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Pity Poor Ptolemy

June 21st, 2013 by dk

Pity poor Ptolemy. He was on the wrong side of the angels back when people believed in angels. He was modernity’s first loser, even though it didn’t seem that way at the time. Copernicus and then Galileo reasoned that the earth might not be the center of the universe, as the Greek astronomer-philosopher supposed 1500 years earlier.

When scholars present ideas that diminish humanity’s stature, humans have not typically responded very charitably. Galileo’s stance got him branded as a heretic. He spent his later life under house arrest. The people sided with Ptolemy’s view that the earth is the center of the universe.

Then came Darwin, who posited that humans are part of a continuous chain of living beings on earth, not separated from creation around us. And now we have Edward Snowden (and Nate Silver and Jim Messina) pointing out the latest unpleasantry. Those who cherish their position at the center or the top are none too pleased.

Take Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker. Parker is concerned that she ogled a $2500 handbag over a year ago and the online merchant’s ads keep pushing that handbag onto her screen, as if the serpent now can dangle the apple at her over and over again. Everything Parker worries about is true, except for the serpent and the apple. Google doesn’t need or want to know it’s Parker at the keyboard — so long as it’s somebody like her.

Does her fear that we’re going to hell revive her lust for that handbag? We don’t know, and Google doesn’t care. Google uses what technicians call “fuzzy logic,” which sounds like an oxymoron.

Google’s fuzzy logic seeks only patterns, the same way grocery stores using frequent shopper cards do. Customers buying marshmallows and Graham crackers in the summertime often are interested in chocolate bars. If you buy diapers and Lysol, you might want to try Purell.

None of this requires knowing anyone’s name or address. The logic is embedded in the pattern, not the particulars. As Copernicus and Galileo retorted Ptolemy, you’re not the center of the universe. It’s not really about you.

And yet, here we are.

Computers analyze information differently than we do. Maybe not yet better, but certainly differently. Anthropomorphizing the tidal wave besetting us doesn’t help.

Our brains pursue precision to achieve accuracy. Computers can do that too, but they also can do the opposite. If a google search doesn’t locate the page you’re seeking, the best strategy often is to give the search engine less information, broadening its results. Since processing and memory capacity for computers is beginning to look endless, fuzzy logic promises to surpass whatever we’ve achieved with logical logic.

Author and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt lectured at the university earlier this month. He argued that language has been oversold as the innovation that allowed humans to dominate all other species. He claimed the evidence points beneath language to “shared intent.”

Language is not the cause of our social selves, but the effect. Once we could share what we learn (or what keeps us from learning), we leapt beyond all others. So now, with the Internet, we’ve connected all the computers, as if into one global society of super-brains. Can shared intent emerge from that network’s development? Or is that more anthropomorphizing?

Big Brother is beginning to look more like Creepy Uncle. He doesn’t have to read your diary. He can follow your friends on Twitter and Facebook, compare you with others your age, watch your public patterns, and learn all he wants to know.

What’s most unsettling is that there are no bad guys here — only people doing their jobs. IRS agents look for cheaters. Analysts write algorithms to identify evildoers. Drone operators follow orders to initiate signature strikes. Each feels pressure to do their jobs as efficiently as possible, because we, the taxpayers, demand it. The system itself is arranging the activities and incentives of its workers, based on our demands.

That efficiency has become the problem. The satirists at The Onion once proudly proclaimed, “Stereotypes are real time savers!” It’s true; they are. And we’re instructing computers to use them better than we ever have.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs….

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  • 1 clarachan777 Jul 5, 2013 at 2:07 pm