Author Information: Gregory Sandstrom, Arena Blockchain, gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com.

Sandstrom, Gregory. “Is Blockchain an ‘Evolutionary’ or ‘Revolutionary’ Technology, and So What If It Is?: Digitally Extending Satoshi Nakamoto’s Distributed Ledger Innovation.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 17-49.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references, and includes the full text of the article. Shortlink, Part One: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47f. Shortlink: Part Two: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47m

Image by Tiger Pixel via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Ideological Blockchain Evolutionism

There is also a position held that promotes what I call ‘ideological evolutionism’ in insisting that blockchain must be called a particularly ‘evolutionary’ phenomenon. This appears to be due largely to a broader ideological framework to which the authors are already committed.

This view requires either that blockchain should not be seen as a ‘revolutionary’ technology or use ideas available in literature produced by academics that promote something akin to the ‘evolution of everything,’ i.e. that ‘everything evolves’ based on the logic that ‘everything changes.’ This ideology is professed in the works of Matt Ridley and David Sloan Wilson among others.

Patrick T. Harker, President and Chief Executive Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, tells us that, “banking evolved its products and appendages just like the first single-cell organisms evolved fins and gills and eventually feet and legs.” (2017: 4) Here an analogy with the origins of life and animals implies that blockchain is an innovation of almost mythical proportion. Though it may surprise the people who use ‘evolution’ colloquially to hear this, not a few people actually do link the rise of blockchain to a broader understanding of life, human existence and their general worldview.

One of the most well-known ideological blockchain evolutionists is Naval Ravikant, co-founder of Angel List. “The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley, one of my favorite authors,” tells Ravikant. “If I can’t verify it on my own or if I cannot get there through science, then it may be true, it may be false, but it’s not falsifiable so I cannot view it as a fundamental truth. On the other side, I do know that evolution is true. I do know that we are evolved as survival and replication machines. I do know that we have an ego so that we get up off the ground and worms don’t eat us and we actually take action.” Ravikant also appeared on a podcast with Tim Ferris using a title “The Evolutionary Angel[1].” In short, Ravikant says, “I think almost everything about humans and human civilization is explained better by evolution than anything else[2].” To clarify what he means, he says,

“I use evolution as my binding principle in that it can explain a lot about how we behave towards each other and why we do certain things. / Ignoring that your genes want you to live in a certain way is a delusion that is going to hurt you. / I think a lot of modern society can be explained through evolution. One theory is that civilization exists to answer the question of who gets to mate. If you look around, from a purely sexual selection perspective, sperm is abundant and eggs are scarce. It’s an allocation problem. How do you choose which sperm gets the egg? / Literally all of the works of mankind and womankind can be traced down to people trying to solve that problem.”[3]

In short, we see an attempt at the ‘naturalisation’ of blockchain technology based on ideology or worldview, rather than ‘science.’

Similarly, but with a more academic focus, Chris Berg et al. (2018) are promoting an institutional evolutionary approach that mixes together ‘development’ with ‘evolution’. They ask: “How do blockchain protocols develop? How do they evolve? It is useful to see the development of blockchain innovation through the entrepreneurial innovation literature. Each sequential adaptation of a blockchain represents a new economic organisation, such as a firm.” (Ibid: 3)

For them, “Blockchain protocols offer us an evolutionary window into institutional change. The protocols are evolving under variation, replication and selection conditions, and researchers have a near complete and comprehensive window into those changes.” (Ibid: 10) This choice of terms follows on the work of Donald T. Campbell who attempted to apply Darwinian principles regarding biology to the human world, using the controversial notion of ‘blind variation and selective retention’ (cf. the Darwinian notion of ‘random mutation and natural selection’), which at the same time dislocates humanity’s power of choice by removing the teleological impulse[4] that is present in non-evolutionary and trans-evolutionary (Sandstrom 2016) viewpoints.

Nick Szabo is a major figure in blockchain space, perhaps most known for his coinage of the term ‘smart contract.’ Szabo is also somewhat prolific in his use of the term ‘evolution’ when it comes to cultural artefacts. He writes, “Common law is a highly evolved system of security for persons and property.” This draws on his general belief that, “Over many centuries of cultural evolution has emerged both the concept of contract and principles related to it, encoded into common law. Algorithmic information theory suggests that such evolved structures are often prohibitively costly to recompute. If we started from scratch, using reason and experience, it could take many centuries to redevelop sophisticated ideas like property rights that make the modern free market work.”

Szabo, however, notes that, “the digital revolution is radically changing the kinds of relationships we can have. … New institutions, and new ways to formalize the relationships that make up these institutions, are now made possible by the digital revolution. I call these new contracts ‘smart,’ because they are far more functional than their inanimate paper-based ancestors.” (1996) At the same time, he reminds us that, “Societies have evolved institutions such as firms and competitive markets to set prices, legal precedents and judicial proceedings to make judgments, and so forth.” (2002) Thus, we are proposed with a digital revolution happening inside of a broadly evolutionary version of human history.

Kartik Hegadekatti (2017) believes that, “Man has not only evolved biologically and culturally but also economically. Human economy has grown over many centuries through continuous addition of value. This value addition has been an evolutionary factor as it has influenced the formation of the main economic sectors-namely Primary, Secondary and Tertiary. Recently after the advent of Blockchain technology, Bitcoin achieved Gold parity. This paper analyses whether such an event will have any impact on the evolution of our economies.”

He suggests that,

“Man first settled down for agriculture, and started the process of economic and social development. In fact, this event led to conditions where mankind could experiment and evolve new economic and social systems. Earlier, during the hunter-gatherer phase, there were very few niche specialties. A hunter had to sharpen his [sic] own spear and go to hunt with the group. Once man settled down, distribution and differentiation of labor started. Villages sprang up where there were blacksmiths, cattle herders, and traders etc. who became part of the then-nascent human society.” (2017: 3)

Further, he writes that, “Consequently we may witness an explosion in technology entities, akin to the industrial revolution; A Technology Revolution. This may culminate in the creation of a truly Artificial Intelligence (as investment and research into Data analytics and automation technology will increase, thanks to investment in Blockchain Technology) leading to Technological Singularity.” (Ibid: 6)

In this final example of ideological blockchain evolutionism, we notice the author predicting a ‘Technological Singularity’ (cf. Ray Kurzweil’s dystopian scenario for humanity), which presents a kind of teleological goal and aim for human-machine interaction. Proponents of blockchain development who share this view may thus somehow still believe in technological revolutions that happen within a broader worldview in which everything, inevitably, is always and everywhere evolving.

Digitally Extending Blockchain

“The idea of cultural evolution strikes me as nothing but a dodge to put off the work of doing th[e] thinking, a piece of displacement activity brought in to dodge the conflict. It is not the right way to grasp the continuity between human and non-human nature. We need to drop it and find a better path[5].” – Mary Midgley (1984)

“Practitioners should be skeptical of claims of revolutionary technology.”

– Arvind Naryanan and Jeremy Clark (2017)

After having considered the ways various people write about blockchain as a constantly changing and ‘evolving’ technology, potentially a ‘revolutionary’ one, in this section I will offer an additional approach to blockchain development. My view is that blockchain technology is an example of a ‘social machine[6]‘ (Berners-Lee 1999) that most closely resembles the educational and agricultural extension movements from the late 19th and 20th centuries, which continue around the world today.

It is not necessary and can even be harmful or at least restrictive to use ‘evolutionary’ language to describe this alternative approach. In the current 21st century, we can thus consider the emergence and development of blockchain as a form of ‘digital extension services,’ which I will briefly elaborate on below and further in a forthcoming book chapter (Bailetti IGI, 2019).

The first thing to realise in order to make a simple yet crucial shift in language is that ‘change’ is the master category, not ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution’. That is to say that both evolution and revolution require change to happen, but change need not be either evolutionary or revolutionary. That is what makes change the master category over both evolution and revolution.

This basic semantic point serves an aim to help curb the rampant over-use and exaggeration of the ‘biological theory of evolution’ into the field of technology development that at the same time largely avoids identifying non-evolutionary or trans-evolutionary (Sandstrom 2017c) types of change. Instead, properly identifying the master category reveals that the intended new directions of social and cultural change due to blockchains are happening less rapidly and possibly also less disruptively compared to what many ‘blockchain revolution’ proponents enthusiastically claim.

Here it is worth noting that blockchain technology is based on not a few prior innovations, which when taken into account make it appear less revolutionary and more step-wise logically sequential. Such is the case that Naryanan and Clark make in their impressive paper “Bitcoin’s Academic Pedigree (2017). In it they state that, “many proposed applications of blockchains, especially in banking, don’t use Nakamoto consensus. Rather, they use the ledger data structure and Byzantine agreement, which, as shown, date to the ’90s. This belies the claim that blockchains are a new and revolutionary technology.” (Ibid)

They continue, concluding that, “most of the ideas in bitcoin that have generated excitement in the enterprise, such as distributed ledgers and Byzantine agreement, actually date back 20 years or more. Recognize that your problem may not require any breakthroughs—there may be long-forgotten solutions in research papers.” (Ibid) While nevertheless celebrating the significant achievement that Satoshi Nakamoto made in bringing multiple previous innovations together into Bitcoin, Naryanan and Clark reveal how the ‘revolutionary’ language of some proponents of blockchain can be considered as an exaggeration that avoids its historical precursors and likewise neglects the ‘shoulders of giants’ on which Nakamoto stood.

Junking the Blockchain Hype

Instead of either ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution,’ the alternative term ‘extension’ identifies inherently teleological, intentional and goal-oriented change-over-time. This term also adds considerable untapped value in connecting directly with the history of educational extension and agricultural extension mentioned in the introduction.

In both cases, the extension of knowledge, training and scientific innovations from centres to margins and from people in cities and at research institutes to people in rural areas around the world without convenient access to educational institutions has opened new opportunities for social learning and overall human development[7].

Thus, blockchain framed as an example of ‘digital extension services’ provides an analogy with applications for business, finance, governance[8], military[9], education, agriculture[10], cultural heritage[11], and any and all other institutions in society that may make use of peer-to-peer transaction-based systems that can be measured with data collection.

Burton Swanson et al. define ‘extension’ as “the organized exchange of information and the purposive transfer of skills.” (1997) It was such intentional diffusion of creative innovation and knowledge sharing that led to a worldwide movement of ‘extensionsists’ and ‘extension agents,’ that has arguably become the greatest social impact force, both personally and institutionally, perhaps alongside of universities, football (soccer) and major religions, that the world has ever known and experienced.

