Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Information Control

The question of when it is permissable to control the flow of information has been on my mind for quite some time now. It first came to be relevant when I played Metal Gear Solid 2 for the second time and getting to the end of the game, where this is said:

Rose: You’re being silly! What we propose to do is not to control content, but to create context. [1]

It is this line specifically that irks me, although I will quote others as I investigate the connections between content and context as well as whether it is permissable to create and regulate context. Specifically, I plan to argue that it is permissable to regulate context given certain conditions.

Let’s start by differentiating between content and context ala Webster’s dictionary [2]:
Content: substance, meaning
Context: setting, environment

Although these definitions are somewhat vague for those not familiar with the phrases, there is an easier way to distinguish between the two: Context is the more generalities of speech, concerning itself with what things are said, while content is more specific, concerning itself with how things are said.

With that out of the way, an important issue remains. When I began wondering about this issue, my intuition led me to immediately believe that it is unjust to regulate context (or content) regardless of the reason. Such an extreme position made me even more suspicious of its validity, and only then could I begin to investigate the issue further.

The environment around us (including ourselves) has led to natural selection, the concept that certain genes flourish or fall based on their surroundings and how prone they are to survival. A similar mechanism exists for memories: culture. Culture has propagated ideas/memes through time, and in the process, they have changed in order to survive. It was believed that the planets orbited the earth in a circular orbit as demonstration of God’s will made manifest. When it was proved that the planets did not orbit the earth and that the orbits of the planets were not perfect circles, the memes changed and others came to replace it (ala creationism today, amongst others).

But are all memes good? Of course not. Racism, hatred, and violence have all prevailed to this day and in many places, are stronger than ever. Furthermore, the advent of the Internet has allowed information to survive without any necessity whatsoever. In the past, information only survived if someone thought it worthwhile enough to pass through oral tradition or believed in enough to publish on paper, which was rare at the time.

“Most great works of art, knowledge and salvation have been already created, but are ‘lost beneath strata of trash’ because the civilization has become a ’mechanical milker of the Muses’.” [1]

The Internet has value, don’t get me wrong. But for every eBay and every Google, there are a thousand sites promoting hatred, violence, or utter stupidity (mostly this last one) in some shape or form. The Internet allows us to hide behind our IP Address and although it is a great forum to learn what is really on one another’s mind, the truth is devastating. We need to stop the reckless proliferation of suffering in this world. Now.

The perfect situation goes as follows: your omnipotent and omnibenevolent God watches over you and helps you along though life giving you exactly what you need to grow as a person but not be corrupted by the failings of those around you.

So ideally we could have an Artificial Intelligence whose sole function is to govern us through information control. But this phrase is a little too strong, as there is not absolute domination here. Information should not be completely controlled. Everyone should still see the truth. But we should not allow people to use half-truths to justify lies to themselves just because they’re afraid of facing themselves and the world around them.

Raiden: Create context?
Colonel: The digital society furthers human flaws and selectively rewards development of convenient half-truths. Just look at the strange juxtapositions of morality around you.
Rose: Billions spent on new weapons in order to humanely murder other humans.
Colonel: Rights of criminals are given more respect than the privacy of their victims.
Rose: Although there are people suffering in poverty, huge donations are made to protect endangered species. Everyone grows up being told the same thing.
Colonel: Be nice to other people.
Rose: But beat out the competition!
Colonel: “You’re special.” “Believe in yourself and you will succeed.”
Rose: But it’s obvious from the start that only a few can succeed…
Colonel:You exercise your right to “freedom” and this is the result. All rhetoric to avoid conflict and protect each other from hurt. The untested truths spun by different interests continue to churn and accumulate in the sandbox of political correctness and value systems.
Rose: Everyone withdraws into their own small gated community, afraid of a larger forum. They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever “truth” suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large.
Colonel: The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh. No one is invalidated, but nobody is right.
Rose: Not even natural selection can take place here. The world is being engulfed in “truth.”
Colonel: And this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Rose: We’re trying to stop that from happening.
Colonel: It’s our responsibility as rulers. Just as in genetics, unnecessary information and memory must be filtered out to stimulate the evolution of the species.
Raiden: And you think you’re qualified to decide what’s necessary and not!?
Colonel: Absolutely. Who else could wade through the sea of garbage you people produce, retrieve valuable truths and even interpret their meaning for later generations?
Rose: That’s what it means to create context.
Raiden: I’ll decide for myself what to believe and what to pass on!
Colonel:But is that even your own idea?
Rose: Or something Snake told you?
Raiden: Ahh
Colonel: That’s the proof of your incompetence, right there. You lack the qualifications to exercise free will.

