“Stupefication” is a word we will henceforth apply to tasks, but let us note that the process of stupefication is itself a task — and it tends to require tremendous amounts of human intelligence, years of research, and a storehouse of distilled knowledge. In short, making a particular task stupid can be a highly intelligent act.

In the case of Deep Blue, the stupefication of chess playing required the construction of an astronomically complex formal system capable of drawing upon and organizing an enormous amount of existing human knowledge, which — furthermore — had to be previously codified into a rigid, database-friendly form that might make us reluctant even to call it “knowledge.”

“Deep Blue applies brute force aplenty, but the ‘intelligence’ is the old-fashioned kind. Think about the 100 years of grandmaster games.  Kasparov isn’t playing a computer, he’s playing the ghosts of grandmasters past. That Deep Blue can organize such a storehouse of knowledge — and apply it on the fly to the ever-changing complexities on the chessboard — is what makes this particular heap of silicon an arrow pointing to the future”

–The makers of Deep Blue, (http://www.research.ibm.com/deepblue/meet/html/d.3.3a.html).

The reason I’m currently researching databases is that I have a strong suspicion involving a connection between the stupefication of a particular task and the codification of the knowledge that a human being would use to perform that task. More to come. I’ll be more specific later.

Databases

April 19, 2008

I’ve pasted below yet another wonderful insight by Floridi. The quotation should be understood in the context of a discussion regarding the historical emergence of knowledge as a cumulative, social, and intersubjective substance — capable of continual growth due to its ability to be recorded, passed on, and synthesized. The following is commentary about the state of that ever growing body of knowledge prior to the advent of the database system (and, of course, prior to Wikipedia.)

“New knowledge could obviously be found; centuries of successful accumulation prove it unequivocally. Yet the new world represented by the human encyclopaedia had become as uncontrollable and impenetrable as the natural one, and a more sophisticated version of Meno’s paradox could now be formulated. How can a single scholar or scientist find the relevant information he requires for his own work? Moreover, what about ordinary people in their everyday lives? Meno could indeed ask: “how will you find, Socrates, what you know is already in the ever growing human encyclopaedia? Where can you find the path through the region of the known? And if you find what you are searching for, what will save you from the petrifying experience of das historische Wissen?” (95)

(Das historische Wissen is a phrase coined by Nietszche in response to Goethe’s statement that, “If I had actually been aware of all the [literary] efforts made in the past centuries, I would never have written a line, but would have done something else” [93.])

The following quotations suggest to me that Floridi believes the prevalence of database systems to have negated the pre-database state in which “the new world represented by the human encyclopaedia had become as uncontrollable and impenetrable as the natural one.” He suggests (correctly, to be sure) that “we all let our computers search, at fantastic speeds, for the required needles in those huge, well-ordered, electronic haystacks that are our databases” (97). And he says, “the growth of knowledge has followed the path of fragmentation of the infosphere and has been held in check by the new version of Meno’s paradox until the second half of the twentieth century, when information technology has finally provided a new physical form for our intellectual environment and hence the medium and the tools to manage it in a thoroughly new way, more economically and efficiently and in a less piecemeal way” (97; my emphasis).

I, however, am reluctant to say, simply because Google and Wikipedia now facilitate the quick retrieval of information, that today’s hyper complex and constantly shifting storehouses of knowledge are any less uncontrollable and impenetrable than they have been historically. Complex information management systems have certainly changed the way information is managed; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our information storehouses have become more manageable. In other words, the fact that we have revved up the speed at which we can access information (and the speed at which we can change it, tag it, categorize it, relate it, synthesize it, use it, cite it, and undermine it) may have actually increased the complexity of our knowledge aggregations. Let me try my hand at a new, post-second-half-of-the-twentieth-century version of Meno’s paradox:

He might ask, “How can you find, Socrates, the knowledge you seek, given that if you find it, you cannot guarantee that it will remain in the same form, and in the same context, and related to the same metadata in which you found it? How can you choose a path through the region of the known, given that there are now billions of paths to choose from?” Indeed, Floridi is probably correct that, at one time, there was simply so much knowledge (codified in so many books) that the “path through the region of the known” was hard to find; but in postmodern times, we have a related problem: lightning fast search engines and effective database management systems have given us a surplus of paths through the known. Instead of drowning in books, we drown in hyperlinks. Instead of losing ourselves in the land of primary data, we find ourselves lost in the land of metadata. In postmodernity, the internet provides a thoroughly linked and navigable map of things that would, historically, have been housed in countless physical libraries. But the map happens to be just as complicated as the territory it is supposed to help us navigate, and any sufficiently complicated map begins to alter the nature of the territory itself. Borges gives a wonderful example of this in the following short story:

On Exactitude in Science

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

In a similar way, the landscape of the internet now lies atop a vast sea of knowledge, spanning it so completely that we can scarcely interact with discrete, linear information anymore. Information always comes with its complex arrays of relations, fibers connecting it to countless other pieces of information. Information now has place. Where did you find it on the internet? What other quasi-discrete information surrounds it? In other words, the internet (viewed as a map) doesn’t just indicate place, it assigns place and even creates place-ness for our accumulated stores of human knowledge.

Such is the world of the aptly named “relational database.”

Citations:

Floridi, Luciano. Philosophy and Computing: An Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.