Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The internet, philosophy, and the future

What follows is a series of interconnected facts, observations, and extemporaneous thoughts about the long-term future and the internet's place in it all.  Heroes will be touted, villains exposed, internet culture analyzed, large-scaled trends identified, and what have you.  It's gonna be fun, because integration is fun. :-)

Where to begin . . . I'll start out with Noam Chomsky, who co-authored (with Edward S. Herman - I've never heard of him, either) his most well-known work, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988).  Since that time - particularly since the early-to-mid-1990s - Chomsky's analysis has become less and less applicable to the mass media as they have evolved since that time.  The principal and most revolutionary mass medium to emerge in that time is, of course, the internet (a series of tubes; A.K.A. the internets).  I needn't go into the transformational effects of this medium on our culture just so far, even without the culture-wide recognition of philosophy as the prime mover of cultural and historical evolution; suffice to say it has been a game-changer in the mass-media dynamic.

The primary benefits of the internet have included: a decentralizing of information command-and-control; vastly increased user-control over the content they are exposed to (there are downsides to this in the epistemic-closure department...); vastly enhanced interconnection of people and integration of information and knowledge; vastly enhanced information search along with vastly enhanced ease and speed of access.  Those are at least some benefits that come to mind off the top of my head.  The convergence of forces to which all this will lead is inevitable and will be the primary driver of what I and some others term the approaching Cultural Singularity.  This Singularity is driven by advances in technological infrastructure (which ties into the Technological Singularity on the horizon that Ray Kurzweil, Stanley Kubrick (way back in the '60s!), and others have been talking about) and the social-media-generated power of memes (ideas) to alter the intellectual and cultural discourse in major and often unpredictable ways.  Chomsky himself recognized the new power of social media in the wake of the Occupy movement.

What has yet to be figured out by the vast majority of people - if they had figured it out already I wouldn't be needing to type any of this stuff - is that in terms of ideas and memes, philosophy is the prime mover.

(If you're too lazy or proudly ignorant to click on and read the links I provide for your edification, this is probably not the blog for you.  Go fucking read what Rand said about philosophy, which serves as part of the background for what I say here.  That's what internet links are for, goddammit: to integrate seemingly disparate collections of information and knowledge that much more quickly and efficiently.  Hell, you could read through the entirety of this blog and pretty much have all this shit figured out as much as I do; I'm not that special.  Now Aristotle and Rand: they were truly special, way ahead of their times.  The whole point is for everyone to become that special as a social norm, beginning with a program of education formulated in great part already by ancient visionaries like Plato and Aristotle.)

Now, what is some prima facie evidence readily available to today's internet user of philosophy's fundamental importance?  I'll mark as Exhibit A the Getting to Philosophy phenomenon on wikipedia.  A number of people who have learned about this phenomenon have gone, "whoa," like it was something out of left field or what have you.

I have to digress at this point and talk a little bit about wikipedia's main founder, Jimmy Wales ("Jimbo" to a number of long-time internet acquaintances and students of Objectivism).  For those of us old enough to remember these things, there was some webpage way back when, probably 15 years ago now, where prominent students of Objectivism described how they got into Rand.  Jimbo describes how he encountered a copy (non-digital, of course) of The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z (1986, compiled and edited by Harry Binswanger), and never turned back.  Would that it were so for everyone....

A little digression-within-a-digression: Students of Peikoff's lecture courses, especially Understanding Objectivism, but also such courses as the Advanced OPAR Seminars and The Art of Thinking, have "never come back" from Objectivism as a way of thinking and living.  A curious mind - and any aspiring author who wants to conduct a serious study of Objectivism - will want to know why that is so.  Well, click on that link there a few lines above and find out for yourselves for only a few bucks.  Serious students of Objectivism used to have to shell out hundreds of bucks for this stuff and, again, never looked back.  (Digression-within-digression-within-digression: The reason that you will not see any serious and credible book criticizing Objectivism in the future - ever - is that material such as Peikoff's lecture courses, not to mention the growing academic secondary literature on Objectivism, will have to serve as research material for any serious, honest, credible, and competent commentary on Rand and Objectivism.  Given how inexpensively all this material is available for now, there are no excuses for students, researchers and authors not to listen to and absorb this material - to actually understand Objectivism as Objectivism's founder herself did.  And they all will find that - as a variety of cognitive and ethical perfectivism - Objectivism is, like an axiom, as irrefutable as any (dynamic) Aristotelianism on the world-historical scene.  This is why selectively-reality-oriented scumbags like Leiter and his vile little cronies are fucked right in the reputational poopchute unless they mend their ways.  That's just the way it is; don't shoot the quasi-anonymous cuss-word-slinging messenger, now [you FUCKS].  (Digression-thrice-removed: My word search counts 94 instances of the f-word on the front page of this blog going back to Nov. 24.  Only 94???  I shall redouble my efforts!  Walter didn't watch his buddies die face down in the muck so that these fucks could waltz around the internet spreading their anti-Aristotelian hate.  95 "fucks" now.  96.))

