Here are three disjoint thoughts, slightly too long for tweets/comments:
- Part of Lanier’s critique of Wikileaks works astonishingly well as a critique of Google’s Ngrams, too. (I’m working up a longer post on this.) In particular, I’m thinking of this observation:
A sufficiently copious flood of data creates an illusion of omniscience, and that illusion can make you stupid. Another way to put this is that a lot of information made available over the internet encourages players to think as if they had a God’s eye view, looking down on the whole system.
- I feel like we need a corollary to the Ad Hitlerem/Godwin’s Law fallacy. I’m going to call it “the Gandhi principle.” Just like trotting out the Hitler analogy for everything you disagree with shuts down a conversation by overkill, so do comparisons with Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Jesus, and other secular and not-so-secular activist saints.
We’ve canonized these guys, to the point where 1) we think they did everything themselves, 2) they never used different strategies, 3) they never made mistakes, and 4) disagreeing with them then or now violates a deep moral law.
More importantly, in comparison, every other kind of activism is destined to fall short. Lanier’s essay, like Malcolm Gladwell’s earlier essay on digital activism, violates the Gandhi principle. (Hmm, maybe this should be the No-Gandhi Principle. Or it doesn’t violate the Gandhi Principle, but invokes it. Which is usually a bad thing. Still sorting this part out.) The point is, both Ad Hitlerem and the Gandhi Principle opt for terminal purity over differential diagnosis. If you’re not bringing it MLK-style, you’re not really doing anything.
The irony is, Lanier’s essay is actually pretty strong at avoiding the terminal purity problem in other places — i.e., if you agree with someone’s politics, you should agree with (or ignore) their tactics, or vice versa. At its best, it brings the nuance, rather than washing it out.
Google’s Ngrams is also subject to terminal purity arguments — either it’s exposing our fundamental cultural DNA, or it’s dicking around with badly-OCRed data, and it couldn’t possibly be anything in between. To which I say — oy.
I’ve reading semi-extensively (i.e., as much as I can without breaking down and buying any more books) about the history of Islam. I’m partly motivated by a desire to better understand its philosophy and manuscript traditions, partly for a half-dozen other reasons too complicated to explain, but mostly just from long-standing interest. A few of my Kottke posts came out of this, as Robin pointed out.
So the best article I’ve come across in a while that touches on all of these things is “What is the Koran?” which appeared in The Atlantic back in 1999. It’s an examination of scholarly debates over the historicity of the Koran, and the propriety of Western scholars applying empirical/rationalist techniques to a holy text (especially when, historically-speaking, Orientalism of this kind hasn’t been motivated by knowledge for knowledge’s sake), plus clampdowns on Muslim writers who’ve brought the traditional history into question.
(Brief summary: Mohammed didn’t write, but received revelations from God, which he recited and others memorized and/or wrote down. A while later, just as with Christianity, a council produced an officially sanctioned text, knocking out variant copies and apocryphal texts, some of which were… extremely interesting. So, let’s imagine the Gnostic Gospels coming out in a country ruled by fundamentalists.)
Anyways, part of the problem these scholars are struggling with is just how FAST Islam grew from outsider rebels to ruling establishment:
Not surprisingly, given the explosive expansion of early Islam and the passage of time between the religion’s birth and the first systematic documenting of its history, Muhammad’s world and the worlds of the historians who subsequently wrote about him were dramatically different. During Islam’s first century alone a provincial band of pagan desert tribesmen became the guardians of a vast international empire of institutional monotheism that teemed with unprecedented literary and scientific activity. Many contemporary historians argue that one cannot expect Islam’s stories about its own origins—particularly given the oral tradition of the early centuries—to have survived this tremendous social transformation intact. Nor can one expect a Muslim historian writing in ninth– or tenth-century Iraq to have discarded his social and intellectual background (and theological convictions) in order accurately to describe a deeply unfamiliar seventh-century Arabian context. R. Stephen Humphreys, writing in Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1988), concisely summed up the issue that historians confront in studying early Islam.
