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Privacy and Sophistry

posted by:Hugh Hunter // 11:58 PM // February 14, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX


For one of Google's founders, Sergey Brin, "The perfect search engine would be like the mind of God" (quoted by Charles Ferguson in Technology Review, "What's Next for Google" Jan/2005). The idea of being judged by an all-knowing God is unpleasant enough, and being exposed to a computer program, a thing of silicon and wires - well the prospect is not a pleasant one. But the idea that Google or other internet programs could reach such dizzying heights (minus the hyperbole about God) is certainly not a crazy one. Here I'd like to take a semi-reflective look at the conceptual issues implicit in saying that the internet, or various functions thereof, are mind-of-God wannabes. Several issues are wrapped up in this, and I think it's worth separating them out.

In an obvious way, it is not a bad thing to have a search engine that is like the mind of God. On the contrary, this way of thinking about the internet in general brings out one of its finer features: it has a truth finding capacity. In a fascinating article called "Internet Killed the Alien Star" (TCS Daily, 9 Nov/2005), Douglas Kern outlines the action of this capacity in the case of the alien movement. One might have thought that the medium of the internet would be congenial to the alien movement. What better way to spread stories of alien sightings and such than by blogs and other online fora?

But it turned out that the audiences that could be reached by these media were too big, and a big enough group contains what one might call 'debunkers', in the form of people who can refute stories of aliens. If Joe claims he saw lights over Roswell, other Roswell residents, or worse, Roswell meteorologists can swiftly debunk him. A kind of information libertarianism seems to operate online, in that the ability to say anything leads to an advance of knowledge, rather than the opposite. Wikipedia, the interactive online encyclopedia, is another example of the internet generating new information from uncoordinated individual resources. 'Constructors' add to Wikipedia, debunkers remove what is false, and the result is as close as human beings are likely to get in this life to the mind of the Maker. This is, I think, what Brin had in mind. And it's easy to see what makes the idea attractive.

Nor is it incidental to matters of privacy. Privacy is the cost which must often be weighed against the benefit of such libertarian projects. God knows everything, and the closer one comes to this sort of knowledge, the more of human life will become exposed. Confronted with this situation, it seems that people naturally divide into two camps. Some people are naturally cautious and reluctant to pay this cost in privacy. Others are naturally enthusiastic about them: people like Sergey Brin.

But questions about omniscience far predates Sergey Brin or his brainchild, Google. The Greek Sophists, in fact, made much the same claims for Sophistry, their art, which they touted as an 'expertise on life'. Protagoras, for instance, said that students of his would improve daily, not in any one respect, but somehow overall. And the Greeks, too, were divided in their response to this art. Even the word 'sophist' captures this mistrust: it was coined to ambiguate between the meanings of 'wise man' and 'wise guy'. The feeling was that the Sophists were too smart, they were loose cannons. At Socrates' trial, the prosecution damningly painted Socrates himself as a Sophist.

I think these Greek sentiments are instructive for our own situation. One of the biggest objections to the Sophists was that their loyalties were unclear. On the one hand, they often worked in the law courts, and were thought to teach "how to make the weaker case appear the stronger". On the other hand, they described themselves as 'cosmopolitan', meaning that they were equally at home in every city. The Greek on the street thought of his loyalties as radiating outward from his own family to his own city. Sophists, although their knowledge was admired in the abstract, didn't fit into any of the Greek system of loyalties. At least they didn't until Pericles became the de facto ruler of Athens.

Pericles steered Athens through what came to be called its golden age: he was a contemporary of Socrates the philosopher, Aristophanes the playwright, Anaxagoras the scientist, and Protagoras the Sophist to name just a few of the famous figures of his time. But Pericles wholeheartedly embraced Sophism, integrated it with his policies on Athenian life and foreign policy (it largely took the view that was later described as Realpolitik). Athens became progressively more and more committed to the Sophist movement. Once it was clear that this was Athenian Sophism, the Athenian on the street quickly warmed to the idea. For similar reasons I think that many of the worries about the information contained in the internet are not worries about privacy invasions per se, but rather concerns about control.

If Brin is right, the internet, like Sophistry, is a powerful tool. But like any such tool it is dangerous when it is uncontrolled. It may well be possible to reconcile both ways of thinking about the internet by realizing that it is control of the internet, not it's mechanisms, which are of concern to us.

But there is still, I suspect, a deeper aspect of the concern about the internet becoming a Protagorean 'expert on life'. The digitally remastered figure of Protagoras is fearful because in the face of his great understanding, it is easy to feel exposed. In one of his short stories, O. Henry refers to the inexplicable jolt of guiltiness that even the most law-abiding citizen sometimes feels when a policeman looks directly at him. I suspect that this is part of a deeper worry about being known: a worry that is certainly justified if we are talking about the divine mind. What about the internet?

In this respect, with respect to Sergey Brin, I maintain that the internet is more like Protagoras than it is like the mind of God. That is, in the case of God to be known is to be exposed. But one of the prime arguments against the Sophists was raised by Socrates on the grounds that not only could they not really understand others, they could not even understand themselves.

The internet may use its resources to find out more facts about people than even Protagoras ever could. But there is no reason to think that these facts offer deep self/other-knowledge. Otherwise put, the internet offers an integration of information. But philosophy is the descendent of the Socratic quest for self-knowledge, and few would be so bold as to claim that its history shows that integration leads to consensus. I think we can take some comfort in Socrates, who said that knowing yourself (let alone others) is the task of a lifetime.

Many bad things might happen online, but if our worry is this deep kind of exposure, the internet is not our enemy. Or if it is, it is so because it is working in to support the interests of people or organizations who are our enemies (even if it is only enemies of our peace of mind). Our approach to the internet, if informed by this, would be one of seeking control when possible and strategic compromise with those more fully in control when it is not, rather than concern
over the mechanisms in question.

Hugh Hunter is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of British Columbia. He lives in Vancouver.


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