Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Philosophy and Video Games

There has been a long history of exchange between philosophy and film. While filmmakers looking for universal themes in order to broaden the appeal of their work have incorporated philosophical themes into their narratives, philosophers have generally approached film differently, looking at the nature of film itself, it "mode of being" (ontology) and the "apprehension" of that mode (epistemology). Going as far back as Hugo Munsterberg's The Photoplay (1916), ontology of Film has been a rich source of speculation from philosophers as diverse as Stanley Cavell and Giles Deleuze. We could call this approach "extrinsic" in that it involves philosopher's theorizing about the nature of film itself, rather than examining the philosophy of or in particular films. Only recently have philosopher's turned to the content of the individual film as a means of introducing students and lay audiences to methods of exploring philosophy through the narrative. While this trend probably has its roots in a literary criticism (which over the last few decades has become quite "philosophical" and theory-laden in its approach), it has gained wide acceptance among academic philosophers with the popularity of William Irwin's Popular Culture and Philosophy series.

What has received little attention, surprisingly, is the intersection of philosophy and video games. Some time last fall, the video game industry has actually surpassed film in terms of sales. Curiously, the few nascent books looking at philosophical themes in video games came out at the same time (just before Christmas) as consumers cleared the shelves of Wii, PS3, and Xbox games. Granted, film as a medium has been around since the 19th Century, whereas few people even knew video games existed before 1973. (Why 1973, you ask? Because in 1973 the first coin-operated arcade game, Computer Space, made a cameo in the film Soylent Green.) Given the current academic demands to find new speculative territory, it seems that video games present virgin territory ripe for the taking.

But more importantly, video games offer an element of analysis over and above that of film, namely, the active dimension. You don't watch a video game, you play a video game. Because the player is an agent within the medium in a way wholly different than that of a spectator of film, this opens up whole new dimensions of extrinsic analysis. Video games become platforms for epistemic and ontic relations in ways markedly different than film. This active dimension opens to the ethical. Like filmmakers, video game designers have capitalized on this in various ways, from the classic character-development game Ultima IV to the ultimate anti-social Grand Theft Auto series. Because conditions of action can differ from game title to game title (meaning different games have you doing different things), an extrinsic analysis might be variable from title to title. Rather than talk about the "nature" of video games in the general, a whole set of distinctions have to be made between a puzzle-driven adventure game [like CDX], a single-player first-person shooter [Doom], a multi-player first-person shooter [Quake Live], or a Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Game [Runescape]. One can also examine player's actions imminent to the game vs. actions outside of proscribed rules and limits of the game which affect the game itself (obviously things such as "cheats" and "hacks," but also the effect of clans on game play as well). This bridges the gap between extrinsic and intrinsic analyses in a way that film cannot (with the possible exception of experimental and some "art" films).

That being said, it is still an interesting question to ask why so little attention has been paid to video games by philosophers. Is it that philosophers are old and stodgy, and video games are still a young person's media? Or is it that philosophers -- being disengaged spectators by nature -- feel less comfortable with an active, agent-centered media rather than one that is basically passive? Or is it that film presents the viewer with a "closed system" with little or no extraneous elements, a fixed chronology, and a definite end (in both the temporal and the teleological sense), whereas video games are often messy, requiring the player to engage in mundane activities, make frequent bad decisions & erroneous actions which often leads to "catastrophic" failures (i.e., death), and philosophers prefer things to be more tidy?

Feel free to add your own theories.


Josh said...

The philosophy and popular culture series has been very successful, but still suffers from negative reception among serious philosophers.

I think that part of the reason stems from the fact that philosophy is largely a textually- based discipline, a scholarly, textually-based discipline.

In Durkheimian terms, the university-press book or peer-reviewed journal article is the totem, or sacred symbol, that unifies philosophers. Everything outside of that (popular press, websites, video games, film, etc.) is the profane or mundane.

However, in the 21st century, the sacred symbols of the intellectual academy are slowly evolving. A distinct intellectual or artistic creation (philosophical theory or idea) can be realized through several expressions (book, film, video game). A whole new generation of scholars grasp this fluidity of format and will eventually bring the philosophy of video games into the intellectual fold.

