Category Archives: philo

I like ambiguous demonstratives

One of the recent changes to Facebook that went undiscussed (or at least less discussed than the it-looks-like-Twitter thing) is liking. Attached to most of the pieces of content that appear in Facebook is a button that says “Like”. The intent seems to be this: liking is like commenting without content. Kinda like carving your name into a picnic table – not because you have anything to say, but just because you want to let everyone know that you were there. Neato.

I like this

There’s something ambiguous about liking, though. Imagine the following situations:

  1. Friend 1 posts an abstract drawing that she made in MS Paint.
  2. Friend 2 posts a status update that says “I got a new job and I am very happy about it”.
  3. Friend 3 posts an artsy photograph of a beer.
  4. Friend 4 posts a link to her singing a song about how she is very sad.

Clicking “Like” in each case means something different. In (1), the only real candidate as the object of my liking is the picture itself, especially since it’s not a picture of anything. In (2), the most likely liked entity is not the status update itself (which is not particularly funny or poetic or otherwise remarkable) but the fact that my friend got a new job and is happy about it. In (3), it’s not really clear: I could be liking the picture (since it’s so artsy and thus awesome) or the beer (since it’s beer). In (4), presumably I like the song, not the link (which would just be a URL or something like that) or the propositional content of the song (that the singer is sad).

We might pinpoint this ambiguity in the demonstrative “this” that Facebook attaches to each act of liking. When you single out the object of your liking with “this” and without a sortal, there is room for audience interpretation as to what you really meant to like.

However (as I just realized – while writing the previous paragraph, I got a notification from Facebook in another window letting me know that someone likes my status) Facebook doesn’t always leave the sortal out. In the notifications section, you are told that someone likes your status or your picture or whatever. But clearly, as in example (2) above, this is sometimes not the intent at all. So in this case the phrase “this status” might be acting metonymically, as shorthand for “the propositional content of this status” or something like that (like when you say “I like this book”, I suppose).

Cases like (4) are the interesting ones, because you might end up sending the wrong message – there are legitimate candidates for thing-liked that are not very nice. I suppose that, where friends are concerned, ambiguities will be interpreted with generosity. But you might want to be careful what you like!

What the Facebook debacle says about sharing

Allow me to take a few more swings at this dead horse.

Sharing - it used to be so easy

Sharing - it used to be so easy - via clappstar

Mark Zuckerberg, Head Honcho of Facebook, posted a blog entry yesterday about the uproar that followed the Consumerist’s comparison of FB’s old Terms of Service with the new. Luke over at Cac.ophony calls Zuckerberg’s response “totally inadequate”. I think I agree, but I want to take a closer look at the argument that Zuckerberg provides for the TOS being the way they are, as I think that it draws attention to a lot of unanswered questions about one’s relationship with content – and, in particular, the somewhat ill-formed concept of sharing – as it takes place in social spaces.

The first part of Zuckerberg’s argument:

When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they’ve asked us to share it with.

So far so good, I think. The act of uploading a photo or writing a Facebook blog entry is, I think, clearly an intentional act by the poster, a way of saying, more or less explicitly, “I want others to see/hear this content via Facebook”. If we posit a correlation between Facebook’s rights (I guess I mean moral rights here – I don’t know much about legal issues) and the extent to which the user’s action demonstrates an explicit desire to use Facebook for sharing content, Zuckerberg’s first point seems right enough.

Zuckerberg’s next point:

When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox.

He draws a parallel with the way that email works: when you send a message, the recipient gets her own copy, and you don’t get to take that copy back later, even if you wanted to. By extention, this is “the right way for Facebook to work”, Zuckerberg says. I don’t think it’s that easy, though.

If Zuckerberg is trying to legitimatize FB’s behavior in this regard by comparing it to email, then we should be able to establish that it’s OK for email to behave this way too. Is it? I have often (sad to say) wanted to take an email back within seconds of pressing the Send button. Sometimes it takes more time: there are emails I sent in college that seemed fine at the time, but now I would prefer that the recipient never again have the chance to go back and reread them. How obvious is it, from a moral point of view, that an email, once sent, should be irretrievable? Are we allowing the fact that it’s technologically difficult/impossible to retrieve a sent email to shade our moral judgment? Imagine that it’s the 18th century, and I’ve just sent a letter that I decided I want back. The only way to get it back would be to break into the person’s house and take away a physical object that I had given to the recipient. It seems to me that these circumstantial facts about retrieving a physical letter are at least part of what makes the act of retrieval wrong. But the circumstantial facts are far different with email, or at least they could be with the right software design. Thus, while I might have a gut feeling that a sent letter no longer belongs to me, the gut feeling really ought to be reassessed in light of the new circumstances presented by electronic communication.

