Like it means something

File:Facebook like thumb.pngJames Gleick’s The Information starts with a simultaneous appearance in 1948, both of the first transistor and the first scientific discussions of ‘the bit’ as a fundamental unit of measurement. Overall, the book tells the story of how those two technologies — the engineering breakthrough contained in that now-ubiquitous miniaturized form of digital storage and the scientific paradigm shift of that now-universal way of measuring just what is being stored — conspired together to transform our experience of the world. His intention is to recapture some of the credit for the massive social upheavals occasioned by the digital revolution on behalf of ideas: not to reject the importance of the technical knowledge that allows us to build resistors, but to make room as well in the historical account for the radical shift in theoretical knowledge that renders it even sensible to imagine DNA as speech, tennis scores as music or an image as a coded message. Thinking about how to get more conversations over the same phone line, or how to ensure a message has been received correctly, or how to fit more patient data into a smaller space, or how to make a recorded song sound more like the original, will in each case require some metric of how much of the thing you have. We ended up in a world where we not only came up with measurements for each case, but the same measurement for every one. Here’s Gleick on how big a change that represented:

For the purposes of science, information had to mean something special. Three centuries earlier, the new discipline of physics could not proceed until Isaac Newton appropriated words that were ancient and vague — force, mass, motion, and even time — and gave them new meanings. Newton made these terms into quantities, suitable for use in mathematical formulas. Until then, motion (for example) had been just as soft and inclusive a term as information. For Aristotelians, motion covered a far-flung family of phenomena: a peach ripening, a stone falling, a child growing, a body decaying. That was too rich. Most varieties of motion had to be tossed out before Newton’s laws could apply and the Scientific Revolution could succeed.

In my own work, trying to capture how policy makers and the state imagine capital (including in my recent rambling thoughts on the subject) I wrestle a lot with a similar set of transformations that occurred in the birth of finance as a discrete field. I just took a three day seminar on the history of financial crises and no one but seemed to think it much mattered that ‘finance’ didn’t exist as a coherent object of reference until the 20th century, and lacked much of its current valence until the 1970s. Finance was a word that meant the means or capacity to pay one’s debts, and by the late 19th century, also came to refer to careful thinking about income and expenses. There was banking (and banking failures), money (and currency crises), public finance (and power and territory reordered in the service of paying off royal debts). But when the word gets used today, it can’t be disentangled from images of the Wolves of Wall Street, can’t help but act as mediator between the interest rates set by the Fed and the dividends paid out by Apple (on which, see JW Mason’s solid analysis), can’t escape from a seemingly natural home in ‘the markets.’

For those in the know, the constitution of finance inevitably depends, in some inchoate way, on the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision; for those who don’t, the Basel Committee is just one part of an arcane object, or one location in a country lying beyond the economic frontier, necessary but dangerous, complicated and obscure, wild but tamable for those who have the right kind of knowledge. But that obscurity results partially from a gradual expansion of referents over the last 200 years, from a term with a narrow meaning little differentiable from ‘bookkeeping,’ to a bloated pastiche that includes practices which used to be derided as immoral ‘speculation,’ sold as ‘insurance’, offered as opportunities for ‘investment’, or understood as ‘depositing money in a bank.’

But it occurred to me today that the transformation of the world hand in hand with the transformation of the word is not always a process that’s driven by the search for ordered, scientific clarity.

Consider, for example, that for the generation born after 1998, there will never be a world without a ‘like’ button. In the interaction with facebook, ‘like’, as verb, takes on an active, social sense slightly askew from its prior usages. When I was 15 years old, liking Radiohead meant I possessed a preference that was stationary, inert and internal, ready to be dragooned into action only once I was forced to choose between alternatives, a thing I might take out to to show a potential friend or choose to keep to myself, a feeling that related me as much to myself as to a network of my teenage classmates. To like something in the facebook era by contrast not only to have something, but is in the stronger sense to act. It is is to make a mark in the world. ‘To like’ becomes not only to possess an internal orientation — a feeling or an affect or an emotion — but to engage in a form of communication, one directed to a crowd of friends and acquaintances, plus a less-than-predictable network of relations of relations. In being inseparable from this act of communication, ‘to like’ something in this way leaves behind the world of private preferences, secret pleasures, silent joys.

