Chat bots

AI, Higher Education, and Standardizing Values in Human Decision-Making

Our current use of AI in higher education involves automating parts (and at times the whole) of the human decision-making process. Where there is automation there is standardization. Where there are decisions, there are values. As a consequence, we can think of one of the functions of AI as the standardization of values. Depending on what your values are, and the extent to which they are reflected by algorithms as they are deployed, this may be more or less a good or bad thing.

Augmenting Human Decision-Making

An example of how AI is being used to automate parts of the decision-making process is through nudging. According to Thaler and Sunstein, the concept of nudging is rooted in an ethical perspective that they term ‘libertarian paternalism.’ Wanting to encourage people to behave in ways that are likely to benefit them, but not also wanting to undermine human freedom of choice (which Thaler, Sunstein, and many others view as an unequivocal good), nudging aims to structure environments so as to increase the chances that human beings will freely make the ‘right decisions.’ In higher education, a nudge could be something as simple as an automated alert reminding a student to register for the next semester or begin the next assignment. It could be an approach to instructional design meant to increase a student’s level of engagement in an online course. It could be student-facing analytics meant to promote increased reflection about one’s level of interaction in a discussion board. Nudges don’t have to involve AI (a grading rubric is a great example of a formative assessment practice designed to increase the salience of certain values at the expense of others), but what AI allows us to do is to scale and standardize nudges in a way that was, until recently, unimaginable.

Putting aside the obvious ‘having one’s cake and eating it too’ tension at the heart of the idea of libertarian paternalism, the fact of the matter is that a nudge functions by making decisions easier through the (at least partial) automation of the decision-making process. It serves to make choices easier my making some factors more salient than others, reducing an otherwise large and complex set of factors to a set that is much more manageable. The way a nudge works is by universalizing a set of values by using them as criteria for pre-selecting relevant factors for use in the decision-making process.

I don’t want to say whether this is a good or a bad thing. It is happening, and it certainly brings with it the possibility of promoting a range of social goods. But it is important for us to recognize that values are involved. We need to be aware of, and responsible for, the values that we are choosing to standardize in a given nudge. And we need to constantly revisit those values to ensure that they are consistent with our views and in light of the impact on human behavior that they are designed to have.

Automating Human Decision-Making

An example of where AI is being used to automate the entire decision process is in chat bots. Chat bots make a lot of sense for institutions looking to increase efficiency. During the admissions process, for example, university call centers are bombarded with phone calls from students seeking answers to common questions. Call centers are expensive and so universities are looking for ways to reduce cost. But lower cost has traditionally meant decreased capacity, and if capacity isn’t sufficient to handle demand from students, institutions run the risk of losing the very students they are looking to admit. AI is helping institutions to scale their ability to respond to common student questions by, in essence, personalizing a student’s experience with a knowledge base. A chat bot is an interface. In contrast to automated nudges, which serve to augment human decision-making, chat bots automate the entire process, since they are (1) defining a situation, and (2) formulating a response, (3) without the need for human intervention.

What kinds of assumption do chat bots like this make about the humans they serve? First, they assume that the only reason a student is reaching out to the university is for information. While this may be the case for some, or even most, it may not be for all. In addition to information, a student may also be in need of reassurance (whether they realize it or not). For first generation students especially, they may not know what questions to ask in the first place, and may need to be encouraged to think about factors they may not have otherwise considered. There is a huge amount to gain from one-one-one contact with a human being, and these benefits are lost when an interaction is reduced to a single function. Subtlety and lateral thinking are not virtues of AI (at least not today).

This is not to say that chat bots are bad. The increased efficiency they bring to an institution means that an institution can invest in other ways that enhance the student experience. The increased satisfaction from students who no longer have to sit on hold for hours is also highly beneficial, not to mention that some students simply feel more comfortable asking what they think are ‘dumb questions’ when they know they are talking to a robot. But we also need to be aware of the specific values we assume through the use of these technologies, and the opportunities that we are giving up, including a diversity of perspective, inter-personal support, narrative/biographical interjection, personalized nudging based on the experience and intuition of an advisor, and the ability to co-create meaning.

Is AI in higher education a good thing? It certainly carries with it an array of goods, but the good it brings is certainly not unequivocal. Because it automates at least parts of the decision-making process, it involves the standardization of values in a way, and at a scale, that until now has not been possible.

AI is here to stay. It is a bell that we can’t unring. Knowing that AI functions through the automation of at least some parts of human decision-making, then, it is incumbent upon us to think carefully about our values, and to take responsibility for the ways (both expected and unanticipated) that the standardization of values through information technology will affect how we think about ourselves, others, and the world we cohabit.

