribute their content on the web. So do magazines. So do television stations. Web-native publications in some ways resemble the web-distribution arms of legacy media outlets. Videos combine with text in a way that wasn't true in a world where a TV station was a TV station and a newspaper was a newspaper. The web, in other words, consumes all media.

And if we look at the media landscape, whether digital or analog, we see that journalism has always been a distinct minority of the overall media. Lighter entertainments are dominant, both in volume and in revenue, and always have been. One can find that alarming or banal as one likes, but it's simply not something that is new or in any particular way related to the web.

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2528 days ago
That digital publishing more closely resembles everything-that's-not-a-newspaper than it does newspapers is an interesting fact about newspapers not about digital publishing."

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All In All, Another Brick In The Motte

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One of the better things I’ve done with this blog was help popularize Nicholas Shackel’s “motte and bailey doctrine”. But I’ve recently been reminded I didn’t do a very good job of it. The original discussion is in the middle of a post so controversial that it probably can’t be linked in polite company – somewhat dampening its ability to popularize anything.

In order to rectify the error, here is a nice clean post on the concept that adds a couple of further thoughts to the original formulation.

The original Shackel paper is intended as a critique of post-modernism. Post-modernists sometimes say things like “reality is socially constructed”, and there’s an uncontroversially correct meaning there. We don’t experience the world directly, but through the categories and prejudices implicit to our society; for example, I might view a certain shade of bluish-green as blue, and someone raised in a different culture might view it as green. Okay.
Then post-modernists go on to say that if someone in a different culture thinks that the sun is light glinting off the horns of the Sky Ox, that’s just as real as our own culture’s theory that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas a great big nuclear furnace. If you challenge them, they’ll say that you’re denying reality is socially constructed, which means you’re clearly very naive and think you have perfect objectivity and the senses perceive reality directly.

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

Some classic examples:

1. The religious group that acts for all the world like God is a supernatural creator who builds universes, creates people out of other people’s ribs, parts seas, and heals the sick when asked very nicely (bailey). Then when atheists come around and say maybe there’s no God, the religious group objects “But God is just another name for the beauty and order in the Universe! You’re not denying that there’s beauty and order in the Universe, are you?” (motte). Then when the atheists go away they get back to making people out of other people’s ribs and stuff.

2. Or…”If you don’t accept Jesus, you will burn in Hell forever.” (bailey) But isn’t that horrible and inhuman? “Well, Hell is just another word for being without God, and if you choose to be without God, God will be nice and let you make that choice.” (motte) Oh, well that doesn’t sound so bad, I’m going to keep rejecting Jesus. “But if you reject Jesus, you will BURN in HELL FOREVER and your body will be GNAWED BY WORMS.” But didn’t you just… “Metaphorical worms of godlessness!”

3. The feminists who constantly argue about whether you can be a real feminist or not without believing in X, Y and Z and wanting to empower women in some very specific way, and who demand everybody support controversial policies like affirmative action or affirmative consent laws (bailey). Then when someone says they don’t really like feminism very much, they object “But feminism is just the belief that women are people!” (motte) Then once the person hastily retreats and promises he definitely didn’t mean women aren’t people, the feminists get back to demanding everyone support affirmative action because feminism, or arguing about whether you can be a feminist and wear lipstick.

4. Proponents of pseudoscience sometimes argue that their particular form of quackery will cure cancer or take away your pains or heal your crippling injuries (bailey). When confronted with evidence that it doesn’t work, they might argue that people need hope, and even a placebo solution will often relieve stress and help people feel cared for (motte). In fact, some have argued that quackery may be better than real medicine for certain untreatable diseases, because neither real nor fake medicine will help, but fake medicine tends to be more calming and has fewer side effects. But then once you leave the quacks in peace, they will go back to telling less knowledgeable patients that their treatments will cure cancer.

5. Critics of the rationalist community note that it pushes controversial complicated things like Bayesian statistics and utilitarianism (bailey) under the name “rationality”, but when asked to justify itself defines rationality as “whatever helps you achieve your goals”, which is so vague as to be universally unobjectionable (motte). Then once you have admitted that more rationality is always a good thing, they suggest you’ve admitted everyone needs to learn more Bayesian statistics.

