Big-Tent Problems

One of the best experiences I’ve had in my career to date has been participating in a relatively informal group that meets irregularly at Bryn Mawr to talk about complex systems, emergence, and information theory among other topics. I’ve had a hard time making the meetings more recently due to my teaching schedule, but I still really cherish this group of people and the kind of conversations they’ve nurtured, and the entire spirit of the group. I think it’s not an accident that the group is informal and only subsidized indirectly by administrative funding. This is one of the points that I find myself making on a cyclical basis to foundation officers who want to help higher education change some of its practices of assessment or to embrace new models for organizing curricula and research. Frequently, the harder you try to make change happen, and the more formal your funding and structuring of such promotional efforts are, the less interesting and effective the results. If there isn’t some group of people already trying to do things differently, you can’t make it happen just with money.

I was musing a bit about the conversations that this group tends to get into, which have tended over time to circle back to some of the same themes and disagreements, as is to be expected any time people are involved in discussion over the long-term. So here’s one thing I was thinking about: what intellectual issues and questions by their nature require discussion between a very heterogenous group of disciplines and intellects for innovative solutions or some kind of forward motion to emerge?

Almost any problem or question could probably benefit from having more than one perspective or angle devoted to it, but for many academic questions or policy problems, the natural range of useful contributions ought to be fairly narrow. Clearly certain kinds of novel thinking about how to plug the oil well in the Gulf of Mexico are desperately needed, but I don’t think a conference room full of poets, evolutionary biologists, linguists and political scientists would have much to contribute to the immediate technical question of how to stop the oil from leaking or what the best interim strategy is for cleaning up or mitigating its damage. (Yes, they could help us understand the event, interpret its consequences, or talk about how political institutions should deal with such issues.)

Also, all disciplines need help from outside their own community to answer the question of why they should study what they study. No discipline can answer the question “so what?” self-sufficiently. But this is a different kind of issue. I’m focused here just on intellectual and applied problems where heterogeneity in methods, bodies of knowledge and perspective are a requirement for progress. A few examples, and I’d be glad to hear of more along these lines:

1) SETI.

Paul Davies’ The Eerie Silence is a persuasive critique of the intellectual and programmatic shortcomings of SETI to date. Davies points out that SETI investigations to date have a whole bunch of anthropocentric assumptions about information, communication, technology and evolution embedded inside of their efforts to pick up signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Against this critique, the conventional defense of SETI (that we haven’t listened to more than a miniscule fraction of star systems, using more than a miniscule fraction of the spectrum in which communication might be broadcast) seems pretty weak.

I don’t think Davies really goes far enough in trying to open up the issues involved, however–and I think part of that is the desire to keep the questions safely knowable through science, however speculative. That’s characteristic of these types of problems that need heterogeneity of some kind: the current “owners” of the issue are reluctant to turn the speculative dials all the way up to 11 because that seems likely to result in lines of investigation or discussion which aren’t useful or productive. For example, Davies raises old questions about SETI’s teleological understanding of technological evolution, which pop up in the last two parameters of the classic form of the Drake equation. As Davies observes, this is one of many places where SETI has been too intellectually narrow in its focus, too inclined to look in the mirror of a certain kind of mid-20th Century modernist-rationalist vision of human history and to write that across the stars.

But even Davies is reluctant to really open up those questions. He points out that we can rethink questions about the origin of life simply by asking whether there were multiple abiogenesis events on Earth itself, and thus “alien” lifeforms already within our biosphere. Ok, but similarly you can open up questions about what what information and communication are, what intelligence is, what the directionality (if any) of the culture of intelligent beings is over time, and about the multiple contingencies and accidents of technological history might be. Again, just using Earth and its history. To do that, you’d need historians, anthropologists, linguists, computer scientists, philosophers, translators, cultural critics, and economists in the room, and not just the usual suspects or people who are already inclined to buy into the conventional embedded narratives that lead people to SETI. If that conversation is to be at all useful at opening up the problem of alien intelligence and whether or how it might signal its existence, it has to explore the whole of the possibility space without rushing to “things we can plausibly detect or investigate”.

2) Artificial intelligence.

Here I think the lesson’s already been learnt. Go back to the postwar beginnings of AI research and look at blithe pronouncements by Minsky, Simon and other early scholars in the field about how human-equivalent AI would be relatively easy to create. It’s easier to convince people that fresh approaches and unsettling questions are necessary when they’ve hit a brick wall or when they’ve had to eat a few helpings of humble pie. This is not to say that the biggest possible tent for AI research is now buzzing with happy, collaborative discussions: there are a lot of long-standing epistemological and methodological rivalries, and it can be very hard to get some of those constituencies into a mutual and exploratory discussion. But when you look over the whole field as a noncombatant, it’s hard not to be impressed by the presence of multiple disciplines and perspectives.