Ethical AI in Higher Education: Are we doing it wrong?

In higher education, and in general, an increasing amount of attention is being paid to questions about the ethical use of data. People are working to produce principles, guidelines and ethical frameworks. This is a good thing.

Despite being well-intentioned, however, most of these projects are doomed to failure. The reason is that, amidst talk about arriving at an ethics, or developing an ethical framework, the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘framework’ are rarely well-defined from the outset. If you don’t have a clear understanding of your goal, you can’t define a strategy to achieve it, and you won’t know if you have reached it if you ever do.

As a foundation to future blog posts that I will write on the matter of ethics in AI, what I’d like to do is propose a couple of key definitions, and invite comment where my assumptions might not make sense.

What do we mean by ‘ethics’?

Ethics is hard to do. It is one of those five inter-related sub-disciplines of philosophy defined by Aristotle that also includes metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and logic. To do ethics involves establishing a set of first principles, and developing a system for determining right action as a consequence of those principles. For example, if we presume the existence of a creator god that has given us some kind of access to true knowledge, then we can apply that knowledge to our day-to-day life as a guide to evaluating right or wrong courses of action. Or, instead of appealing to the transcendent, we might begin with certain assumptions about human nature and develop ethical guidelines meant to cultivate those essential and unique attributes. Or, if we decide that the limits of our knowledge preclude us from knowing anything about the divine, or even ourselves, except for the limits of our knowledge, there are ethical consequences of that as well. There are many approaches and variations here, but the key thing to understand is that ethics is hard. It requires us to be thoughtful about arriving at a set of first principles, being transparent, and systematically deriving ethical judgements as consequences of our metaphysical, epistemological, and logical commitments.

What ethics is NOT, is a set of unsystematicly articulated opinions about situations that make us feel uneasy. Unfortunately, when we read about ethics in data science, in education, and in general, this is typically what we end up with. Indeed, the field of education is particularly bad about talking about ethics (and of philosophy in general) in this way.

What do we mean by a ‘framework’?

The interesting thing about the language of frameworks is that it has the potential to liberate us from much of the heavy burden placed on us by ethical thinking. The reason for this is that the way this language is used in relation to ethics — as in an ‘ethical framework’ — already presupposes a specific philosophical perspective: Pragmatism.

What is Pragmatism? I’m going to do it a major disservice here, but it is a perspective that rejects our ability to know ‘truth’ in any transcendent or universal way, and so affirms that the truth in any given situation is a belief that ‘works.’ In other words, the right course of action is the one with the best practical set of consequences. (There’s a strong and compelling similarity here between Pragmatism and Pyrrhonian Skepticism, but won’t go into that here…except to note that, in philosophy, everything new is actually really old).

The reason that ethical frameworks are pragmatic is that they do not seek to define sets of universal first principles, but instead set out to establish methods or approaches for arriving at the best possible result at a given time, and in a given place.

The idea of an ethical framework is really powerful when discussing the human consequences of technological innovation. Laws and culture are constantly changing, and they differ radically around the globe. Were we to set out to define an ethics of educational data use, it could be a wonderful and fruitful academic exercise. A strong undergraduate thesis, or perhaps even a doctoral dissertation. But it would never be globally adopted, if for no other reason than because it would rest on first principles, the very definition of which is that they cannot themselves be justified. There will always be differences in opinion.

But an ethical framework CAN claim universality in a way that an ethics cannot, because it defines an approach to weighing a variety of factors that may be different from place to place, and that may change over time, but in a way that nevertheless allows people to make ethical judgments that work here and now. Where differences of opinion create issues for ethics, they are a valuable source of information for frameworks, which aim to balance and negotiate differences in order to arrive at the best possible outcome.


Laying my cards in the table (as if they weren’t on the table already), I am incredibly fond of the framework approach. Ethical frameworks are good things, and we should definitely strive to create an ethical frameworks for AI in education. We have already seen several attempts, and these have played an important role in getting the conversation started, but I see the language of ‘ethical framework’ being used with a lack of precision. The result has been some helpful, but rather ungrounded and unsystematic sets of claims pertaining to how data should be used in certain situations. These are not frameworks. Nor are they ethics. They are merely opinions. These efforts have been great for promoting public dialogue, but we need something more if we are going to make a difference.

Only by being absolutely clear from the outset about what an ethical framework is, and what it is meant to do, can we begin to make a significant and coordinated impact on law, public policy, data standards, and industry practices.

Analytics isn’t a thing…it’s a relation

In response to the 2017 NMC Horizon report, Mike Sharkey recently observed that analytics had disappeared from the educational technology landscape. After being on the horizon for many years, it seems to have vanished from the report without pomp or lamentation.

