Monday, December 17, 2012

Affordance, Things and the Seizing of Enablement - A ground of Formal Cause?

In my last post, I asked/posed a question, derived from Kaufman's concept of 'Enablement'. 

How does an 'enablement' become seizable? That is how does a 'possibility' become visible?  I'd like to try to answer this today. 

I've recently read a wonderful piece by Tim Ingold - an anthropologist. What Ingold explores is the question of how do we actually get 'things' done, how does knowledge arise through our engagement with the world. For him this is a creative process of co-evolving with our aims and the mater that serves as the medium.

Ingold begins his paper by speaking of Paul Klee: In his notebooks the painter Paul Klee repeatedly insisted, and demonstrated by example, that the processes of genesis and growth that give rise to forms in the world we inhabit are more important than the forms themselves. ‘Form is the end, death’, he wrote. ‘Form-giving is movement, action. Form-giving is life’.  Ingold continues: ‘Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible’ (Klee 1961: 76). It does not, in other words, seek to replicate finished forms that are already settled, whether as images in the mind or as objects in the world. It seeks, rather, to join with those very forces that bring form into being. 

From Klee, Ingold goes to the position of Deleuze and Guattari that the essential relation, in a world of life, is not between matter and form, or between substance and attributes, but between materials and forces (Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 377). It is about the way in which materials of all sorts, with various and variable properties, and enlivened by the forces of the Cosmos, mix and meld with one another in the generation of things.

A key insight Ingold gave me was in his discussion about the difference between 'Objects' and 'Things'. 

An 'object' is an already closed self-evident fait accompli, that presents a 'congealed' set of surfaces for a pre-determined or accepted use and inspection. We generally experience this in our familiar habits of regarding the contents of our homes and other familiar places - the chair is a chair, the pot is a pot, etc. 

A 'thing' on the other hand, is a 'going on' or the entwinement of several 'goings on' - he quotes Heidegger, it is a 'thing thinging in a worlding world'. More than this a thing is also an invitation to participate in the thinging and worlding. Ingold states: "Thus conceived, the thing has the character not of an externally bounded entity, set over and against the world, but of a knot whose constituent threads, far from being contained within it, trail beyond, only to become caught with other threads in other knots. Or in a word, things leak, forever discharging through the surfaces that form temporarily around them."

Even if we pick up a stone can only call it an 'object' because we perceptually extricate it from the ongoing processes (erosion, deposition, etc.) that gave it is place, size and shape in by picking it up we participate in those processes. 

Even a building is not fixed and final but something that is never finished for it demands never-ending efforts to maintain it against the forces of its context and its inhabitants. As Ingold notes: Our most fundamental architectural experiences, ... are verbal rather than nominal in form. They consist not of encounters with objects – the fa├žade, door-frame, window and fireplace – but of acts of approaching and entering, looking in or out, and soaking up the warmth of the hearth (Pallasmaa 1996: 45). As inhabitants, we experience the house not as an object but as a thing.

Extending Ingold's observations, what things enable in the way the 'leak' could be called 'affordances'. An affordance (enablement) can only become visible through an interaction within a context and orientation. Another example, if I'm walking through a landscape populated with scattered stones of all sizes. I will generally see these as annoyances that impede my easy passage. But then I get tired and want to rest for a bit - a stone of the right size and shape might then suggest to me - might afford - a perfect 'thing' to sit on, letting me avoid having to get my body all the way down on the ground (and the necessary effort to get up again). The context of being tired, and the orientation of view enabled the stone to serve as a chair - or another way, enabled an interaction between myself and the stone that saved me energy. 

If we understand that affordances only arise with context, orientation and interaction it is impossible to determine all the possible affordances that a thing could enable. Thus we could argue that 'things' are imbued with a field of affordances - like a superposition of possibilities - the collapse of this field into a particular affordance depends on 'observation' (as orientation, context and interaction). Because the 'field of affordances' can't be enumerated (of course with some thought 'some' affordances can always be imagined) the idea of algorithmizing them or attempting to incorporate notions of probability aren't feasible.

A key implication of this line of thinking is that we must be careful in applying the language of logic and mathematics to the world. What logic and mathematics tends to do is make 'things' into 'objects' - P is P and Not Q. There are no 'affordances' acceptable to the use of P in an argument shaped by syllogistic logic or mathematical equation. Affordance may enable a 'thing' to embody contradiction (which in logic is an accepted indication of error - only one thing can be right). Think of the classic drawing that enables a viewer to see both an old woman and a young woman, depending on the perceptual orientation. The drawing affords two opposite renderings of the very same 'thing'.