Back to Jimbo: The method to the madness that went into creating the Lexicon is nothing new to serious long-time students of Objectivism: integration.  With that, there is a recognized hierarchy of knowledge   (a topic covered indepth in Understanding Objectivism and discussed in a segment of Chapter 4 of OPAR).  On top of this I'll make the observation that key concepts of methodology in Objectivism - integration, hierarchy, context, induction - are elements of a phenomenon known in more traditional terms as encyclopedic learning.  (I call it perfective learning.)  If you haven't drawn the connections already: Jimbo, an encyclopedic learner, found quite a home in the Lexicon, and later went on to found the leading encyclopedia on the internet, in which a "Getting to Philosophy" phenomenon is observed to be the norm, which is due unavoidably to the hierarchy of human knowledge.  Do you think this is all some kind of accident?  For some of us - especially those of us well-versed in the Randian Arts - this is all a no-brainer to figure out and comes as no surprise at all.  Philosophy is the most fundamental discipline with respect to the hierarchy of knowledge, the term-setter for all other fields of study, the integrator and uniter of all the disciplines, the primary, the fountainhead.  As Miss Rand puts it on p. 74 of ITOE:
If it should be asked, at this point: Who, then, is to keep order in the organization of man's conceptual vocabulary, suggest the changes or expansions of definitions, formulate the principles of cognition and the criteria of science, protect the objectivity of methods and of communications within and among the special sciences, and provide the guidelines for the integration of man's knowledge? -- the answer is: philosophy.  These, precisely, are the tasks of epistemology.  The highest responsibility of philosophers is to serve as the guardians and integrators of human knowledge.
(Question: why doesn't this appear in the Lexicon under the Philosophy entry?  Evidently the Lexicon needs further perfecting!)

To this I'll add the observation that Jimbo has advanced the cause of objective integration of human knowledge quite admirably; it helps to have a good philosophy informing one's habits and decisions, dunnit?  It's also an incontrovertible fact that Jimbo is perfectly normal - not some brain-numbed cultist the Leiters of the world wished would define Rand's avid readership - and a highly successful leader in business and culture.  He's the kind of person that the New Society of Reason can and ought to be modeled upon; all it takes is a sensible, not-excruciatingly-difficult-to-implement program of citizen education.


[As I'm a little tired now, I'll finish this posting later; I've given the curious and observant reader enough to chew on as it is, and all beyond any shadow of dispute at that.  And, yes, /r/philosophy (and, by implication, the contemporary Philosophy Profession) will be getting the Wednesday ass-fucking it's been begging for. :-D ]

To continue:

In The Psychology of Self-Esteem (1969), Nathaniel Branden wrote:

A man of self-esteem and sovereign consciousness deals with reality, with nature, with an objective universe of facts; he holds his mind as his tool of survival and develops his ability to think.  But the pscyho-epistemological dependent lives not in a universe of facts, but in a universe of people; people, not facts, are his reality; people, not reason, are his tool of survival.  It is on them that his consciousness must focus; reality is reality-as-perceived-by-them; it is they who he must understand or please or placate or deceive or maneuver or manipulate or obey.  It is his success at this task that becomes the gauge of his efficacy - of his competence at living. ... The temporary dimunition of his anxiety, which the approval of others offers him, is his substitute for self-esteem.  This is the phenomenon that I designate as "Social Metaphysics." ... Social metaphysics is the psychological syndrome that characterizes a person who holds the minds of other men, not objective reality, as his ultimate psycho-epistemological frame of reference.  (Mass-market paperpack, p. 179-80; original Branden article, "Social Metaphysics," appeared in the Nov. 1962 *Objectivist Newsletter*.)