For those of us tracking the state of analytics according to the New Media Consortium, we have eagerly awaited analytics’ arrival. In 2011, the time to wide-scale adoption was expected to be four to five years. In 2016, time to adoption was a year or less. In 2017, I would have expected one of two things from the Horizon Report: either (a) great celebration as the age of analytics had finally arrived, or (b) acknowledgment that analytics had not arrived on time.

But we saw neither.

Upon first inspection, analytics seems to have vanished into thin air. But, as Sharkey observes, this was not actually the case. Instead, analytics’ absence from the report was itself a kind of acknowledgement that analytics is not actually ‘a thing’ that can be bought and sold. It is not something that can be ‘adopted.’ Instead, analytics is simply an approach that can be taken in response to particular institutional problems. In other words, to call out analytics as ‘a thing,’ is to establish a solution in search of a problem, as if ‘not having analytics’ was a problem itself that needed to be solved. Analytics never arrived because it was never on its way. The absence of analytics from the horizon report, then, points to the fact that we now understand analytics far better than we did in 2011. If we knew then what we know now, analytics would not have been featured in the horizon report in the first place. We would have put understanding ahead of tools, and bypassed the kind of hype out of which we are only now beginning to emerge.

I agree with Mike. But I want to go a step further. I have always been fascinated by ontologies, and the ways in which the assumptions we make about ‘thingness’ affect our behavior. I have a book in press about the emergence of the modern conception of society. I have written about love (Is it a thing? Is it an activity? Is it a relation? Is it something else?). And I have written about dirt. Mike’s post has served as a catalyst for the convergence of some of my thinking about analytics and ‘thingness.’

Analytics is not a thing. I can produce a dashboard, but I can’t point to that dashboard and say “there is analytics.” There is a important sense in which analytics involves the rhetorical act of translating information in such a way as to render it meaningful. In this, a dashboard only becomes ‘analytics’ when embedded within the act of meaning-making. That’s why a lot of ‘analytics’ products are so terrible. They assume that analytics is the same as data science with a visualization layer. They don’t acknowledge that analytics only happens when someone ‘makes sense’ out of what is presented.

Analytics is like language. Just like language is not the same as what is represented in the dictionary, analytics is not the same as what is represented in charts and graphs. Sure, words and visualizations are important vehicles for meaning. But just as language goes beyond words (or may not involve words at all), so too does analytics.

It is a mistake to confuse analytics with data science. An it is a mistake to confuse it with visualization. If analytics is about meaning-making, then we are working toward a functional definition rather than a structural one. This shift away from structure to function opens up some really exciting possibilities. For example, SAS is doing some incredible work on the sonic representation of data.

As soon as we begin to think analytics beyond ‘thingness,’ and adopt a more functional definition, its contours dissolve really quickly. If what we are talking about is a rhetorical activity according to which data is rendered meaningful, then we are no longer talking about visualization. We are talking about representation. In a recent talk, I suggested that, to the extend that analytics is detached from a particular mode of representation, and what we are talking about is intentional meaning-making — meaning making intended to solve a particular problem — then a conversation can easily become ‘analytics.’

So analytics is not a ‘thing.’ It is not something that we can point to. Is it an activity? Do we ‘do analytics’? No, analytics isn’t an activity either. Why? Because it is communicative, and so requires the complicity of at least one other. Analytics is not something that we do. It is something we do together. But it is not something that we do together in the same way that we might build a robot together, or watch television together, where what we are talking about is the aggregation of activities. What we are engaged in is something more akin to communication, or love.

Analytics is not a thing. Analytics is not an activity. Analytics is a relation.

Data Dread: An Intractable Problem of Personal Identity in the Digital Age?

Public concern about ‘big data’ frequently comes down to a vague and ill-defined sense of ‘ickiness.’  I’d like to briefly suggest a way to provides structure to this vague sentiment — let’s call it data dread.  Provisionally, I would argue that public distrust of ‘big data’ comes down to major tension between two promises of the digital age.  On the one hand, as Floridi notes, the advent of social media represents an “unprecedented opportunity to be more in charge of our social selves, to chose more flexible who the other people are whose thoughts and interactions create our social personality” (The Fourth Revolution, p. 64).  In other words, the modern internet allows us not only to more carefully craft our identities, but also to more carefully curate our communities so that our self-representations are more likely to be recognized and accepted. We now have an unparalleled ability to ‘make ourselves’ in a way that resonates, not just with the existentialist philosophies of the 20th century, but also with Renaissance conceptions of man as infinitely fluid and self-determining.  This is the first promise of the digital age.