Of course that doesn't mean logic and math are not necessary tools for human progress - they are absolutely necessary. They have and will continue to be powerful in shaping our reasoning and in descriptions of the world. However, they are not sufficient for understanding how evolution of complex and living systems unfold. 

The epistemology imbued in a physics world view doesn't make room for things imbued with affordance fields - yet does afford the realization of quantum mechanics, superpositions, entanglement, etc. between 'objects' and forces. 

What emerges in living systems are the new domains of affordance fields, of meanings that are only revealed through interaction, context, and orientation and mirror the fact that matter is always matter in movement, in flux, in variation, in webs of interdependence. The domains of affordance fields may be pertinent to the more basic domains of matter and force and may enable a better grasp of what McLuhan describes as Formal Cause.

I highly recommend people reading Tim Ingolds article.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Difference, Pattern, Change, Continuity and Formal Cause

This year Stuart Kauffman et al wrote a fundamental paper "No entailing law, but enablement in the evolution of the biosphere" (you can see him speak about this here 

This was a great revelation to me and I think provides a deep appreciation of the constraints of a physics 'worldview' for understanding living systems. Kauffman has spoken about the 'adjacent possible' in his other writings - but here he made more concrete for me. 

To be brief - Kauffman points out that evolutionary systems cannot be positioned within a 'pre-stateable phase space' that is it is impossible to pre-state all 'adjacent possibles' of a given situation. Another way of saying this is that it is only after the fact that 'Darwinian pre-adaptations' or potential affordances become visible. Kauffman give the example of the impossibility of prestating all the possible uses that a screw-driver can be put to. 

In the physics worldview we posit a prestated phase space within which we can conduct a calculus of possible trajectories within that space. This is the basis of Maxwell's Demon - the imagination of an intelligence that can be aware of all the current bits (and their states) with the consequence that the future could then be simply foreseen as the inevitable computation of trajectories of the existing bits. Kauffman gives another example of evolution selecting a fish with a swim bladder. This process fits well with developments in the physics pre-stated space as the causal webs that shape the evolving fish-with-swim-bladder-in-environment event. However, when a micro-organism inhabits the swim-bladder turning it into a 'niche' - this was not prestateable, it was a-causal in the swim-bladder was not 'selected' for to be a niche. However, once existant - becoming a niche was an 'adjacent possible' that enabled a micro-organism to actualize an affordance (as adjacent possible).  Kauffman says that these sorts of processes cannot be algorithmized. There is no way to develop an 'entailing law' to predict the emergence of affordances, or actualizations of adjacent possibles or make visible pre-adaptations to future contexts. 

This also has salience to the difference between information (especially in relation to Shannon) versus knowledge - as embodied in socially-based minds. What Shannon was able to formulate was how to ensure a transmission of a pattern of differences (e.g. information - as difference that makes a difference) - through various transformations relevant to particular mediums through which transmissions occur, with fidelity. For example I can ensure that the ink-blot I create on a paper, scan with a scanner, attach to an email, - is received via email and printed out will be exactly like the ink-blot that I sent. Where knowledge comes is that I can't assure that the meaning I see in the ink-blot (a spider) is the meaning that the receiver sees in the ink-blot (butterfly). Shannon admitted the the theory of information did not address the 'meaning' of the 'signal'. This is what makes knowledge 'transfer' much more like translation where it is inevitable that 'information' (as meaning) is gained and lost that is outside of the control of the sender of the signal. 

Thus as Kauffman notes - life creates the conditions of its own becoming. Each step in a complex living system changes the conditions (potential adjacent possibles, affordances, pre-adaptations) of the next step. 

What makes 'knowledge' possible is that a tacit collective knowledge arise through the complex social transactions of synchronization - as Bateson claimed - the fundamental of mammalian communication is the harmonization of nervous systems - which I would now understand as an environment of the social minds that constitute living systems. 

The puzzle is, How does an 'enablement' become seizable? For example, did the micro-organism accidentally get swallowed into the swim-bladder - a random act, and despite this random act somehow survived, found protection and learned to replicate in this new environment (producing excrement thus enabling other 'niche opportunities'). Is it possible to derive a probability for this random act before it happened? Kauffman say no. So the micro-organism doesn't receive a signal (I'm in a new niche) but rather perceives a meaning I think this is like a niche?

