A Saturday slalom through several strands

A few days ago, someone whose judgment I trust sent me a link to an Atlantic article. Since then many more have pointed me towards Ian Bogost’s piece, and I would strongly recommend you read it.

There are a number of points made by Ian, and it’s best you read them yourself. It deserves not to be summarised.

Any good article, book, work of art,  film, piece of music, makes one think. So it was with this article. The human tendency to conflate items linked by “metaphor” — our ability to imbue the “tenor” with all the attributes of the “vehicle” —  is something that has always puzzled me. When one considers the transient, temporal nature of what we use as metaphor, it puzzles me further, particularly in the algorithm-strewn world that he describes, partly related to what Eli Pariser covers in The Filter Bubble, and also partly to what Kevin Slavin covers in How Algorithms Shape Our World.

I must have been in my early teens when I first heard the phrase “seeing a reflection of the moon in the water and believing it to be the sun.” The person who said that to me said it in a zen-koan sort of way; later that day I mentioned it in passing in conversation with my father, and it set him off on one of his favourite topics. The only truth in a financial statement is the cash position. Everything else is some form of conventional representation.

It’s something that’s guided me ever since. As a young man, every time I looked at a car dashboard, I kept reminding myself that I wasn’t necessarily seeing the speed of the car or the amount of fuel remaining, just some representation of it: a representation that had capacity for error.

When it became fashionable for everything to have a dashboard, that safety-net of scepticism remained with me. As we entered an era where large organisations “spoke” in the language of “decks”, when Powerpoint and Excel began to rule, that scepticism grew more intensely.

The only truth in a financial statement is the cash position.

Let me give you an example of conflation truth and “conventional representation” in an unlikely context. DRS. The Umpire Decision Review System in cricket. The Indian team are notorious for refusing to support the system; I have much sympathy with their view. This, despite seeing the team disadvantaged by their stance on the subject, and despite a sense that they’ve not articulated their reasons well.

My disquiet began with a different sport. Tennis. And the use of tools like Hawk-Eye. A system that could “display a record of [the ball’s] statistically most likely path as a moving image.”

A-ha. A “statistically most likely path“. Not the path the ball actually took.

On the rare occasion I watch sport at home (usually at home and at unearthly hours), I tend to use the technique of rewind-then-replay-slowly whenever I wanted to review an incident. And when I do this, what I watch is a replay of the actual incident. Not a conventional representation, although the pedant will point out that even the images delivered to me were technically nothing more than conventional representations themselves.

The point is this: when we watch action-replays of activities like tennis where tools like Hawk-Eye are used, the “images” we see are driven by statistical models. That’s why we only see what appears to be the shadow of a ball against an artificial backdrop, rather than the actual movement of the ball itself.

I think that’s what perturbs the Indian cricketers. They don’t feel that the data underlying the projection models for ball flight and pitch behaviour reflect Indian spinners and conditions satisfactorily. In essence they think that the umpire is less likely to get it wrong. Time will tell whether they chose the “system” less prone to error, umpire or Hawk-Eye. Tendulkar suffered repeatedly in one of his last tours, where umpire was weaker than system. Rahane seemed to have a similar experience in the recently-concluded Test series in Australia. But I still think they’re right to question DRS in its current Hawk-Eye-only implementation.

I’m probably being heavily influenced by what I’m reading right now. Serendipitously, my current set includes:

  • The Order of Things: Michel Foucault
  • The Future Of The Past: Alexander Stille
  • Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America: Kenneth C Davis
  • Program or Be Programmed: Douglas Rushkoff

We live in an age where we use drones to kill people far far away; not that far removed from people being rightsized-by-spreadsheet, once you consider what’s truth and what could be sometimes erroneous, representation.

We live in an age where the Big-Endians of the CD world (16 bit, 44.1 kHz) now have to argue with the Little-Endians of the PonoMusic world (24 bit, 192 kHz) about their various Blefuscudian issues.

We live in an age of increasing automation, with concerns about how long it would be before the robots make us extinct. [An aside: I will know the robots are winning when, perversely, I see one lose. In a court of law. And be made to pay over money or transfer assets. That belong to no one but the robot.]

I’m still of the old-fashioned view that all technology is at the service of mankind; I guess, if pushed to answer, that I still believe in Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. For me, even when algorithms go wrong, there’s a human for someone to sue somewhere.

And so to my coda. Jerry’s Brain. Yes, of course it’s an artificial, conventional representation of something very human. I know Jerry, and he is a wonderful man. I’ve been intrigued by his brain for many years, and had the privilege to attend some of his fabulous Retreats. For some time now I’ve been exposed to his Brain, an extreme example of “conventional representation”. Fascinating, intriguing, a complex collection of links and connections and information. His Brain. Not his brain.

I’ve enjoyed visiting Jerry’s Brain. Now you can, too. It’s available in iTunes. It may also be available for Android, I confess I haven’t checked. When was the last time you entered someone else’s head?

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