On the other hand, however, the very technologies that allow us to make ourselves also — and necessarily — produce digital traces, on the basis of which it becomes possible for individuals to be tracked, and identities co-opted,  The digital traces that people leave behind as a result of their efforts to forge their digital identities can also be used by algorithms to produce identities for which individuals are not themselves responsible, but that nevertheless have real effects.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, this amounts to a second promise of the digital age: the promise of personalization.  People want their experience of the world to be personalized.  Who doesn’t want the world to revolve around them?  But the problem with the algorithms that personalize experience is that they don’t actually care who you are or how you wish to be recognized.  They don’t care about the identity you wish to construct.  In personalizing our experiences of the world, algorithms also have a very real effect on our self-perceptions.  In order to personalize our experiences, they must first personalize us.

The two promises of the digital age, then, are these: (1) a promise that individuals are free to construct themselves in whatever was they choose, and (2) a promise that digital traces will be used to personalize individual experiences, not just online, but in the ‘real world’ as well.  Our experience of dread comes from the fact that we are simultaneously promised an ability to make ourselves at the same time as we are promised that our selves will be algorithmically made on our behalf.  At the same time as we represent ourselves in such a way as to be recognized and acknowledged by others in the ‘real world,’ algorithms are representing us to ourselves and others, making judgements about who we are and what we want, and intervening in our lives through nudges, recommendations, and other automated events.

For Hegel, people come to recognize themselves as selves through two basic sources: labor and others.  I know that I am a self because I can recognize myself in the work of my hands, and I know that I am a self because of the fact that others relate to me as such.  In the former case, I am in complete control over the self I create.  In the latter, the self that I create is a function of the a negotiation.  Now, for the first time, it has become possible for people to be entirely — and voluntary — excluded from the processes by which their identities are constituted.  In the social world, our identities and the consequences of our behaviors may not be our own, but they are nonetheless a function of a kind of ongoing negotiation with other people.  When machines start to make judgements about us, any sense of negotiation is lost.

Perhaps our sense of ‘ickiness’ in the face of big data — our sense of data dread — is not a function of data itself.  Perhaps it is a function of the fact that there is a contradiction at the heart of so-called ‘social media’ — what Floridi calls Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).  It is not just that digital traces from ICTs make it possible for identities to be algorithmically co-opted.  The algorithmic co-option of personal identity is a necessary feature of modern-day social media technologies in the absence of which those technologies would cease to function.

Leveraging Mindsets to Promote Academic Achievement Policy Recommendations

This rope merely touched TyTy’s leg, but he thought he was stuck. He thought he needed help to escape. Rather than come to his immediate aid, however, my wife (horse trainer, Elisa Wallace) encouraged him to overcome his self-imposed obstacles and experience the liberty that was his all along.

Carol Dweck’s mindset research has tremendous potential to change higher education from the student up, addressing a major cause of attrition in universities. In a nutshell, Dweck famously compares the growth mindset to the fixed mindset. The latter views human beings as essentially unchangeable in terms of their personality and capabilities. For people with the fixed mindset, failure is a sign that a particular task is outside of the scope of one’s natural talent, and so not worth pursuing further. For people with the growth mindset, on the other hand, capacities are the result, not of talent, but rather as a result of hard work. From this perspective, failure is not a reason to give up, but rather an opportunity to persist. The good news is that mindset itself is not fixed. Dweck and her colleagues have dedicated their careers to understanding mindset, and to exploring mechanisms and strategies by which it might be changed.

I know many students who have dropped out of school because they thought they just weren’t smart enough. These are the same people who say things like “I’ll know when I’ve found what I am supposed to do when I try it for the first time and it comes easily.”

I certainly see the value of credentials. It would be silly to say that an undergraduate degree, qua degree didn’t function as a ticket to participation in middle class society (regardless of the skills, habits, and knowledges that students acquire on their way to that credential, which vary wildly). But increasing the proliferation of credentials is not nearly as important as working with students to overcome psychological hurdles that limit their ability to exercise their imaginations, take important risks, and contract their full humanity as creative agents.

Dweck’s mindset research reminds me of the words of Pico della Mirandola in On the Dignity of Man:

Imagine! The great generosity of God! The happiness of man! To man it is allowed to be whatever he chooses to be! As soon as an animal is born, it brings out of its mother’s womb all that it will ever possess. Spiritual beings from the beginning become what they are to be for all eternity. Man, when he entered life, the Father gave the seeds of every kind and every way of life possible. Whatever seeds each man sows and cultivates will grow and bear him their proper fruit. If these seeds are vegetative, he will be like a plant. If these seeds are sensitive, he will be like an animal. If these seeds are intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, satisfied with no created thing, he removes himself to the center of his own unity, his spiritual soul, united with God, alone in the darkness of God, who is above all things, he will surpass every created thing. Who could not help but admire this great shape-shifter? In fact, how could one admire anything else? . . .

