Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Facts, Opinion and Context

Over the years I seen many instances of people stating that discussions are broken down into either facts or opinion. Usually this dichotomy is used as the basis for their not wanting to read or discuss other people’s opinions, precisely because they are not facts.

Facts are the concrete building blocks that we use for knowledge. They are mostly universal (although not always) and tend to be related to specific points in time or objects. Opinions are generally personal views on the facts. They can be anchored in experience, but they may also be emotional or based on intuition. They are usually presented with some sort of bias.

However, there is -- I believe -- more than just these two categories. After all, facts by themselves are meaningless. They’re just points of data, but without the ability to tie them together in some meaningful way their only usefulness is for winning games of Trivial Pursuit. You can know all of the relevant facts, but still have absolutely no real understanding of what they mean, both on a personal level or with regard to the world around you.

What we mean by knowledge is not just the ability to regurgitate facts, but rather “a knowledgeable person” is someone who could utilize the things that they know for discussion and for accomplishing great works. Memorizing all of the syntax of a programming language for example, does not make someone a good programmer. It’s not the language syntax that matters, it is how it is used to build systems. A programmer’s ability to debug something that they didn’t write themselves is a far better indication of their understanding of a technology, then is the ability to just string together a long list of syntactically correct instructions. And it is this understanding that is the key to building some usable.

It is this other category that contains the ability to see the underlying patterns in both facts and experience, and from them build up internal mental models. A set of contexts to hold the empirical data.

Again, we do store facts in our memory,  but our understanding comes from the way we model the world around us in our minds. We can, for instance, memorize that the English word for the property of a glowing stove element is ‘hot’, but that fact needs to be coupled with an internal model that warns us that touching hot things can cause damage to our bodies. Knowing what ‘hot’ is, and what it means, is only useful if someone is able alter their behavior around objects that are ‘hot’. Understanding comes not from memorizing the facts, but instead from updating and being able to utilize these internal models.

Communications -- talking and writing -- are our attempts to share these internal models with others around us. In a sense, our efforts are only shallow projections of our internal models into either speech or the characters that make up a written language. Our internal models are too dense and too interconnected for these limited pathways to fully contain all of what we know. Often, just to get across a simple point, we have to re-iterate the same things over and over again, in many different ways before even the basic aspects of the model have been transferred to others. This limited bandwidth makes sharing what we know difficult at times.

Getting back to my point, when someone divides information up into only facts and opinions, and then ignores the opinions, they pass up -- on so many levels -- the ability to do more than just echo back trivial facts. While discussions in any medium can easily turn into heavily layered personal bias, there is often a strong component of direct knowledge or perceived patterns being shared as well. Some people are better than others at providing ‘objective observations’, but to some degree everything we say or do reveals some of our internal models. To dismiss that, is to choose to not understand more of the world around them, or the essence of a specific problem.

You can’t learn to program from a reference manual on language syntax alone. Sure it will tell you the syntax, variables, grammar, etc. about the language, but it provides no insight on how to utilize these things properly. Reading just a tutorial, if it is written well, provides way more context on which to base your internal models. And it is exactly this context that is necessary in order to utilize the language properly. Some people can get going from just a reference guide, but if you look carefully you can see that their works are highly eclectic, and while they may work sometimes, they certainly shouldn’t be considered to be good, or even reasonable examples.

Understanding the overall context in which things are happening, or are required to happen is essential to being able to build up a complete enough internal model. The ‘ten-thousand foot view’ is just as critical as the facts themselves.

In this sense, when I see people dismiss opinions I know that in their choice to deliberately wear blinders they are denying themselves the access to the necessary resources that will aide their own understanding. My opinion is that, since everything to some degree is related to everything else, there is no knowledge that is useless for people to learn, if and only if they can put the underlying facts correctly into their internal models so that, what they learn, they can use. Programmers for instance can easily make use of an understanding of writing, art or politics, since all three of these “unrelated” knowledge bases easily effect their output. But inspiration, understanding or patterns can come from any other collection of information, no matter how unrelated.

Sometimes it does require some effort to ‘filter’ out the underlying knowledge from an opinion that is not strongly based on either facts or experience, but even in wading into those depths one’s understanding can be greatly enhanced by considering these alternative perspectives. If you read enough different viewpoints, not unlike stereoscopic vision, you become more capable of re-constructing the real factual landscape from all of the different angles. Even the lamest opinion contains usable information, even if it only shows that someone out there can be thinking that way.