It is for all of the reasons above, modern economics (built on the concepts and mathematics of 19th century physics) requires a 'rational actor' - a predictable particle - rather than a meaning-making, affordance-realizing consciousness.

It is also for the above reasons that a multi-disciplinary effort is needed to continually iterate simulations related to living systems to make imaginatively useful - even if they may never create viable predictions beyond a relatively short horizon.

It has been noted that Nature/Reality is not a theory. While I wholeheartedly agree that nature is not a theory - I also agree with Einstein and vast debate in philosophy that essentially supports him - Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.

Like Khun noted, anomalies only become evident because they challenge inadequate theory. Thus we are unable to perceive an 'unfiltered' world a world free of theory (conscious or not). Our only choice is choosing/creating theory, I think observation (in a scientific sense) is impossible without theory.

It is true that Kauffman's adjacent possibles is abstract, and very difficult to 'grasp' - attributing reality to something that is ultimately intangible - becoming tangible only after a field of potential collapses on a single possible. This surely can seem like magical or divine spontaneous creation. 

Turning back to nature enables us to search more closely for those anomalies and perhaps find a better pattern that we can describe through mathematical and other types of metaphors. 

I remember reading Gregory Bateson in the mid 80s. He went on at length about information being a difference that made a difference, etc. and at one point he spoke of this as a sort of difference that makes a difference - a pattern. He spoke about two types of epistemology (how we know we know), an epistemology of energy (which is the foundation of physics - the billiard balls on a pool table descriptions of the universe) and an epistemology of pattern. This later type of epistemology is the foundation of the phenomena we could call 'meaning'. He spoke about how pattern is essentially not just intangible but has literally no substance. For example the telephone call not received (nothing) 'causes' consequences. In essence where does 'difference' actually live?

It is only in the last five years, have I come to really understand this, as I was thinking through the problem of the difference between information and knowledge. What made it clear for me was thinking about Shannon's ideas of information using Bateson's metaphor of a blind man walking with a cane. 

The  side walk has discernible changes (pattern), using a cane and tapping the blind man is able to note important changes (pattern) in the side walk by tapping - which provides a way to transform the changes in the side walk into feeling and sound. The feeling (vibrations through the cane) and the sound (vibration of the cane-side-walk interaction through the air) are transformed again in the neural structure to produce a 'picture' that is a pattern of the side walk (I exert poetic license just to keep it simple). 

Another example is how we think of something to say, that pattern of thought is transformed into a pattern of sounds (according to the structure of language), those sounds are transformed into a pattern of electro-magnetic waves to transmit via a digital medium-phone/text, then the pattern of digital differences is transformed into a pattern of language-sounds (voice), which is then transformed into a pattern of meanings (which may entail iterated exchanges to negotiate concurrence on that meaning). 

In both of these examples a material medium is absolutely necessary to 'embody' the pattern, but it is only because the 'pattern' itself is not material that it is possible for the patterns to 'embody' various media through appropriate transformations for corresponding material media. 

In this way differences that make a difference (pattern) is non-material, non-energetic but can only be perceived via a substantive form of media. 

It could be that pattern (information) is the source of 'Formal Causation' which would be why effects as 'embodiments' would precede their cause (unknowable prior to its effects). If this has any truth it would then make certain dimensions of reality unobservable other than because we can formulate theories concerning prior effects to un-instantiated formal causes. 

Part of what has got me thinking about this was a comments by a colleague related to the physics of continuity and topology. 

In one of my first philosophy classes my professor was an ancient (Leslie Armour) who had been teaching for 50 years - it was like Kant and Hegel were his neighbours. :) The class was Infinity, Ethics and Society (or something like that). I forget the discussion - but I asked him about the issue of change and continuity - how could I, an obviously different person than I was when I was five - still be the 'same' person? His answer was that we probably constructed our identity through some form of narrative continuity - continuity of pattern. 

This is the core of the difference between 'mere' :) physics-based systems and complex or living systems. Complex/living systems exist 'far-from-equilibrium'. Their 'integrity' or construction is maintained via a 'strange attractor' for complex systems and via a mechanism of homeostasis in living systems. One could argue that the 'identity' of a living system is the complex, dynamic set of values that homeostasis uses to regulate the system's state of 'far-from-equilibrium'. That means that unlike equilibrium (which is a sort-of path of least resistance), homeostasis is a dynamic ongoing 'regulatory-intervention' requiring energy (and enabling the generation of energy to keep the system going). 

