Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Sanger meets Schneider; I hit the bottle

A while back, I blogged about an interview with Daniel Dennett by a rather pompous windbag called Dan Schneider. Well, now said pompous windbag has interviewed Wikipedia co-founder and Citizendium founder Larry Sanger.

It’s sort of entertaining in a way. I mean, I downed the equivalent of four cups of coffee in energy drinks before setting off by train on a very slow sojourn through the south of England last night, and by the time I ploughed through all 40,000 words of Schneider v. Sanger, I desperately wanted to glug a whisky and ibuprofen cocktail to take the pain away.

If you go to public lectures, you know there’s always that one person who asks a question at the end. Only it’s not a question: it’s a rambling, meandering monologue. Eventually it hits five minutes and they have seemingly asked just about everything under the sun about pretty much nothing at all. The only reason they’ve sat down is they’ve run out of breath. If they had a pull-string on them, you could give it a tug and they’d spew shit for another five minutes. Now you get to enjoy that uncomfortable pause as the rest of the audience and the speakers try desperately hard to work out and salvage something from that pointless intervention. Bottle that train-wreck aesthetic and put it online and you’ve got Schneider’s literary interview series.

On Citizendium, for instance, he bangs on about the “fascism” of “credentialism”, which ignores the fundamental policies of the site and is apparently relayed at second hand from an anonymous source.1 The problem with the expertise policy on Citizendium is that it has been misapplied or badly implemented. The problems with Citizendium come down to boring things like management and bureaucracy and a whole load of other very down-to-earth things, rather than the vision itself. The other problem is that Wikipedia has grown through most of it’s painful episodes, and Citizendium has been cursed with quite a number of unproductive editors who have been banned from Wikipedia (I won’t name names, but anyone who follows these things will know who I am talking about). Their bans from Wikipedia may not have been for the best of reasons and may indeed be examples of ‘the right result for the wrong reason’. And because the accumulated policy cruft isn’t there on Citizendium, said people turn up and the tools aren’t there to really do anything about them. So they push their own personal points of view and fail to be neutral and so on. The policies on Wikipedia have been tested by repeated application, while Citizendium’s haven’t. And because of the way Citizendium works, those policies aren’t going to be tested in the real world because of the lack of critical mass.

In other words, Wikipedia is run by common law with admins as magistrates, while Citizendium as it currently stands is run by an elaborate bureaucracy, the political battles of which now seem to occupy almost all of the attention of the community as opposed to actually writing content. The fundamental problem with Citizendium is too much bureaucracy too soon, and that the Benevolent Dictator has gone too quickly. With Wikipedia, the Benevolent Dictator (Jimbo) may perhaps have outstayed his welcome; with Citizendium, he perhaps disappeared far too quickly.

That’s roughly my view now anyway. I don’t have any animosity though, and I’m completely disinterested in the personal and political side of it, which is most of the reason I left the CZ EC: because interpersonal political bickering is just completely uninteresting to me. As MeatballWiki puts it: Fighting Is Boring. I just want more and better information online delivered under free licenses because, well, Wikipedia is a lot less dysfunctional than the existing institutions of newspapers and the entertainment industry. I’m ultimately a pragmatist (on Internet encyclopedias anyway), so whatever works. Wikipedia vs. Citizendium is like Linux vs. GNU Hurd. In open content communities, like open source, competition ultimately is just another word for cooperation. If you want to see people argue the toss over Citizendium, try RationalWiki.

Anyway, so you are reading the Sanger interview and you think it might get interesting and the interview might veer into some constructive discussion of exactly what could be fixed about the varying models of running, say, Wikipedia vs. Citizendium vs. some other online Wikipedia-like encyclopedia, and Schneider wanders off into discussing his own theories and ideas like he seems to do in every other bloody interview he does.

So rather than getting some in-depth specifics about what Larry Sanger is best known for: namely, helping start Wikipedia and running it in the first year, and then going off and starting Citizendium, you get Schneider still being butthurt about how Dan Dennett basically didn’t give a shit about his question about why Time Magazine didn’t put Genghis Khan on their list of the top people of the millennium or whatever. It’s pretty good car-crash-TV to see Larry very gently noting that it may not be Dennett who is at fault in this relationship.