6. Likewise, singularitarians who predict with certainty that there will be a singularity, because “singularity” just means “a time when technology is so different that it is impossible to imagine” – and really, who would deny that technology will probably get really weird (motte)? But then every other time they use “singularity”, they use it to refer to a very specific scenario of intelligence explosion, which is far less certain and needs a lot more evidence before you can predict it (bailey).

The motte and bailey doctrine sounds kind of stupid and hard-to-fall-for when you put it like that, but all fallacies sound that way when you’re thinking about them. More important, it draws its strength from people’s usual failure to debate specific propositions rather than vague clouds of ideas. If I’m debating “does quackery cure cancer?”, it might be easy to view that as a general case of the problem of “is quackery okay?” or “should quackery be illegal?”, and from there it’s easy to bring up the motte objection.

Recently, a friend (I think it was Robby Bensinger) pointed out something I’d totally missed. The motte-and-bailey doctrine is a perfect mirror image of my other favorite fallacy, the weak man fallacy.

Weak-manning is a lot like straw-manning, except that instead of debating a fake, implausibly stupid opponent, you’re debating a real, unrepresentatively stupid opponent. For example, “Religious people say that you should kill all gays. But this is evil. Therefore, religion is wrong and barbaric. Therefore we should all be atheists.” There are certainly religious people who think that you should kill all gays, but they’re a small fraction of all religious people and probably not the ones an unbiased observer would hold up as the best that religion has to offer.

If you’re debating the Pope or something, then when you weak-man, you’re unfairly replacing a strong position (the Pope’s) with a weak position (that of the guy who wants to kill gays) to make it more attackable.

But in motte and bailey, you’re unfairly replacing a weak position (there is a supernatural creator who can make people out of ribs) with a strong position (there is order and beauty in the universe) in order to make it more defensible.

So weak-manning is replacing a strong position with a weak position to better attack it; motte-and-bailey is replacing a weak position with a strong position to better defend it.

This means people who know both terms are at constant risk of arguments of the form “You’re weak-manning me!” “No, you’re motte-and-baileying me!“.

Suppose we’re debating feminism, and I defend it by saying it really is important that women are people, and you attack it by saying that it’s not true that all men are terrible. Then I can accuse you of making life easy for yourself by attacking the weakest statement anyone vaguely associated with feminism has ever pushed. And you can accuse me if making life too easy for myself by defending the most uncontroversially obvious statement I can get away with.

So what is the real feminism we should be debating? Why would you even ask that question? What is this, some kind of dumb high school debate club? Who the heck thinks it would be a good idea to say “Here’s a vague poorly-defined concept that mind-kills everyone who touches it – quick, should you associate it with positive affect or negative affect?!”

Taboo your words, then replace the symbol with the substance. If you have an actual thing you’re trying to debate, then it should be obvious when somebody’s changing the topic. If working out who’s using motte-and-bailey (or weak man) is remotely difficult, it means your discussion went wrong several steps earlier and you probably have no idea what you’re even arguing about.

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2589 days ago
Always argue /specifics/, never labels.
2589 days ago
I'd tweak that to "Try your best to argue specifics before resorting to labels." Language is a collection of labels, after all. Grouping ideas and tendencies into movements like feminism can be a very powerful way to get shit done, even if that power sometimes erodes discourse.
2589 days ago
I haven't run into and can't immediately think of a meaningful argument that a no-labels rule wouldn't vastly simplify. Certainly they exist but they're far enough from my day to day life that I feel comfortable making a blanket rule for myself ;)
2589 days ago
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2589 days ago
Ways people reframe an argument, to make a position easier to defend
Idle, Bradford, United Kingdom
2589 days ago

Watch_Dogs 14-Minute Gameplay Walkthrough

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Animation director Colin Graham talks you through some of the features and play styles of the much-anticipated hacking game. Minor spoilers ensue for those of you who like to figure everything out yourself, but for players like me who sometimes need a little help, this might be just the push you need to make the purchase. Watch, dawg...after the jump and tell me if it sells you or not. Continue reading "Watch_Dogs 14-Minute Gameplay Walkthrough" >
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3015 days ago
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What is electric car battery swap tech, and why is it important?

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Better Place went bankrupt trying to build out the idea; Tesla just unveiled the technology to a live audience. We’re talking about a battery swapping system for an electric car, which isn’t all that technically complicated, but which is a newish concept in the automotive industry.

What is it?

Quite simply, a battery swapping station is a place that an electric car can drive over and an automatic (or possibly even manual) system can open up the bottom of the electric car, remove the depleted battery, and insert a newly fully charged battery in its place. Picture it as like robot mechanics giving an electric car a fresh battery.