This is why I believe a discussion now of blockchain as ‘digital extension services’ is particularly ripe for exploration and why the regularly repeated question of whether or not blockchain is an ‘evolution or revolution’ is not currently as important. If blockchain is going to become a ‘revolutionary’ technology in the digital era, an ‘internet of trust,’ then it will require require some kind of individual and social ‘extension’ motif with goals, aims and purposes in mind in order to achieve this.

At the same time it appears crucial, however, to openly reject ‘evolutionary’ approaches to blockchain as if believing that the origin of Bitcoin did not happen as the result of a random and undirected process that was simply a result of external ‘environmental pressures’ (cf. blind variation and selective retention). Rather, Bitcoin and the technology now known as ‘blockchain’ were created intentionally by a pseudonymous programmer and cryptographer in 2008, with the first Bitcoin mined on January 3, 2009.

If Satoshi Nakamoto’s intentional creation is not credited as such, then an invitation to future blockchain chaos without planning or purpose will be the likely result. In short, an ‘evolutionary’ origins story for blockchain falls short of validity and simply makes no logical sense. Instead, more goal-oriented and teleological discussion is needed about where we are now heading through the use of distributed ledgers, which indeed may bring highly transformative social change to people around the world through digital peer-to-peer interactions.

Investment in Revolution

The question of whether or not blockchain is potentially a ‘revolutionary’ technology and what impact it will have on society raises many difficult questions to answer. To some degree it must involve speculative futuristics. The promises of ‘decentralisation’ and the removal of intermediaries (disintermediation) from digital social transactions that happen across borders and nations using the internet has led to what can be called ‘centre-phobia,’ or the fear of centralised institutions of social, economic and political power. Some proponents of blockchain are even calling for ‘leaderless democracy[12],’ which sounds more utopian and radical than what mainstream blockchain builders are aiming for.

The blockchain feature of having a timestamped, immutable record has many implications, including for deterrence of online criminal activity and financial fraud detection[13]. While much of the zeal for Bitcoin in the early years involved illicit use through the Silk Road website involving weapons, drugs, human trafficking and various nefarious schemes, other non-criminal uses of distributed ledger for ‘social impact[14]‘ soon started to arise that pushed the boundaries of what peer-to-peer networking and transacting around the world could enable.

All of these changes require the intentional and ‘signed’ (cf. key signatures) use of blockchain systems, where users must agree to accept the rules and regulations of the ledger community’s ‘Genesis Block’ in order to participate. Again, the language of ‘extension’ based on individual and social choices seems more suitable than outsourcing the conversation to biological or even environmental language.

To enable easily distinguishing ‘non-evolutionary’ change and ‘development’ from ‘evolutionary’ change, we may simply consider the effects of intentionality, purpose and aim[15]. When we explore the directions and trajectories that blockchain DLT is headed, we mean that people are consciously developing and building it and/or purchasing crypto-assets and digital currencies, i.e. they are ‘extending’ the innovation made by Satoshi Nakamoto with new applications.

Rest assured, however, with this new terminology in hand this does not necessarily mean that any one person knows, or even that it can be known exactly for certain, in which direction(s) blockchain is headed, such that a single person, group or institution can ‘control’ it, as Carter rightly identified above. Yet, while most people cautiously say they do not now know and cannot predict where blockchain is headed in the future, those who are actually building blockchains now should properly be given credit for their work and not left out of the conversation as if their plans are irrelevant to the eventual outcome of the technology’s growth.

Indeed, the goals, aims, visions and plans of many blockchain builders and investors will determine the trajectory of blockchain development; they are the ones who are now ‘in control’ of where the technology is headed since Satoshi Nakamoto has disappeared from public[16].

Similarly, the perspective which holds that all change that is gradual, rather than rapid, therefore, according to biological precedent, automatically counts as ‘evolutionary,’ turns out to be both false and unnecessary upon closer investigation. French Nobel prize winner in Medicine, François Jacob suggested that, “Natural selection does not work as an engineer works. It works like a tinkerer — a tinkerer who does not know exactly what he is going to produce but uses whatever he finds around him… to produce some kind of workable object[17].”

Yet with blockchain the ‘human selection[18]‘ or ‘human extension’ of technology is being done by software developers, legal experts and innovation leaders with particular practical goals and business solutions in mind, even if ‘tinkering’ is the method by which the development occurs. The key is that people are actively involved in plotting the trajectory of blockchain growth and application, in contra-distinction with the mere anthropomorphic appearance (design) of biological change over time.

It simply does not make sense, therefore, when speaking about blockchain technology to use the language of a biologist like Dawkins, who suggested based largely upon a reactionary view, that ‘natural selection,’ “has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.” (1986: 5) Instead, with blockchain, it is our deep sense of purpose, vision, foresight, and planning that will result in new opportunities to apply the technology in potentially beneficial and effective social and cultural, economic and political configurations.

Indeed, the all-too-human sense of vision and deliberate drive, even if the direction was not always entirely clear and involved a kind of groping for solutions towards an unknown future; this is what enabled Satoshi Nakamoto to bring together past innovations, to ideate, code and eventually build a technological, legal framework and community for Bitcoin users in the first place.

To write this off according to a non-inventive theory of biological evolution that has no foresight or personal agency is to unnecessarily reduce and even dangerously dehumanise the conversation about blockchain in a disparaging way. Instead, I believe that aiming to uplift the conversation involving blockchain for humanity’s individual and collective extension and benefit is what the situation now most urgently requires.

What was the problem to which blockchain presented a solution? Was Nakamoto mainly aiming to undermine the power of financial institutions following the USA’s Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, i.e. the great bailout for banking elites at massive cost to millions of citizens? What purposes need there be other than financial ones to inspire the invention of an immutable public ledger that may serve as the basis for a ‘blockchain revolution’?

A public ledger (cf. triple entry accounting) that eliminates the double spending problem for digital transactions involving money is a massively transformative technology in and of itself. Regardless of what purposes Nakamoto had in mind when designing, creating and developing Bitcoin, we now are faced with what to do with this invention in ways that not only disrupt older systems, but that rather may at the same time creatively uplift human development of people around the world. What seems most urgently needed nowadays is a globally-oriented, socially-responsible digital extension services built upon distributed ledger technologies, using a combination of human, informational and material resources to produce it.

Conclusion

“The extensions of man with their ensuing environments, it’s now fairly clear, are the principal area of manifestation of the evolutionary process[19].” – McLuhan (1968)

“Building is the only truth path. Creation.” … “Bitcoin started because of my ideas. It was my design, and it is my creation.” – Craig Steven Wright (2019)

Given the above survey of uses of both terms ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ with respect to blockchain in the available literature, it is clear at least that there is on-going debate between which term is more suitable. My preference is to drop the term ‘evolution’ as unnecessarily ambiguous and imprecise when applied to technology, while cautioning that ateleological language is not particularly helpful or constructive in the conversation about blockchain development.

Likewise, at this early stage of historical growth, we still don’t know what kind of ‘revolution’ blockchain may cause in combination with other emerging digital technologies (IoTs, UAVs, VR/AR, virtual assistants, neural nets, quantum computing, etc.). We may thus look with either some trepidation or tempered optimism at the potential for revolutionary changes with the coming of distributed ledgers, particularly in the way blockchain will impact society, economics, politics, and culture.

In this paper, a brief comparison towards blockchain’s ‘revolutionary’ impact was proposed in the educational extension movement and agricultural extension and advisory services. The worldwide extension movement in agriculture contributed to the so-called ‘Green Revolution[20]‘ of the 1950s and 60s through knowledge sharing and information transfer to farmers who otherwise would not have had access to new seeds, knowledge and farming techniques.

With blockchain as a globally-oriented technology built upon the internet, we are starting to see new opportunities for digital identity provision that opens access to vital resources for those who are currently identity-less, for money transfer across borders (remissions), and for opportunities to bring ‘banking to the unbanked.’ This transformation has the potential to unlock many available human resources that will be able to further develop societies and cultures through savings and investment in peoples’ futures, something now impossible via institutional gridlock, exclusion and information capture.

On the strictly academic level, distributed ledgers may turn out to be the greatest technology created since the ‘social survey’ (or questionnaire) itself with the prospect of gathering big data for multivariate analysis. Now with a partially anonymous (cf. pseudonymous) user platform to protect personal identities from recrimination and ‘outing,’ social scientific research may be able to provide greater safety and security for ethical studies of humanity via digital devices that was simply not available in the past.

Nevertheless, we are still largely in the theoretical stage of blockchain’s coming impact and no mass platform for collecting such linked social data has yet been created where peer-to-peer interactions can produce a cascading global network effect. The question of whether a ‘revolution’ is coming or not due to blockchain DLT is thus for many people one still of sheer fantasy or hopeful speculation waiting for a major consensus-building breakthrough.

The Origins and the Future

Whether or not a person believes Craig Steven Wright was ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ (perhaps with helpers alongside) or not is beside the point that someone must have been the inventive creator of Bitcoin. It simply didn’t arise on its own without an inventor and creator or without a purpose, aim and plan for its roll-out. To posit an ‘evolutionary origin’ for blockchain DLT thus profoundly misses out on the crucial elements of intentional, planned, purposeful technological change. Instead, looking at blockchain as an ‘extension’ of peoples’ choices places priorities on human values and desires, which are not to be ignored, but rather individually and collectively celebrated.

That said, in closing it is worth noting that a ‘revolution’ would only happen involving blockchains if the technology is not limited in usage to banks, multi-national corporations, and intermediary holders of financial power that collect fees without adding actual value to communities and users. Rent-seeking behaviour and currency speculation indeed has levied a massive cost on human civilisation in terms of widening the inequality gap within and between nations.

Similarly, writes Lawrie, “the Extension Movement … had to battle against the prejudice of those who would prefer university education to remain a privilege for the few.” (2014: 79) An overall struggle for power can and therefore must be expected in attempts to control distributed ledgers via ‘super users’ and centralised databases that sell user information. If the champions of blockchain DLTs are also champions of human freedom and dignity of person, the result may turn out better for a majority, rather than a minority few.

The dangers also adds caution and concern to those who focus on blockchain’s supposed ‘revolutionary’ impact as something necessarily disruptive and even destructive. The rhetoric heats up especially when blockchain is framed as a kind of deterministic, unavoidable and inevitable change driven by forces outside of human control.

Does technology have a ‘mind of its own?’ If not, then who is in control? Who is innovating? Who is guiding, choosing and directing the development of blockchain technology? And are they creating it for their own selfish gains or for the broader aims of society and culture? These questions animate the underlying concerns in this paper that mainly attempted to distinguish between random, unguided and guided, responsible technological change.

