Friday, April 02, 2004

The Contents of Our Character

My last piece about Central Asia was not calculated to promote tourism to Tashkent, but I note that ads for hotels in Uzbekistan mysteriously appeared on this site after I posted it. For that matter, the Republican Party regularly visits this page after I accuse it of all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors. One would like to believe that evil partisans are carefully reading my words and vainly attempting to counteract them with their own propaganda—not for nothing do delusions of grandeur commonly accompany delusions of persecution—but obviously the Google folks are using some sort of keyword search to identify the right markets for various advertisers. Amazon does something similar. Vainly trying to identify the buying habits of the world’s most desultory reader, they always suggest exactly the wrong thing by proposing the items most similar to my last purchase. That’s pretty harmless, although the Amazon computer apparently believed I was a seminary student for most of last year, which was a bit spooky. Similar technology can be truly scary, however, if the government agencies read your email and qualify you as a person of interest on the basis of content analysis—I assume that’s what the NSA does with all those computers.

Many people have likened the evolving Internet to an enormous brain. It would be more accurate to liken it to a set of ganglia, however, since it has only rudimentary pattern recognition capability, no ability to understand or generate true language, and therefore operates with a crude, associational psychology. In this respect, it is well suited to interface with the American people, who are evolving or devolving convergently towards a similar mode of functioning. Note that the ‘logic’ of the Internet and public opinion have many formal similarities, in particular the inability to process negation. From a content point of view, “it is not the case that x” and “x” are both count as x, just as all publicity is good publicity. I used to call this phenomena the “hold the onions” effect because I discovered that asking a waitress to hold the onions resulted in no onions or a tremendous number of onions because what mostly got registered was just onions. The communication was subpropositional. Whether I got lots of onions or not probably depended upon how much she liked ‘em herself.

I look on the bright side. Understanding the world through an instrument organized like an invertebrate’s nervous system seems appropriate to our political condition, which, after all, has a lot of similarities to life in a tide pool. Anyhow the built-in stupidities make using the Internet rather like playing Madlibs. In the spirit of that game, let’s see what ads come up in response to this:

A twisted young fellow named Wallace
Once had an affair with a mollusk,
But that’s not as odd
As the brachiopod
Who buggered an ostrich for solace.

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