So a complex and/or living system is definitely dependant on physics - but it's identity (as continuity of pattern) may not be 'apprehendable' from a strictly physics foundation. 

Another example. Human brains all have language processing structures. But there is no 'english' gene. Nor could we determine which language is being spoken only by a strict analysis of neuronal-chemical events. A particular language (patterns) arises as an emergent via complex social interactions - and once language emerges it has the capability to interate influences upon the bio-neuro-chemical substrate that is its 'medium'. 

It may be that pattern (like the adjacent possibles) is an intangible non-material norenergetic domain/dimension of reality (Formal Cause), that requires material media to exist and act but whose laws can't be reduced to those laws of the particular tangible reality (medium) that embody the pattern at any particular moment.

This would not be a mysticism or a divine source of being - but a domain of reality that may require a different type of language than what mathematics currently offer. 

This line of thought is an engagement that is similar to how people from different culture have to construct a third language in order to make bridges to their native foundations. :)

Maybe the challenge of a 21st century mathematics and logic is one that will seem initially to be a development of a more abstract theory - maybe to an extreme. 

In my foresight work, I've often used the experience of Xerox as a metaphor - Xerox funded Xerox PARC (Palo-Alto Research Centre) where their brilliant scientist developed the desktop computer, with a GUI interface and a mouse. When executive looked at the result - they pondered then asked what that had to do with photocopies? The rest is history - the scientist showed their work to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. 

But had the executives of Xerox, taken a moment and abstracted what business Xerox was really in (its identity), they could have realized that the ultimate business of Xerox was 'information processing' and that would have enabled (in Kauffman's sense of the word) to see a different (but continuous) future (identity) of Xerox. In pondering the lessons not learned by Xerox - I think what comes after the Post-modern age is the era of the 'Meta-real' - where we must all struggle to 'abstract' a higher order sense of identity (continuity of narrative) in order to grasp the opportunities that a culturally-based evolution enables.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Truth, Trust, and Reputation in the Flows of Uncertainty and Paradox

"Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere”. 
Albert Einstein

The last couple of weeks have been taken up with finally finishing a creative wood working project and a pumpkin madness that descends on me during the last week of every October - see pictures here 

This post is a sort of harvest of fibers from the self-weaving fabric of the matrix that is the Internet stream. Maybe I'm curating some of the thinking I've come across, perhaps it would be more accurate to say - that this is simply material that I'm fermenting in the space where I park my mind. :)

Clay Shirky has written another ‘must read’ piece. This article is very complementary to David Weinberger’s new book “Too Big To Know”. I don't believe that the digital environment causes a fragmentation of the truth. But it does confront our notions that we can contain what is knowable and in this way, it simply reveals the true plurality of what we think and shatters our illusions of a society that has a general consensus on what truth is.
Here are the first few paragraphs:
Here’s what the “post-fact” literature has right: the Internet allows us to see what other people actually think. This has turned out to be a huge disappointment. When anyone can say anything they like, we can’t even pretend most of us agree on the truth of most assertions any more.
The post-fact literature is built in part on nostalgia for the world before people like Bigfoot showed up in the public sphere, for the days when Newsweek reflected moderately liberal consensus without also providing a platform for orthographically-challenged wingnuts to rant about the President. People who want those days back tell themselves (and anyone else who will listen) that they don’t want to impose their views on anybody. They just want agreement on the facts.
But what would that look like, an America where there was broad agreement on the facts? It would look like public discussion was limited to the beliefs held by straight, white, Christian men. If the views of the public at large didn’t hew to the views of that group, the result wouldn’t be agreement. It would be argument.
Argument, of course, is the human condition, but public argument is not. Indeed, in most places for most of history, publicly available statements have been either made or vetted by the ruling class, with the right of reply rendered impractical or illegal or both. Expansion of public speech, for both participants and topics, is generally won only after considerable struggle, and of course any such victory pollutes the sense of what constitutes truth from the previous era, a story that runs from Martin Luther through Ida Tarbell to Mario Savio, the drag queens outside Stonewall, and Julian Assange.....