While it is true that in some sense the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto does not matter anymore, as the so-called “genie is out of the bottle[21]” now with blockchain. I believe it is nevertheless wrong to suggest that no one is or even should be in control of blockchain development, even though Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared. The growing number of people now building blockchain technologies will create a new horizon in which this technology will impact humanity in the coming years in a profound way. We may therefore watch with interest at the various ways P2P and E2E digital interactions on a global scale will change the course of human history in the near future to come.

In short, blockchain technology is a non-evolutionary or trans-evolutionary phenomenon that is potentially revolutionary for how it will restructure human society and culture based on immutable, timestamped distributed public ledgers. Blockchain as a ‘social machine’ heralds digital extension services and a new era of social change-over-time. Let us be ready and unafraid to face the challenges that this technology brings as it both disrupts, re-creates and unites people in a way that was unimaginable until Satoshi’s blockchain was invented to change the world.

Contact details: gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com

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Sandstrom, Gregory (2017a). “Enter Blockchain: The Non-Evolutionary Recovery of Genesis  in Contemporary Discussions of Innovation and Emerging Technologies.” https://medium.com/@gregory.sandstrom/enter-blockchain-the-non-evolutionary-recovery-of-genesis-in-contemporary-discussions-of-96ae135413a6

Sandstrom, Gregory (2017b). “Who Would Live in a Blockchain Society? The Rise of Cryptographically-Enabled Ledger Communities.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5: pp. 27-41. https://social-epistemology.com/2017/05/17/who-would-live-in-a-blockchain-society-the-rise-of-cryptographically-enabled-ledger-communities-gregory-sandstrom/

Sandstrom, Gregory (2017c). “Evolutionary Epistemology.” Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory.

Sandstrom, Gregory (2016). “Trans-Evolutionary Change Even Darwin Would Accept.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11, 2016: pp. 18-26.

Sandstrom, Gregory (2010). “The Extension of ‘Extension’ OR the ‘Evolution’ of Science and Technology as a Global Phenomenon.” Liberalizing Research in Science and Technology: Studies in Science Policy. Eds. Nadia Asheulova, Binay Kumar Pattnaik, Eduard Kolchinsky, Gregory Sandstrom. St. Petersburg:  Politechnika: pp. 629-655.

Sandstrom, Gregory (2010). “The Problem of Evolution: Natural-Physical or Human Social?” In Charles Darwin and Modern Biology. St. Petersburg: Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Russian Academy of Sciences: pp. 740-748.

Sinrod, Margaret Leigh (2018).  “Still don’t understand the blockchain? This explainer will help.” https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/03/blockchain-bitcoin-explainer-shiller-roubini

Smart, Paul R. (2012). “The Web-Extended Mind.” In Special Issue: Philosophy of the Web, Metaphilosophy, 43, (4): pp. 426-445.

Smart, P.R., & Shadbolt, N.R. (2015). “Social Machines.” In Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Third Edition. IGI Global: pp. 6855-6862.

Staples, M., S. Chen, S. Falamaki, A. Ponomarev, P. Rimba, A.B. Tran, I. Weber, X. Xu, L. Zhu (2017). “Risks and Opportunities for Systems Using Blockchain and Smart Contracts.” Data61 (CSIRO).

Swan, Melanie (2015). Blockchain: Blueprint for a New Economy. Sebastopol: CA: O’Reilly.

Swanson, Burton E., Robert P. Bentz and Andrew J. Sofranko (1997). Improving Agricultural Extension: A Reference Manual. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/w5830e/w5830e00.htm

Szabo, Nick (2002). “Measuring Value.” http://www.fon.hum.uva.nl/rob/Courses/InformationInSpeech/CDROM/Literature/LOTwinterschool2006/szabo.best.vwh.net/measuringvalue.html

Szabo, Nick (1996). “Smart Contracts: Building Blocks for Digital Markets.” http://www.fon.hum.uva.nl/rob/Courses/InformationInSpeech/CDROM/Literature/LOTwinterschool2006/szabo.best.vwh.net/smart_contracts_2.html

Tapscott, Don & Alex (2016). The Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World. Portfolio Penguin.

Town, Sam (2018). “Beyond the ICO Part 3: Evolution Versus Revolution.” https://cryptoslate.com/beyond-the-ico-part-3-evolution-versus-revolution/

Trujillo, Jesus Leal, Stephen Fromhart & Val Srinivas (2017). “Evolution of blockchain technology Insights from the GitHub platform.” Deloitte.

Walport, Mark (2016). “Distributed Ledger Technology: beyond block chain. A report by the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser.”

Williams, Sam (2002). “A Unified Theory of Software Evolution.” Salon.

Wright, Collin (2018). “The New Evolution Deniers.” https://quillette.com/2018/11/30/the-new-evolution-deniers/

Wright, Craig Steven (2019). “Careful what you wish for…” https://medium.com/@craig_10243/careful-what-you-wish-for-c7c2f19e6c4f

Wright, Craig Steven (2019a). https://medium.com/@craig_10243/proof-of-work-1a323e82fd9

Videos

“Alex Tapscott: Blockchain Revolution | Talks at Google” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PdO7zVqOwc

“Are Blockchains Alive? Co-evolving with Technology” – Amanda Gutterman (ConsenSys) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7GkkGTnVwA

“Block Chain Revolution | Giovanna Fessenden | TEDxBerkshires” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMhZTEQZJPI

“Bitcoin and the history of money” – “Let’s take a look at the evolution of money.” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP0jCjyrew8

“Blockchain – evolution or revolution?” –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LojzPukAtmM

“Blockchain Evolution & Empowerment” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSUC9NFccNk

“Blockchain Evolution 2” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCPqXHt-z0k

“Blockchain Evolution or Revolution in the Luxembourg Financial Place? – Nicolas Carey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wp9FB_JQlgI

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CULUqgfVteg

“Blockchain Evolution” – Complexity Labs – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rO2LSBDekvE

“Blockchains’ Evolution by natural selection like biology’s genetics” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JEFGtsu0s4

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGcuJoFZLOY

“Chandler Guo on The Bitcoin & Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7g2JFn68LU

“Cryptos Are The EVOLUTION of Money and Blockchain is the REVOLUTION of Trust! Vlog#18” – Siam Kidd – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nu2F6_K0S0

“DigiByte Blockchain – The evolution of the Internet & the revolution in the financial systems” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8h10ckU0sE “The revolution has already begun.”

“Don Tapscott – The Blockchain Revolution – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZEmaSbqfYQ

“Evolution of Bitcoin” – Documentary Film – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUpGHOLkoXs

“Evolution of Blockchain And Its Future Moving Forward In 2018!” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWlMoxMTbDQ

“Evolution of Blockchain in India:The value of Ownership.” – Mr.Akash Gaurav – TEDxKIITUniversity – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtTJmb0jYzE

“Evolution of the Blockchain Economy” – Jeremy Gardner – Startup Grind – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7cPy6ITUm4

“Future Evolution of Blockchain” – Silicon Valley TV – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_6m7LYIEo4

“Future Thinkers Podcast – a podcast about evolving technology, society and consciousness. https://futurethinkers.org/

“Genetics of Blockchain Evolution” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fFsmuvyXeE

“Keynote: Blockchain’s Evolution: Digital Assets are getting Physical” – FinTech Worldwide” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1p5PUn4z_Gs

“How the Blockchain revolution will change our lives? | Eddy Travia | TEDxIEMadrid” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErxKm0b0DIU

“How the Blockchain Revolution Will Decentralize Power and End Corruption | Brian Behlendorf” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tv-XR6gXfLI

“Interview for Bitcoin And Blockchain Evolution Podcast – Sarah Herring – “Evolution – There is a Revolution coming!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIZJsFotDdg

“John McAfee on Infowars: Nothing Can Stop The Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CssU9WBHx6k

“Make the blockchain business case: Evolution, not revolution” (only title, not in video) – PWC – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjr_Wqwk1SI

“The blockchain evolution, from services…to smartphones.” – Mingis on Tech – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvn5zZj5IR8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Hewlett Packard – https://www.hpe.com/us/en/insights/videos/the-evolution-of-blockchain-1712.html

“The Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeyeKXmqQn8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Cambridge House International” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nELBTdqeKuQ

“The Evolution of Bitcoin – Bill Barhydt – Global Summit 2018 | Singularity” Universityhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZjK1i9CE6U

“The Evolution of Blockchain and Global Vision (Shanghai)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56rOLarCttA

“The Evolution Of Blockchain Over The Decades” – With David Birch” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yC8oBJSQ6vc

“The Evolution of Blockchain technology” – Amir Assif. Microsoft Israel” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_eKp1z5hj0

“The Evolution of Blockchain: How EOS is reinventing blockchain” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8aDGf8WpKs

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – Nicola Morris – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSy-UJn1G1I

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – The State of Digital Money 18′ conference” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWfNVTgbqjc

“The Blockchain Revolution – Graham Richter, Accenture” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYTmjZmsUm4

“The Blockchain Revolution | Rajesh Dhuddu | TEDxHyderabad” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrnvX92vlu8

“The Blockchain Revolution by Talal Tabaa – ECOH 2018” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvRJ1kEQ2so

“The Blockchain Revolution Changing the Rules https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTgG8XzcVC0

“The Blockchain Revolution in Business and Finance” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SUfz6p0a7Y

“The blockchain revolution, the ultimate industry disruptor” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hEiHR-K_KY

“The Blockchain Revolution: From Organisations to Organism | Matan Field | TEDxBreda” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OSbseTJWfY

[1] https://tim.blog/2017/06/04/nick-szabo/

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com/angellist-ceo-naval-ravikant-shares-his-favorite-books-2015-8

[3] http://www.killingbuddha.co/the-present/2016/10/17/naval-ravikant-on-the-give-and-take-of-the-modern-world

[4] “Being teleological is the second worst thing you can be as a Historian. The worst is being Eurocentric.” – Joel Mokyr

[5] “Biological and Cultural Evolution.” 1984. ICR Monograph Series 20. https://idriesshahfoundation.org/biological-and-cultural-evolution/

[6] Berners-Lee writes of “interconnected groups of people acting as if they shared a larger intuitive brain,” defining social machines on the internet as “processes in which the people do the creative work and the machine does the administration.” (1999) Smart and Shadbolt provide an updated version: “Social Machines are Web-based socio-technical systems in which the human and technological elements play the role of participant machinery with respect to the mechanistic realisation of system level processes.” (2014)

[7] “Extension lectures offered many middle-class women almost their only contact with education beyond the secondary level, and in consequence women came to use the new movement in greater numbers than any other social group, and frequently displayed the greatest personal application.” – Lawrence Goldman (Dons and Workers, 1995: 88)

