Is Undiscovered Public Knowledge A Problem or a Puzzle?

(This is the first of three posts about my semi-serendipitous summer reading; here are links to posts two and three.)

This last week I was seized by a strange mania: clean the office. I have been in my current desk and office since 2011 (when a major renovation disrupted it for some months).  It was time to clean –spurred by notice that boxes of papers would be picked up for the annual certified, assured shredding. I realized I had piles of FERPA-protected paperwork (exams, papers, 1-1 office hours memos, you name it).  Worse: my predecessor had left me large files that I hadn't look at in seven years, and that contained legal papers, employee annual performance reviews, old resumes, consultant reports, accreditation documentation, etc. Time for it all to go!  I collected six large official boxes (each twice the size of a paper ream), but didn't stop there: I also cleaned the desk; cleaned up the desktop; recycle odd electronic items, batteries, and lightbulbs; forwarded a very large number of vendor advertising pens to cache for our library users ("do you have a pen?"). On Thursday I was left with the moment-after: I cleared it all out: now what?

The "what" turned out to be various articles I had collected and printed for later reading, and then never actually read –some more recent, some a little older. (This doesn't count the articles I recycled as no longer relevant or particularly interesting; my office is not a bibliography in itself.) Unintentionally, several of these articles wove together concerns that have been growing in the back of my mind –and have been greatly pushed forward with the events of the past year (Orlando–Bernie Sanders–the CombOver–British M.P. Jo Cox–seem as distant and similar as events of the late Roman republic now, pace Mary Beard.)

"Undiscovered public knowledge" seems an oxymoron (but less one than "Attorney General Jeff Sessions").  If "public" than why "undiscovered"?  It means the knowledge that once was known by someone, recorded, properly interred in some documentary vault, and left unexamined and undiscovered by anyone else.  The expression is used in Adrienne LaFrance's Searching for Lost Knowledge in the Age of Intelligent Machines, published in The Atlantic, December 1, 2016.   Her leading example is the fascinating story of the Antikythera mechanism, some sort of ancient time-piece surfaced from an ancient, submerged wreck off Antikythera (a Greek island between the Peloponnese and Crete, known also as Aigila or Ogylos).  It sat in the crate outside the National Archaeological Museum in Athens for a year, and then was largely forgotten by all but a few dogged researchers, who pressed on for decades with the attempt to figure out exactly what it is.

The Antikythera mechanism has only come to be understood when widely separated knowledge has been combined by luck, persistence, intuition, and conjecture.  How did such an ancient time piece come about, who made it, based upon which thinking, from where?  It could not have been a one-off, but it seems to be a unique lucky find from the ancient world, unless other mechanisms or pieces are located elsewhere in undescribed or poorly described collections.  For example, a 10th-century Arabic manuscript suggests that such a mechanism may have influenced the development of modern clocks, and in turn built upon ancient Babylonian astronomical data.  (For more see Josephine Marchant's Decoding the heavens : a 2,000-year-old computer–and the century-long search to discover its secrets, Cambridge, Mass.: DaCapo Press, 2009: Worldcat ; Sacred Heart University Library). Is there "undiscovered public knowledge" that would include other mechanisms, other clues to its identity, construction, development, and influence?

"Undiscovered public knowledge" is a phrase made modestly famous by Don R. Swanson in an article by the same name in The Library Quarterly, 1986.  This interesting article is a great example of the way that library knowledge and practice tends to become isolated in the library silo, when it might have benefited many others located elsewhere. (It is also a testimony to the significant, short-sighted mistake made by the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and others, in closing their library science programs in the 1980s-1990s just when such knowledge was going public in Yahoo, Google, Amazon, GPS applications and countless other developments.)  Swanson's point is that "independently created fragments are logically related but never retrieved, brought together, and interpreted." The "essential incompleteness" of search (or now: discovery) makes "possible and plausible the existence of undiscovered public knowledge." (to quote the abstract –the article is highly relevant and well developed).  Where Swanson runs into trouble, however, is his use of Karl Popper's distinction between subjective and objective knowledge, the critical approach within science that distinguishes between "World 2" and "World 3."  (Popper's Three Worlds (.pdf), lectures at the University of Michigan in 1978, were a favorite of several of my professors at Columbia University School of Library Service; Swanson's article in turn was published and widely read while I was studying there.)