The implications of mindsets for academic policy are explored by Aneeta Rattan Krishna Savani, Dolly Chugh, and Carol Dweck in Leveraging Mindsets to Promote Academic Achievement: Policy Recommendations, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2015, Vol. 10(6) 721-726.

Desire and the End of History: Repetition in Vico and Lacan

Central to both Giambattista Vico and Jacques Lacan is an account of history as cyclical, characterized by a repetitive ‘to and fro’ between proximity and distance, in relation to an object of desire whose achievement is tantamount to death.

Lacan posits a subject that only comes to contract its subjectivity as a result of self-alienation. Originally existing as undifferentiated from the world—or in what Lacan would refer to as the ‘real’—the subject is originally lost to itself for, in the absence of language, which is to say the basic capacity for abstraction, the subject is unable to constitute itself—or identify itself—as for-itself. In the real, the subject exists in a state of absolute proximity to itself, and so of pure potentiality.

Hypostasis, or what Levinas describes as “the event by which the existent contracts their existing,”1 is, in Lacan, the moment at which the subject achieves a traumatic split from the real through the ability to take itself as an other. Subjectivity (which is to say consciousness or identity) for Lacan, is fully realized only as a result of some originary act of separation from the real, that would allow the subject to picture the given-to-be-seen for itself, objectifying it under their own gaze. The subject, then, achieves its identity at a cost: its original unity with the real:

This split, after awakening, persists—between the return to the real, the representation of the world that has at last fallen back on its feet, arms raised, what a terrible thing, what has happened, how horrible, how stupid, what an idiot he was to fall asleep—and the consciousness re-weaving itself, which knows it is the same, keeps a grip on itself, it is I who am living through all this, I have no need to pinch myself to know that I am not dreaming.2

Inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s essay on “The Intertwining—The Chiasm,”3 Lacan suggests that human subjects are always already ‘pictured,’ belonging to that which is given-to-be-seen under the gaze of a hypothetical all-seeing other. For Merleau-Ponty, argues Lacan, it comes down to a question of

reconstituting the way by which, not from the body, but from something that he calls the flesh of the world, the original point of vision was able to emerge. It would seem that in this way one sees, in this unfinished work, the emergence of something like the search for an unnamed substance from which I, the seer, extract myself. From the toils (rets), or rays (rais), if you prefer, of an iridescence of which I am at first a part, I emerge as eye, assuming, in a way, emergence from what I would like to call the function of seeingness (voyure).4

The Lacanian subject is constituted by desire: the subject is only to the extent that they are able to extract themselves from the world and make it other. This is accomplished, suggests Lacan, only through a kind of artifice, a screen onto which the world is mapped for the subject. On the one hand, the subject can only come to know itself as a whole, or as gestalt, through the intermediary of a mirror which stands in for the objectifying gaze of others. The subject, then, can only take itself as an object of knowledge to the extent to which it is capable of separating itself from itself, and viewing itself as an object for others:

The fact is that the total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only as gestalt, that is to say, in an exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted, but in which appears to him above all in contrasting size (un relief de stature) that fixes it and in a symmetry that inverts it, in contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him.5

On the other hand, just as the subject, by nature coincident with itself, must effect an artificial separation in order to know itself, so, too, must the subject, by nature undifferentiated from the real, effect an artificial separation from the real in order to take it as an object of knowledge.

The subject, therefore, wins their identity only by losing the world; yet, in losing the world, the subject also longs to get it back; herein lies the cruelest of ironies. On the one hand, the subject lacks, and so is motivated by a drive toward satisfying its most basic desire: a returnto the real. On the other hand, however, such a return would also mean giving up the subject’s differentiation qua subject. It would mean laying down their gaze, their ability to ‘picture’ the world in language, and so their experience of what Lacan calls symbolic death.

At the heart of every subject, then, are two opposing and mutually exclusive drives: the life-drive (eros, or the drive to preserve subjectivity), and the death-drive (thanatos, or the will to self-negation). This opposition at the heart of the Lacanian subject establishes a repetitive movement toward and away from the traumatic moment that first produced the subject’s split from the real. The subject is drawn to the real, but upon contacting it immediately resists, fleeing from death and back into life.

