30 May 2008

Letters to the Editor

This little nugget of...well...let's just call it a nugget, comes to us from the Bedford Gazette letter to the editor section today. Gotta love my hometown paper:
"It seems wisdom in this country has been replaced with an unhealthy reverence of knowledge. But knowledge is only facts and figures, a tool not the answer"
On the first read, this just makes you cringe, doesn't it? What is wisdom? It seems that maybe in this sense it's synonymous with dogma or, possibly, received tradition, which, in this letter writer's mind, is dichotomously opposed to knowledge. He goes on to say that the US government would do well to heed to the "good counsel" of the Bible, so apparently this is where wisdom lies and knowledge (presumably falsifiable scientific claims) leads us astray of this (or at best acts in an instrumental fashion). After all, knowledge consists of only facts and figures and those can't guide us in our political/moral motives.

Sounds a little scary, "an unhealthy reverence of knowledge," but is there a charitable reading to be made of this? It might be possible to read a Humean insight into what we find here, that one can't derrive an ought from an is. Maybe reason, that which produces demonstrative knowledge, is only instrumental. If that's the case, in some sense, knowledge is only a tool and cannot provide "the answer" to questions of what we ought to do. But even so, can wisdom in the sense of tradition or religious teaching? Certainly not in Hume's view, there the passions rule. It seems we can only put a slight varnish on this claim, but never salvage it completely.

What do you think? Utter nonsese, scary rhetoric, or a diamond of "wisdom" in the rough?

28 May 2008

What does it "mean" to consume data?

Yesterday, NYT ran an article on speculations about the new iPhone. The focus was obviously on new features, gadgets, widgets, and whatnots, but a few paragraphs at the end struck me as a little strange:

IPhone users have turned out to be prodigious consumers of wireless data. For example, the iPhone customers of T-Mobile, the German cellular operator, consume 30 times more data than its other wireless customers, according to Chetan Sharma, an independent wireless industry analyst.

Mr. Sharma estimates that iPhone users in the United States consume two and a half to three times more data than users of other cellphones. Faster networks could widen that gap and further extend the iPhone’s influence in the telecommunications world.

What does it mean to say, "iPhone users consume more data?" More simply, what does it mean to say that one comsumes data? This seems a strange way to put these words - consume and data - to use. What does the verb to consume mean? Well, let's look at how it's used. We use the word in sentences like (1) "The fire grows in intensity as it consumes oxygen" and "The fire is consuming the house" and "I've consumed one too many tacos and two too many beers." In this way, consuming is analogous to or synonymous with ingesting: taking in, breaking down, and using for some purpose. Another way we use the word is its noun form consumer. Here we see constructs like (2) "a gasoline consumer" and "the consumer in such-and-such a market." This is synonymous with words like buyer or purchaser. Another way consumer is used is in the term (3) "consumer of information." This could be synonymous with (2), but doesn't seem to be because we don't normally talk of information consumers - say someone browsing Wikipedia - as buying information. In this sense it seems like a consumer is someone who uses, maybe digests in a sense, but not in the same way as (1).

(1) and (2) also seem to not be synonymous, but is there an analogy, a family resemblence for this concept? If I buy something am I a consumer in a similar way as I am a consumer of cheese when I eat it? There is some sense of taking the object of consumption as one's own, of taking it in. But the similarity breaks down here.

What of consuming data, though? Getting back to where we began, consuming data seems to be most analogous to (3), but not quite. What's the difference here? When we're talking about information, we're talking about data in some distilled form, e.g., a proposition, but data itself is simply bytes of 0s and 1s coming across the airwaves. Do we consume these more like (1)? Do we take them in, break them down, and re-construct them in more useful ways like fire does with oxygen? If this is the case, what are we saying when we say they "consume more data?" Is it like eating more? If it is, is that a good thing? Are we gaining something from it, or is it simply gluttony. Are we overconsuming data?

A bit rambling, but what do you all think? What does it "mean" to be consuming data?