Over the years I’ve met lots of people who have filled their brain with a tremendous amount of facts, but very little knowledge. Like the character of Sheldon in the sitcom Big Bang Theory, they tend to believe in their own superiority, even though they are moving awkwardly through the world around them. But its not the facts that make us act smartly, it is how we’ve groked the context and utilized that understanding to create vast internal models that we can then use to smooth the way through this life. Success is not being able to list from memory all of the elements of the period table, in order, but rather being able to dream about accomplishing something, and then finding one’s way through the maze fast enough to make it a reality. Without the ability to utilize them, facts are nothing.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Effects of Computers

Decades ago, one of my friends had a grand plan to fundamentally change the nature of the financial industry. He felt that by using computers we could wipe out the old ways, and replace them with something entirely different. My position was that computers don’t make huge changes, instead they just shift what is already there around. After all, they’re just a new way to capture data, process it and then interact with us. They only do what we tell them. They’re only as smart as we make them.

Still, despite my friend’s overzealous goals, computers did have a big effect on the financial markets. They shifted the ability to trade financial instruments like stocks, away from a small powerful group, over to the masses. They liberated our access to the markets. Over time we’ve seen this effect again and again. Typesetters disappeared as more people could control the layout of their works. Marketing materials first became more accessible, followed by more directed campaigns. Access to music was liberated from the record companies. Photography became easier for the amateurs. Writing became more accessible in blogs, affecting books, magazines and eventually daily newspapers. Computers even allowed anyone to easily create their own videos and distribute them to the world.

Clearly the trend has been for very specific things that were controlled by a small group of people to become accessible to the masses. What was once impenetrable and highly controlled has shifted into becoming both easier and more accessible. As we put more of our knowledge into the tools, we made it possible for more people to utilize them. As we’ve made more information available, more people can use it at varying levels. We’ve allowed our specialties to be distributed over a wider audience.

Industry after industry has had to undergone this painful shift, and usually they’ve gone down fighting hard. But once set in motion it seems as if it is only a matter of time before the gates come crashing down and the amateurs are allowed access to what was once a private and secluded domain. This has been the dominate affect of computers over the last three decades.

The old adage “information is power” has been the mainstay of our history for centuries. The “rich and powerful” are rich and powerful precisely because they have access to information that the rest of us don’t have. Welding that information allows them to stay in their elite positions. Spinning that information, into something simpler and more appealing, allows them to control the rest of us. Information -- its collection, control and distribution -- is their primary source of power.

Nowhere is this more significant than in the halls of government. Running countries is less about management and more about information acquiring and control than any other domain. They are built entirely around this.

But like all of the other domains, the computer has come to their doorstep, first in just the general openness of the World Wide Web, but now in the form of WikiLeaks and lots of other means of exposing their power sources. Like all of the others before them, governments are beginning to understand the real nature of the changes. Their exclusive source of power -- the facts and opinions that underlie our political interactions -- are now slipping out of their control. Like the movie studios and record companies, they too will fight to preserve their domain, but once that door has been opened there is little they can do to stop the slide.

We could argue eternally about what and how many secrets a government actually needs to function properly. Some say a lot, but many are coming to realization that “necessary secrets” is an entirely different issue from “information control”; that the history of humanity has been continually rewritten by those with the power to do so, and that often this has lead to our deepest collective miseries. The other adage “history is written by the winners” has frequently lead to our increasingly delusional beliefs about our own superiority. But the rich and powerful only rework history to suit themselves or to pacify their followers. The dirty little truths are hidden to protect them from recriminations, not for noble reasons.

At first the web revealed this about some of the more backward nations on our planet, but now it has caught up with all of them.

Like it or not, this is our new reality. Power brokers are now no different from stock or music brokers. Our machines have liberated us from one and all. There is nothing the governments can do to put the genie back into the bottle, they just have to learn to live with the consequences.

Myself, I think it is a good thing. We’re lied to on a daily basis, often out of the misguided belief that it is best for us. “The people don’t need or want the truth” seems to be the position of the elite, but I think they actually covet and distort information mostly for their own selfish gains. Control freaks want, or need to control the things around them not out of concern for others, but because they need to. Not knowing the full history, or having some major event painted in black & white terms instead of the real murky grayish colors of reality, doesn’t make our lives better or more meaningful and for most of us it insults our intelligence. At the same time it allows those in power to help their friends and families. The more information they control, the more they can remake the world to their advantage.

I think as a species we’ve reached the point where we can start to undo this legacy. That statements like “government of the people, for the people, by the people” could actually become true one day, and we could stop being deluded hypocrites. Most people will accept a convenient lie because most often it is the easiest thing to do, but I honestly believe that they would both appreciate and benefit from the truth. Being sheep lead by wolves, both imprisons and demeans us.

As for computers, I really think this is only the start of what they can do for our species. Clearly we’re still learning how to use them, and when we can finally tap their tremendous power, we will be able to fix all sorts of historic short-comings. In that sense, the revolution has only just begun, its best to hold on tight, relax and enjoy the show.