[8]  A blockchain is “a place [digital ledger] for storing data that is maintained by a network of nodes without anyone in charge.” – Jeremy Clark (2016, https://users.encs.concordia.ca/~clark/talks/2016_edemocracy.pdf)

[9]  See Kevin O’Brien’s (2018) “China, Russia, USA in Race to Use Blockchain for Military Operations.” https://bitcoinist.com/china-russia-usa-blockchain-military/ and Salvador Llopsis Sanchez’ “Blockchain Technology in Defence.” https://www.eda.europa.eu/webzine/issue14/cover-story/blockchain-technology-in-defence

[10] Andrew Braun’s (2018) “Blockchain & Agriculture: A Look at the Issues & Projects Aiming to Solve Them” https://blockonomi.com/blockchain-agriculture/ and “Digging into Blockchain in Agriculture.” https://blockchain.wtf/2018/11/industry-impacts/digging-into-blockchain-in-agriculture/

[11]  Zohar Elhanini’s (2018) “How Blockchain Changed The Art World In 2018.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/zoharelhanani/2018/12/17/how-blockchain-changed-the-art-world-in-2018/#30caa5333074

[12] “Without the need for any central control or mediator blockchains allow for leaderless democracy – a new way of governing human behaviour online through ‘one computer one vote’.” http://kmi.open.ac.uk/projects/name/open-blockchain

[13] “Bitcoin is an immutable evidence system, a ledger that stops fraud.” – Craig Steven Wright https://medium.com/@craig_10243/the-great-mining-swindle-2dec8ffa819d

[14] https://consensys.net/social-impact/

[15] “As a result of the new scientific orthodoxy, the origins of organisms and of artifacts are nowadays seen as radically different: blind natural selection versus the purposive, forward-looking, and intelligent activity of designers.” – Phillip Brey (2008)

[16] However, with the noteworthy possibility that Craig Steve Wright was Satoshi Nakamoto, as he is now claiming, as he did in 2016: “I was Satoshi.” (2019)

[17]  “Evolution and Tinkering.” Science, Vol. 196, No. 4295, June 1977: pp. 1161-1166.

[18] This term was used in 1890 by A.R. Wallace, co-discoverer of ‘natural selection’ with Charles Darwin, to distinguish human-made things from natural organisms, after Darwin’s death.

[19] War and Peace in the Global Village. With Quentin Fiore. New York: Bantam, 1968: p. 19.

[20] “The first Green Revolution enabled developing countries to experience large increases in crop production through the use of fertilisers, pesticides and high-yield crop varieties. Between 1960 and 2000, yields for all developing countries rose 208 per cent for wheat, 109 per cent for rice, 157 per cent for maize, 78 per cent for potatoes and 36 per cent for cassava. This success was most felt with rice growers in Asia and lifted many out of poverty. … Capital investments and agricultural extension services are key for farmers to properly adopt new technologies and raise their farms’ productivity. ” – Liu (2017)

[21] As Joseph Lubin of Ethereum and Consensus says, “She’s big, she can’t go back in.” [21] http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/668104-the-entrepreneur-joe-lubin-coo-of-ethereum/

Author Information: Gregory Sandstrom, Arena Blockchain, gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com.

Sandstrom, Gregory. “Is Blockchain an ‘Evolutionary’ or ‘Revolutionary’ Technology, and So What If It Is?: Digitally Extending Satoshi Nakamoto’s Distributed Ledger Innovation.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 17-49.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references, and includes the full text of the article. Shortlink, Part One: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47f. Shortlink: Part Two: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47m

Image by Kevin Krejci via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

“If you cry ‘Forward!’ you must without fail make plain in what direction to go. Don’t you see that if, without doing so, you call out the word to both a monk and a revolutionary they will go in directions precisely opposite?” – Anton Chekhov

“I’m better with code than with words though.” – Satoshi Nakamoto[1]

Did Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, actually invent anything new that had not previously existed before? Should people stop referring to a ‘blockchain revolution’ and instead call blockchain a ‘technological evolution’ that happened gradually and was caused randomly by environmental pressures rather than the intentional acts of a unique inventor? These basic questions make up the core of this paper, along with the suggestion that an alternative way of describing blockchain development makes considerably more sense than using the concept of ‘evolution’ in the digital era.

While it is unoriginal to ask whether blockchain distributed ledger technology should be thought of as an ‘evolution’ or a ‘revolution,’ since many people have asked it already (see bibliography below, including texts and videos), in this paper I’ll go a step deeper by looking at what people actually mean when they refer to blockchain as either an ‘evolution’ or a ‘revolution,’ or rather inconsistently as both at the same time.

In short, I’ll distinguish between their colloquial, ideological and technical uses and ask if one, both or neither of these terms is accurate of the changes blockchain has made, is making and will make as a new global digital technology.

Introduction: From the Book of Satoshi

In the Foreword to The Book of Satoshi: The Collected Writings of Bitcoin Creator Satoshi Nakamoto, libertarian Bitcoin activist Jeff Berwick wrote: “Bitcoin has changed everything. Its importance as an evolution in money and banking cannot be overstated. Notice I don’t use the word ‘revolution’ here because I consider Bitcoin to be a complete ‘evolution’ from the anachronistic money and banking systems that humanity has been using—and been forced by government dictate to use—for at least the last hundred years.” (2014: xvii)

While I don’t really understand what he means by a ‘complete evolution,’ Berwick’s attention to the difference in meaning between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ regarding Bitcoin nevertheless sets the stage for this exploration of blockchain technology, as we consider its current development trajectory. Which term is more suitable?

Worth noting, nowhere in Satoshi Nakamoto’s collected writings is either the term ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution’ to be found. Berwick’s interpretation of ‘blockchain evolution,’ framed within his worldview as an anarcho-capitalist, is thus of his own making and not one that derives from Nakamoto himself. I’ll touch on why I believe that is below. Also of note, the book’s writer and compiler of Nakamoto’s writings, Phil Champagne, states that, “Bitcoin, both a virtual currency and a payment system, represents a revolutionary concept whose significance quickly becomes apparent with a first transaction. … Bitcoin has therefore clearly sparked a new technological revolution that capitalizes on the Internet, another innovation that changed the world.” (2014: 2, 7)

Champagne closes the book stating, “Satoshi Nakamoto brought together many existing mathematical and software concepts to create Bitcoin. Since then, Bitcoin has been an ongoing experiment, continuing to evolve and be updated on a regular basis. It has, so far, proven its utility and revolutionized the financial and monetary industry, particularly the electronic payment system, and is being accepted worldwide.” (2014: 347) The use of both ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ in past and present tense shows a debate exists even within this one book about which term best fits blockchain’s current and future status in society.

This paper will look closely at the difference between these two terms as they relate to blockchain, largely staying away from speculation about cryptocurrencies, i.e. digital tokens, crypto-assets, and/or crypto-securities. It will primarily serve to catalogue the way people have used these two terms with respect to blockchain and cryptocurrency and ask if they are suitable or unsuitable terms. In conclusion, I offer an analysis of why the distinction between these two terms matters as different ways to describe change-over-time and assess an alternative model to analyse and discuss these changes called ‘digital extension services.’ 

Reflexive Background and Context 

To set the background and context, let me write reflexively about why I am writing this paper. Over the past 15+ years studying the topic, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on how the term ‘evolution’ is used outside of the natural-physical sciences, in theories such as ‘social and cultural evolution,’ ‘evolutionary economics’ and ‘technological evolution.’

I wrote a master’s thesis comparing the concepts of ‘evolution,’ ‘extension’ and ‘Intelligent Design,’ and have published more than 20 papers and delivered more than 30 presentations at international conferences outlining and exploring the limits of ‘evolutionary’ thinking as well as promoting the notion of ‘human extension’ in social sciences and humanities[2].

My interest in this paper is to clear up what appears as massive public confusion and oftentimes puzzling equivocation about various types of change-over-time, especially non-evolutionary changes such as revolution, development, emergence, and extension. Some people think there is no such thing as a ‘non-evolutionary’ change since all change must be ‘evolutionary,’ in response to which I would like to set the record straight.

There are undoubtedly some people who will consider this paper and having written it to be a complete waste of time and for them, it’s best to stop reading at the end of this sentence. However, others may find in this exploration a key distinction towards gaining even a small bit of insight and perhaps some understanding into the considerable differences between biological change-over-time and technological development[3], innovation and planning, the latter which generally fall outside of the meaning of ‘evolution.’

Notably, I find it somewhat humorous for having studied this rather arcane social epistemological topic quite closely for many years to be able to write this paper now. It’s meant that I’ve had to lock horns repeatedly with ideological (young earth) creationists, Intelligent Design advocates and evolutionists on many occasions along the way[4]. What I have discovered is that sometimes choosing the right term matters and sometimes it doesn’t; some people want to use a term to mean whatever they want it to mean[5] and it’s most often not worth taking the time in trying to stop or persuade them.

When I learned in 2016 that blockchain technology is about more than just cryptocurrency, and that it also has potentially significant and far-reaching implications for a variety of social, cultural and educational uses, it simply made sense to bring some of the knowledge I had gathered as an associate professor and researcher into my study of distributed ledgers, which is what leads to this text.

In Q3 2017, I asked and answered myself on Twitter as follows: “Is blockchain really evolving of its own accord? No.” I copied that message to the Managing Director of the Blockchain Research Institute (BRI) in Toronto, Hilary Carter, who I had met that summer at the Blockchain Government Forum in Ottawa. She replied: “Agreed! Evolution is a series of beneficial genetic accidents. Blockchain and the development of the community is entirely intentional.” (24 Sep 2017) That exchange happened after I had recently arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, first to teach, then to work as Director of Blockchain Innovation at an educational technology startup company. I had many new things and needs to focus on and didn’t think about it too much further at that time.

However, after returning to Canada in 2018, I later raised this topic again directly in conversation with Carter[6]. While she still stands behind the view that blockchain is indeed a revolutionary phenomenon and that its development is based upon the various intentions of its builders and creators, she also suggested that, “the blockchain ecosystem is [an] evolution,” that it is in a state of maturation, and that, “no one is controlling it.” It is the latter contention that I’d like to take up again now and ‘unpack’ during the course of this paper.

Carter’s view, to which I will return below, raises an important question about how blockchain was invented, as well as the way that blockchain ecosystem development is currently being planned and executed, and both how and why people are aiming for social scalability and public adoption. Also, it raises the question of what then counts as the ‘blockchain revolution’ that BRI founder Don Tapscott wrote a book about with his son Alex in 2016.

To me, Carter’s original comment that blockchain development is ‘entirely intentional’ is obviously correct and requires no further commentary for validation. However, it also signifies that there is at least some type of ‘control’ when it comes to actual blockchain technology building, even if the trajectory of distributed ledgers aren’t being controlled, nor are they entirely predictable, by any single person or company, anywhere in the world.