The subject in himself, the recalling of his biography, all this goes only to a certain limit, which is know as the real….An adequate thought, qua thought, at the level at which we are, always avoids—if only to find itself again later in everything—the same thing. Here, the real is that which always comes back to the same place—to the place where the subject in so far as he thinks, where the res cogitans, does not meet it.6

The subject’s history, then, is inaugurated by a split, which the subject seeks to both preserve and destroy. To eliminate this originary split and absolutely accept one’s primordial place in the real, is to lose identity and so absolutely abolish the possibility of history.

Although concerned more with the social than the individual, Vico’s account of human history is rooted in the ontology of the subject in a way similar to Lacan. Human history, argues Vico, emerges with, and as a result of, the achievement of subjectivity. In a fabulous ontogenetic narrative, for example, Vico posits a primordial state in which the human world was populated by dumb animals seeking only after their own utility. Lacking all capacity for language, these original humans are just as Lacan suggests: undifferentiated, given-to-be-seen, pictured:

By fleeing from the wild beasts with which the great forest must have abounded, and by pursuing women, who in that state must have been wild, indocile, and shy, they became separated from each other in their search for food and water. Mothers abandoned their children, who in time must have come to grow up without ever hearing a human voice, much less learning any human custom, and thus descended to a state truly bestial and savage….They would be quite without that fear of gods, fathers and teachers which chills and benumbs even the most exuberant in childhood.7

Human history is inaugurated, according to Vico, by the first emergence of subjectivity, and this subjectivity is realized for Vico in a way that, once again, resonates strongly with the Lacanian account. According to Vico’s account of ontogenesis, Human being emerges only through trauma, an event capable of startling the potential subject in such a way as to provoke its separation from the rest of nature — in such a way as to take itself as an other in relation to others that are not itself.

In his fabulous and mythological account of human origins, Vico uses thunder to represent that traumatic encounter with otherness necessary to produce the differentiation of human beings from their environment. Consciousness, argues Vico, was produced by the need to ‘picture’ the Other, and it was the fear produced by thunder that originally created the need to picture. In picturing thunder as an Other (as variations of the sky god Zeus), these first subjects were forced to other themselves in relation to it: consciousness is formed, for Vico, when the tautological “I am I” becomes the “I am not not I.”

Of such natures must have been the first founders of gentile humanity when at last the sky fearfully rolled with thunder and flashed with lightening, as could not but follow from the bursting upon the air for the first time of an impression so violent….Thereupon a few giants, who must have been the most robust, and who were dispersed throughout the forests on the mountain heights where the strongest beasts have their dens, were frightened and astonished by the great effect whose cause they did not know and raised their eyes and became aware of the sky. An because in such a case the nature of the human mind meads it to attribute its own nature to the effect, and because in that state their nature was that of men all robust bodily strength, who expressed their very violent passions by shouting and grumbling, they pictured the sky to themselves as a great animated body, which in that aspect they called Jove, the first god of the so-called greater gentes.8

To his account, however, which to this point resonates fairly strongly with Lacan, Vico adds the suggestion that God, having created human beings for relationship with Him, is active in human history, intervening in ways that restore and preserve piety when it is lost to pride. The concept of providence is central to Vico’s account of the subject in history, and thunder is the providential act par excellence. According to Vico, humanity’s original descent into ‘bestiality’ came about only after the sons of Noah rejected the religion of their father9 – a kind of symbolic death through the killing, not only of the father, but of the Name that guarantees the fathers authority. In refusing God’s authority, Noah’s sons sought to install themselves. Not realizing that their vanity was not sufficient in itself to guarantee the symbolic order, the descendents of the sons of Noah lost themselves to themselves. In the absence of divine providence, subjectivity was impossible to sustain; and in the absence of providence, humanity was helpless to find itself. In light of this situation, thunder is a supernatural intervention intended by God to shock humanity back into relationship with Himself.

Vico, then, agrees with Lacan that human beings are driven toward their own destruction. However, he rejects the idea that there is any sort of internal ‘life drive’ whose aim is the preservation of subjectivity. Instead, Vico conceptualizes the human pride, or selfishness, that Lacan includes under the rubric of eros as a necessary part of thanatos. For Vico, it is the will to self-sufficiency that is tantamount to absolute differentiation, the will to symbolic death, and the end of human history.

In providing for this property [of being social] God has so ordained and disposed human institutions that men, having fallem from complete justice by original sin, and while intending almost always to do something qhite different and often quite the contrary—so that for private utility they would live alone like wild beasts—have been led by this same utility and along the aforesaid different and contrary paths to live like men in justice and to keep themselves in society and thus to observe their social nature….The conduct of divine providence in this matter is one ofthose things whose rationale is a chief business of our Science, which becomes in this aspect a rational civil theology of divine providence.10

In a way that anticipates Nietzsche, then, Vico here observes that the semblance of the good of Reason also contains the seeds of its own annihilation.