Jerome said...

I certainly agree, but I wonder if the situation is one of evolution or revolution. For good or ill, one of the side-effects of post-modernism is the idea that "everything is text" has altered general practices in the academy. The influence has even been felt among academics who explicitly reject post-modernism, since there's enough po-mo academics across the disciplines who have deviated from the normative stance one is supposed to adopt in relation to one's object of study. Certainly the philosophy and popular culture series would never have happened without it, and we'd have even less non-professionals & non-academics who have been exposed to the basic ideas in philosophy.

Hanno said...

Please take ownership of the post. Someone write up a by line.

Having written a piece in philosophy and pop culture, and lectured on the subject, the reason we don't take that too seriously is because 1) its too easy. 2) the subjects have little depth, by which I mean there is little give and take, back and forth, and being forced to go into more depth as a result of criticism. Yes, they can spark a discussion, yes, they can pull people in, and yes, they can raise some interesting issues.

The issues they raise, however, if they contain depth, need to be gone through carefully, and typically point to another field, and that field is the non-popular philosophy. For example, I might use vampires to talk about Kantian ethics, but if I want to get serious about it, I need to go into depth about Kant's ethics, and that leaves the pop culture behind.

In short, philosophy and pop culture is a lot like academic history and pop history. The real story requires the depth only created by a history of critical response.

Hanno said...

Josh, you ignore why the university press or peer reviewed journal is so sacred. The reason is the same as why drugs need FDA approval. Without some notion of oversight, the good stuff gets lost amid the junk, people take alcohol for medicine.

Our real work gets tested by other trained philosophers to see if it is both important and well documented/supported. My piece on the Grateful Dead was tested to see if the masses might be tempted to by a book because its in there. Radically different agendas, and radically different outcomes. So even if the media change, the need for peer oversight remains the same.

Anonymous said...

Why is academia considered the gatekeeping device of quality? This analogy assumes that professors/academics are the "good" and that, essentially, any other opinion is comparable to junk/drugs/alcohol. This seems like a heavy-handed assumption, and a rather dangerous one.

Before peer oversight is cited as the best route, I think 'peer' needs to be defined, since it seems like a rather subjective term.

Josh said...

There are so many items to address in this conversation that I will dance around several:

1.) Peer review shouldn't be confused with neutrality. As a corollary, quality should not be confused with peer-review. Journals, editors, and peer-reviewers all have their own biases and agenda. If your article does not fall within the range of discourse that is currently being supported by said journal you are out of luck.

Peer-review functions under the myth of neutrality.

2.) This also brings up the problem of "impact factor" when it comes to peer-reviewed journals. Some journals are considered more important than other journals. Why? What makes one journal more important than another. Readership? Popularity of authors? Distribution?

3.) This also brings us to a discussion of Kuhn and paradigm shifts. How do radical ideas emerge in a guild system of academic publishing? The philosophy of video games, for example.

4.) If the post-modernists are correct and, as Jerome pointed out, everything is text, then what does this mean for a textually-based discipline like philosophy?

Hanno said...

I don't know how dangerous it is, its the one that has been used to good effect since the beginnings of academia in the Middle Ages. It is at the heart of scientific endeavor, and all the positive things the academy has done over the centuries. Can it cover up good ideas? Of course! So can the medical establishment. But it also finds good ideas, and develops them, and throws out tons of bad ideas. The open ended medical care we know leads to the free wheeling drug care of the turn of the century. It is the gate keepers that make modern medicine work.

In fact, I will easily argue that the lack of gate keepers is more dangerous than the opposite.

There is something to the philosophical training/professionalization which puts issues in a box. But there is also great virtue to that training, and to pretend otherwise is silly. And it is those virtues that make peer review work. And it has worked.

I do not think that 'popular culture' and philosophy is a result of media, but a result of the movement of the 60's to make learning relevant to students' daily lives.

Hanno said...

Answer to number 2: better competition and editors choosing better work.

Peer review is more neutral that other reviews, but neutrality itself does not exist.