My prior research in sociology of science had shown that while the term ‘evolution’ is used by not a few people in a basic colloquial sense simply as a synonym for ‘change,’ it can also be used, and not rarely, in an ideological sense that draws on ‘cultural evolutionary’ theories in SSH or in the case of technology, one that adheres to the so-called ‘laws of software evolution[7]‘ (M. Lehman). It is the latter usage of the term ‘evolution’ that I wholeheartedly reject and think has caused great damage to human self-understanding and initiative.

Let it be clear, however, in stating this that I am not one of the ‘new evolution deniers’ (Wright 2018) pursuing an anti-biology or anti-science blank slate ideology that doesn’t acknowledge change-over-time, which is evident in many ways across a range of cultural issues. Rather, I’m a dedicated social scientific researcher and more recently community builder of blockchain technology who rejects the notion that ‘no one is in control’ of what is being developed (i.e. ‘unguided evolution’).

Likewise, I strongly reject the misanthropic worldview that claims ‘there is no purpose[8]‘ (Dawkins) in change-over-time. I oppose both of these positions as dehumanising. So, with this context provided, the following sections present my research findings into how other people use the terms ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ with respect to blockchain technology.

Equivocating Between Evolution and Revolution 

“Bitcoin is a completely new narrative. It alters everything, and in 20 to 30 years from now, people will not recognise the world we are in because of Bitcoin.” – Craig Steven Wright (2019a)

Many writers on the topic of blockchain switch back and forth equivocally between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution,’ apparently without much rhyme or reason, not carefully distinguishing between them. Rather curiously, this includes the Tapscotts. “We strongly believe that India has the potential to lead the blockchain revolution[9],” said Don Tapscott in 2018.

And there are indeed many places where Don and his son Alex use the term ‘revolution’ to describe blockchain in their 2016 book, which I will outline in the following paragraphs. They write, “Like the first generation of the Internet, the Blockchain Revolution promises to upend business models and transform industries. But that is just the start. Blockchain technology is pushing us inexorably into a new era, predicated on openness, merit, decentralization, and global participation.” (Ibid) This type of language continues throughout the book, which explains why they gave it the title they did.

However, they also use the term ‘evolution’ to describe technological change. “The Web is critical to the future of the digital world,” they say, “and all of us should support efforts under way to defend it, such as those of the World Wide Web Foundation, who are fighting to keep it open, neutral, and constantly evolving.” (Ibid)

They quote Blake Masters, who states, “Bear in mind that financial services infrastructures have not evolved in decades. The front end has evolved but not the back end. … posttrade infrastructure hasn’t really evolved at all.” (Ibid) Likewise, they cite Joseph Lubin, who says:

“I am not concerned about machine intelligence. We will evolve with it and for a long time it will be in the service of, or an aspect of, Homo sapiens cybernetica. It may evolve beyond us but that is fine. If so, it will occupy a different ecological niche. It will operate at different speeds and different relevant time scales. In that context, artificial intelligence will not distinguish between humans, a rock, or a geological process. We evolved past lots of species, many of which are doing fine (in their present forms).” (Ibid)

The Tapscotts in this vein also consider human-made technology itself, not just biology, as an ‘evolutionary’ phenomenon. They thus label one of their chapters, “The Evolution of Computing: from mainframes to smart pills.” (Ibid) “Unlike our energy grid,” they say, “computing power has evolved through several paradigms. In the 1950s and 1960s, mainframes ruled—International Business Machines and the Wild ‘BUNCH’ (Burroughs, Univac, National Cash Register Corp., Control Data, and Honeywell).

In the 1970s and 1980s, minicomputers exploded onto the scene.” (Ibid) They continue this line of thinking, suggesting that, “Driven by the same technological advances, communications networks evolved, too. From the early 1970s, the Internet (originating in the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was evolving into its present-day, worldwide, distributed network that connects more than 3.2 billion people, businesses, governments, and other institutions. The computing and networking technologies then converged in mobile tablets and handhelds. BlackBerry commercialized the smart phone in the early aughts, and Apple popularized it in the iPhone in 2007.” (Ibid)

Yet at some point unstated, they switch back to ‘revolutionary’ language, suggesting that, “We’re beginning the next major phase of the digital revolution.” (Ibid) They cite Michelle Tinsley of Intel, who “explained why her company is deeply investigating the blockchain revolution: “When PCs became pervasive, the productivity rates went through the roof. We connected those PCs to a server, a data center, or the cloud, making it really cheap and easy for lean start-ups to get computer power at their fingertips, and we’re again seeing rapid innovation, new business models.”

Just imagine the potential of applying these capabilities across many types of businesses, many untouched by the Internet revolution.” (Ibid) In short, their view is that “the technology is always evolving and designs are ever improving.” (Ibid) This encapsulates their equivocating meaning of ‘blockchain revolution,’ from one of the most widely cited texts in the field of blockchain technology.

Carter followed up with me after receiving the first draft of this paper to clarify her position. She explains, “We’ve evolved from single-purpose peer to peer electronic cash to Ethereum to private distributed ledgers to Cryptokitties. Everything is intentional. Evolution post-Bitcoin is more a figure of speech to reflect that blockchain systems have changed[10].” She continues, saying that, “Blockchain was no accidental software that emerged from the first generation of the internet.”

This sentence brings in another ‘change-over-time’ term with the notion of ’emergence,’ that adds to the linguistic feature of this analysis. Carter concludes that, “maybe ‘matured’ is a better word [i.e. than ‘evolution’] – because of the creativity of humans, not because of fortunate digital coincidences.” This explanation from the current leadership of the BRI helps to make sense of the variety of ways that people around the world are now speaking about the ‘growth,’ ’emergence,’ ‘maturing,’ ‘development,’ ‘advancement,’ ‘expansion’ and other ‘change-over-time’ metaphors to describe what is happening with distributed ledger technologies.

But What Are the Meanings of These Words?

Moving on to another writer and public figure, managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde similarly switches back and forth between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ in seemingly an unsystematic way. She confirms that, “the fintech revolution questions the two forms of money we just discussed—coins and commercial bank deposits. And it questions the role of the state in providing money.” (2018)

She continues, however, saying, “I have tried to evaluate the case this morning for digital currency. The case is based on new and evolving requirements for money, as well as essential public policy objectives. My message is that while the case for digital currency is not universal, we should investigate it further, seriously, carefully, and creatively.” (Ibid)

One of the most prolific speakers and writers about blockchain, Andreas Antonopolous (2017), believes, “Over time, the way transaction fees are calculated and the effect they have on transaction prioritization has evolved. At first, transaction fees were fixed and constant across the network. Gradually, the fee structure relaxed and may be influenced by market forces, based on network capacity and transaction volume.” (2017: 127) … “Beyond bitcoin, the largest and most successful application of P2P technologies is file sharing, with Napster as the pioneer and BitTorrent as the most recent evolution of the architecture.” (Ibid: 171) He states that,

“the bitcoin network and software are constantly evolving, so consensus attacks would be met with immediate countermeasures by the bitcoin community, making bitcoin hardier, stealthier, and more robust than ever. … In order to evolve and develop the bitcoin system, the rules have to change from time to time to accommodate new features, improvements, or bug fixes. Unlike traditional software development, however, upgrades to a consensus system are much more difficult and require coordination between all the participants.” (Ibid: 256)

Further, he argues that, “Consensus software development continues to evolve and there is much discussion on the various mechanisms for changing the consensus rules.” (Ibid: 266) We thus see a major focus on ‘evolutionary’ blockchain change.

Yet in the final paragraph of the book, Antonopolous says, “We have examined just a few of the emerging applications that can be built using the bitcoin blockchain as a trust platform. These applications expand the scope of bitcoin beyond payments and beyond financial instruments, to encompass many other applications where trust is critical. By decentralizing the basis of trust, the bitcoin blockchain is a platform that will spawn many revolutionary applications in a wide variety of industries.” (Ibid: 304) The future of blockchain, therefore might be revolutionary based on many ‘evolutions’ of the technology.

In Life after Google: the Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy, George Gilder flip-flops back and forth between evolution and revolution with little apparent consistency, speaking about “the root-and-branch revolution of distributed peer-to-peer technology, which I call the ‘cryptocosm’,” (2018: 44) then stating that, “[t]he next wave of innovation will compress today’s parallel solutions in an evolutionary convergence of electronics and optics.” (Ibid: 58)

He suggests that, “[a] decentralized and open global rendering system is foundational for disruptive services and platforms to evolve from the post-mobile world of immersive computing, just as the open web was formed in the creation of Google, Amazon and Facebook.” (Ibid: 205) However, he also notes that, “Far beyond mere high-definition voice, 5G is the technological infrastructure for a coming revolution in networks. It enables new distributed security systems for the Internet of Things, the blockchain ledgers of the new crypto-economy of micropayments, and the augmented and virtual reality platforms of advanced Internet communications.” (Ibid: 231)

Gilder’s language seems to sometimes be more about appearance than substance, as he writes, “In the evolving technological economy, shaped by cryptographic innovations, Google is going to have to compete again.” (Ibid: 239) Further explaining, he notes that, “The revolution in cryptography has caused a great unbundling of the roles of money, promising to reverse the doldrums of the Google Age, which has been an epoch of bundling together, aggregating, all the digital assets of the world.” (Ibid: 256)

One key formulation renders his ideological views visible, reflecting his affiliation with the Discovery Institute: “The new system of the world must reverse these positions, exalting the singularities of creation: mind over matter, human consciousness over mechanism, real intelligence over mere algorithmic search, purposeful learning over mindless evolution, and truth over chance. A new system can open a heroic age of human accomplishment.” (Ibid: 272) Gilder seems to have no difficulty both denying and accepting ‘evolution’ at the same time, regardless of the fact that everyone agrees both ‘minds’ and ‘matter’ are involved in developing technologies.