These next two articles should be read as one article. Although I think they are also ‘must reads’ but they shouldn’t be seen as 'new' news. The accelerating pace of technology, of social change, makes 'future shock' more real than ever and the future present is a looming Zeitgeist. There is no doubt that 'more' 'digital disruption is coming, and it will tear down and rebuild every product, in every industry.'
The first few paragraphs:
We've all heard the word disruption. Most of us think we know what that is. And we've all heard the word digital. Most of us think we know what that is, too. But put them together -- digital disruption -- and they add up to much more than the mere sum of their parts. Digital disruption, when properly understood, should terrify you.
In short, you should think of digital disruption not just as disruption magnified or even disruption squared. Think of it as disruption accelerated at several orders of magnitude. Three sources of digital power -- the prevalence of free tools and services that enable disruptors to rapidly build products and services, the rise of digital platforms that are easily exploited by aspiring competitors from all directions, and the burgeoning class of digital consumers ready to experiment with new services -- have combined to unleash a disruptive force that will completely alter every business on the planet.....
Is your company's customer experience changing as fast as say, smartphones are progressing? Forrester shares advice from digital disruptors.
Today's rush to reach customers on their smartphones and tablets is just a sign of things to come, thanks to the explosion of software-fueled digital touchpoints. In this rush, it's easy to overlook the more important and fundamental shift taking place that will define the next decade.
Software-fueled digital touchpoints empower your customers, your employees, people, and society. Mainstream media has picked up on this shift--look no further than CNN's recent report "How Smartphones Make Us Superhuman." But have you picked up on it, too?
The Executive's Challenge
Your customers, your employees, and society overall continue to internalize technology. Smartphones, tablets, e-readers, games, smart TVs--and even goggles--fueled by software provide people with access to computing power that exceeded our imaginations 10 years ago. They also empower people to connect, engage, and share with each other at a pace most firms cannot easily keep pace with.
Today's disruptors are people and companies using digital capabilities to remove traditional barriers to entry, produce better products and services, and build great digital relationships with your customers. They do so better, faster, and stronger than you can today by taking advantage of your legacy. And they have your executives rethinking competitive strategy, and your product strategists scrambling for ideas on how to use digital and software capabilities to deliver new products, or complement existing ones.....

This next piece should be equally familiar to anyone who studies organization. In many ways this suggests that a lot of the reactions of most of the media industry is a hysterical reaction to the 'loss of control'. The effort to increase the strength of intellectual property seems to me very similar to the hysteria of over-control that this article describes as the management reaction to increasing uncertainty and complexity. I have to thank my friend Amanda who shared this link with me. The need to control has a personal consequence for people experiencing the imposition of controls - a sense of not being trusted. So how do we trust ourselves and others in a context of complexity, uncertainty and plurality of views – where the application of command & control may be more illusion than reality and may in fact push the system to paralysis or chaos?
This paper explores the hypothesis that, within complex matrix organisations, the ‘zone’ between the strategic vision set by senior management and the projects created to fulfil it, is a highly complex and dynamic organism. Stimulus to the organism may, or may not produce change. The change may be slight or catastrophic, beneficial or detrimental, and cannot be predicted. Succeeding in this environment needs a different management paradigm from that developed for management in traditional project industries.
The paradigm shift in management thinking needed to succeed in managing projects across the ‘zone’ is acceptance that the outcome from any management input to the ‘zone’ is unpredictable. To succeed, managers need to combine vigilance and flexibility; to identify and capitalise on unexpected gains and deal with unexpected problems. Communication networks and more flexible management of relationships are keys to resolving problems and creating success in the dynamic ever-changing environment of the ‘zone’.....

If we accept Clay Shirky's (and David Weingerger and many others) ideas about the disruption that the digital environment has wrought on our illusions that general consensual truths – and if we accept Forrester Research that Digital disruption is coming, and it will tear down and rebuild every product, in every industry – then we had better find new ways to establish trust and reputation will become even more important.

The problem of truth that Shirky discusses inevitably leads to issues also related to trust and reputation. Many approaches to this problems are being explored and developed in the digital environment – From Amazon’s reader reviews and ratings to eBay’s ratings of sellers, to Dragon Kill points in World of Warcraft (see below). This is especially relevant when considering the many implications of Big Data, the unimaginable new forms of measures that Big Data can enable and the consequences for the emergence of new institutions. The key insight for me is that there is a very plausible potential for the development of new forms of reputation that becomes a type of social currency.
The next few articles are interesting discussions and provide links to many other discussions/examples of reputation measures.
Imagine a world where banks take into account your online reputation alongside traditional credit ratings to determine your loan; where headhunters hire you based on the expertise you've demonstrated on online forums such as Quora; where your status from renting a house through Airbnb helps you become a trusted car renter on WhipCar; where your feedback on eBay can be used to get a head-start selling on Etsy; where traditional business cards are replaced by profiles of your digital trustworthiness, updated in real-time. Where reputation data becomes the window into how we behave, what motivates us, how our peers view us and ultimately whether we can or can't be trusted.