Hanno said...

Fact is new ideas do make their way through the 'guild system.' And radical ones. But they have to make their way like all great ideas, but stimulating other people to write and think about the issues, action, reaction, synthesis, critique.

Kuhn himself brings forth a radical set of ideas... which were read by professional philosophers and challenged basic assumptions, and which was recognized as such by those very philosphers it criticized.

Philosophical issues are not individual, or in the air. They are a product of a social interaction between thinkers.

What happens if you want to talk about the philosophy of beavers? Nothing, till you come up with an idea which makes people pay attention.

Hanno said...

hmmm... philosophy of beavers... might be something there.

Josh said...

Platonic fear of the masses - a classic philosophical idea!

So the better journals are more competitive and have better work?
And the better work is found in competitive journals and we know it is better because it is published in a competitive journal? journal only accepts 1 article every 10 years. The work published in my journal must be the best!

I agree that new ideas take hold by stimulating other people to write, think about issues, move to action, cause reaction, synthesize, and critique. However, I disagree that this actually happens within the current academic community. As a matter of fact, I think it happens more on blogs and among the masses.

If you excuse me, I have a radical philosophy of beavers to construct - post haste!

Jerome said...

"It is the gate keepers that make modern medicine work."

Like your previous example with the FDA, I question whether our modern medicine system actually does work. Sure, we have medicines that actually treat symptoms and do remarkable things, and this comes about by the community of scientists working through the peer-review process. But I think Josh and Anonymous' point is that the peer-review process doesn't happen in a vacuum. Certain research is granted more clout based on politics as well as Corporate sponsorship. (This last aspect, the commodification of medicine, is the main reason why I'd argue that modern medicine isn't working. Yes, this breaks the analogy with philosophy, but when philosophy has less commercial interests it just means the political interests are more pronounced.)

"In fact, I will easily argue that the lack of gate keepers is more dangerous than the opposite."

I'm inclined to challenge this as well, since it follows the same logic as "more laws make us safer" or "more rules make us better people." Without the imprimatur and nil obstat from the Gatekeepers, people might actually have to take responsibility and ask themselves if pumping their children with psychotropics for ADHD might actually be more harmful for their development, or being on uninterrupted medical contraceptives for 35 years might actually be detrimental to a woman's long term health. Have a society where individuals are more inclined to question Gatekeepers than accept their authority is a safer and healthier society. And I think Johnny Rotten would agree with me.

"I don't know how dangerous it is, its the one that has been used to good effect since the beginnings of academia in the Middle Ages."

Let's not forget that the University system was established by Bishops to train clergy, with a system of rewards put in place to connote orthodoxy, that has gone largely unchanged. Given that, we should at least entertain the possibility that certain prejudices are institutional.

Jerome said...

...and I happen to be working on a paper entitled "The University, Beavers, and the State of Exception" which utilizes concepts taken from Giorgio Agamben to analyze the hidden philosophical assumptions by which the University assumes power over the life and death of beavers.

(Yeah, I know. It's already been done.)

Hanno said...

The question ultimately is whether there is or is not expertise in a field like philosophy, just as there is in medicine. If there is, then that expertise is important in determining good medical practices, and the only good judges of expertise in medicine are experts in medicine. If so, radical new thoughts will find themselves on the outside looking in, but can make in roads, and ultimately enter the field. If there is no real expertise in medicine, then the guild structure of medicine causes harm.

And when that expertise is denied, the truth quickly gets lost. Fact is, quacks do great business, ignorance quickly gets rooted, and people quickly believe apricot seeds beans cure cancer cause they read it somewhere.

I agree, too much deference to the doctors causes problems, but a look at medicine before the guild structure is in place shows how bad things get.

And so in philosophy, too much deference to philosophers is misplaced.

But there is an expertise. There are people who have talent. There are people who develop that talent. There is an educational process that gives expert information on a variety of topics. There are issues that one can only understand after that training, and those issues may require, like issues in physics, training to even understand things. And just like physics, when we write on those ideas, we can only write to similar experts, and only similar experts can judge if we are saying something worth hearing or not.