Uncertainty Too From Financial Technology Leaders

Hanna Halaburda writes for the Bank of Canada (2018), saying, “The market’s excitement about blockchain technologies is growing and is perhaps best summarized in the increasingly popular slogan ‘blockchain revolution.’ It is estimated that the blockchain market size will grow from US$210 million in 2016 to over US$2 billion by 2021.” (2018: 1) Later in the paper she uses both terms, suggesting that,

“The broadening of the meaning of ‘blockchain’ to include smart contracts, encryption and distributed ledger could simply reflect the evolution of a term in a living language. However, precision matters for estimating costs and benefits, or even for predicting the best uses of blockchain technologies. Smart contracts, encryption and distributed ledger each bring different benefits. And since they can be implemented independently, an optimal solution for a particular application may include only some of these tools but not others. This may matter for the future of the blockchain revolution.” (Ibid: 5)

In conclusion, she accepts the same terminology as the Tapscotts, saying, “The blockchain revolution has brought distributed databases to the forefront and may result in wider adoption and new ideas for their use.” (Ibid: 9)

Andrea Pinna and Weibe Ruttenberg (2016) write that, “Over the last decade, information technology has contributed significantly to the evolution of financial markets, without, however, revolutionising the way in which financial institutions interact with one another. This may be about to change, as some market players are now predicting that new database technologies, such as blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies (DLTs), could be the source of an imminent revolution.” (Ibid: 2) “It is not yet, therefore, clear whether DLTs will cause a major revolution in mainstream financial markets or whether their use will remain limited to particular niches.” (Ibid: 32)

Former Chief Scientific Advisor to the British Government, Mark Walport (2016) suggests, “The development of block chain technology is but the first, though very important step towards a disruptive revolution in ledger technology that could transform the conduct of public and private sector organisations.” (2016: 10) He continues, “Regulation will need to evolve in parallel with the development of new implementations and applications of the technology” (Ibid: 12)

However, he also distinguishes a ‘revolutionary’ dimension to the technology, saying, “We are still at the early stages of an extraordinary post-industrial revolution driven by information technology. It is a revolution [that] is bringing important new benefits and risks. It is already clear that, within this revolution, the advent of distributed ledger technologies is starting to disrupt many of the existing ways of doing business.” (Ibid: 16)

And then he reverts back to evolutionary language, saying, “The terminology of this new field is still evolving, with many using the terms block chain (or blockchain), distributed ledger and shared ledger interchangeably.” (Ibid: 17) He emphasizes that, “M-Pesa challenged the notion that value transfer for exchange transactions had to be done through banks, and leapfrogged several developmental stages. But these innovations still rely on an existing hierarchical structure, using proprietary technology and trusted intermediaries. Though the change improves customer convenience, and significantly reduces costs to users and customers, this is evolution rather than revolution.” (Ibid: 54) Walport is one of the few voices insisting that changes in blockchain development are happening at a rather slower than rapid pace, which seems to determine his choice of terms.

Sam Town makes clear his preferred terminology between the two notions, stating, “While the ICO as it exists today may be gone tomorrow, the blockchain brings evolution, not revolution.” (2018) Here he seems to be suggesting that while ICOs may not last long as a credible method of fundraising, at least not without more stringent regulatory oversight, that nevertheless blockchain distributed ledger technologies will indeed have lasting and significant impact on finance and economics.

Does Evolution vs Revolution Matter?

Ugur Demirbas et al. (2018) also write to intentionally distinguish the two terms, saying, “In summary, while digital transformation shows disruptive influence on individual elements, its overall effect is rather evolutionary than revolutionary. The impact of DT in the context of the overarching corporate sourcing strategy is an incremental change than a disruptive creation of something completely new.” (2018: 8)

Again we see an explanation given that ‘evolutionary’ is preferred because of the pace (slow) and type (incremental) of change or the people’s aims and goals involved in developing the technology. They also indicate ‘disruption’ and ‘something completely new’ in their meaning of ‘revolutionary,’ which we will look at again below.

Jagjit Dhaliwal (2018) says that, “We all know that the Blockchain technology is revolutionizing our future by providing distributed networks, allowing peer-to-peer transactions without intermediaries. We have come a long way in a really short period of time from the inception of Bitcoin, one of the first cryptocurrencies based on Blockchain technology.”

He continues saying that, “Everyone is curious about which platform and cryptocurrency will win the race. The DLT landscape is changing rapidly and evolving really fast. I won’t be surprised if some of the solutions in this article will [sic] extinct soon.” Dhaliwal thus likewise shows that the pace of change impacts his choice of terms, though it is unclear how ‘rapid change’ and ‘fast evolution’ differ from ‘revolutionary.’

In a paper curiously named “The Evolution of Blockchain Development” (2017), the team at Alibaba Cloud similarly suggests that, “Blockchain as a technology has evolved rapidly in the past decade.” They continue, however, by appealing to readers: “Let us discuss a few major innovations that have revolutionized this field[11].” This is yet another example of the confusion in using the terms ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ when there is no clear explanation of what differentiates one from the other.

Megan Ray Nichols weighs in on the ‘revolution’ side, when she says, “blockchain is serving as a critical component in a major revolution that also includes rapid prototyping, lean manufacturing, 3D printing, & now blockchain-facilitated manufacturing & supply contracts.” (2018).

This and several of the examples above certainly do not refer to a ‘political revolution’ or ‘scientific revolution,’ but rather to an incoming ‘technological revolution’ that is supposedly happening all around us with ’emergent’ or ‘nascent’ new technologies, including, but not exclusive to blockchain. The hype surrounding blockchain with expectations in the near future, however, often seems to far exceed evidence of what has changed so far because of it.

Don Tapcott responded in an interview with McKinsey that, “the blockchain, the underlying technology, is the biggest innovation in computer science—the idea of a distributed database where trust is established through mass collaboration and clever code rather than through a powerful institution that does the authentication and the settlement[12].”

We have, of course, heard this kind of suggestive language before, so it’s not like predictions about ‘revolutionary technology’ are entirely new. One example of this harkens back to what Fred Brooks asked in 1975, if “technical developments that are most often advanced as potential silver bullets … offer revolutionary advances, or incremental ones?” (1975: 188) While not a few people have expressed inflated expectations for distributed ledger systems, we are still nevertheless waiting for a clear example of widespread usage of blockchain to be able to assess the variable speeds at which adoption can and likely will eventually take place.

With that basic background, we will now look at largely colloquial uses of the term ‘evolution’ as it relates to blockchain technology development.

Colloquial Usage of ‘Evolution’ for Blockchain Technology Development

A remarkable pattern among technology writers is to apply the term ‘evolution’ in what appears to be a basic colloquial way, suggesting no theoretical underpinning or technical meaning, and with no ideological implications. Instead, for these cases, the notion of ‘evolution’ is basically just used as a synonym for either ‘change’ (i.e. over time), ‘development,’ ‘creation’ or some kind of a general ‘process of history.’

Brigid McDermott, vice president of IBM blockchain business development, states:

“We’re asking companies to join to help evolve the solution and guide and steer its direction.”

“We’ll do PoCs [proofs-of-concept] later down the line.[1]” In this case, the verb ‘to evolve’ is meant in the same way as ‘to create,’ ‘to build’ or ‘to develop,’ without the notion of a natural genetic population, implication of a ‘struggle for life’ or ‘survival of the fittest,’ rates of mutation, variation, or other notions usually connected with ‘biological evolutionary theory.”

The Commonwealth of Learning suggests that, “When it comes to educational innovation, blockchains and ledgers are likely to lead to evolutionary gains[2].” While it is not entirely clear what they mean in this short report, we are likely supposed to gather a sense of ‘progress’ or ‘advancement’ in what they imply and suggest blockchain will lead to in the field of education.

Margaret Leigh Sinrod writes about blockchain for the World Economic Forum (2018). “The fact that banks are investing in this [blockchain] technology may sound fairly paradoxical,” she says, “given the context in which it evolved and gained traction.” In this case, the term ‘evolved’ seems to simply signify ‘history,’ i.e. that ‘something has happened’ and that blockchain now continues to persist as a phenomenon.

Dennis Sahlstrom similarly tells us that, “the evolution of blockchain arrived with Ethereum, created by Vitalik Buterin, which was an improvement of Bitcoin. This evolution added a further element which is the ability to build decentralized applications (dApps) and smart contracts to ensure that deals, transactions, and many other tasks can be performed without intermediaries.” (2018)

Here we see ‘evolution’ used as a way to symbolise a historical fact, again that ‘something has happened,’ thus indicating a new ‘stage’ of blockchain that also was ‘created. This approach might be confusing to people who accept a more technical meaning of ‘evolution’ as distinct from ‘creation’ or ‘intentional planning,’ almost sounding as if blockchain has taken on a life of its own.

John Dean Markunas from Power of Chain Consultancy continues this anthropomorphic language, suggesting that, “The [blockchain] technology itself will continue to evolve along with a wide variety of creative applications developed on top of it, similar to the development of the internet and world-wide-web[3].” This usage, while it signifies persistence and continuity, appears particularly confusing since the term ‘development’ is also used referring to the Internet, which other people claim has led to a ‘revolution’ in human society, as seen above.

Tadas Deksnys CEO and Founder of Unboxed writes that, “Though the future of ICOs is vague, the blockchain industry is still evolving and presenting new opportunities[4].” Again, we see here the notion of both history and continuity and that there is some kind of on-going process of unspecified speed, type or significance.

These are all common examples of people involved in or writing about the blockchain industry who suggest that blockchain demonstrates an ‘evolutionary’ rather than a ‘revolutionary,’ ‘developmental’ or otherwise ‘non-evolutionary’ process of change-over-time.

Frederik De Breuck (2019) says that, “its capabilities and platforms (both public and private) are rapidly evolving and blockchain and distributed ledgers remain for me (and many others) two of the most promising technology evolutions of recent decades for their potential to transform both society and enterprises.”

He uses other change-based concepts as well, such as emergence and extension, in the latter case saying, “[w]e think next year will see the ongoing evolution of these complex trust architectures and their extension beyond their organizational boundaries, into both ecosystems and society.” (Ibid) This language basically indicates something supposedly important is happening with blockchain, a description that it is growing and reaching more people in a community, network and/or ecosystem.

Reflections of What May Be Historical Precedents

Jesus Leal Trujilo et al. in their Deloitte paper (2017) base their logic in the ‘evolution’ of digital ecosystems, writing, “Our study appears to be the first empirical attempt to understand the evolution of blockchain using metadata available on GitHub … Our findings could help firms improve their ability to identify successful projects and opportunities based on how the blockchain ecosystem is evolving.” (2017: 2)

They also address the time period in terms of stages of development, saying, “At the current evolutionary stage of blockchain technology, it is likely to be in a developer’s best interest to develop, or watch the development of, blockchain solutions on open source. Blockchain appears to have a better chance to more quickly achieve rigorous protocols and standardization through open-source collaboration, which could make developing permissioned blockchains easier and better.” (Ibid: 5)

They continue, “The data scientists of Deloitte developed and honed a methodology to analyze and organize GitHub data in order to better understand the evolution of a young, possibly transformative technology and its ecosystem.” (Ibid: 15) They conclude saying, “It is our hope that these findings can arm the financial services industry with the data it may need to not only better identify successful projects and opportunities based on how the blockchain ecosystem is evolving, but to become influential participants, themselves, in how blockchain evolves.” (Ibid: 15) Thus, the promote both the development and so-called ‘evolution’ of blockchain technology based on the language of ‘ecosystem’ that loosely mimics biology.