Welcome to the reputation economy, where your online history becomes more powerful than your credit history. …..
Without transparency there can be no trust. Don't believe me? When is the last time you got a job without a background check? When is the last time you dated someone without Googling them? Do you purchase things online without first researching the company and their sales ratings? When you leave this article you will click my profile to see if I know what I am talking about. If you are not doing any or all of these things, how has that been working out for you? ….

And here’s an example of a reputation organization.

More evidence about the potential for institutions of social currency is how players self-organize (given the informational tools game developers provide) to and create methods of reputation-based exchange. Here's a Wikipedia article on how players in the massive multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft have created a type of exchange currency based on reputation related contributions to the achievement of groups quests.
Dragon kill points or DKP are a semi-formal score-keeping system (loot system) used byguilds in massively multiplayer online games. Players in these games are faced with large scale challenges, or raids, which may only be surmounted through the concerted effort of dozens of players at a time. While many players may be involved in defeating a boss, the boss will reward the group with only a small number of items desired by the players. Faced with this scarcity, some system of fairly distributing the items must be established. Used originally in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Everquest, dragon kill points are points that are awarded to players for defeating bosses and redeemed for items that those bosses would 'drop'. At the time most of the bosses faced by the players were dragons, hence the name.
While not transferable outside of a particular guild, DKP are often treated in a manner similar to currency by guilds. They are paid out at a specified rate and redeemed in modified first orsecond price auctions, although these are not the only methods by which DKP may be redeemed or awarded. However, Dragon kill points are distinct from the virtual currencies in each game world which are designed by the game developers—DKP systems vary from guild to guild and the points themselves only have value in regards to the dispersal of boss 'loot'. The systems of points themselves have important social dimensions and may represent an intersection between Pierre Bourdieu's conception of cultural capital and material capital......

This is another viewpoint related to trust and reputation, but this time applied to how we determine the truth. Can we trust social computing to determine truth and if we contribute to a social computing effort how can this become a form of currency? It strikes me that Dragon Kill Points as an emergent method of attributing reputation and credit to the contributions of successful 'quests' is not so far remove from the similar problems arising from new approaches to science. This next article is another great example of how social computing is changing the nature of science – how it’s done and who does it.
A joint effort of citizen scientists and professional astronomers has led to the first reported case of a planet orbiting twin suns that in turn is orbited by a second distant pair of stars.
Aided by volunteers using the website, a Yale-led international team of astronomers identified and confirmed discovery of the phenomenon, called a circumbinary planet in a four-star system.
Only six planets are known to orbit two stars, according to researchers, and none of these are orbited by distant stellar companions.....

The issue of trust, reputation is also challenging radical innovations in education, how we get educated/education, who accredits what we receive and how, and so many more problems. How can we integrate all our learnings/experience into a reputational framework appropriate to what we 'can' contribute to. The changing educational paradigm.
University launches two online courses, and more than 100,000 sign up worldwide
Harvard University’s first two courses on the new digital education platform edX launched this week, as more than 100,000 learners worldwide began taking dynamic online versions of CS50, the College’s popular introductory computer science class, and PH207, a Harvard School of Public Health course in epidemiology and biostatistics.
For Marcello Pagano, a professor of statistical computing who is co-teaching PH207x, the potential to teach so many students at once is amazing.
“I figure I’d have to teach another 200 years to reach that many students in person,” he said.
In May, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced the launch of the not-for-profit educational enterprise edX, which features learning designed specifically for interactive study via the Web. Since then, Harvard has established HarvardX, the University-based organization that supports Harvard faculty as they develop content for the edX platform. In the past six months, a leadership team has formed, faculty and research committees have launched, and courses have been developed......