In truth, my temptation is to say that there is something morally wrong with taking back an email that you’ve sent, above and beyond the technological considerations. It has to do with the fact that sending email is an explicit transfer of rights to the recipient. Considering just this point, Facebook’s claim that it – the medium, the messenger, rather than the recipient – has rights is dubious – Gmail (see section 9.4) claims no such thing.

Zuckerberg’s choice of words in this regard is peculiar, and telling: he talks about a person “sharing” a message with someone else, instead of “sending” it. My guess is that this is to make it more plausible that the posting of an item – let’s say, of a picture I took – is the same thing as sending a message. But this is far from obvious. If I ask you over to my house to look at my photo albums – certainly a legitimate sense of “sharing” my photos with you – it does not follow from my invitation that you are permitted to take copies of the photos home with you. You can look at them until I decide I want to put them back in the cabinet. This feels quite different from what happens when I send you a letter, whether electronic or otherwise.

It is this idea – that I get to decide when you stop looking at my photos – that Facebook is taking away in its new TOS. It might be true that, as a matter of practical, Internet fact, if you’ve shared content on a single occasion then you have ipso facto shared it unlimitedly for the rest of time. But just because this is the way things are doesn’t mean it’s the way things ought to be. Part of the justification for FB’s position is technical: when you post an image on a friend’s wall, another copy is created, so that deleting the “original” on your account does not automatically delete all other copies. Surely this technical limitation is easily overcome, though, through the association of all copies derived from the same original.

You might argue that actively posting a picture on someone else’s wall is essentially the same thing as sending them a message, and thus the same moral considerations should apply. Maybe that’s right. But not all “sharing” on Facebook is done through the explicit actions of the sender. If you look at a friend’s photo on Facebook, for example, there is a link underneath it to Share with others or to post on your own profile. It might be said that a person who uploads to Facebook has thereby implicitly shared with all potential viewers of the picture, but you need some argument to show that this kind of “sharing” is equally irrevocable, from a moral point of view, as the more explicit kind.

I guess all this is to say that we are going to have to figure out what happens to content ownership when the concept of sharing takes on these kinds of massive proportions. One radical approach is to do away altogether with ownership and to be totally open, dude. I like openness, despite the fact that I seem to be arguing on behalf of ownership in this post. But to make this move merely because we are stymied about how to solve the problem of massive sharing is rather defeatist – openness should be something we choose, not a last resort.

I’ve been reading the comments on this post at Brian Leiter’s blog (via Sympoze). It’s been exhausting on several levels. If you read a few of the comments for yourself, I think you’ll understand why.

Together at last - via <a href=Of particular interest to me is the explicit invocation (here and here, among other places) of the distinction between research and teaching, and between departments where one or the other of these practices is emphasized. What’s the connection between the two?

Practically speaking, someone who wants to do philosophical research and is not independently wealthy must, in the vast majority of cases, teach as well. Likewise, someone who wants to teach philosophy to undergraduates must, in the vast majority of cases, go through a very research-centric graduate education and, if he wants eventual job security, engage in research for the purpose of publication. Are these connections de jure or merely de facto? Are there principled reasons why there should be such intricate links between teaching- and research-based careers, or are the connections the result of historical and economic accident?

I thought I’d try to articulate some of the ties between teaching philosophy and doing philosophical research. Feel free to jump in if you can think of any more.