So what does this have to do with anything I've been talking about?  Well, since every cognitive unit is interconnected with every other one: everything, of course.  Social metaphysics pervades - sometimes subtly, sometimes quite openly - so many aspects of human societies today that it would make Socrates and Aristotle fucking puke given the millennia humans have had to get their act together since their time.  What is even worse, even more disgusting, even more disgraceful, is when social metaphysics infiltrates and corrupts the world of philosophy.  Reddit's /r/philosophy subreddit is a microcosm of this deplorable phenomenon.

In the emerging age of social media, there are tools that people need in order to hone in on their likes and filter out their dislikes.  The Facebook "like" button is one such thing.  It aids people in organizing their mental and online content.  This sounds really nice in theory, but in practice - and when it comes to philosophy above all - no panacea has been achieved and none will be achieved given prevailing social-media formats.

The feature on reddit whereby users anonymously and unaccountably vote up or vote down content is the Achilles Heel of /r/philosophy.  It utterly destroys any defensible pretense to fairness, honesty, objectivity and related values.  The very notion that philosophical discourse should be subject to the mob-rule of such an upvote/downvote format is obscene.  It doesn't even matter what the popular prevailing views are, be it capitalism or be it socialism, eudaimonism or utilitarianism, Aristotelianism or Zizekism.  The inescable fact is that when philosophical discourse (i.e., the appearance of such) operates in effect under mob-rule (also known as "the hivemind" [cringe]), the very integrity of the discourse is shat all upon.  This is social metaphysics in a most ugly manifestation; what receives readership and attention is what is popular, not necessarily (and usually not) what is right.  There is one word eminently applicable to this phenomenon: evil, i.e., opposed to the requirements of successful human living.

Social media sites are crucial to the future flowering of culture and society, via the propagation of memes that survive or perish in the marketplace of ideas.  Reddit is today's leading example of such a social medium, in terms of subscribership and exposure.  Given the cultural primacy of philosophy, /r/philosophy becomes a particularly crucial focal point (at least for the moment...) in this context.  Its number of subscribers recently surpassed the 100,000 mark - almost surely far exceeding any other philosophy forums on the internet.  Users who go to /r/philosophy seeking wisdom have a reasonable presumption that what they are exposed to reflects the integrity of philosophical discourse.  If it fails to reflect this, then this constitutes an unnecessary, tragic and unconscionable stunting and delaying of intellectual - and therefore cultural - progress.

As it happens - and probably not all that coincidentally - Ayn Rand and Objectivism are unpopular on reddit.  The usership there is well-known to be left-leaning.  Left-leaningness isn't a particularly troubling thing in itself; as long as people have a means of expressing their ideas on a level field of play, the better ideas have at least a chance to win out.  What destroys reddit as a propagator of true and rational intellectual memes is a leftward bias - a widely-enacted cognitive vice that has the effect of creating an atmosphere of epistemic closure.  For those of you who make fun of today's Right for its epistemic-closure tendencies, I submit that you haven't seen nothin' yet until you see the left-biased vileness that prevails on reddit's social-metaphysical/mob-rule discussion platform.  For those of you who think that closed-mindedness, willful ignorance and similar cognitive vices are exclusive or near-exclusive provinces of the Right, the Left is at least as capable of such.  What's so galling about this is the hypocrisy of it, seeing as how those on the Left tend to pride themselves so much on being fair and open-minded.  And it even goes all the way to the highest levels - university philosophy departments, academic "philosophy" blogs, etc. - and it is, at root, why so many people out in the real world don't take the academy seriously.

(I'll make this observation: left-liberals seem to be quite a bit better at being intellectually conscientious.  It is leftists - the kind of people who are attracted first and foremost to Marxism, and who in scary unison hysterically and ignorantly hate capitalism - that seem to behave in the scummiest ways and encourage similar behavior among their fellow leftists.  Not truth-seeking but politics seems to be a primary motivator of their M.O.  A further observation: these leftist scum seem to find a particular affinity with post-modernism and its countless post- offshoots.  Not even this stuff is taken seriously in the vast majority of university philosophy departments, and yet it does find its way into other departments of the Humanities, where leftist scum run rampant and ignorantly hate capitalism as if out of instinct.  Fuck 'em!  They richly deserve to be the first departments to have their funding cut in university-downsizing processes.)

