Tuesday, February 18, 2014

It's Complicated, In Fact, It's so Complicated That You May Never Be Able to Understand

This essay (almost) blew my mind, and connects nicely (if nice is the word for a rather scary concept) with Samuel Arbesman's essay "It's Complicated" in Aeon Magazine. In the essay "The Algorithms of Our Lives" for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lev Manovich raises fundamental questions about how we study (and can study) a reality that is becoming entangled in a world of dynamic and ever-changing data flows and updates. His focuses on the study of humanities, but the argument is much broader than that, and he sees implications for how research is done, what we measure or even can measure.

"We need to be able to record and analyze interactive experiences, following individual users as they navigate a website or play a video game; to study different players, as opposed to using only our own game-play as the basis for analysis; to watch visitors of an interactive installation as they explore the possibilities defined by the designer — possibilities that become actual events only when the visitors act on them. In other words, we need to figure out how to adequately represent 'software performances' as 'data.' "
Much of this kind of research is done within companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon.com.
"Therefore, if you are one of the few social scientists working inside giants such as Facebook or Google, you have an amazing advantage over your colleagues in the academy. You can ask questions others can't. This could create a real divide in the future between academic and corporate researchers."
Not only that, much of this research is done by "machine-learning technology that often results in 'black box' solutions." If complexity makes understanding impossible, what does that mean for education? Could simulation games like SimCity be part of the answer? Here is a quote from the essay:
"For example, the computer game SimCity, a model of sorts, gives its users insights into how a city works. Before SimCity, few outside the realm of urban planning and civil engineering had a clear mental model of how cities worked, and none were able to twiddle the knobs of urban life to produce counterfactual outcomes. We probably still can’t do that at the level of complexity of an actual city, but those who play these types of games do have a better understanding of the general effects of their actions. We need to get better at ‘playing’ simulations of the technological world more generally. This could conceivably be geared towards the direction our educational system needs to move, teaching students how to play with something, examining its bounds and how it works, at least ‘sort of’."

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