Now when you say you challenge the idea that the gate keepers and good and necessary, you do not actually think of a situation without gate keepers. You pick one whether there are gate keepers, but the consumers of the information are critically minded as well, not simply accepting what comes out, which is fine by me. It does not show that the gate keepers are not necessary.

And the evidence you point to already assumes both the gate keepers and the rest. How do you know "if pumping their children with psychotropics for ADHD might actually be more harmful for their development"? Only because some gate keeper information has been given to you. Whether it is or is not harmful is something only the scientific medical field can determine, since otherwise its left to anecdotal evidence and the rantings of people who may or may not know what they are talking about (See tom Cruise.) Even the formation of the thought is a product of gate-kept information.

And the idea that the studies are paid for by the corporations which stand to benefit from them is all the more reason to have BETTER gate keepers, rather than their elimination. and, of course, I agree.

Show me where the market place of ideas, totally free of gate keepers, actually delivers more beneficial truths than the gate kept ones. And dont point to the web, it is a jubgled mass of crap when it comes to information, which will precisely be my example. The only good sources of information on the web are those that are gate kept.

Hanno said...

It is not fear of the masses so much as fear of ignorance. If the masses are ignorant, I fear them. If not, I don't.

To the extent that I am ignorant, I fear me.

Hanno said...

I do think, back tot he original topic, there is something else at play: taking recreation seriously, that is, takig the non-serious seriously. The move to movies, pop songs, video games as a vehicle or as being philosophical requires us to do just that. Yet something seems dischordant when a philosophers looks at a stupid movie like "Starship Troopers" seriously. I think the samething is true in all these fields, and breeds suspicion that the thinkers prima facie off their rockers for doing so.

Josh said...

Hanno, of course the web is exactly where to point (the one avenue you cut off). If, as you say, philosophical issue are a product of a social interaction between thinkers, then where in the world is more social interaction taking place than on the web!

Moreover, you already grant that neutrality itself does not exist.
So everything is a form of bias - including truth. We all have agendas (amateurs, experts, geniuses, and dullards). Instead of concealing these biases, let's expose and explore them.

You are right, the web is a clearing house of biases and bad arguments. However, this is not a defect. The mess of the web, used properly, should foster the critical society that questions the gate keepers.

Wikipedia is a perfect example. An entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica is written by someone (with a bias) and evaluated by maybe 3 other people (with their own biases) on an editorial board. 4 Gatekeepers.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, exemplifies bias by allowing anyone to edit a page. When you find an entry, just click on the history to see what edits have been made. You will see a trail of changes and biases (376 gatekeepers). This forces you to do more research and think critically - exactly what education should be doing. Gaining knowledge is hard work and is a process that should never finish (until death).

The web assumes that knowledge is a function of social interaction, with inherent bias. Our job (all of us - not just the PhDs) is to continually add, debate, criticize, and question that knowledge. This, in the long run, will give us beneficial truths because we hold the dual responsibility of gate keeper and critic. The more people that play in the sandbox, the more castles we can build. As a matter of fact, there is even good reason to think that crowds, given certain parameters, are smarter than single or a group of experts (see The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki).

Hanno said...

And yet, wikipedia is a terrible source, and so is the internet unless there is a gatekeeper. Want me to make Napoleon a fan of beavers? I can do it in a second. Might someone correct it? Maybe, but who knows, he might have liked beavers. Who would know? Only an expert.

"Our job (all of us - not just the PhDs) is to continually add, debate, criticize, and question that knowledge."

You suppose you are in a position to be a gatekeeper about subjects you grant you are not an expert. That makes little sense. You suppose 300+ gate keepers are better than 4. But numbers do not make the truth, and the quality of gatekeepers is very important. Do those 4 know what the hell they are talking about? If the source is any good, the answer is yes. Does that end the story? No, that is why the academy keeps going, keeps criticizing, why the academic debates do not stop with an entry in an encyclopedia.

Too, I said philosophy is a socially interactive activity, but not that all interactive thought is philosophical or philosophically worthwhile. I can point you to places on the web that have good information about philosophy and bad. How? Because it is my field.