Popper's critical worlds (1: physical objects and events, including biological; 2: mental objects and events; 3: objective knowledge, a human but not Platonic zone) both enable the deep structures of information science as now practiced by our digital overlords as well and signal their fatal flaw.  They do this (enable the deep structures and algorithms of "discovery") by assuming the link between physical objects and events, mental objects, and objective knowledge symbolically notated (language, mathematics). Simultaneously Popper's linkage also signals their fatal flaw: such language (and mathematics) is or are used part-and-parcel in innumerable forms of human life and their languages "games," where the link between physical objects, mental objects, and so-called objective knowledge is puzzling, in addition to a never-ending source of philosophical delusion.

To sum up:  Google thinks its algorithm is serving up discoveries of objective realities, when it is really extending the form of life called "algorithm" –no "mere" here, but in fact an ideological extension of language that conceals its power relations and manufactures the assumed sense that such discovery is "natural."  It is au contraire a highly developed, very human form of life parallel to, and participating in, innumerable other forms of life, and just as subject to their foibles, delusions, illogic, and mistakes as any other linguistic form of life. There is no "merely" (so-called "nothing-buttery") to Google's ideological extension: it is very powerful and seems, at the moment, to rule the world.  Like every delusion, however, it could fall "suddenly and inexplicably," like an algorithmic Berlin Wall, and "no one could have seen it coming" –because of the magnificent illusion of ideology (as in the Berlin Wall, ideology on both sides, as well, upheld by both the CIA and the KGB).

This is once again to rehearse the crucial difference between Popper's and Wittgenstein's understandings of science and knowledge.  A highly relevant text is the lucid, short Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers, (by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Harper Collins, 2001; Worldcat).  Wittgenstein: if we can understand the way language works from within language (our only vantage point), most philosophical problems will disappear, and we are left with puzzles and mis-understandings that arise when we use improperly the logic of our language.  Popper: Serious philosophical problems exist with real-world consequences, and a focus upon language only "cleans its spectacles" to enable the wearer to see the world more clearly.  (The metaphor is approximately Popper's; this quick summary will undoubtedly displease informed philosophers, and I beg their forgiveness, for the sake of brevity.)

For Wittgenstein, if I may boldly speculate, Google would only render a reflection of ourselves, our puzzles, mis-understandings, and mistakes. Example: search "white girls," then clear the browser of its cookies (this is important), and search "black girls."  Behold the racial bias. The difference in Google's search results points to machine-reproduced racism that would not have surprised Wittgenstein, but seems foreign to the Popper's three worlds.  Google aspires to Popper's claims of objectivity, but behaves very differently –at least, its algorithm does.  No wonder its algorithm has taken on the aura of an ancient deity: it serves weal and woe without concern for the fortunes of dependent mortals. Except . . . it's a human construct.

So, Swanson's article identifies and makes plausible "undiscovered public knowledge" because of the logical and essential incompleteness of discovery (what he called "search"): discovery signals a wide variety of human forms of life, and no algorithm can really anticipate them.  The Antikythera mechanism, far from an odd example, is a pregnant metaphor for the poignant frailties of human knowledge and humans' drive to push past their limits. Like the Archimedes palimpsest, "undiscovered public knowledge" is one of the elements that makes human life human –without which we become, like the Q Continuum in Star Trek: Next Generation, merely idle god-like creatures of whim and no moral gravitas whatsoever.  The frailty of knowledge –the it is made up of innumerable forms of human life, which have to be lived by humans rather than algorithms– gives the human drive to know its edge, and its tragedy.  A tragic sense of life, however, is antithetical to the tech-solutionist ideology of the algorithm.

(Continued in the second post, Undiscovered Summer Reading)

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