The Systems Academy suggests about blockchain technology that, “over the past years it has been evolving fast, from the original Bitcoin protocol to the second generation Ethereum platform, to today where we are in the process of building what some call blockchain 3.0. In this evolution we can see how the technology is evolving from its initial form as essentially just a database, to becoming a fully-fledged globally distributed cloud computer.”

They add to others in this paper who suggest that, “The development and adoption of the Ethereum platform was a major step forward in the evolution of blockchain technology[5],” suggesting a kind of ‘progress’ narrative that switches between ‘development’ and ‘evolution’ and indicates improvement rather than replacement or destruction of the old system.

Stapels et al. flip back and forth between ‘development’ and ‘evolution,’ stating that, “blockchains are still a rapidly evolving technology, with ongoing developments, especially to improve scalability and confidentiality. Globally, governments, enterprises, and startups are exploring the technology/market fit in a wide variety of use cases and for a wide variety of requirements and regulatory demands.” They also suggest a present lack of knowledge towards building and maintaining trust among blockchain users, saying “There is still much that is unknown about the development of trustworthy blockchain-based systems.” (2018: 1)

Bryan Zhang writes in the Foreword to Rauchs et al. 2018, that, “the landscape of DLT itself continues its swift evolution.” Again, we see the suggestion of a continuity of some kind, as if we are in a historical period of flux and change with the rise of DLTs. In conclusion, the authors state that, “Nearly 10 years after Bitcoin entered the world, the DLT ecosystem is still in early stages: it is constantly evolving and characterised by relentless experimentation and R&D.” (2018: 92)

This usage doesn’t necessarily imply that Bitcoin arrived on its own without a creative inventor or network of users, but rather that it’s simply in a process that has yet to reach its conclusion and thus should be thought of as impermanent or temporary.

ElBarhrawy et al. (2017) “Here, we present a first complete analysis of the cryptocurrency market, considering its evolution between April 2013 and May 2017.” (Ibid: 2) They then suggest there is a theoretical underpinning one can use to study this historical period involving cryptocurrencies. “By adopting an ecological perspective, we have pointed out that the neutral model of evolution captures several of the observed properties of the market.” (Ibid: 7)

In this approach we again see usage of the term ‘evolution’ to mean ‘history,’ yet in a broader way that combines economics with ecology and push the idea of ‘ecosystem’ thinking that is also front and centre in much of the ideological blockchain evolutionism below.

Contact details: gregory.sandstrom@gmailcom

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Videos

“Alex Tapscott: Blockchain Revolution | Talks at Google” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PdO7zVqOwc

“Are Blockchains Alive? Co-evolving with Technology” – Amanda Gutterman (ConsenSys) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7GkkGTnVwA

“Block Chain Revolution | Giovanna Fessenden | TEDxBerkshires” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMhZTEQZJPI

“Bitcoin and the history of money” – “Let’s take a look at the evolution of money.” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP0jCjyrew8

“Blockchain – evolution or revolution?” –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LojzPukAtmM

“Blockchain Evolution & Empowerment” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSUC9NFccNk

“Blockchain Evolution 2” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCPqXHt-z0k

“Blockchain Evolution or Revolution in the Luxembourg Financial Place? – Nicolas Carey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wp9FB_JQlgI

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CULUqgfVteg

“Blockchain Evolution” – Complexity Labs – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rO2LSBDekvE

“Blockchains’ Evolution by natural selection like biology’s genetics” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JEFGtsu0s4

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGcuJoFZLOY

“Chandler Guo on The Bitcoin & Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7g2JFn68LU

“Cryptos Are The EVOLUTION of Money and Blockchain is the REVOLUTION of Trust! Vlog#18” – Siam Kidd – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nu2F6_K0S0

“DigiByte Blockchain – The evolution of the Internet & the revolution in the financial systems” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8h10ckU0sE “The revolution has already begun.”

“Don Tapscott – The Blockchain Revolution – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZEmaSbqfYQ

“Evolution of Bitcoin” – Documentary Film – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUpGHOLkoXs

“Evolution of Blockchain And Its Future Moving Forward In 2018!” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWlMoxMTbDQ

“Evolution of Blockchain in India:The value of Ownership.” – Mr.Akash Gaurav – TEDxKIITUniversity – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtTJmb0jYzE

“Evolution of the Blockchain Economy” – Jeremy Gardner – Startup Grind – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7cPy6ITUm4

“Future Evolution of Blockchain” – Silicon Valley TV – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_6m7LYIEo4

“Future Thinkers Podcast – a podcast about evolving technology, society and consciousness. https://futurethinkers.org/

“Genetics of Blockchain Evolution” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fFsmuvyXeE

“Keynote: Blockchain’s Evolution: Digital Assets are getting Physical” – FinTech Worldwide” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1p5PUn4z_Gs

“How the Blockchain revolution will change our lives? | Eddy Travia | TEDxIEMadrid” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErxKm0b0DIU

“How the Blockchain Revolution Will Decentralize Power and End Corruption | Brian Behlendorf” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tv-XR6gXfLI

“Interview for Bitcoin And Blockchain Evolution Podcast – Sarah Herring – “Evolution – There is a Revolution coming!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIZJsFotDdg

“John McAfee on Infowars: Nothing Can Stop The Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CssU9WBHx6k

“Make the blockchain business case: Evolution, not revolution” (only title, not in video) – PWC – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjr_Wqwk1SI

“The blockchain evolution, from services…to smartphones.” – Mingis on Tech – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvn5zZj5IR8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Hewlett Packard – https://www.hpe.com/us/en/insights/videos/the-evolution-of-blockchain-1712.html

“The Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeyeKXmqQn8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Cambridge House International” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nELBTdqeKuQ

“The Evolution of Bitcoin – Bill Barhydt – Global Summit 2018 | Singularity” Universityhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZjK1i9CE6U

“The Evolution of Blockchain and Global Vision (Shanghai)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56rOLarCttA

“The Evolution Of Blockchain Over The Decades” – With David Birch” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yC8oBJSQ6vc

“The Evolution of Blockchain technology” – Amir Assif. Microsoft Israel” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_eKp1z5hj0

“The Evolution of Blockchain: How EOS is reinventing blockchain” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8aDGf8WpKs

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – Nicola Morris – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSy-UJn1G1I

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – The State of Digital Money 18′ conference” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWfNVTgbqjc

“The Blockchain Revolution – Graham Richter, Accenture” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYTmjZmsUm4

“The Blockchain Revolution | Rajesh Dhuddu | TEDxHyderabad” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrnvX92vlu8

“The Blockchain Revolution by Talal Tabaa – ECOH 2018” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvRJ1kEQ2so

“The Blockchain Revolution Changing the Rules https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTgG8XzcVC0

“The Blockchain Revolution in Business and Finance” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SUfz6p0a7Y

“The blockchain revolution, the ultimate industry disruptor” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hEiHR-K_KY

“The Blockchain Revolution: From Organisations to Organism | Matan Field | TEDxBreda” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OSbseTJWfY

[1] Nov. 14, 2008. https://satoshi.nakamotoinstitute.org/emails/cryptography/12/

[2] Your author of this paper received his degree in ‘Sociological Sciences’ from St. Petersburg State University in Russia, after a dissertation defense at the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science in 2010.

[3] “The gap between biological evolution and artificial systems evolution is just too enormous to expect to link the two.” – Meir Lehman (In Williams, 2002)

[4] It is most likely that none of the authors cited in this study was thinking about ‘young earth creationism’ as a position that they aimed to oppose by using the term ‘evolution.’ Similarly, no theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ as an alternative to ‘neo-Darwinism’ is at the heart of this paper’s rejection of ‘technological evolutionary’ theories.

[5] “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” – Lewis Carroll (Through the Looking-Glass, 1872)

[6] Private conversation 07-02-2019.

[7] “In software engineering there is no theory. It’s all arm flapping and intuition. I believe that a theory of software evolution could eventually translate into a theory of software engineering. Either that or it will come very close. It will lay the foundation for a wider theory of software evolution.” – Lehman (In Williams 2002)

[8] “This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous – indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.” … “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” – Richard Dawkins (River Out of Eden. Basic Books, New York, 1995: 95)

[9] https://money.cnn.com/2018/02/21/technology/canada-india-blockchain-partnership-bri-nasscom/index.html

[10] Private email, 24-02-2019.

[11] https://www.alibabacloud.com/blog/The-Evolution-of-Blockchain-Development_p73812

[12] http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/how-blockchains-could-change-the-world

[1] http://fortune.com/2017/08/22/walmart-blockchain-ibm-food-nestle-unilever-tyson-dole/

[2] https://www.col.org/news/news/col-promotes-blockchain-education

[3] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/emancipation-from-ball-chain-blockchain-john-dean-markunas

[4] https://medium.com/unboxed-network/our-journey-so-far-unboxed-airdrop-update-72b63ab52631

[5] http://complexitylabs.io/evolution-of-blockchain/

Author Information: Brian Martin, University of Wollongong, bmartin@uow.edu.au.

Martin, Brian. “Bad Social Science.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 6-16.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47a

Image by Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

People untrained in social science frameworks and methods often make assumptions, observations or conclusions about the social world.[1] For example, they might say, “President Trump is a psychopath,” thereby making a judgement about Trump’s mental state. The point here is not whether this judgement is right or wrong, but whether it is based on a careful study of Trump’s thoughts and behaviour drawing on relevant expertise.

In most cases, the claim “President Trump is a psychopath” is bad psychology, in the sense that it is a conclusion reached without the application of skills in psychological diagnosis expected among professional psychologists and psychiatrists.[2] Even a non-psychologist can recognise cruder forms of bad psychology: they lack the application of standard tools in the field, such as comparison of criteria for psychopathy with Trump’s thought and behaviour.

“Bad social science” here refers to claims about society and social relationships that fall very far short of what social scientists consider good scholarship. This might be due to using false or misleading evidence, making faulty arguments, drawing unsupported conclusions or various other severe methodological, empirical or theoretical deficiencies.

In all sorts of public commentary and private conversations, examples of bad social science are legion. Instances are so common that it may seem pointless to take note of problems with ill-informed claims. However, there is value in a more systematic examination of different sorts of everyday bad social science. Such an examination can point to what is important in doing good social science and to weaknesses in assumptions, evidence and argumentation. It can also provide insights into how to defend and promote high-quality social analysis.