3) Economic development.

It is really hard to create opportunities for people who want to raise skeptical or critical questions about the normative backdrop of development work or policy-oriented studies of development to be in the same room as policy makers, NGO administrators, or scholars who work within those normative boundaries. (Skeptics who have appropriate professional or disciplinary backgrounds, like William Easterly, get heard, but that’s about the limit of what’s seen as intelligible.) On the other hand, many theoretical, historical or ethnographic studies of development projects are remote from a whole range of pragmatic or lived choices and challenges. I think it’s past time to wheel the whole apparatus of development and aid into the workshed for some fundamental redesigns, the kind of reworking where every assumption and idea receives a mandatory dose of heavy skeptical review that ranges from basic points of philosophy and ethics to finely calibrated technical questions.

4) Education

Even more than development, education is a domain of study and policy where most of the main stakeholders need a time out, to go and work for a bit in a clean room with some unaccustomed partners and novel artifacts and resources. Maybe more than development, there is a substantial amount of existing heterogeneity to work with, even within education studies itself–but if an open conversation about development might consist of introducing several hermetically sealed groups to one another, when it comes to education, different groups and approaches are all too conscious of each other’s existence. I know that the stakes are very high, and the antagonisms between various players are really deep-seated, so this may not be a realistic hope.

5) Cultural creation.

I feel like there’s a lot that people who study or interpret expressive culture could add in a discussion of how to create culture, but also vice-versa. This is always the hope in literature departments that combine working writers or translators with literary critics, or art departments that combine studio artists with art historians and critics. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t–but I think the conversation could be even more productive with a much wider range of participants, including some researchers and intellectuals who wouldn’t even necessarily see themselves as directly doing work that has implications for producing expressive culture.

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4 Responses to Big-Tent Problems

  1. Ben Bradlow says:

    Re #3… Especially in the field of development, I find that often the most articulate skeptics and critics are the people who are actually affected by developmental theories and policy: poor communities themselves. The challenge for academics from whatever field related to development, whether they be economists, social/cultural theorists, or political scientists, is to find ways to engage meaningfully with the subjects of their work. This means supporting communities to organize around their own capacities to engage as equals in the contest of ideas, just as professionals — academics, policy-makers, NGOs — can focus their efforts on supporting the poor to organize around their own capacities to engage as equals in the everyday contest for resources.

    The gap between theory and practice in development will remain wide as long as the table is only accommodating theoreticians, no matter how multi-disciplinary the grouping. If you want to put aid/development in “the workshed,” as you suggest, then engaged support for the poor organized around their own capacities and interests — not those of academics, governments, multilaterals, etc — may be the kind of fundamental shift that addresses your call.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree absolutely as far as the need for people in communities to be first among equals in the big tent. That doesn’t require turning them into another fetish-object like women were in WiD programs, though, and that’s the danger–that we just end up, either from a radical or technocratic view, believing that communities or new social movements are the natural unit of sovereignty, and that whatever they want or know is sufficient to determine what development is. At some level, the concept of development or progress is a concept that requires that we find the present condition insufficient, inadequate, unfinished. And if you think about it, much of what even radicals or critics of globalization and capitalism would now consider to define progress are practices, materialities and identities that were done to communities (or at least happened without them planning for and asking for those changes). Many people within those late 18th or early 19th Century communities around the world would not have named much of modernity as something they wanted or believed in.

  3. Doug says:

    Ok, I may soon be involved in development in a fairly serious way in Georgia, so I’m interested in what a major re-think would promise.

    Here are my priors: I hope to see Georgia advance a bit among the ranks of medium-income countries. Over something like a 15- or 20-year time frame, I hope it will become a member of the European Union. Both of those have many implications, I know.

  4. Here’s a little something I wrote on the AI problem over at New Savanna:

    Here’s an analogy that I find useful in thinking about this business of always seeing The Solution around the next corner. The analogy is based on those old Christmas tree lights that were wired in parallel. When one light went out the whole string went out. To get the lights working again you had to test each bulb individually until you found one that was broken. Then you’d replace it in the string, turn the switch, and – if it was the only defective bulb – the lights would go on. If they didn’t, then you had to keep on looking until you found another broken bulb. And so forth. It was a little tedious, but not difficult.

    Think of the problem of building an artificial human mind as consisting of, say, 100,000 little problems. Each of them is a light bulb, they’re all connected into one string, and that string is wired in series. If even one bulb is missing or defective, the string won’t light. In the analogy the string’s initial state is that won’t light. We don’t know what bulb or bulbs is causing the problem or even how many are defective. In fact, a thousand bulbs are defective and they’re randomly scattered along the string. Research, then, is the process of testing each bulb to see whether or not it works. If it doesn’t, you replace it.

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