If our goal is to comprehend the way in which Muslims of the late 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries [Islamic calendar / Christian calendar] understood the origins of their society, then we are very well off indeed. But if our aim is to find out “what really happened,” in terms of reliably documented answers to modern questions about the earliest decades of Islamic society, then we are in trouble.
But one of the things that happened during this period is that Islam went from wild, oral, incomprehensible traditions to scholarly/poetic/cultural flowering to clamped-down authoritarian fundamentalism:
As Muslims increasingly came into contact with Christians during the eighth century, the wars of conquest were accompanied by theological polemics, in which Christians and others latched on to the confusing literary state of the Koran as proof of its human origins. Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Koran—unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings, and so on. A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Koran as the “uncreated” and eternal Word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn’t God himself. Under the Caliph al-Ma’mun (813–833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mu’tazilism, that developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran.
By the end of the tenth century the influence of the Mu’tazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that of i’jaz, or the “inimitability” of the Koran. (As a result, the Koran has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic. The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases.) The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant.
Okay. Now let’s read The Economist, “The future of the internet: A virtual counter-revolution”:
THE first internet boom, a decade and a half ago, resembled a religious movement. Omnipresent cyber-gurus, often framed by colourful PowerPoint presentations reminiscent of stained glass, prophesied a digital paradise in which not only would commerce be frictionless and growth exponential, but democracy would be direct and the nation-state would no longer exist…
Fifteen years after its first manifestation as a global, unifying network, it has entered its second phase: it appears to be balkanising, torn apart by three separate, but related forces.… It is still too early to say that the internet has fragmented into “internets”, but there is a danger that it may splinter along geographical and commercial boundaries… To grasp why the internet might unravel, it is necessary to understand how, in the words of Mr Werbach, “it pulled itself together” in the first place. Even today, this seems like something of a miracle…
One reason may be that the rapid rise of the internet, originally an obscure academic network funded by America’s Department of Defence, took everyone by surprise. “The internet was able to develop quietly and organically for years before it became widely known,” writes Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard University, in his 2008 book, “The Future of the Internet—And How To Stop It”. In other words, had telecoms firms, for instance, suspected how big it would become, they might have tried earlier to change its rules.
Maybe this is a much more common pattern than we might realize; things start out radical and unpredictable, resolve into a productive, self-generating force, then stagnate and become fixed or die. Boil it down, and it sounds fairly typical. That how stars work, that’s how cities work, maybe that’s just how life works.
But in both articles, Islam and the Internet are presented as outliers. Judaism and Christianity didn’t grow as fast as Islam did, and their textual tradition produces similar problems, but don’t appear to be as sharp. Likewise, information networks like railroads, the telegraph, and telephone are presented as normally-developing; the internet is weird. Either this pattern is more common than we think it is, or it isn’t. Either way, it’s a meaningful congruence.
If that’s the case — if we can use the history of Islam to think about the internet, and vice versa, then what are the lessons? What are the porential consequences? What interventions, if necessary, are possible? (We have to confront the possibility in both cases that any intervention might be ruinous.)
Back in college, the Atlantic was basically my introduction to the world of ideas. I still remember reading this classic article by James Fallows and feeling whole new lobes of understanding come online. This was policy, not politics. Macro, not micro. Oh. That’s how the world works.
(As an aside: I have a vivid memory of reading a printout of that Fallows article in my freshman year dorm room. But that’s not possible; it was published during my senior year. Harumph.)
I also loved Robert Kaplan’s tales of global unrest—and even though he sometimes creeps me out these days, there’s no denying that his super-macro view was hugely influential.
Anyway, I haven’t read an issue of the Atlantic in a long time, and I am only an occasional consumer of the Atlantic’s site—usually thanks to links that Tim and Matt post here. (There have been a few exceptions.)
But the Atlantic is resurgent. I feel it. They’ve got a credible web strategy that manages to leverage the physics of the web without sacrificing sophistication, and it’s paying dividends:
On top of that, they just hired Alexis Madrigal. What a coup.