All sorts of work will be affected by automation – will technological unemployment affect even the professional class or will it enhance human capability enabling humans to engage in meaning making and creative work? Perhaps Watson will enable doctors to spend more time with patients? Can we trust the augmented doctor more or less? Can everyone have access to Dr. Watson to be a smarter patient/person making more informed choices? Can Watson invoke the placebo effect that reputation and the trappings of professionalism enable?
Everyone agrees health care in the United States is a colossal mess, and IBM is betting that artificially intelligent supercomputers are just what the doctor ordered. But some health professionals say robodoctors are just flashy toys.

Such are the deep questions raised by the medical incarnation of Watson, the language-processing, information-hunting AI that debuted in 2011 on the quiz show Jeopardy!,annihilating the best human player ever and inspiring geek dreams of where its awesome computational power might be focused next.

IBM has promised a Watson that will in microseconds trawl the world’s medical knowledge and advise doctors. It sounds great in principle, but the project hasn’t yet produced peer-reviewed clinical results, and the journey from laboratory to bedside is long. Still, some doctors say Watson will be fantastically useful.

“It’s not humanly possible to practice the best possible medicine. We need machines,” said Herbert Chase, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University and member of IBM’s Watson Healthcare Advisory Board. “A machine like that, with massively parallel processing, is like 500,000 of me sitting at Google and Pubmed, trying to find the right information.” ….

Speaking of the medical world where biology is now an information science  with an ultimate aim of domesticating DNA. It’s not here yet, but… Can we trust new life forms? Can we trust ourselves to engage in the evolution of evolution? I think it was Einstein (if it wasn't him it was someone just as smart) that said that the type of thinking that created the problem was inadequate to solve the problem. This made me think about our problems in a different way. Can the species that created the problem solve the problem? Is the solution to the complexities the human species finds itself in be solved by the current 'instantiations' of a lifeform. 

I don't think we can 'go back' to simpler ways of living because unless we change ourselves primordially we will likely just recreate the problem. The issue of being a sentient being is being a sentient ecology. The phrase of 'doctor heal thyself' can be metaphorically turned to species change thyself. Trust in the face of uncertainty - can't be simply attained by a reactive fall-back to imposed control. Evolution is eternal adaptations to the consequences of its own adaptations - life must create the conditions of its own becoming.
NEW YORK CITY — Craig Venter imagines a future where you can download software, print a vaccine, inject it, and presto! Contagion averted.
“It’s a 3-D printer for DNA, a 3-D printer for life,” Venter said here today at the inaugural Wired Health Conference in New York City.
The geneticist and his team of scientists are already testing out a version of his digital biological converter, or “teleporter.”

Why should you care? Well, because the machine has “really good anti-viral software,” he quipped….

Closing the gaps in our understanding of ‘natural selection’ – the quotes are meant to highlight that evolution itself is evolving to be driven by human intentions.
....Like job-seekers searching for a new position, living things sometimes have to pick up a new skill if they are going to succeed. Researchers from the University of California, Davis, and Uppsala University, Sweden, have shown for the first time how living organisms do this. …

Friday, October 19, 2012

Value, attention and Big Data

A number of themes continue to converge for me since the last post. Again, I apologize for the rambling assemblage of these thoughts - my aim is not to produce a polished work - but to just get some thoughts out. Eventually I hope to bring this series of posts together into a more coherent piece.

I had an interesting discussion with my son-in-law during a wonderful family Thanksgiving weekend (my daughter and he are making me a grandfather). We were talking about my favourite topic - the digital environment and the fundamental restructuring of the economy. Warren is a singer-musician in the Montreal group Plants and Animals and so as an artist and performer knows quite a bit about the changes in the economic conditions of related to 'intellectual property'.

I brought up the perspective that Oscar Hidalgo had discussed in his Edge conversation (that I discussed in the last post). The idea of producing value versus the capacity to 'appropriate' at least some of that value in return. How do you make a living generating value (music, art, literature, ideas) in an environment where such value is so easily replicated, reproduced, spread? Wikipedia solves this problem by becoming a non-profit foundation. I have asked many people where the value generated for 100s of millions of people on the GDP of different national economies? Facebook on the other hand has a much more difficult time trying to appropriate enough of the value it generates - it is increasingly force to attempt to cannibalisticly 'monetise' information derived from its own users behaviour as well as making as cumbersome as possible for each person to exist this environment with all that they have invested into it. Thus far, users continue to extract enough value for themselves through the formation of communities.

