We encounter this problem often in the digital world in things like content-limited text fields and binary choices on a form (or limited options that drive us always to “other”).
The digital world demands exactitude in a way analog doesn’t. I recall my dad, a TV station electrician, explaining the difference between analog and digital signal to me as a kid; I couldn’t understand why the squared shape of digital signal — either you get it or you don’t — would win out over more flexible analog signal, which has some allowance to receive lower quality signal rather than none.
Too, this inherent precision of digital information influences the way we think about data. We interpret numbers to be more meaningful than they are:
Excel-calculated results down to four decimals falsely imply confidence unsupported by the input data.
Recipes call for a specific baking time, when everyone’s oven is a little bit different, and environmental conditions affect baking time by impacting the moisture content of the ingredients.
Ad metrics and pageview data and likes that don’t translate truly to reach or brand recognition or conversions. (Like Internet celebs with millions of followers getting book deals that don’t translate to sales.)
Ambiguity of knowledge
Information that should be more directional than exact is treated as gospel. “The numbers don’t lie.” (Well, actually…)
Anyone who’s collected scientific data is aware of the messiness of reality that must be translated into the concrete as “data.” Theoretically, methodology codifies the decision-making matrix researchers follow; but given the scientific reproducibility crisis, it’s clearly a tough job. Give five writers the same prompt and you’ll get five different stories; can you be certain five researchers will record the same value from the same observed reality? It is a tricky thing, as a communicator, to acknowledge the limitations of what is knowable and to what degree, without implying artificial uncertainties to be exploited through mis- and dis-information. (I know those are the terms we use nowadays, but sometimes I’d just like the plain language “lies.”)
Who determines reality?
As Doctorow points out, digital condenses complex reality into defined fields — and the people defining the fields are those in power / the elite. Powerful, controlling cultures demand that their perspectives be codified.
The “Shitty Technology Adoption Curve” describes the process by which abusive technologies work their way up the privilege gradient. Every bad technological idea is first rolled out on poor people, refugees, prisoners, kids, mental patients and other people who can’t push back.
Their bodies are used to sand the rough edges and sharp corners off the technology, to normalize it so that it can climb up through the social ranks, imposed on people with more and more power and influence.
When [Netflix] used adversarial interoperability to build a multi-billion-dollar global company using the movie studios’ products in ways the studios hated, that was progress. When you define “family” in ways that makes Netflix less money, that’s felony contempt of business model.
Netflix is careful to stick to the terminology “household,” but I suspect to many, household implies family. I know a married couple who live in different parts of the state for work; would you not consider them a household in how they run their finances and make their decisions? It is easier to justify a physical utility like Comcast requiring a connection at each physical location versus a digital service like Netflix that is not location dependent. This is true too for ebooks, which have fucked libraries royally by pretending a physical book could be loaned only twelve (?) times (lolololol I worked at a library back when we stamped checkouts and lemme tell you, those stamp slips had space for like forty checkouts, and often the book was still going strong when the slip was full), and individuals by pretending it’s only possible to loan a book to a friend once in a lifetime. Digital product corporations want the limitations of the analog with the benefits of the digital. The elites setting the rules want to have one account they can use at their multiple homes, but not for the poors whose families are spread across multiple dwellings to be permitted to share.
2 replies on “When “ambiguity is a feature, not a bug””
Hello. I’m sorry, I probably misunderstand something here.
> “lolololol I worked at a library back when we stamped checkouts and lemme tell you, those stamp slips had space for like forty checkouts, and often the book was still going strong when the slip was full”
Was that a simile or something? Or are libraries expected to get rid of (?) books wherever you live/have worked?
/me is puzzled
Hey zblesk, physical library books do wear out eventually as patrons use them. They are taken out of circulation when, for example, the spine breaks. At that point the library would buy another copy or decide not to replace it. This NPR piece suggests physical books often last 30-100 checkouts: https://www.npr.org/2022/11/18/1137817727/librarians-worry-e-book-pricing-might-affect-people-s-ability-to-borrow-books
The library I worked at was quite limited in terms of shelf space (an old Carnegie library), so they would sometimes cull old books that no one was borrowing (for example, if you found a book from 1980 with a single checkout stamp from the twenty years it’d been on the shelf, the book was clearly not in demand in the community) to make room for additions to the collection.
I think it’s really messed up that publishers artificially limit library checkouts for ebooks. Libraries pay much more than retail to license them for a limited time period, or a limited number of checkouts, whichever comes first. The excuse publishers have given is that is how many times a physical book tends to last at the library. I am calling BS on their number because I have seen library books that were checked out dozens of times and remained in circulation. It also sucks that they’re time-limited, so it encourages libraries not to carry older / less popular ebook titles, when ebooks aren’t taking up shelf space so theoretically *could* remain part of the collection.