The fact that, for Vico, pride and thanatos are one in the same is evidenced by the appeal to another, and more ancient, creation narrative, one that predates and, in fact, conditions the possibility of a subjectivity that could be lost and found. Vico follows the Biblical account of creation, claiming that subjectivity first came into being as a result of Divine activity, and that it was sustained by an original and absolute piety, or relationship of Creator to created. Human history, however, does not begin at the beginning, but rather with the fall, and with an increasingly absolute desire to reject God and to install humanity in His place. In the absence of God, human beings seek only after their own pleasure and utility and quickly fall into a Hobbesian state of nature in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

For Vico, then, human history is cyclical, following a pattern of rise, development, maturity, decline, and fall.11 As in Lacan, each of these stages correspond to a degree of proximity to the object of desire; and, like Lacan, Vico argues that a satisfaction of the subject’s desire is tantamount to the end of history. Furthermore, Vico is similar to Lacan to the extent that he situates the subject between two conflicting desires. Where they differ, however, is in the fact that Vico locates eros outside of the subject, suggesting it, not as a desire for self, but as a desire for an other that can only be maintained through the desire of the other: a providential desire that can only be maintained through divine activity.

The main reason for this difference between Lacan and Vico is their differing opinion on the nature of the Other as an object of desire. Lacan’s other is nominal, a reified artifice necessary to the constitution of human subjectivity. In other words, the Lacanian subject is only possible because of a projected fantasy that it must refuse to acknowledge: “Is it not precisely because desire is established here in the domain of seeing that we can make it vanish?”12 Vico’s transcendental object of desire, on the other hand, is an Other in a real sense, God, and it is only a ‘real’ relationship with this Other that, in Vico’s account, guarentees the possibility of subjectivity. In contrast to the Lacanian subject, which loses itself as a result of an absolute proximity to the object of its desire, a proximity that reveals its spectral heritage, Vico’s subject only loses itself only as a result of absolute distance. In contrast to Lacan, therefore, who positions the subjects as perpetually bouncing between two poles, compelled, as it were, toward a moment of death that it refuses to accept for reasons of self-preservation, Vico’s subject, but more precisely civil history, is compelled from without, through providence, toward a piety. In Lacan, agency is one in the self; in Vico it is won in the Other. This is not to say that Vico ever suggests the possibility of coincidence with the Other, God, or transcendental object of desire. As he concludes his work, “from all that we have set forth in this work, it is to be finally concluded that this science carries inseparably with it the study of piety, and that he who is not pious cannot be truly wise.”13 Piety is not fulfillment, but rather sustained desire in the hope of achieving a proximity that can never be. In this, the psychoanalytic notion of eros, as a will to self-preservation, is more akin to Rousseau’s amour propre. Piety, as a continual movement toward an Other sustained by the desire of the Other is love truly, and so eros in the richest and deepest sense of the term.

To conclude, Human history is, for Vico, a story of loss. Civil history is possible only as a result of the alienation of its subjects, and it is oriented toward its end(s) by eros, or providence, and thanatos, or self-supremacy. Vico’s account establishes the two ‘ends’ of history, poles between which human history necessarily vacillates. In his demand for piety, Vico establishes human history as a process sustained, not by the achievement of either end, but rather by the promise of an impossible moment when identity and the fulfillment of desire coincide: an impossible return to that original and paradoxical moment of true identity rooted in an absolute abrogation of self in relation to God. In a Derridean way, then, Vico’s historical identity is constituted by an infinite and repetitive movement sustained teleologically, by the promise a future that is always and necessarily to come.

A version of this piece was originally presented at the “CONTROVERSY: Within History and Classics” conference hosted at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, AB), March 3 – 4, 2006.

1 Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other. Trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne
University Press, 1987), 43.
2 Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of
Psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan, Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1998), 70.
3 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible. Trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL:
Northwestern University Press, 1968).
4 Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 82.
5 Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, Trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977), 2.
6 Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 49
7 Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, Trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 113.
8 Vico, New Science, p. 117-118.
9 Vico, New Science, 9.
10 Vico, New Science, 4.
11 Vico, New Science, 79.
12 Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 85.
13 Vico, New Science, 426.