PHOTOS: Better Place's Battery Swap StationSome electric car makers and tech companies want this option because it is the only super-fast way that an electric car can be charged and thus compete with gasoline cars. To implement this technology the car itself has to be designed to be able to be opened up with a chamber on the bottom, and by swiftly taking off the bolts underneath the car. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during the launch event that Tesla is using the same machines that it uses in the factory for its swapping stations to swiftly torque the bolts on the underside of the car.

Fast charging stations like the ones that Tesla is deploying can charge an electric car in around 30 minutes, which is obviously considerably longer than it would take to pump gas. A regular electric car charger can take 8 or even 12 hours to fully charge. The range that currently available electric cars can provide is between 100 to 300 miles (at max) — if the range ever gets substantially larger, the constraints on charging become less of a problem, and battery swapping becomes less important.

Who thought of the idea?

Startup Better Place developed this technology several years ago to build out its electric car charging infrastructure. Better Place founder Shai Agassi was a big proponent of battery swapping, and continues to be, even after leaving the company late last year. Unfortunately poor Better Place’s timing, execution (or both) led to Better Place filing for bankruptcy this year.

PHOTOS: Better Place's Battery Swap StationBack when Better Place was developing this technology, Musk was also really interested in battery swapping tech. I know because I asked him about it back then. While most of the big auto companies were ignoring Better Place and battery swapping, Musk was keeping an eye on the tech (and perhaps even had a hand in the original battery swapping idea). That’s why when Tesla built the Model S, they made sure that the battery could be swapped out, in case one day they decided that they wanted to implement it.

Why does Tesla want to do battery swapping now?

Tesla has decided now is the time to unveil its battery swapping plans. What Tesla has going for it is a super hot that it has a super hot, car that’s become a symbol of luxury for the progressive, liberal, wealthy elite. What Tesla has against it is the nascent stage of the electric vehicle industry and the lack of electric vehicle infrastructure out there. Range anxiety is a very real thing when there’s only a small amount of chargers out there and most of those chargers take a long time to charge the battery.

Tesla Model S battery

Tesla Model S battery

Tesla has to build out electric car infrastructure simply as a way to grow the market for its electric cars. It’s like if Apple launched the iPhone in the very early days of cell phones — it would have to build out some of the cellular networks, too, to get the iPhone experience to work the way they wanted it to in such a nascent environment.

The big question I have is how will Tesla implement battery swapping when most of its customers own their entire car, including the battery, outright. Battery swapping sounded like a good idea for Better Place, because Better Place was offering electricity and battery charging as a service and owned the batteries. If a company owns the battery first, the customer probably won’t care if the battery is swapped in and out (older batteries have considerably less value than newer batteries). Perhaps that’s why Tesla wanted to launch the battery swap service soon after its first wave of Model S have been delivered (the oldest Model S cars and accompanying batteries are only a year old), and not later on after the cars have aged more.

At the same time, Tesla expects that it’ll have a good deal of leases, which it recently launched, for the Model S. Musk has said that in 2014 he expects “leasing will be a big factor” in the U.S., and will be a moderate part of revenue in 2013 in Europe.

What are the hurdles for battery swapping?

For Better Place the hurdles to implementing battery swapping infrastructure lay in was convincing auto makers to enable their car batteries to be swapped out. Better Place only offered one lackluster car from Renault when it launched in Israel.

COP15Day4-Fluence2But for Tesla, which is an automaker first and foremost, they’ve already got some hot cars that have swappable batteries. Tesla is also building out its infrastructure in a more proprietary manner — only Model S cars can charge at its Superchargers — so it’s not necessarily worried about working with other automakers on making their cars work with Tesla infrastructure.

The bigger hurdle for Tesla is implementing the battery swapping service so that customers like it and so that it adds value financially for both Tesla and the customer. Because electric cars are at an early stage, the financing — and depreciation of the batteries — isn’t necessarily a known quantity yet. Tesla’s other hurdle is also just maintaining its the sexiness of its cars and brands since cars’ and brands’ sexiness, as you need to have an in-demand product and a growing mass of customers if you’re going to build out a proprietary next work like this.

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3090 days ago
My bet is a second lease for 'power by the hour' that lets you use the swap stations instead of buying the batteries.
3077 days ago
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