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.

Wield your Klout

Apparently my Klout score is higher than Craig Venter’s.  That’s hilarious.

Fear my arbitrarily high numbers!

Fear my arbitrarily high numbers!

On a more serious note, this is always the problem society faces: how do we rank people? We’ve moved past concepts of inherited nobility and so forth, but this just means we’ve adopted new metrics.  GPA, college admissions test scores, GREs, and everything all boil down to the excuse of having a numerical reason people can point to to justify their decisions to accept or reject.
You are not your bank account. You are not the clothes you wear. You are not the contents of your wallet.”  And no, neither are you your test performance or Klout score.
But for 90% of your daily interactions, you might as well be.
Published in: on April 30, 2012 at 10:41 PM  Comments (3)  
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You May Be A Bad Person, But Not For These Reasons

I arrive at the same conclusions as White Coat Underground.  Female contraception is important and should be covered as part of basic health care.  However – importantly – this is not because I feel that any political opinions with irreconcilable differences are somehow inherently invalid. WCU discounting the legitimacy of opposed political arguments seems far too over-zealous, to the point of actually being inaccurate.

The political is odd, in that it seems patently fringe . . . If the argument is, ‘don’t use my taxes for stuff I don’t like,’ then what they really are saying is, ‘taxation is illegitimate.’

No doubt some people really feel that way, but at a more moderate level, that argument is actually perfectly valid. The essential point of any representative government is that we agree to pool our resources for expenditures we cannot individually meet. The US goes further and allows people to designate where their tax dollars go. There is nothing “fringe” about someone accustomed to this wanting their money going to uses they approve of. WCU would probably not object to someone protesting that their tax dollars, in the Kissinger years, went to funding some third-world dictator; the core idea that we are on some level responsible for what our tax dollars do is the same.  We must allow that conservatives as well as liberals may feel guilt over what their dollars do.


Lean on Reason

Geoffrey Lean has won awards as a journalist. These are not inconsiderable awards, and between them and his record as an investigative journalist, one might imagine that he would appreciate the value of evidence in driving conclusions.

This makes his weak conclusion to his article on future nuclear policy all the more disappointing.

But, equally, the huge disruption that a disaster can cause, as reactors are subsequently closed for safety checks and new ones delayed, and the anti-nuclear revolt that inevitably ensues, make it unwise to become too dependent on nuclear power. Instead of falling in and out of love with the atom, as we regularly do, we need a more sensible, watchful, relationship.

Come again? We have to be wary of nuclear power, because historically, a fraction of the public is wary of nuclear power? That can’t possibly be a valid reason. Large swathes of the population have been afraid of things in the past. They got better.  When the automobile was invented, a great many people believed that the human body would disintegrate if subjected to speeds greater than 30 miles per hour.  Physics education was, obviously, not mandatory then: we now routinely drive at over 60 miles per hour, and it is to be hoped that most adults will now recognize that it is acceleration which places stress on the body, not speed.

Irrational fear of nuclear energy is not some immutable truth of human nature.  If people are educated about the basics of nuclear physics, they will stop reacting with mass hysteria every time nuclear power is in the news, and start making reasoned decisions about how much nuclear power they want in their society.

Isn’t that the goal of democracy?

Without breasts, there is no paradise

What sounds like a line of propaganda from the Oppai Taisen is actually the title of a multimillion-dollar production at an international media conglomerate.

Despite the hilarity of the title, Without Breasts There Is No Paradise tells some very sad stories.

Gustavo Bolívar Moreno says the story is based on real-life conditions facing child prostitutes in the town of Pereira. There he met two girls who were desperate for silicone breasts. One told him that she got her operation for free in exchange for sex. Unfortunately, the doctor used a pair of used implants, which led to allergic reactions and infection.

It makes me wonder: why is it that a crass, throwaway Penny Arcade joke causes all kinds of furor and outrage from new-wave feminists, but not something like this? For crying out loud, this depicts a place where it is culturally normative for women to seek breast implants so that they can have a shot at being the sex slaves of the local warlord. It describes a world where a girl’s highest aspiration, growing up, is to one day sell her body to have a shot at the big time.

This causes less outcry amongst new-wave femnists than a patently absurd joke about fictional “dickwolves,” which don’t exist, and which don’t target women anyway?

First they came for the dickwolves . . . – ANNZac

You know, maybe this is yet another example of the unreal being more important than the real. We have reached a point in society where the plight of actual people means less to us than nourishing our instinctive moral panic, and affirming our own reactions as dictated by society, because we are so preoccupied with our own minds.

Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 3:55 PM  Comments (5)  
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