Why researchers must teach

  • The most obvious explanation is that philosophy (alas!) doesn’t pay: original philosophical research typically doesn’t make the NYT best-seller list, and the market for philosophers to the royal court is depressingly lackluster. Universities need people to teach philosophy, and practicing philosophers are a captive work pool. If this were the only explanation for why philosophers teach then we would certainly say that the combined vocation is an economic accident.
  • I’ve had a few classes in graduate school that were built around a draft of a book being written by the professor. The class works like a testing ground for the draft. The philosopher thus gets to use his teaching in order to advance and improve his work. So this is a reason why teaching might be useful to a practicing philosopher.
  • More generally speaking, it might be argued that teaching – including the process of explaining something you know well to a bunch of people who don’t know it all that well – enhances one’s own understanding of, and ability to articulate, what one knows or believes. This explanatory skill is important for the writer of philosophy.
  • Philosophical researchers presumably care about the health of the discipline of philosophy, and in particular the future health of the discipline. The future of philosophy is dependent on future philosophers, and future philosophers come from the general student pool. Thus philosophers have a vested interest in making sure that at least these students get a decent philosophical training. (The big premise here is that philosophers care about the discipline as a whole. I wonder how true this actually is.)

I might note in passing that these last three reasons explain why philosophers ought to want to teach, while the first reason explains why philosophers are required to teach. If the benefits gleaned from the “ought to want” category could be guaranteed in a different way, then it’s hard to see how there is any necessary connection between research and teaching in this direction.

Why teachers must research

  • In order to teach effectively, you must have a certain mastery of your subject (or, at least, there has to be a certain differential between your mastery and your students’). Mastery in philosophy comes down to the ability to read texts, understand problems, construct arguments, and so on. These skills are best developed through the kinds of research that philosophers do. So research is good job training.
  • One of the reasons why philosophy is taught widely is to locate and train the next generation of philosophical researchers. Instructors with no knowledge of how philosophical research is done won’t be able to spot potential philosophers and hone them for the field.
  • More broadly, doing philosophy in a classroom is not really that different from doing philosophy in the armchair. You’re still reading those texts and still constructing those arguments. The practice of teaching philosophy might be a somewhat watered-down version of “real” research, but it’s not fundamentally different. If you want to be able to teach philosophy, you need to be able to do philosophy, since teaching and doing philosophy are essentially the same thing and, you know, the indiscernability of identicals. (The immediate problem I see with this is that teaching old arguments is crucially different from developing new arguments, at least from the point of view of the teacher’s epistemic states. Contributing something new to the debate, as researchers do, is generally something altogether over and above the argumentation that is done in classrooms.)

It’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion from these considerations. All things being equal, the more de jure connections you can point to between philosophical research and philosophical teaching, the more justified the de facto connection between the two vocations becomes. On the other hand, it remains an open question whether there might be other models for philosophers: a way for individuals to do research outside of the university, a way for individuals to teach philosophy without the rigors of a research-based education. Since people come to philosophy for different reasons, wouldn’t it make sense to have different career paths?

Blatz, venison, and the dreaded “What do you do for a living” question

It’s always been tough explaining to my family what I do. ‘Student’ they understand; ‘graduate student’ is easy enough by extension. ‘Philosophy’ is hit-and-miss. While the folk (i.e. my folks) has an sense that philosophy involves far-out, abstract thinking (and maybe a pipe and leather elbow patches), it’s harder to grasp what it means to write a dissertation on the subject. Trying to explain the specific nature of the problems I’m interested in, or even how my subdiscipline is delineated, is a non-starter. It takes lots of setup for the problems to make sense, and lots of persuasion to convince that the problems are worthy of a research program. This is either a testament to the erudite nature of philosophy, the pointlessness of philosophy, or my ineptitude as an explainer. (I am indifferent between these possibilities.)


Fridge-o-Blatz: taken at a more carefree moment in my life

I had a new spiel this Christmas Eve, trying to explain my new job as an
educational technologist. In some ways it’s easier. When I tell them that it has to do with computers they usually glaze over and that’s that. (Unlike, incidentally, when I tell people that I’m doing philosophy and they really want to engage in a philosophical discussion with me. Seriously, what is up with that? I just want to drink this Blatz and eat this venison sausage and not think about Kripke for like ten minutes.) Of course, when I try to dodge the question with the “work with computers” line, I’m sure the position they imagine is something very different from what I actually do (they probably envision the administrator that Jim Groom describes here). Does it make me cynical that I don’t care to disillusion them? Seriously, I just want to drink this Blatz and eat this venison sausage and not think about pedagogy for like ten minutes.

I’m curious to know how other people deal with the “What do you do?” question, when “what you do” is not well-defined by the kinds of categories familiar to, say, my grandfather.