It’s a shame. Whether you agree with Larry or not, he’s obviously an interesting guy, and it’d be interesting to hear his views about Wikipedia and so on at some length. A 40,000 word interview would be a good place to do it, if only it was done by someone who could put his own ego on hold. A few interesting tidbits do appear in amongst a seemingly endless cycle of confirming the truth of the Dunning-Krueger effect over and over again.

But, in Schneider’s defence, surely he manages to get Larry Sanger to explain his views on philosophy? He is being interviewed as an epistemologist rather than for his role in Nupedia, Wikipedia and Citizendium. Well, Schneider fails on that front too. He does elicit a few interesting nuggets, but he fails to actually ask about Sanger’s specific research interests or elicit his views on any of the stuff that is of interest to contemporary epistemologists, despite us being in the fortunate position of living in a time after Gettier sent everyone back to the epistemological drawing board. Far be it from me to suggest that the reason Schneider failed to ask much in the way of good questions about Sanger’s philosophical views despite 40,000 words of space to do so is probably because Schneider doesn’t really understand philosophy very well.

If you don’t want to spend hours reading this dreck, let me pull out a few choice samples.

There’s lots of pomposity:

I believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different from the average artists than the average artist is from the non-artist. […] What are your thoughts on this? Are their current philosophers who might be considered visionaries in a hundred or more years? Who are they? Is there one discipline of philosophy that lends itself more to creative or visionary thought? And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself?

Schneider attempts to do some philosophy:

Is why? the ultimate query? If so, what is the ultimate answer? Is it why not? Is it because!? Or is that just super-simplistic philosophic bullshit that someone is better off simply saying so? to? And is so? the best and/or safest reply to any philosophic query?

And rightly gets rebuked by Larry:

Pseudo-philosophical bullshit seems like the best description of all of this.

Perhaps the most bizarre bit of this train wreck:

If you are familiar with UFO lore, you know that many people who claim to be abductees of extraterrestrial sexual experimenters only recall their traumas long after the fact. This is akin to the now verified False Memory Syndrome that has exculpated false claims of sexual abuse rings, Satanic torture, and a myriad of other bizarre claims. You must know of the work of the late psychiatrist John Mack, and his work with claimed alien abductees. He grew to believe in the mythos. So, if memories can change, is the past in any way mutable? And, is the past safer than the present or the future because we know how it turned out?

Where to start? That’s like a poster child for fractal wrongness. The more you think about it, the more wrong it is. And then you zoom in on a particular and it’s even more wrong. And then you ponder the mind of whoever thought this was a good theory and bloody hell, you pile so much wrongness up and it topples over causing a veritable earthquake of wrong.

Firstly, what the fuck kind of question is that? If you ask anyone with a modicum of sense, the answers are “No” and “I haven’t got a fucking clue what you are talking about” respectively. I mean, seriously, Schneider thinks that memories not being stable and accurate over time means the past is potentially ‘mutable’. That’s like all those people who think “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it really make a sound?” is some kind of important philosophical problem, when it has a clear and simple empirical answer: namely, yes.

If a newspaper says that Brussels is in France, does it in some sense make it in France? No. If the evil psychologist of so many philosophical thought experiments wired me up to a computer and made me start having, oh, some thing very much like the mental state I would have if I were to believe that Winston Churchill was still alive, it wouldn’t suddenly make him alive, or make the “past mutable”. It would mean in the first instance that the newspaper got something wrong and in the second instance that my mental states do not always accurately reflect the outside world. In other words, the world doesn’t give a shit what you think.

If you take the possibility seriously that someone having memories that do not accurately reflect facts about the past means that the past is “mutable”, you need to be smacked around the head a few times with an undergraduate epistemology textbook. This sort of thinking almost borders on what Dan Dennett calls a deepity. It has a meaning that is very obviously true but unimportant and it has a significant meaning which is total bullshit.2

As Sanger points out, it is especially amusing to hear this kind of utter nonsense from someone who rails so vehemently against ‘subjectivism’ (and postmodernism and political correctness et al.)! Apparently, subjectivism is the source of all evil in art and aesthetics, but subjectivism about the external world is perfectly fine because how else would we be able to explain the mental states of people who think they’ve been abducted by aliens?! Enquiring minds want to know!