Hanno said...

Moreover, there is a world of difference between an encyclopedia entry and real scholarship. New discoveries or view points will never be as democratic as you would like. The fields are too specialized, and require too much training to be so. Only people who pass through the gate are able to even write about the subjects, much less publish.

No matter how much you would like, only a few people will be in a position to critically evaluate, say, someone's response to the later Wittgenstein's questions about arithmetic. It requires a great deal of knowledge about logic, math, empiricism, Wittgenstein, Kripke, Logicism etc. to do so. And the only people who will be able to are people who made a lifetime of studying that sort of stuff. To write about that on the web will only be done by the gatekeepers, just in a very different way.

Interestingly enough, the best entries in wikipedia are either those that require no specialization, like those about pop culture, where the average person may develop the required knowledge, or highly specialized articles, where the only people who would write or edit the entry are those with the expertise, the people who already passed through the academic gate. But that will only describe an area of interest. New work will not be done in this way.

Josh said...

Can you substantiate that wikipedia is a terrible source?

There is certainly evidence to the contrary:

"You suppose you are in a position to be a gatekeeper about subjects you grant you are not an expert."

No, I am aware that I have biases that even I am not aware of. The only way I am aware of those biases is by engaging with as many people as possible from all walks of life (ethnicity, gender, education, or otherwise).

Even the experts have biases. This is why I seek a 2nd or 3rd or 28th opinion when deciding on medical treatment (they are all experts, but they each have different approaches).

Hanno said...

You still assume an expertise when you listen and judge between other experts. 2 experts disagree. Now how are you going to adjudicate? How can you tell which one knows what he is talking about. Asking a 3rd only compounds the difficulty. If the 3rd disagrees with the other two, you are worse off, and if he agrees, you still do not know which is right, since the truth is not determined by democracy.

And yeah, ask any historian about the quality of history articles, or ask Terry Beckinbaugh about his adding that Napoleon loved bananas to the article on him, just to make the point about how anything can be part of a wikipedia article. If you really want, I can add something about Napoleon's little known love of beavers.

Hanno said...

And bias is possible, but a negative connotation. It is a problem, but point of view seems to fit better. Bias assumes a negative response to contrary arguments and facts, whereas different points of view do not. The absence of objectivity suggests different points of view, but does not necessarily suggest bias.

But its not bias I worry about, but ignorance. Its not that you have your biases, but that you and I judge things we do not know. You and I cannot really figure out which doctor is right not because of bias, but because we are not doctors.

ce said...

Wikipedia requires sources for information, otherwise the edits can, and by their rules should be removed. You need sources. Those sources are effectively expert testimony.

Then again, JoJo (the pop star) was quite annoyed when there was false information on Wikipedia about her. But if a news source gets the information wrong, and someone uses them as the reference, then it can stick. Who is going to know the news source got it wrong? Someone who does their research. Who's going to bother doing the research? Quite possibly, an expert on pop music.

Expertise is required. Otherwise, you just have the most vocal of the masses, and everything becomes an ad populum or a generalization from limited evidence. This is not dismissing the value of outsider input. It's just putting that value in perspective.

Of course, you could tell JoJo that she got JoJo wrong, despite her testimony and all evidence to the contrary, because you read it in a magazine or heard it from a friend who heard it somewhere. And she's free to dismiss you as an idiot. And she should. Because you're being an idiot.

Experts can and do get things wrong. They just get it wrong far less often than the amateurs. This is most evident in the sciences, but it's true in other fields too. And how do we know they got it wrong? We don't just need to appeal to the other experts. This is evident in practice. I'd much rather the EMT perform CPR, rather than someone who watches a lot of cop dramas, tyvm.

Jerome said...

"The question ultimately is whether there is or is not expertise in a field like philosophy, just as there is in medicine."

There is no question that there is "expertise" in a field like philosophy or medicine. Of course there are individuals who show remarkable insight into situations or scenarios where others in that person's community do not. But that isn't what is being questioned. What is being questioned is the nature and function of "gatekeepers."