Bacon, Vico, and the “Long Tail”

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user spratmackrel]
[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user spratmackrel]
In his essay, “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson observes that the our ability to overcome the ‘tyranny of physical space’ through the use of a combination of online databases and streaming services has fundamentally altered business models and, as a consequence, has radically increased our access to information. In the past, limited by the physical constraints of location and shelf space, retailers were forced to carry a small selection of material that appealed to the greatest proportion of a local market. In terms of the book industry, these limitations mean that books rapidly go out of print and become very difficult to come by after a relatively short period of time. In contrast, however, the ability of companies like Amazon to replace small store fronts with massive warehouses, and to leverage the internet to reach global markets, has allowed them to carry and generate significant revenue from products in a way that smaller markets would not produce. This model becomes even more profitable when the products themselves are digital (as in the case of music, movies, books, software, etc), since a single stored copy can be infinitely licensed and distributed, which is to say, sold. The first of three ‘rules’ that Anderson offers businesses in this new digital economy is “Make Everything Available.” Since there is a market for everything, and since the cost of storage is so incredibly low, there is profit to be made even from the most obscure (and awful) material: “In the Long Tail economy, it’s more expensive to evaluate than to release. just do it!”

We do indeed seem to be moving more and more from an economy of scarcity to one of abundance. From a scholarly perspective, this means the development of a rich, extensive, inexpensive (Anderson’s second rule is “cut the price in half, then lower it”), and easily accessible archive of material. As Anderson observes, “it is a fair bet that children today will grow up never knowing the meaning of “out of print.” On the other hand, however, I wonder what an economically driven abundance (concerned with quantity over quality) will have on our ideas about the value of tradition.

In the early days of the Enlightenment, there was some discussion about the scarcity of available information relative to the total amount of material that had presumably been produced. In this, there seems to have been two primary perspectives. From Francis Bacon we learn that it was common for scholars at that time to believe that the works that had survived had done so by virtue of their importance and, consequently, represented the best that the history of ideas had to offer. In contrast to this dominant position, Bacon argued that it was not in fact the best that had endured, but rather the most trivial.

Another error, that hath also some affinity with the former, is a conceit that of former opinions or sects after variety and examination the best hath still prevailed and suppressed the rest; so as if a man should begin the labour of a new search, he were but like to light upon somewhat formerly rejected, and by rejection brought into oblivion; as if the multitude, or the wisest for the multitude’s sake, were not ready to give passage rather to that which is popular and superficial than to that which is substantial and profound for the truth is, that time seemeth to be of the nature of a river or stream, which carrieth down to us that which is light and blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is weighty and solid. (Bacon, The Advancement of Learning)

In essence, Bacon advocates an approach that would abandon tradition entirely, and systematically create new repositories of knowledge built upon firm foundations. Since the best has been lost, and what remains has little value, Bacon leaves us with little choice in the matter. Responding to Bacon, who is notorious for his rejection of the value of tradition, Giambattista Vico supports the former view, the view that Bacon insists is in error:

There is, therefore, more wit than truth in Bacon’s statement that in the tidal wave of the barbarians’ invasions, the major writers sank to the bottom, while the lighter ones floated on the surface. In each branch of learning, instead, it is only the most outstanding authors who have reached us, by virtue of being copied by hand. If one or another was lost, it was purely by chance. (Vico 1990, 73)

For Vico, Bacon makes a mistake in accounting for scarcity by emphasizing what falls away. For Bacon, it seems, knowledge persists unless something happens to it, and it just so happens that the finest knowledge is the first to be lost. In contrast, Vico argues that the opposite is the case: that knowledge naturally decays over time, and that its endurance is only made possible through the active (providential) intervention of scribes motivated by an interest in preserving the finest and best. Both authors are resigned to the fact that what’s lost is lost. When it comes to accounting for the scarce intellectual resources that have persisted through time, however, Bacon views this scarcity as evidence of inferiority, and Vico of eminence.

Under conditions of scarcity, whether high (in the case of Vico) or low (in the case of Bacon), knowledge has value, and this valuable nature of knowledge demands a response. If received knowledge is of high value, then it ought to be preserved; if not, then it ought to be jettisoned. But what kind of value does knowledge have within a ‘long-tail’ information economy characterized by abundance? (This would, of course, be an obvious place to bring in Walter Benjamin and his comments on the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and for that reason I will resist the temptation).

A central part of digital literacy (something that we, in higher education, are increasingly encouraged to incorporate into our learning outcomes, at least latently) is the ability to evaluate and judge the quality of sources that are found online. With so much information at our fingertips, and the flattening of value that comes as a result of an approach to content delivery that would release rather than evaluate, are we entering a period that, with Vico, is appreciating tradition more and more by virtue of the fact that we have more and more of it? Or is tradition quickly being stripped of its value as a consequence of the fact that all knowledge is lumped together as equally valuable within the marketplace of ideas? In other words, does our increased access to the past (and other marginal material) give it more importance, more of a voice, in the present? Or does this abundance justify its dismissal (a la Bacon) in the face of a present and future that really count?