So that’s all fun and games if, like me, you have something of a tolerance for watching people fail badly at philosophy (Schneider that is). But why on earth are you asking the co-founder of Wikipedia whether or not he’s familiar with “UFO lore”? Besides the aforementioned car crash value, what is the reader supposed to glean from this? Am I supposed to be impressed by how wide ranging an intellect Schneider has or something? (I’m really not.) I hear a lot of interviews on the radio and in the best interviews the interviewer is asking exactly the sort of questions I would want to ask and otherwise keeping out of the way. The skilled interviewer isn’t there to talk about themselves. People don’t tune into Desert Island Discs to hear Sue Lawley or Kirsty Young, they tune into hear something interesting about the guest, with music as a proxy for their personality.

Interviewing is fundamentally a very modest matter: as Kierkegaard said of Socrates, one is serving as a midwife, bringing things out of the student (or interviewee). Sometimes an interviewer needs to be a bit strong-armed and do the Jeremy Paxman routine, but the point is to let the interviewee do the talking. An interviewer who spends his whole time puffing himself up is like a teacher whose only role is to show how much cleverer he is than his students. It may make him feel better, but what value is there in that to anybody else? Go beyond that Socratic (or an emotional variant thereof of the Socratic) role and, to use the Kierkegaard analogy, you end up having to play the role of Jesus. And while a good interviewer can occasionally pull off Socrates, he or she will always fail at being Jesus by dint of, oh, not being the son of God.

Here’s a hint for wannabe interviewers: if multiple interviewees (including smart folk like Dennett) tell you repeatedly and at length that they are having a really hard time working out what the bloody hell you are actually trying to say, you should seriously consider rethinking your technique.

On his website, Schneider modestly describes his interview with Steven Pinker as “One of the greatest interviews ever recorded”. This is an interview where a huge chunk of it is Schneider quoting different chunks of his own reviews of Pinker’s books back at him and asking him for responses, and the rest of it asking the exact same questions he asked to Dennett and Sanger about his half-baked theories and philosophies. In an interview, Schneider himself is asked who he thinks the greatest living “visionary poets” are. The phrase “Excluding myself” appears in the answer. I kid you not. As for why you you’ve never heard of him, the greatest living visionary poet? That’s all a conspiracy by the publishing industry and stupid idiotic “deliterates” who spend all their time watching American Idol rather than reading his ingenious works of poetry, as he explains repeatedly and at length in interviews with anyone who’ll listen.

Interestingly, the interview with Pinker contains a number of questions which are the same word-for-word as the interview with Sanger. As if the interviewee is simply a disciple or a sounding board, someone to sit at the feet of the Great Artist and quietly nod in approval. For a writer of such obvious Greatness, it is interesting how easily you could produce a computer programme to churn out these interviews. Basically, you just take an existing template and just throw in a few phrases from the descriptions of the published works of the author being interviewed and hit send.

I wish I could have said this interview “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read) but sadly it was “too long; did read”. And now I need to find where I stashed that whisky to make the memory of it go away as quickly as possible. To restate a question that the Man of Considerable Greatness asks, if I numb the pain with enough alcohol and painkillers to sedate a pony, does that make the interview in some sense less awful? Sadly not.

  1. That’s an awesome interview technique by the way: when you have a public website you can go and look at with your own eyes, you instead rely on the testimony of one anonymous individual. Also, really? Really? It’s “fascistic” to run a wiki where experts are asked to sign off on articles? The worst you can say about is that it doesn’t work or that the selection of experts is problematic. But to suggest that any issue in the debate over the relative merits of wiki-based encyclopedia projects approaches the level of “fascism” is really a bit OTT…

  2. Okay, let me give it a shot. If events that happened in the past have as some mereological component mental states that are happening now or in the future, there is a way in which this view can be true. Imagine we have some abstract object that represents a past event, such that it is contingent on abstract objects of the same broad type. And we say that such an event has a mereological relationship with present brain states that are related to the event, and those brain states have a causal chain of history between them as they change or degrade over time. So, you’ve got the event (E1) and it has some unspecified relationship R1 with one or more mental state sets (MSS1), which themselves have a different relationship with a chain of mental states (MS1…MSn). We can pick any mental state from MSS1, and it has a relationship to E1. In as much as the set of mental states attached to a particular event change, it is possible to say that the event E1 changes. In as much as one believes that the event has as a direct property or mereological component of itself a set of mental states that have a relationship with that event, then the mutability of events based on mental states about them in the future is obviously true. But I don’t see any good reason to accept this sort of account because it doesn’t get you anywhere useful, and it throws up oddities. I mean, the idea that, say, the Battle of the Somme would have been different if I had not been born seventy-odd years later is far too ontologically queer for me.