Thought Germs, Filter Bubbles, and Virality

Sunday night, a friend and I ended up talking about the trolley problem, a thought experiment by Philippa Foot that aims at the  differences that minor changes can make in our moral calculations. While the problem itself is interesting, it mainly launched us toward a related topic: moral consensus and disagreement, i.e. what to do when what you think is “right” differs from what I think is “right.”

Though I didn’t mention it in the conversation, the debate brought me back to studying medical ethics, particularly the beliefs of Christian Science and Jehovah Witnesses. Christian Science says that diseases arise from sin and prayer provides the only solution. As one can expect, the reliance on spiritual healing does not always work, and in the case of children, the result can be tragic, with families getting prosecuted for child death. A similar death from belief occurs with Jehovah Witness, only by refusing blood transfusions instead of medicine at large.

Here, two things are particularly interesting. First, while many people will consider this a foolish, tragic loss of life, one must also consider it from their perspective: either a single, painful death or an eternity in damnation. From this belief system, the rejection of medicine is morally right. This does not condone the belief system, but only shows why the stakes are so high.

Second, many people may feel fine with letting the parent die from their beliefs, but the sticking point is the “innocent” child. In other words, you can lose your own life for your beliefs, but shouldn’t cost the lives of others. This fallout from belief challenges the libertarian bias that many Americans may feel: we are not as autonomous as we like to think and our beliefs affect our society and those around us.

These two elements–the persistence of radically different views and their affect on others–force one to examine the role of belief and the mechanisms of belief as a moral and ethical issue. In a sense it echoes Emmanuel Levinas: we are always in relation to one another and have a moral imperative to respect that relation.

Particularly, I want to consider the role of the Internet and Internet technology in this: how it might help and hinder the process of belief.

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Narrative Numbers

[T]hey fancied that they could detect in numbers, to a greater extent than in fire and earth and water, many analogues of what is and comes into being—such and such a property of number being justice, and such and such soul or mind , another opportunity , and similarly, more or less, with all the rest—and since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers, and since it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modeled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe.

-Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 1, 985b

Much of what interests me in data mapping and data extraction in light of network maps, concept modeling, vector space modelling, etc., is that they are not only methods, but also metaphysics.

Dealing with a corpus is a bit like the Pre-Socratics trying to find the underlying something that comprises reality.  The big ideas–or Big Idea–that connects or threads the works together. The corpus may have alcoves and pockets, islands and peninsulas, but unity and commonality exists. Patterns exist.

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Here be Networks

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what a map is. As a child, I loved treasure maps, drawing them on tea-stained, sepia-toned sheets of crinkled computer paper. In such maps, a trail meandered through fantastical landscapes populated motifs I gleaned from kids books and pirate stories, starting from an arbitrary place and ending on an ornate X.

“Here be dragons,” I wrote over some hills, not knowing the cartographic history of the term, when map makers slapped it on the page to mark the unknowns. Castles and giants, towns, and mysterious lagoons pockmarked page after page. Such maps had no correspondence to reality.

When I got a little older, I got more scientific. I buried boxes in the yard and mapped the terrain of trees and bushes to show where they were. In scouts, I used a compass and topographic map. Watching Discovery Channel with friends, I read weather maps, learning their shifting symbols of pressure topographies, wind speeds, and fronts. In video games and history books I mapped out terrains and countries, borderlands and battlefields–both “real” and imaginary. And in music, I traced out correspondences between piano keys, tones, scales, music notation, chord structures, and auditory landscapes–relying on ear or memory to get a sense for how a piece mapped out, how it layered and piled together in a shifting set of tonalities and rhythms, loosely laced with emotion and allusion.

In school and in play, maps have saturated much of my life. Some are clear geographies, others are fictions. Some are abstracted topographies and a spattering of symbols, meant to make meaning or filter out noise. Some–especially these days–are notes dashed on within-reach pads, “maps” of ideas made of messy lines and bubbles that may prove indecipherable after a few days.

Throughout this journey, though, maps have felt somewhat secondary. They are means or aids, not ends. But revisiting mapping in the reading this week, as a word and a practice, threw me straight back to those early years sitting out in my parent’s garden, using my knees as a makeshift desk, pencil in hand, pensively sketching one.

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When I first grew self-conscious that friends come and go–breakups, fights, forgotten phone calls a part of life–I found Nietzsche’s short aphorism in The Gay Science called “Star Friendship” helpful. In it, possibly alluding to his rift with Wagner, Nietzsche describes, “We were friends and have become estranged.” Even more, they are now “earth enemies.”

Yet, as Nietzsche also writes, “There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path — let us rise up to this thought! But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility.”

So it’s a question of scale. At the one level, chance meetings, fights, or enduring partnerships exist in a certain way. We experience and name them with a certain vocabulary. But further up, in some “invisible stellar orbit,” these connections gain a different timbre or pattern. Like looking at a character map of Middlemarch, certain once-tangled relationships and social shifts emerge  with network forces affecting broader social cohesion.

For example, a meeting may bring together two distinct groups that were independent before, forming a “huge component” to use the language of Easley and Kleinberg. Or, as Merton describes, the “Matthew effect” might shift the circulation of a text, with a well-known scientist getting more coverage than a newbie simply through his or her tug in a network.

And with current technology, both in terms of data mining and visualization, we can get a better sense of that “stellar” perspective. I think the question remains, however, with what to do with it and how we understand it. In particular, I think it should shift the way we look at agency, moving it from an egosystem to an ecosystem, i.e. thinking of ways that we fit into broader networks and can influence them in a networked way and not in a purely self-based way.

I guess a way you could phrase it is this: how much agency do I have as a node and a collection of nodes?

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