Until today, I had never heard of Eternal September. Apparently, in September 1993 the Internet went dumb, which coincidentally was when I at the tender age of 18 started using the Internet (or at least CompuServe) at work. No connection, I'm sure. I'm always polite regardless of the medium, and never flame (expect when I'm really ticked off, so don't push me, ok?).
There is a real and serious signal to noise ratio problem on the Internet, and the glorious arrival of Web 2.0 did not help. Spam, and more specifically phishing and other scams, threatens the usefulness of email. Quality in the media suffers from relentless downward pressure driven by the 24/7 news cycle, an explosion of outlets and brands... and blogging. Bringing people together, and garnering wide opinion, brings the worst with the best. Quoting one of my favourite speeches, by Benjamin Franklin in a September 206 years before Eternal September:
"For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?"
A description as apt in the blogosphere today as it was in 1787. Obviously this doesn't apply to BCS blogs... I'm signed up to a proper professional code of conduct rather than something that earnestly talks about trolls.
Dealing with stupidity at source through a code of conduct is a compelling idea, particularly as there is no alternative. However, coming soon is the StupidFilter. Just like a Spam filter, this deals with the problem at the 'edge' rather than at source. To quote from the StupidFilter website:
"Too long have we suffered in silence under the tyranny of idiocy. In the beginning, the internet was a place where one could communicate intelligently with similarly erudite people. Then, Eternal September hit and we were lost in the noise. The advent of user-driven web content has compounded the matter yet further, straining our tolerance to the breaking point.
It's time to fight back.
The solution we're creating is simple: an open-source filter software that can detect rampant stupidity in written English. This will be accomplished with weighted Bayesian or similar analysis and some rules-based processing, similar to spam detection engines."
I was particularly amused by the FAQ:
"Isn't filtering stupidity elitist?
Yes. Yes, it is. That's sort of the whole point."
The BCS is in some senses elitist as well, in that we try to by and large give chartered status (CITP / CEng / CSci) only to people who are competent... but I digress.
There is something quite compelling about the idea of filtering out that which is clearly stupid. Spam filters are now pretty good, and pretty clever... and while clever spammers are able to find their way around them, stupidity is by definition not clever. A darwinian effect may in this circumstance act positively by giving immediate feedback on the clearly stupid.
However, I was brought up to be suspicious of anyone who uses the word 'Bayesian' in cold blood. What of the false positive? Will this create a two-tier Internet, for the elite and erudite, and the educationally challenged? "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" as the poet says. My wife openly defines stupidity and wisdom as a direct function of how divergent an opinion is from her own. Would she be able to customise her StupidFilter accordingly? Would other customisations be possible based on different world views?
Moving from the facile, if not to say facetious, to something more serious - one of the negative effects of the Internet is increased radicalisation. The normal process of communities and politics means that as an idea spreads it is by necessity moderated. History is replete with examples where this doesn't work, but it makes it harder for radicalism to take hold. The Internet enables people with radical views to a) get in touch with those with similar views without anyone else in between and b) ignore parts of the Internet that disagrees with them. The result is concentration rather than dispersal and moderation. This applies to any radical viewpoint, and not just the subject areas contemporarily associated with radicalism. Some may mostly be benign, like for example radical views on the place of knitting in society... others will be more malign. Very occasionally, such as in Burma, they may even be positive.
I guess the point is that technology can help us engage politicallytogether, bridge divides and increase mutual understanding, or it can amplify division, bring together our worst characteristics, or in the lingo of the Internet, promote flames and trolls. Ironically, technology akin to StupidFilter (should it ever become a reality) could start off increasing human wisdom, but end up walling us off to fester in our own prejudicial cysts.
I put it to you that an important part of professional ethics is to value wisdom and recognise achievement while remaining inclusive. In that context, the BCS must never be elitist!
About the author
Thoughts on membership, the profession, and the occasional pseudo-random topic from David Evans, former BCS Policy and Community Director.