Warren being a musician complained of the degradation of quality that new technologies have wrought on the popular consumables of music. I appreciate his artistic sensibility to the fidelity of sound. My son is an artist as well and have learned to appreciate is aesthetic sensibilities. Warren's perceptions about quality made sense to me - but I also thought about it differently. Most of my experience of music was less dependent on the quality of the sound - but on what I brought to the experience of my hearing the music. It was not only the 'quality of my attention' as a passive recipient of 'the signal' but the quality of my active attention - what my imagination was able to provide in terms of creating or at least augmenting my experience.

There are two issues here. How to make money in an digital environment when any digital good is essentially beyond control and of course we must also acknowledge and feed the creative commons that is he wellspring of our creativity. And the shift to an 'Attention Economy' (I'll talk a bit about this later).

The problem may at least partial arise due to a misplaced application of 'private property' to creative goods. It's not that private property doesn't have a place - but as a method of 'appropriating value' it may not be 'appropriate' (pun intended). As a means of certain types of resource it is very useful. But in the digital environment with digital goods the paradigm is not scarcity rather it is abundance - and network economics are about the increasing returns of network effects. This is a dilemma between the old paradigm of trying to appropriate value from intellectual property ownership and generate increasing value from network effects.

Kevin Kelly has a nice small piece "Better Than Free" that talks about sources of appropriating value based on what is actually scarce versus the natural abundance of the digital. I'm not sure if Kelly provides a satisfactory answer to Warren's problem of how to make money from performance art. But maybe there is also something more in the attention economy.

This week I was introduced via Twitter to @AJEbsary by @wikisteff. @AJEbsary has a fantastic blog The Attention Economist. I can't do it justice here, but it inspires some thoughts related to this thread.

Adrian outlines very comprehensively and concisely a history of thinking about the attention economy. My preliminary thinking is an extension of what the discussion with Warren brought up - e.g. the active creation of quality via the participation of the experiencer, my previous post referring to Hidalgo and Big Data, and the notions of new forms of measurement arising from Big Data and generating new institutions.

Is the quality of attention separable from the quality of experience? I don't think so. Is the quality of experience measurable objectively?  Take pain for example. There is not objective measure of someone's pain - the best that can be done is to ask someone to frame their experience by asking 'On a scale of 1 to 10 how do you rate your pain?'. While we can understand the relative intensity represented by this scale - there is no way to know that one person's 7 is equal to another person's 7 - we simply understand that relative scale. This is the essence of money - subjective perceptions of value using the illusion of precision of a number scale as the basis of exchange via a 'price mechanism'.

Marx was partially right in his analysis of the source of surplus value coming from value extracted from workers, what he didn't account for was the equally surplus value that was extracted from consumers of goods. Even when something is purchased at a cost that exceeds production costs a consumer may extract more value from his experience with the consumable than was involved in the production of the consumable. This may be a foundation that enables 'rent seekers' to function extracting rent from original producers for access to consumers and extracting rent from consumers for access to what producers produce. The classic example is the Music Business and their need to own the 'intellectual property' produced by musicians so they can monopolize access to music from consumers. This surplus value is also what I discussed with Warren about how much of the 'quality' of the music I heard came from what I brought from my own imagination and how my mind tended to 'fill-in' the gaps in fidelity.

So although we can track our eye movements, record neural activities, there may never be 'objective' measures of the quality of attention. But that may not be a significant problem - since we have been able to develop an mechanism of exchange that is also based on subjective perception of value - that we call money. The key is a new form of currency that can arise from the application of subjective perceptions of value to the experiences we have - as a form assessing value. Everybody has a stake in having their own contributions (in whatever form) also assessed if those assessments can form the basis for a type of social/attentional currency.

There are many limits that remain in the idea of an attention economy - chief among these is that the quality of attention will likely remain impossible to measure objectively as well as relationship between creativity and attention. By this I mean that the creative process generally involves many sorts of 'oblique' types of attention - moments of percolating on subconscious levels - of processing problems below he level of consciousness - this level of attention is fundamental to the creative process. Objective types of measures may indicate distraction from 'tasks-at-hand' but are part of a profoundly complex attentional computation that surface results apparently serendipitously.

I believe the attention economy is fundamental to the digital environment, but may only be leverageable via a capacity to provide a type of ubiquitous subjective rating of experience & contribution. And like money currently (which is now mostly 'bits' information) these can form the basis of an exchange mechanism allowing intangible/experiential goods to be 'free' and the value generated to also be appropriated by all of us in a new form of political economy.

This rambling theorizing won't help Warren and other artists soon, but without a theory we have no way to progress.