"...when you say you challenge the idea that the gate keepers and good and necessary, you do not actually think of a situation without gate keepers..."

But I do, actually. Since the point was made that gatekeepers were necessary, I felt compelled to give instances in which the combined processes of institutionalized medicine encourage the consumption of medication in a way in which is probably not conducive to overall health, and the masses who have been conditioned to concede to the judgment of experts do so without question, while those who actually believe these practices harmful have no recourse to the professional literature, since the episteme of those who are producing the literature is such that they don't question the practice. [I use episteme in a specifically Foucaultean meaning, and use it instead of "paradigm" because, unlike Kuhn, who takes it for granted that the reigning ideological limits of a given discipline are largely intentional, Foucault believes they are largely subconscious and constituted by one's attempts to suppress their unadulterated exercise of power.] It's next to impossible to point to anything in Late Capitalism that isn't institutionalized, and thus circumscribed by gatekeepers.

Let's instead take the example of a hypothetical pre-agricultural society, and return to the question of "expertise." A woman who is able to discern which combination of herbs picked from the forest to treat symptoms of a particular ailment exhibits an expertise unique to her community. In one sense we could claim that she is an "expert" but in another sense she isn't. She is an "expert" in as far as she exhibits a particular expertise, but she isn't an "expert" insofar as her place and role within the structure of her community has gone unchanged. To take on the appellation of "expert" in this second sense is to redefine oneself in relation to the rest of the community. To conceptualize herself as "expert" our villager is also re-conceptualizing her community as stratified, with herself as inhabiting a superior position. Once you have a certain number of "experts" the community is now hierarchical. This in and of itself isn't bad, but what we should recognize is that the community that was just disrupted wasn't disrupted because one or more members had superior skills; it was because they began conceptualizing themselves in a specific way.

What I will say is bad (in a moral sense, as well as in terms of effect upon community) is when said experts act collectively to establish institutions and institutional processes with the explicit intent of facilitating coordinated activities amongst themselves, but with an implicit intent of separating themselves from the rest of the community, creating ritual performances to enhance their prestige, and at the same time insulating themselves from criticism by those outside of the institution. After all, what (institutional) credentials does someone outside of the circle of experts have to justify their criticism?

I'm not arguing that gatekeepers do not sometimes do good, individually or collectively, or that they even intend the evils that result from this societal transformation. Frankly, I'm glad that professional philosophy is largely done in the open, instead of in secret like the medieval neo-Platonists did (keeping in mind that these philosophers had to maintain their secrecy and encode their writing under the guise of alchemy to avoid being persecuted by the "official" philosophers who were backed by the Church). But gatekeepers more than anyone else need to recognize how the exercise of their institutional power functions as much to keep bad ideas out as it does to prevent good ideas which challenge the reigning episteme from entering. Those who sit on editorial boards or hiring committees might not admit and probably don't even realize that their rejection of an article or their failure to hire a given individual has less to do with the quality of that individual's scholarship, and more to do with the fact that her work follows a different tradition, uses a different methodology, or might in some other way challenge the prestige of their chosen body of scholarship.

You might argue that gatekeepers, being the good-natured individuals they are, create institutional policies and procedures designed to prevent or at least minimize these abuses. But this is contingent upon them being open and aware that this possibility exists. The rapidity with which professionals are quick to deny it doesn't inspire much confidence. In fact, I almost get the impression that the supposed existence of institutional policies and procedures designed to prevent these abuses creates a disposition not unlike that of medical professionals to mass consumers, or national banks to home-owners shopping for a mortgage.

ce said...


You seem to primarily be attacking the expert and not the expertise. It's not the skill and knowledge of herbs you're attacking. This woman might also know that a particular combination of plants, when consumed, can be potentially lethal. Another person might say, "But I have eaten all of these plants separately, and some of them together, why would this be harmful?", and can perhaps, through sheer rhetorical flare, convince others assembled that the old woman is just being silly, or fearful, or holding her knowledge over the populace as some sort of title, and in challenging that title or trying to make his own mark, gets an awful lot of people killed.