Back to Rand and Objectivism, and their unpopularity on reddit.  The arbitrary, anonymous-cowardly downvoting of pro-Rand comments and threads on /r/philosophy is bad enough, before we even get to the issue of their not even understanding Objectivism.  People who understand Objectivism tend to overlap quite well with those who are familiar with Peikoff's lecture courses.  This doesn't register with the anonymous cowardly downvoters; what seems of central importance for these entities is that Rand advocated capitalism - and, as such, all manner of scummy behavior and injustice is permissible in their minds in order to stifle serious and honest debate about her ideas.  This phenomenon is quite wholly independent of who it is that advances pro-Rand arguments there, how nicely they advance them, how popular or unpopular they are, or how well-reasoned their arguments are.  No; this pathology goes deeper than that, and it's all-pervasive on reddit: the behavior is just as bad if not worse on /r/politics.  But any of this shit in /r/philosophy is already well beyond the pale by definition for reasons I gave above, which makes it oodles more pathological in a philosophy forum than anywhere else.  These people are in the wrong or in a state of ignorance and yet no effective mechanism exists for those who actually understand Objectivism to correct them with as much exposure to readers/subscribers as the Rand-hating comments have.  I mean, this situation - just like the unconscionable and indefensible Drug War - is fucking ridiculous.

A great part of reddit's usership is young people, many of them college-age.  Many of them come onto reddit thinking that social-metaphysical mob-rule is acceptable if not the norm.  How do so many young people come to absorb and adopt such a mentality?  Moreover, how do college-age people come to accept it?  Shouldn't higher standards of behavior be inculcated in them, if not from an early age, then at least by the time they are in college?  Are their professors - most importantly, the philosophy professors - doing much if anything to encourage cognitive virtue and discourage cognitive vice, so that they can understand this social-metaphysical epistemic chaos and insanity for what it is?  And why does Ayn Rand, in particular, elicit the worst of such pathologies?

I think these questions pretty much answer themselves at this point, no?  Individualism - i.e., intellectual, moral, and political independence - is all but ignored in the academic mainstream, after all.

What the various parties involved here need to do, as expeditiously as possible, is to get their fucking act together.  If they so much as neglect to dialogue with leading adherents of unpopular viewpoints, their long-term credibility is shot.  They will be seen as obstacles to, and not advocates of, a cultural renaissance in which all ideas are debated out in the open on a level field of play.  Aristotle wouldn't accept anything less.

I'd like to make a constructive recommendation here, one that would alleviate some of this pathology, and that is for reddit to adopt a format, for its intellectually-most-important subreddits, similar to that of Usenet.  Back in the days of Usenet, evasion and cowardice just did not and could not thrive, given the ways in which the format encouraged openness and accountability.  This is not to say that Usenet did not have its downsides, but they were quite manageable and tolerable in comparison to anonymous social-metaphysical cowards destroying the integrity of discourse by burying comments and threads they didn't like.  In my experience, the Usenet group humanities.philosophy.objectivism embodied pretty much what internet discourse could and should be (at least given certain unfortunate imperfections at the time in the way people conducted themselves).  Since that time (the 1990s), the format of internet discourse has arguably devolved, fracturing into scattered web-based forums and eventuating in such realms of social "discourse" as Twitter and the dead-end format (for integral intellectual discourse, that is) that is currently reddit's.  On h.p.o., a moderator had the job of doing very light patrolling, primarily for spam; otherwise, people could say whatever the hell they wanted with the only repercussion being that they might end up in someone else's killfile-filter.  (Is there any fucking reason such a filter-mechanism couldn't be made available to reddit users, in place of an unaccountable, social-metaphysical upvote/downvote feature?)  I would not be surprised if, in its heyday - the late '90s, roughly - h.p.o. was home to the highest-caliber discussion on Usenet.  That shit just kinda naturally happens when perfectivist philosophy is the subject of the forum, and especially when the forum participants understand said philosophy (as opposed to parroting what malicious third-rate hit-piece writers on scummy leftist websites assert about Rand and her ideas, and getting upvoted into greater reader-visibility for doing so).

Whatever it is, /r/philosophy is not philosophy in a truly integral sense of that term, just as being selectively reality-oriented does not make a person integrally virtuous in character.  It is a bastardization of philosophy, a form of false advertising.  It is manifestly and (because readily avoidable) unconscionably pathological.  Evasion of this problem by the relevant actors can and will (of course!) only exacerbate the problem.

As I'm not here to do your thinking for you, I'll leave it to you, reader, to tie all these points together and act accordingly.  I've got other shit to do, after all.  (103 days and counting down till the shit hits the fan, or intellectual and cultural renaissance is underway....)