Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Revolt of Ortega

One of my professors was very big on José Ortega y Gasset.  This probably had a lot to do with Ortega’s interest in phenomenology (and with my acquisition of the Norton collection of essays Phenomenology and Art).  However, the one time I knew him to invoke a specific Ortega text, it had nothing to do with phenomenology.  Rather, the passage came from the chapter entitled “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation’” from The Revolt of the Masses.  Here is the passage:

Experimental science has progressed thanks in great part to the work of men astoundingly mediocre, and even less than mediocre.  That is to say, modern science, the root and symbol of our actual civilisation, finds a place for the intellectually commonplace man and allows him to work therein with success.

Ortega wrote The Revolt of the Masses in 1930, so he was probably thinking of how the study of physics at atomic and subatomic levels had shifted from highly sophisticated laboratories filled with expensive equipment to the desks of mathematicians, whose models were successfully predicting results that would then be confirmed through experimental observation.  He was certainly not in a position to predict the impact of computer technology on the practice of science, although I suspect that, had someone explained the concept of crowdsourcing to him, he would have gotten it immediately.

I cite this potential connection between Ortega and crowdsourcing because crowdsourcing seems to have enjoyed a recent triumph in dealing with the complex problems of protein folding.  Biochemist David Baker created a video game called Foldit through which users could play with different ways to fold protein structures and get scored on how viable their results were.  The results were reported today by Martin LaMonica in the Cutting Edge section of CNET News:

Baker's group this week published a paper (click for PDF) in Nature Biotechnology that found that humans' puzzle-solving skills are actually better than computers in designing complex proteins. "Human creativity can extend beyond the macroscopic challenges encountered in everyday life to molecular-scale design problems," the paper concludes.

Note that no prior knowledge of biology or any other science is necessary for playing Foldit.  At a surface level, this is not too far from the old scenario of a million monkeys at a million typewriters putting out the complete works of William Shakespeare.  As Bob Newhart point out, what made this a joke was that the Gedankenexperiment did not account for who would monitor the monkeys.  Foldit has basically built the monitoring process into the game, apparently allowing for more human creativity than would be achieved through brute-force enumeration of all possibilities on a supercomputer.

Is this the celebration of mediocrity that Ortega envisioned?  I am not sure I would call the exploitation of a large population of puzzle solvers a triumph of mediocrity.  Baker had to invoke a fair amount of “hard science” to design the game in such a way that it could be used as a valuable experimental tool;  but, if you want to embrace Ortega’s pessimism, you probably could say that all of those puzzle solvers are nothing but cogs in the vast machinery of that tool.  Personally, however, I am more concerned by the following quote from Baker:

You could imagine where you come home in the evening and you can either stay up all night playing Halo or be designing an HIV vaccine with people around the world. Which would you be happier saying you did when you went to work in the morning?

The implication seems to be that one can harness the masses into the service of scientific research as an alternative to playing Halo because you can associate Foldit with making the world a better place.  Nevertheless, there is also a question of attitude.  People play Halo because the gratification is in winning the game (or, at least, playing it better than your friends).  If the gratification from playing Foldit involved “designing an HIV vaccine,” wouldn’t you feel you deserved some compensation for your efforts?  What do you think, Dr. Baker?

1 comment:

longknowledge said...

The passage by Ortega that you quoted has become known as the "Ortega Hypothesis" and has received extensive critique pro and con in the scholarly literature (See "The Ortega Hypothesis: Citation analysis suggests that only a few scientists contribute to scientific progress," by Jonathan R. Cole and Stephen Cole, Science, Vol. 178, no. 4059, 27 October 1972, pp. 368-375; and subsequent articles under "Ortega Hypothesis" in a search of Google Scholar).

The "barbarism of specialization" Ortega was referring to was the phenomenon of such persons, who had acquired a minimun of education to perform these specialized jobs in science and elsewhere, feeling that they had the right to express their opinions about any and all subjects, and in the process demeaning the opinions of real experts in other fields. This can be seen in extremis in the controversy over "global warming" which had become the subject of "opinion polls" not just among scientists but of the public at large.