The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Two observations on Lanier on Wikileaks

Robin set the table up (and h/t to Alexis for getting Lanier’s essay in circulation).

Here are three disjoint thoughts, slightly too long for tweets/comments:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.


To the list of Ghandi/MLK/Mandela, add Rosa Parks. Any time anyone does what they think is taking a grand stand, they build up their self-importance by invoking her.

Not sure I follow on the Gandhi principle, even though I like the idea behind establishing a way to talk about this.

Key point: The Ad Hitlerem arguments are used to put the actions of their opponents in a negative light. People that reference Gandhi, King, Mandala, et al are often explaining their motivations or inspiration behind their own actions and are taking ownership instead of placing a label on the actions of another. Maybe a small distinction, but I wouldn’t want these two arguments to be seen in the same negative light. Not that the Gandhi argument is always right, but the intention seems important.

Tim Carmody says…

The cases I’m thinking about actually are trying to use Gandhi/MLK/Mandela/etc as a counterexample in order to label or diminish the actions of another.

Here’s the exact pull-quote from Lanier’s essay I’m thinking of:

Can we say Wikileaks is doing anything beyond sterile information worship? Is it engaged in nonviolent activism?

We celebrate the masters of nonviolent activism, such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. All these figures displayed astounding courage, faced arrest, and suffered without hating their oppressors in order to demonstrate a common humanity. These remarkable people did not make “Crush the bastards” into their mantra.

This is literally a fallacious argument. It sets up a category — “nonviolent activism” — and then moves the yardstick, identifying nonviolent activism with civil disobedience in the model of Gandhi et al. If it isn’t civil disobedience, Lanier suggests, then it isn’t nonviolent activism; it’s just trolling. But that’s not true. Play with the definitions if you want, but I’d say that Wikileaks *is* nonviolent activism without being civil disobedience. (Wikileaks’ actions might inadvertently result in violence, but shit, so did Gandhi and King’s. Except in Gandhi’s and King’s cases, that was part of the point.)

The fallacy works rhetorically because it waves the Gandhi flag, just like the ad Hitlerem fallacies (usually version of the slippery slope) works because it raises the specter of Hitler. That’s the problem. The idea that if you are not doing what Gandhi et al did, or were supposed to have done (it’s usually a sanctified or otherwise misunderstood version of what happened), you are falling short or are otherwise illegitimate. That’s the Gandhi Principle.

Ah, more clear to me now. Was a little slow on the uptake. Thanks for the reply.

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