Tagged: ideas

To measure the policy positions of every single person

Earlier this month I wrote about the “Rule of Suspicion Algorithms” . Using computer expert systems in order to predict who is more or less likely to become a criminal or a political dissident is not so different from predicting peoples’ policy positions. Michael Laver, an authority on computer-aided quantitative content analysis in political science from New York University, is enthusiastic about the prospects that the large new data troves generated by users themselves hold for political science data analysis:

There is no reason, for example, why we should not set out to measure the policy positions of every single person who uses social media and, with appropriate modeling, to make inferences from these positions about people who do not use social media.

While this indeed is exciting, from a normative perspective concerned with the quality of democracy I’d like to add that it does matter whether such information is generated by academics in order to inform the academic debate and the wider public or if this information will only inform the few, such as security services and corporations. If information about the many is accessible to the many — in aggregated form — societies may reach a higher degree of self-understanding. This would be on the basis of symmetric information distribution. An asymmetric information distribution, on the other hand, would diminish the quality of democracy by granting a limited set of the population privileged access to information which offers them possibilities for manipulating opinion and perception — from the macro to the micro-scale.

How such kinds of information are used will likely become a defining feature of politics over the years to come.


„Intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.“

It’s been a while since a sentence has struck me with such insight. It instantaneously helped me to accept my predilections in a way that is expressible and intelligible and yet profound. I’ve been struggling with this issues for more than ten years by now. While its grip has loosened, this sentence, written by Susan Sontag more than 50 years ago, feels like it cut open the Gordian knot that has so long strangled the flow of my thoughts.

„You are far too analytic!“

I was 21, working in a care home for special needs children in England. She was working there, too. Perhaps two years younger than me. I adored her. „Far too analytic“. Me? She was probably right. I tried to impress and to bond with her by being witty and thoughtful and geekily funny and that’s what I got: „too analytic“. It didn’t sound loveable. As it turned out, she wasn’t that much into me, indeed.
As a good-bye present she gave me a collection of fragments from the Dalai Lama’s speeches. Buddhism.
I took that away: It’s not sexy to be analytic.

When I started uni I once again got thrilled by ideas. Sometimes, it got a bit much: During term paper weeks, my small talk got stiff. I felt helpless and uneasy. The rewards, however, outweighed these temporary bursts of nerdiness. The rewards came in grades, of course. But even more so, in thrill.

I was never so much into systematic inquiry. I was into ping pong, into compression and expansion. Thinking had to be dynamic: alive and always on the move, ready to change perspective. Conversation was a way of jointly exploring possibilities. With one of my best friends, I could be that way – without feeling overly analytic (I perhaps was, but it felt good.). That was one of the things I appreciated most in her.

I wasn’t so much into it for functional reasons.
I was driven by wanting to pursue something with a purpose. Yet, with readings accumulating, the more arbitrary such pursuit became. Towards the end of my studies, my taste in ideas had taken precedence over this yet existent but diffuse feeling of purpose. If intellectual curiosity had initially been fed by political ambition, by now curiosity had evolved into an appetite distinct yet not dependent on any specific diet.

I despised people of who I had the impression that they were just pursuing their academic careers, just assembling their arguments in order to drive forward the professed advance of reason. Reason, it seemed to me, could be inhuman. It could take hold of people, narrow their perspective and turn them into adjuncts of monstrous assemblies of technology, infrastructure and ideologies. Knowledge promises liberty — but it can also perpetuate slavery.
I felt like I had climbed a tower, only to look into the abyss.

The bureaucrats had taken ideas to build their fortresses. To perceive of ideas as being dense as stones — that was fetishism. You can’t play ping pong with stones. I didn’t want to become a bureaucratic fetishist.

A connoisseur, instead, does have a taste in ideas, he can discuss the merits of one idea over the other, but he will not forget, that what he seeks is pleasure.