The meaning of words lies not only in their use but in the networks of incoherent, sometimes contradictory meanings they are used to express. Words divide up the world into manageable categories, leaving certain senses behind even as they pick up new ones, picking up certain meanings and abandoning others. Perhaps the current generation will never use ‘like’ in ways  that are noticeably different from how I do. But it is one possible future of the word, and of the world. To finance is no longer limited to its original sense in English of paying a ransom to release a prisoner. Nor is liking something bound to have quite the same freight, or carry quite the same information, as when we were young.

Do not listen to me

So it turns out that experts are terrible at what they do. At least, if the expert who stars in this CBC documentary (profiled here in the Toronto Star) is to be believed. Science gets debunked; economic predictions are little better than chance; wine experts are worse than amateurs under controlled conditions.

Well, okay. But let’s not take this too far. When you hire a plumber, they will actually be better at fixing a toilet than a chimp holding a wrench. It is possible to be better at some things, to build a repertoire. And the documentary points out that, ironically, Environment Canada is actually pretty good at predicting weather probabilities (though not actually the weather). I would say that the documentary itself probably isn’t worth watching. It seems pretty smug, which violates the one rule that it proposes about expert advice: if you have to rely on an expert, there are ones you can trust.

The one who seems uncertain but offers ideas on how you can think about something. He’s not promising to save you but has five things that might help.

That’s certainly one way to think of it, but on the other hand…

how I spent my weekend

This weekend’s balmy Montréal weather provided me ample indoor time to consider the question of what’s wrong with political discourse these days. I’ve been sussing out a research project with a doctoral candidate in Communications Studies [ footnote: the more you learn about the important issues in modern politics, the more you realize that political scientists are the least likely to be studying those issues]. I’m interested in whether there is a problem with the way that politicians communicate to the Canadian public, how they are abetted by a (corporatized) press, and how one can do something about the register of political discourse without directly trying to regulate politicians or the press directly.

What’s the issue? The nature of the problem may strike a chord of ‘obvious,’ but I found clearly articulating the relevant shortcomings to be an incredibly difficult task. I think it’s best illustrated through the example I’ve had in mind while working through these issues, which concerns the uses and abuses of the ‘tough on crime’ discourse.

There is good evidence that being ‘tough on crime’, if what one cares about is reduced criminality and improved public safety, is very different from being ‘tough on criminals’, which focuses on the application of ‘appropriate’ punishment. Within limits, the Harper government’s gamut of strategies – higher incarceration rates, longer sentences, mandatory minimums, reduced bail opportunities – has little impact on crime rates. One could just as (or more) easily use ‘tough on crime’ language to refer to strategies effective in reducing criminality and recidivism, and thereby improving community safety: e.g. reducing poverty rates, focusing on community reintegration, promoting social inclusion.

Like ‘tough on stains’, a ‘tough on crime’ discourse conflates intimations of brusque treatment and an intention to rub out the underlying phenomena. There is nothing a priori inaccurate about using the phrase to refer only to retroactive condemnation of criminality; yet no washing liquid, no matter how caustic, could claim to be ‘tough on stains’ unless it effectively reduced the sign of such stains.

In saying they are ‘tough on crime’, the Harper government attempts to cover the field. The language they use implies both approbation and activism, painting the opposition as indolent and inattentive. The Canadian press in turn does a poor job of challenging those using ‘tough on crime’ language, or of critiquing its use by placing it in the context of either criminology research and discussion of criminal justice ethics. The result is occlusion of a debate about whether we should value criminal policy which gives victims justice by appropriately punishing perpetrators or social policy likely to reduce the number of victims.

Shouldn’t politicians interested in good policy want to speak with nuance, depth and complexity about their proposals, their likely outcomes and the values represented in those choices? They might but, when one faces a press without the time, effort or energy to report on those nuances, the politician likely to grab the headline is the one who speaks in headlines. In part, Harper’s government speaks in ‘tough on crime’ language because the press is willing to report it that way.

My thinking is that we need ways of having the real debates which sidesteps the evasions perpetrated by the political class and facilitated by the press. Here’s the conclusion from the first draft of the proposal, which gives a sense of my intuition:

…the promotion of public knowledge is the most, if not the only, effective method of intervening in the toxic relationship which currently exists between politicians and the press. Without public knowledge and support for it, the idea of democracy becomes a perversion, where the public is forced, essentially, to guess about whether their representatives have done a good job. At the extreme, the absence of public knowledge turns representative democracy into a farce. The goal is not to get politicians to speak in full sentences and explain everything they do to the public. The goal is to give the public meaningful access to the diversity of questions that can be asked, the answers that might be given and the impact of making those choices, when they are making political contributions to the design of public life. Worrying about politicians puts the cart before the horse.

, no matter how caustic,