The Internet Judgement Machine

Remember this Reddit news item, wherein a bunch of people pushed their morality on someone?

At one point Mori asked “do you think the Internet should perch like an angel of conscience on your shoulder?” My response is — sure, why not? The internet is just other people…

Noah Berlatsky

To which I noted,

in no way want to get comfortable with the suggestion that listening to what other people claim to think is “the right thing” on an Internet forum necessarily bears the slightest resemblance to the best course of action.


Well, now we have a real crime for Reddit to react to, and the “mainstream press” like The Atlantic are gleefully skewering it for its reaction:

The amateur investigators from the site — having served as a kind of unofficial proving ground for theories that made their way to the mainstream media, jumping on the clear photo, despite the Post story that had also spread on Reddit — were tying the FBI photos to a 22-year-old Brown student and this ABC News report about his having gone missing last month. There was pushback, even on Reddit — “Leave the missing guy alone” — but it was too late; the trolls on Reddit had fed an army of all-nighter trolls in the media.

Indeed the Internet is just other people – and this is what other people do. They are undisciplined, they jump on a quick solution to a complex social problem, and they find it easy to blame those who stick out – those not like them – because it feels right.  By and large, people do not serve the truth because it is hard to serve the truth.  They would much rather believe that the truth exists to serve them.

If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. – Anatole France

For those who were not misled by the hoopla, I applaud you.

And for those of you affected by the bombing, particularly those who lost friends and loved ones, you have my deepest sympathies.

Published in: on April 20, 2013 at 7:56 PM  Comments (1)  
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The Basis of Morality

Noah (@hoodedu) linked me to his thoughts on morality.  Thanks, Noah. Twitter is indeed a very awkward platform for nuance.

This discussion started with reference to the loss of a Neil Gaiman script for Dr. Who.  Thousands of users posted on reddit to pressure the person who found it (or rather, their roommate) to “do the right thing,” and the subsequent trumpeting by some that this somehow “vindicated” the moral authority of the Internet was sickening.  Let me be clear – I do think that in this case returning the item happened to be the right thing to do. But that is a happy coincidence.  I in no way want to get comfortable with the suggestion that listening to what other people claim to think is “the right thing” on an Internet forum necessarily bears the slightest resemblance to the best course of action.  I find equating the right thing to do and the popular thing to do to be morally dangerous. (Cf. slavery, the oppression of minority religions and minority ethnicities, violent homophobia, the cutting of the rose, etc. – all popularly accepted by society for thousands of years, but to me, morally unacceptable.)

If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. – Anatole France

Now, with respect to the comments at Noah’s site:

Peter is right in that my statement is not about the generation of moral principles but rather in the idea that one should not ascribe a higher moral authority to the government, to the state, to the corporation, to a board of directors, or indeed to any man-made amalgamation of individual moral actors. Having numbers does not make them automatically more morally correct than an individual making a moral decision. (The critique of modern law as judicial shamanism, for instance, is a structural observation based upon how the ritual of law is constructed around making it appear more impressive, as if that spectacle makes it more morally correct.)

If we say that the state does not properly have the authority to tell you which god to worship, then I take a half-step further and posit that neither does it have the right to dictate your ideals, to tell you good or evil. Of necessity, it makes purely practical judgements like, “People are not permitted to steal things or we will lock them up,” which are to some degree useful for the functioning of society, but we should not confuse them with moral judgements.

Peter also says,

We simply try to muddle through, creating the best world we can — deploying not principles, but what Charles Taylor called “inspired adhoccery.”

I would restate Peter’s “ad hoc” statements thus: there exists a moral axis and a pragmatic axis, and as moral agents we are perpetually brokering an uneasy peace between the two. To be perfectly moral would require infinite resources, or at least the ability to act as if there were infinite resources – a disregard for the pragmatic side of things. To be perfectly pragmatic would require infinite moral flexibility, or effectively an outright lack of morality.  (This level of abstraction, incidentally, derives from the “postmodern” half of my explanation of my stance as “postmodernist-existentialist.”  Peter notes correctly that I differ from Sartre in at least one significant place despite calling my reasoning existentialist.  I believe even Sartre used meta-level principles for moral reasoning in No Exit, but that is a discussion for another time.) I submit that to not perfectly cleave to abstract principles is a different order of things from never attempting to stick to principles in the first place.  That, I believe, is where the real danger of doing what is most comfortable rather than what is moral lies.  Call it a throwback to my days in science: that which is never measured is never properly observed, and that which is not observed, we cannot really make clear statements about. How can you monitor your own moral progress without having some kind of measure?

In the end I suspect my differences with Noah might be theological more than descriptive: is there such a thing as morality, independent of social feedback and pragmatic goals? I say yes, as long as we believe and set it apart; law, for instance, is not morality. Noah, if I read him correctly above, says no. If you don’t allow that morality exists as a separate conceptual thing, then perhaps the distinctions I am drawing become meaningless.

I believe they have meaning, though.

Absent moral reasoning

CNNGo recently looked for writers.  I happened to look at the call for applicants, and I recall that it was formidable.  “Professionals only,” they insisted, “with years of prior work experience and a strong grounding in the nuances of the local language.”  Lists of specific proficiencies followed.  Perhaps CNN staff were so enamored of their lists that they forgot to check for basic writing ability.

If true, that would go a long way toward explaining this Richard Smart article on a proposed manga censorship policy. Using such wonderfully precise phrases as “needs to be fixed right way up” and “Seem obvious? It should do,” it is a study in how not to write an editorial.

The essence of Smart’s article can be found in a quote he takes from Simon Scott, and his reaction to it:

“Japan’s new law, insofar as it strives to regulate more than just the surface images to look at the overall theme of the story, suggests that the country is moving in a Western direction.”

This is a good thing, particularly with regard to child pornography.

A reader would normally expect further explanation by Smart here, or a justification for the general statement that Japan becoming more like the West is a good thing. But such trifles are beyond Richard Smart – he moves directly on to quoting other sources and describing other things happening, without even a hint of justification for the sweeping statement he has just dropped.

Do you know a bad idea when you see one?


Miyazaki the Luddite

R. Kelts ruminates on a Miyazaki quote:

All of our young people today derive their pleasure, entertainment, communication and information from virtual worlds. And all of those worlds have one thing in common: They’re making young Japanese weak.

Appropriately enough, I found this through Mr. Kelts’s Twitter feed.


It’s interesting how with each wave of human innovation, moralists decry it as somehow alienating humanity from its purity or strength.  I’m sure if I dug around, I could find a quote from the Luddites addressing the cotton gin or the tools of the early Industrial Revolution the same way.

In any case, as Richard Feynman was fond of saying, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”  How is it, then, that Miyazaki accuses these successful technologies of alienating man from nature?  More precisely, what was essentially “natural” about face-to-face human relations to begin with?

Miyazaki is truly great as an animator and creator, but this reactionary statement is reminiscent of Pentti Linkola (“Everything we have developed over the last 100 years should be destroyed.”)  Here Miyazaki sounds more like a reactionary radical than an entertainment guru or visionary.