Wednesday, December 29, 2010

From the 2010 APA in Boston: Social networking and philosophy

The APA meeting in Boston is turning into a disaster because of the weather: many sessions have been canceled because speakers couldn’t get to this frozen hell, while other sessions are being run by substitute speakers gathered at the last minute, with some presenting talks that only have a vague connection to whatever it was that the original session was supposed to be about.
This particular session was billed as having to do with how Twitter is changing the connectedness of philosophical communities, but turned out to be about social networking more broadly. Neither of the original speakers was present, and neither of the two replacement talks was about Twitter specifically. Oh well.
The first speaker was Casey Haskins (SUNY Purchase), who announced that he was going to talk about aesthetics and interconnected communities (though eventually aesthetics didn’t really make much of an appearance, probably a good thing). I find it amazing that someone gives a talk about Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds but freely admits that he doesn't know much about and has in fact just started using them.
"Small worlds" (the term Haskins uses for social networks) can be thought of as analogous to biological ecosystems that exchange information instead of organic materials. They are media that allow our "extended minds."
The guy was all over the place, using the term "good ideas" to talk about things ranging from Twitter to the evolution of coral reefs (apparently, nature can have ideas too, though what determines whether Twitter and corals are "good" isn't clear).
Reefs are then conceptualized as "platforms," apparently in the engineering sense (like Twitter!), structures that make it possible for other things to happen. He suggests an analogy between information flow on Twitter and material flow in biological ecosystems. I couldn’t be more unconvinced.
Twitter is presented as a "cultural exaptation" of a more primitive text based system (hence the 140 characters limit). Of course this is an example of an intentional exaptation, and hence yet another disanalogy with biology. I wonder what’s up with some philosophers’ biology envy. Someone should do a sociological study on this.
The second co-opted speaker was Saray Ayala (Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona). She talked about whether the computational theory of mind accounts for the “extended mind” (again!) made possible by environmental inputs, including social networks. Social networks (as environmental structures) may impose constraints on the functioning of our minds, and some of these constraints may not be computable.
She brings up an interesting example of robots that literally "embody" the ability of carrying out simple computations, by virtue of the way they are physically put together. A particular morphology of the robot plays the role of the hidden layer in a three-way layer system producing a logical XOR function (the other two layers being the input and the output).
The author then suggests that a computational theory of mind does not explain the environmental contribution of social networks to mind, because the theory treats the environment as background, passive with respect to computation, as opposed to as a structural component of what the mind does. Well, I’m not too sympathetic to computational theories of mind anyway, so I’ll need to look into this.


  1. (With regards to the final few paragraphs)

    It sort of depends what the author means by computational theory of mind, I suppose. If that is supposed to be the view that the mind performs computations, then there is nothing about the mind being extended that troubles the view.

    If she means Fodor's classicism, then there could be a problem. But then it seems like a classicist would just redefine "environment" as anything outside the bounds of one's computational capacities.

  2. Why is it a bad thing that aesthetics didn't make much of an appearance?

  3. Anonymous, because the talk was confused as it was, god (metaphorically speaking) only knows where it would have gone if aesthetics had actually been brought into it.