Sure, being an "expert" can go to someone's head. And yes, people with positions of authority and power will set up structures to secure that power and authority. I'd chalk that up to being human. Can it be detrimental? Yes. It can also be quite beneficial. Do you want to listen to your stoner friend's ramblings about marijuana, or do you want to know what the studies show? Your stoner friend might have some great stories, but probably doesn't have the resources or requisite knowledge to know what the Hell he's even talking about. And if he does know anything, it's because he read people who do have the credentials and did the research.

I'm all for the revolution. But it should be beneficial. New voices and ways of thinking come about all the time. Women's Studies and Asian Studies programs would have been unthinkable not that long ago. Sure, it takes a while for the wheels of academia to turn. But do we really want the font of knowledge to become the quagmire that is most internet message boards?

Perhaps, what you're touching on is that they're too stringent/biased when it comes to granting credence to outside voices. Probably, true. But nor do we need to be led by fools.

Jerome said...

Since the merits of Wikipedia is open to a wide-ranging debate, let's instead take the case of Open Source Software. Granted, we're moving pretty far afield from philosophy, but a software program is essentially an extended mathematic/logic expression formulated to produce a certain result, and that result has real-world ramifications which can be used to judge the expressed formula. Hence, there is "expertise" required in the creation process on par with the "expertise" required to engage in high-level philosophical discourse.

(If you don't know what open source software is, you can read up on Wikipedia or Eric Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar.)

The assumption is that you need a hierarchy, or a system of gatekeepers, to properly create and disseminate a computer program. Various "experts" are required at each stage of the process: Bill Gates has to approve the project, various middle managers have to coordinate development teams, development teams have to instruct lower-tier programmers. Usability experts have to weigh in, etc. All this hierachicalization is required, so the logic goes, to ensure quality of product.

Open source projects on the other hand generally start with an individual or a team creating the concept, writing a code base, then putting it up on a Web (usually via a concurrent versioning system) so that anyone can look at the code, test it, change something they don't like, then uploaded back to the site. If enough users like the changes, it becomes an official part of the program. If they don't, you can "fork" the program, meaning have your own version with the changes you made, available to others who want to build upon what you've done.

There are no "gatekeepers" in the traditional sense (some of these projects have a steering committee or even an executive, but its usually because development has reached such a huge level, or because the project has either a foundation or commercial sponsorship which demands some kind of gatekeeping mechanism in place. But even these generally tend to be very democratic.)

What you end up with is software that is not only "as good," but is routinely superior to what is created by the hierarchical organization. Apache, MySQL, Firefox, CinePaint, VLC, Ruby on Rails, all tend to be superior to their commercial counterparts.

Jerome said...

Hanno said:

"You and I cannot really figure out which doctor is right not because of bias, but because we are not doctors."

Apparently, neither can doctors.

ce said...

What you end up with is software that is not only "as good," but is routinely superior to what is created by the hierarchical organization. Apache, MySQL, Firefox, CinePaint, VLC, Ruby on Rails, all tend to be superior to their commercial counterparts.

All of which were peer reviewed, and produced via the expertise of the persons involved. Not just any random chump who's familiar with HTML tags can code his own version of Linux. I have a friend who has put together his own Linux OS. I don't know a fraction of what he knows, and would never presume to be his peer in the field, and I commonly impress users with my computer knowledge, which (IMO) is remarkably limited.

In short: outsiders (non-experts) still have all but nothing to say on the subject.

So, maybe the conclusion is peer reviewed journals work, but academia doesn't? Those teams who put together the software didn't let just any random person sit down and start assisting. There was a weeding out process. If anything, computer geeks are quite elitist. Indeed, they're so elitist, they created a new word for it.

Apparently, neither can doctors.

Do you not know many people in the medical profession? Anyone who works in the area can tell you the doctors to avoid. Perhaps, it's a little more difficult to determine who the "best" is, but the worst stand out quite sharply.

You keep attacking the experts or the system, but you have yet to show that non-experts have anything to offer in expert fields. We can just assume that, most likely, there will be a non-expert with a fresh perspective who will have something to offer. But you have not given us any reason as to why the experts should go out of their way to accommodate such persons.