Although the preceding passage is a little long for those not used to this stuff (I definitely wasn’t ready for it the first time I played Metal Gear Solid 2 and was adequately ready the third time), this is the crux of the speech and the entire game itself, along with the line before it, which was the first quote used.

The inherent downside of having any being (organic, mechanical or otherwise) with so much power is obvious, but I believe that the alternative is worse and that the risk is worth it. This is an information overload, and not even a pertinent information overload. Fuck the great works of society, as it is us who is ’lost beneath strata of trash’. But perhaps some of the great works will be needed to push us forward…

With that said, there are still many ethical issues concerning the legitimacy of context control. The main practical issue is that it is impossible to construct or employ a perfectly benevolent being under any real-life situation for an indefinite amount of time. Therefore, this agent will eventually make decisions that are not beneficial to humanity and thus cause some damage to humanity.

From a utilitarian point of view, this may be acceptable. If the agent causes few problems compared to not having it, which could cause many problems, then the agent is still the better choice. However, it may be difficult to argue for the erasure of free will in exchange for an agent who is not perfect.

There is something more disconcerting here though: context control ALREADY EXISTS. Implementing context control sounded so controversial to me because although I subconsciously knew it was there, I did not consciously recognize its influence. But it is there. The media tells you the news that you talk about with your friends and family. Your culture tells you what is acceptable to do, what is acceptable to wear, what is acceptable to see. What you think is good and bad, who is attractive and who is not, and what values are sought after and which are deplorable have all been taught to you in some form or another [3]. But this is generally felt to be so decentralized that no great harms could come to pass. Then what of racism? And what of selfishness? Or how about the reckless propagation of violence?

Yet the way context is being controlled is simple: show the people what they really want to see. People inherently like violence and tragedy to some degree (or else people wouldn’t slow down to see car accidents), so the news is polluted with stories of death and destruction. People have become so irrational as a whole that we have polluted our memespace. I’ve already said this, but read it again. Closer.

Rose: Billions spent on new weapons in order to humanely murder other humans.
Colonel: Rights of criminals are given more respect than the privacy of their victims.
Rose: Although there are people suffering in poverty, huge donations are made to protect endangered species. Everyone grows up being told the same thing.

Colonel: Be nice to other people.
Rose: But beat out the competition!
Colonel: “You’re special.” “Believe in yourself and you will succeed.”
Rose: But it’s obvious from the start that only a few can succeed…

Colonel: You exercise your right to “freedom” and this is the result. All rhetoric to avoid conflict and protect each other from hurt. The untested truths spun by different interests continue to churn and accumulate in the sandbox of political correctness and value systems.
Rose: Everyone withdraws into their own small gated community, afraid of a larger forum. They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever “truth” suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large.
Colonel:The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh. No one is invalidated, but nobody is right.
Rose: Not even natural selection can take place here. The world is being engulfed in “truth.”
Colonel: And this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Rose: We’re trying to stop that from happening.
Colonel: It’s our responsibility as rulers. [1]

The problem isn’t with the way context and content are controlled. The problem is with us. If we cared as a whole about growth and achievement, hell if we cared as a whole about seeing other people happy more than ourselves, this issue wouldn’t exist. Many issues wouldn’t exist if we would just shut the fuck up and give a crap more about somebody else. That’s why it’s not our rulers’ responsibility to babysit us. We need to stop crying about what so-and-so did and grow up and act our damn age.

Yet my experiences have shown me that we are still an “immature species” paralyzed and controlled by fear. If you need some kind of real life example to make the case for you, here[4] it[5] is[6] . [4] does the best job of summarizing it all up, but [5] and [6] are even more recent examples.

References:
[1] JunkerHQ.NetGene and Meme, accessed 08/15/06
[2] Webster, Content / Context, accessed 08/15/06
[3] WikipediaValues, accessed 08/17/06
[4] Schneier.ComWhat the Terrorists Want, accessed 08/25/06
[5] World of Warcraft.Com ForumsGuy drops iPod in toilet, police think he’s a terrorist, accessed 08/25/06
[6] Hardware ReviewsGuy plays with PSP, police think he’s a terrorist, accessed 08/25/06