Thursday, August 30, 2007

Knowledge of the Social World Considered Dangerous

I received an interesting comment from America Jones about my most recent reflections on the social world; and, given the level of substance in the comment, I decided that it would be better to address his points in a new post, rather than a "comment on the comment."

The first point is basically a be-careful-what-you-wish-for argument: If enterprise software eventually does get around to addressing the dynamics of the social world, it is just as likely to be used for ill as for good. Jones supports this position with a link to the recent Wired article on the current state of the art of FBI surveillance:

The FBI has quietly built a sophisticated, point-and-click surveillance system that performs instant wiretaps on almost any communications device, according to nearly a thousand pages of restricted documents newly released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The surveillance system, called DCSNet, for Digital Collection System Network, connects FBI wiretapping rooms to switches controlled by traditional land-line operators, internet-telephony providers and cellular companies. It is far more intricately woven into the nation's telecom infrastructure than observers suspected.

It's a "comprehensive wiretap system that intercepts wire-line phones, cellular phones, SMS and push-to-talk systems," says Steven Bellovin, a Columbia University computer science professor and longtime surveillance expert.

DCSNet is a suite of software that collects, sifts and stores phone numbers, phone calls and text messages. The system directly connects FBI wiretapping outposts around the country to a far-reaching private communications network.

Many of the details of the system and its full capabilities were redacted from the documents acquired by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but they show that DCSNet includes at least three collection components, each running on Windows-based computers.

This article also includes a link to a post by John Borland to the Wired Threat Level blog; and I was pleased to see that the comments to this post included a reminder of Thomas Hobbes "panopticon" concept.

I think America Jones has a point. It is hard enough to monitor a panopticon-like view of an overwhelming volume of data for a state that deserves more focused attention. Monitoring all those data for "process features" is problematic unto an extreme. Think of what an air traffic controller has to do and then bump it up by three or four (at least) orders of magnitude. If a theory of the social world were to lead to a technology that made that volume of data more manageable, then that technology would probably germinate a seed that would ultimately grow up into Big Brother. So, if we really do want to expand our knowledge of the social world, we shall have to be even more careful about were our investigations lead than were those researchers who contributed to the Manhattan Project!

America Jones also expresses concern that an increased understanding of the social world may raise "the potential of making an economic commodity out of knowledge." This is a problem that has concerned me since the earliest days of the knowledge management fad, and I sometime wonder if it was not just as well that the fad brought about more confusion than enlightenment over the nature of knowledge and its role in the workplace. Unfortunately, America Jones also falls victim to that classic confusion that results from philosophy students misreading Plato's "Theaetetus:" the assumption that knowledge is "justified true belief," even though Plato has Socrates tear this definition to shreds. Nevertheless, his point that "knowledge about knowledge" may be as dangerous as better analytic tools for "process features" is well taken; and I would apply the same cautionary remark to those who wish to seriously investigate it!


America Jones said...

Thanks for consistently insightful writing. I should remark, about knowledge being true justified belief, that the "If" at the beginning of my statement was very much meant as a conditional. Perhaps the sentence would have been more clear were it to have read: "If 'true justified belief' is considered 'knowledge' (as many people - including lawyers and business majors - are taught in Philosophy classes, a definition over which statisticians seek to lord with their dark arts)..."

My concern is, more specifically, related to a distinction drawn in cognitive science, between descriptive accounts and explanatory devices.

An erroneous understanding of knowledge could cause a lot of innocent people a lot of trouble if the statisticians who feed the appetites of marketers neither understand this cognitive distinction, nor how mass marketing can shape public perception. The government undoubtedly does a lot of marketing. The Army makes video games ( and politicians who think they are businessmen spend a lot of time trying to "sell policy" to the citizenry. Lobbying firms with PR departments play a large part in this latter practice, and a lot of local news programs just air whatever PR firms hand them in the form of a "video news release." (For an account of why government and business ethics should be kept separate, I would suggest "Systems of Survival" by Jane Jacobs.)

The question becomes: "do consumers of knowledge know what they are being sold?" Or: "What statistical methods are used to determine the value of this knowledge, and in what form does this value subsist?" A comprehensive dynamics would include economic factors (Homeland Security has taken a noteworthy interest in financial transactions), and the fact that our economy is based on a variety of methods for determining economic value (we no longer use a gold standard, and large corporations seem to have all sorts of inventive ways of "cooking the books") suggests that it is worth considering what physical conditions DO come into play (i.e., if not the spatial configuration of gold atoms, then various forms of human suffering at the hands of poverty, ignorance, or some other injustice).

I'm currently re-reading Parmenides; perhaps Theaetetus will be my next Plato (although I had been planning on Statesman).

Stephen Smoliar said...

As a confessed
, I hold strongly to the conviction that the only evidence we have of the "consumption" of knowledge resides in how that knowledge is used. That being the case, we might consider taking a case-study approach to the question about "consumers of knowledge" by examining how American Presidents (past and present, in the interest of statistical hygiene) have made use of the daily intelligence briefings they receive. My guess is that the data from such case studies can be translated into economic factors.

"Theaetetus" is definitely a "must read." It has a
that resonates with our current times with uncanny accuracy. We are introduced to Theaetetus, whom we shall shortly see as one of Socrates' students, as he is being carried back to Athens from the military camp at Corinth, dying of the combination of war wounds and dysentery! The final text of the epilogue (spoken by Socrates) is equally dramatic: "Now I must go the the portico of the King-Archon to meet the indictment which Meletus has drawn up against me. But tomorrow morning, Theodorus, let us meet here again." (We all know what happened next!)

America Jones said...

One of my favorite uses of irony in Plato is that Socrates, for the sake of his social ethics, allows his accusers to commit an immoral murder. I find this especially interesting in light of the tradition which holds that Plato, before turning his attention to the Dialogues, composed tragedies and Dionysian poetry.