Josh said...

NASA is an easy example.

Due to the vastness of the sky, NASA routinely relies upon data produced by amateurs.

Recent example:

On August 9th, 2008 a pair of amateur astronomers on opposite sides of the United States captured the Perseid meteor, shower just underway, with their cameras.

They fixed their cameras on the Moon and watched meteoroids slam into the lunar surface.

They submitted this information to experts at NASA. Rob Suggs of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office reviewed the data and is quoted as saying, "This shows how amateur astronomers can contribute to our research. We can't observe the Moon 24-7 from our corner of the USA. Clouds, sunlight, the phase of the Moon—all these factors limit our opportunities. A global network of amateur astronomers monitoring the Moon could, however, approach full coverage.

A clear example of why experts should listen to, and could benefit from, non-experts.


Jerome said...

CE wrote:
"All of which were peer reviewed, and produced via the expertise of the persons involved."

Maybe we should have taken anon's comments (5th post) seriously and defined what we mean by "peer."

In the case of OSS a peer is defined by one's "expertise," or ability to contribute useful code. It doesn't matter if your a professor at MIT or an unemployed single mom. The so-called elitism of programmers isn't based on one's title, chair, or what journals you've published in. Even if you've spearheaded the development of a highly successful OSS project, if you contribute code that's rubbish, or (more likely) doesn't work as effectively as the code contributed by some 14-year old kid in Kentucky, it's going to be rejected.

The difference between this and academia is academia, through their own efforts, constitutes (or "institutes") a separate class. This is what Josh was hinting at in the first post regarding totems and sacred symbols. It isn't mere hyperbole to use those terms. When the Church established the University system so much of the sacred symbols were engineered to maximize the impression of academics/clerics as a distinct sub-class. Special garments, Latin rather than the vernacular, etc.

Regarding the question of doctors, Hanno pointed out that when you go to two doctors who disagree, you are still appealing to "expertise" (by this he means a "gatekeeper") when you go to a 3rd. When you get to that 28th doctor and you don't reach a consensus, you do what most people would do, you loose faith in the "sacredness" of their "expertise" and treat their "expert" opinion as one among many other possible opinions.

The varying degrees of legitimacy that doctors now grant to chiropractic, acupuncture, massage therapy didn't come about because the medical profession took it upon themselves to investigate. It was because the masses were turning to these alternatives with mixed results. At the time, these alternative approaches constituted a challenge to the medical paradigm.

" have not given us any reason as to why the experts should go out of their way to accommodate [the non-expert]."

I only want everyone, experts and non-experts, to recognize that the role of "gatekeeper" is the result and continuation of the institutional concentration of power, and any exercise of that power very likely conceals political motives behind the veil of objectivity.

ce said...


I'll let Hanno determine what synonym is right for his usage of "expertise".

I only want everyone, experts and non-experts, to recognize that the role of "gatekeeper" is the result and continuation of the institutional concentration of power

That's a given.

and any exercise of that power very likely conceals political motives behind the veil of objectivity.

Can you define "very likely"? Do you have statistics to back this up? It's certainly plausible that your opinion is being dismissed because it's uninformed. You could simply be getting key facts wrong, taking things out of context, extrapolating and generalizing hastily, etc. There are any number of reasons, in point of fact, that you could be getting ignored, dismissed, etc.

The FDA functions as a gatekeeper, and hazardous drugs still make it to the public. Just imagine how much worse it would be if there were no regulation at all. You seem to be presenting nothing but a negative assessment of the gatekeepers. Can it be harmful? Yes. It can also be beneficial. And as strange as it sounds, sometime paternalism and not fraternalism lie behind the restrictions. At least, that's taking people on their word. I could be mistaken.

Maybe we should have taken anon's comments (5th post) seriously and defined what we mean by "peer."

Standard English usage.

if you contribute code that's rubbish, or (more likely) doesn't work as effectively as the code contributed by some 14-year old kid in Kentucky, it's going to be rejected.