Here, I illustrate several facets of bad social science found in a specific public scientific controversy: the Australian vaccination debate. It is a public debate in which many partisans make claims about social dynamics, so there is ample material for analysis. In addition, because the debate is highly polarised, involves strong emotions and is extremely rancorous, it is to be expected that many deviations from calm, rational, polite discourse would be on display.

Another reason for selecting this topic is that I have been studying the debate for quite a number of years, and indeed have been drawn into the debate as a “captive of controversy.”[3] Several of the types of bad social science are found on both sides of the debate. Here, I focus mainly on pro-vaccination campaigners for reasons that will become clear.

In the following sections, I address several facets of bad social science: ad hominem attacks, not defining terms, use of limited and dubious evidence, misrepresentation, lack of reference to alternative viewpoints, lack of quality control, and drawing of unjustified conclusions. In each case, I provide examples from the Australian public vaccination debate, drawing on my experience. In a sense, selecting these topics represents an informal application of grounded theory: each of the shortcomings became evident to me through encountering numerous instances. After this, I note that there is a greater risk of deficient argumentation when defending orthodoxy.

With this background, I outline how studying bad social science can be of benefit in three ways: as a pointer to particular areas in which it is important to maintain high standards, as a toolkit for responding to attacks on social science, and as a reminder of the need to improve public understanding of social science approaches.

Ad Hominem

In the Australian vaccination debate, many partisans make adverse comments about opponents as a means of discrediting them. Social scientists recognise that ad hominem argumentation, namely attacking the person rather than dealing with what they say, is illegitimate for the purposes of making a case.

In the mid 1990s, Meryl Dorey founded the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), which became the leading citizens’ group critical of government vaccination policy.[4] In 2009, a pro-vaccination citizens’ group called Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN) was set up with the stated aim of discrediting and shutting down the AVN.[5] SAVNers referred to Dorey with a wide range of epithets, for example “cunt.”[6]

What is interesting here is that some ad hominem attacks contain an implicit social analysis. One of them is “liar.” SAVNer Ken McLeod accused Dorey of being a liar, giving various examples.[7] However, some of these examples show only that Dorey persisted in making claims that SAVNers believed had been refuted.[8] This does not necessarily constitute lying, if lying is defined, as it often is by researchers in the area, as consciously intending to deceive.[9] To the extent that McLeod failed to relate his claims to research in the field, his application of the label “liar” constitutes bad social science.

Another term applied to vaccine critics is “babykiller.” In the Australian context, this word contains an implied social analysis, based on these premises: public questioning of vaccination policy causes some parents not to have their children vaccinated, leading to reduced vaccination rates and thence to more children dying of infectious diseases.

“Babykiller” also contains a moral judgement, namely that public critics of vaccination are culpable for the deaths of children from vaccination-preventable diseases. Few of those applying the term “babykiller” provide evidence to back up the implicit social analysis and judgement, so the label in these instances represents bad social science.

There are numerous other examples of ad hominem in the vaccination debate, on both sides. Some of them might be said to be primarily abuse, such as “cunt.” Others, though, contain an associated or implied social analysis, so to judge its quality it is necessary to assess whether the analysis conforms to conventions within social science.

Undefined terms

In social science, it is normal to define key concepts, either by explicit definitions or descriptive accounts. The point is to provide clarity when the concept is used.

One of the terms used by vaccination supporters in the Australian debate is “anti-vaxxer.” Despite the ubiquity of this term in social and mass media, I have never seen it defined. This is significant because of the considerable ambiguity involved. “Anti-vaxxer” might refer to parents who refuse all vaccines for their children and themselves, parents who have their children receive some but not all recommended vaccines, parents who express reservations about vaccination, and/or campaigners who criticise vaccination policy.

The way “anti-vaxxer” is applied in practice tends to conflate these different meanings, with the implication that any criticism of vaccination puts you in the camp of those who refuse all vaccines. The label “anti-vaxxer” has been applied to me even though I do not have a strong view about vaccination.[10]

Because of the lack of a definition or clear meaning, the term “anti-vaxxer” is a form of ad hominem and also represents bad social science. Tellingly, few social scientists studying the vaccination issue use the term descriptively.

In their publications, social scientists may not define all the terms they use because their meanings are commonly accepted in the field. Nearly always, though, some researchers pay close attention to any widely used concept.[11] When such a concept remains ill-defined, this may be a sign of bad social science — especially when it is used as a pejorative label.

Limited and Dubious Evidence

Social scientists normally seek to provide strong evidence for their claims and restrict their claims to what the evidence can support. In public debates, this caution is often disregarded.

After SAVN was formed in 2009, one of its initial claims was that the AVN believed in a global conspiracy to implant mind-control chips via vaccinations. The key piece of evidence SAVNers provided to support this claim was that Meryl Dorey had given a link to the website of David Icke, who was known to have some weird beliefs, such as that the world is ruled by shape-shifting reptilian humanoids.

The weakness of this evidence should be apparent. Just because Icke has some weird beliefs does not mean every document on his website involves adherence to weird beliefs, and just because Dorey provided a link to a document does not prove she believes in everything in the document, much less subscribes to the beliefs of the owner of the website. Furthermore, Dorey denied believing in a mind-control global conspiracy.

Finally, even if Dorey had believed in this conspiracy, this does not mean other members of the AVN, or the AVN as an organisation, believed in the conspiracy. Although the evidence was exceedingly weak, several SAVNers, after I confronted them on the matter, initially refused to back down from their claims.[12]

Misrepresentation

When studying an issue, scholars assume that evidence, sources and other material should be represented fairly. For example, a quotation from an author should fairly present the author’s views, and not be used out of context to show something different than what the author intended.

Quite a few campaigners in the Australian vaccination debate use a different approach, which might be called “gotcha”. Quotes are used to expose writers as incompetent, misguided or deluded. Views of authors are misrepresented as a means of discrediting and dismissing them.

Judy Wilyman did her PhD under my supervision and was the subject of attack for years before she graduated. On 13 January 2016, just two days after her thesis was posted online, it was the subject of a front-page story in the daily newspaper The Australian. The journalist, despite having been informed of a convenient summary of the thesis, did not mention any of its key ideas, instead claiming that it involved a conspiracy theory. Quotes from the thesis, taken out of context, were paraded as evidence of inadequacy.

This journalistic misrepresentation of Judy’s thesis was remarkably influential. It led to a cascade of hostile commentary, with hundreds of online comments on the numerous stories in The Australian, an online petition signed by thousands of people, and calls by scientists for Judy’s PhD to be revoked. In all the furore, not a single critic of her thesis posted a fair-minded summary of its contents.[13]

Alternative Viewpoints?

In high-quality social science, it is common to defend a viewpoint, but considered appropriate to examine other perspectives. Indeed, when presenting a critique, it is usual to begin with a summary of the work to be criticised.

In the Australian vaccination debate, partisans do not even attempt to present the opposing side’s viewpoint. I have never seen any campaigner provide a summary of the evidence and arguments supporting the opposition’s viewpoint. Vaccination critics present evidence and arguments that cast doubt on the government’s vaccination policy, and never try to summarise the evidence and arguments supporting it. Likewise, backers of the government’s policy never try to summarise the case against it.

There are also some intermediate viewpoints, divergent from the entrenched positions in the public debate. For example, there are some commentators who support some vaccines but not all the government-recommended ones, or who support single vaccines rather than multiple vaccines. These non-standard positions are hardly ever discussed in public by pro-vaccination campaigners.[14] More commonly, they are implicitly subsumed by the label “anti-vaxxer.”

To find summaries of arguments and evidence on both sides, it is necessary to turn to work by social scientists, and then only the few of them studying the debate without arguing for one side or the other.[15]

Quality Control

When making a claim, it makes sense to check it. Social scientists commonly do this by checking sources and/or by relying on peer review. For contemporary issues, it’s often possible to check with the person who made the claim.

In the Australian vaccination debate, there seems to be little attempt to check claims, especially when they are derogatory claims about opponents. I can speak from personal experience. Quite a number of SAVNers have made comments about my work, for example in blogs. On not a single occasion has any one of them checked with me in advance of publication.

After SAVN was formed and I started writing about free speech in the Australian vaccination debate, I sent drafts of some of my papers to SAVNers for comment. Rather than using this opportunity to send me corrections and comments, the response was to attack me, including by making complaints to my university.[16] Interestingly, the only SAVNer to have been helpful in commenting on drafts is another academic.

Another example concerns Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist who was lead author of a paper in The Lancet suggesting that the possibility that the MMR triple vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) might be linked to autism should be investigated. The paper led to a storm of media attention.

Australian pro-vaccination campaigns, and quite a few media reports, refer to Wakefield’s alleged wrongdoings, treating them as discrediting any criticism of vaccination. Incorrect statements about Wakefield are commonplace, for example that he lost his medical licence due to scientific fraud. It is a simple matter to check the facts, but apparently few do this. Even fewer take the trouble to look into the claims and counterclaims about Wakefield and qualify their statements accordingly.[17]

Drawing Conclusions

Social scientists are trained to be cautious in drawing conclusions, ensuring that they do not go beyond what can be justified from data and arguments. In addition, it is standard to include a discussion of limitations. This sort of caution is often absent in public debates.

SAVNers have claimed great success in their campaign against the AVN, giving evidence that, for example, their efforts have prevented AVN talks from being held and reduced media coverage of vaccine critics. However, although AVN operations have undoubtedly been hampered, this does not necessarily show that vaccination rates have increased or, more importantly, that public health has benefited.[18]

Defending Orthodoxy

Many social scientists undertake research in controversial areas. Some support the dominant views, some support an unorthodox position and quite a few try not to take a stand. There is no inherent problem in supporting the orthodox position, but doing so brings greater risks to the quality of research.

Many SAVNers assume that vaccination is a scientific issue and that only people with scientific credentials, for example degrees or publications in virology or epidemiology, have any credibility. This was apparent in an article by philosopher Patrick Stokes entitled “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” that received high praise from SAVNers.[19] It was also apparent in the attack on Judy Wilyman, whose PhD was criticised because it was not in a scientific field, and because she analysed scientific claims without being a scientist. The claim that only scientists can validly criticise vaccination is easily countered.[20] The problem for SAVNers is that they are less likely to question assumptions precisely because they support the dominant viewpoint.

There is a fascinating aspect to campaigners supporting orthodoxy: they themselves frequently make claims about vaccination although they are not scientists with relevant qualifications. They do not apply their own strictures about necessary expertise to themselves. This can be explained as deriving from “honour by association,” a process parallel to guilt by association but less noticed because it is so common. In honour by association, a person gains or assumes greater credibility by being associated with a prestigious person, group or view.

Someone without special expertise who asserts a claim that supports orthodoxy implicitly takes on the mantle of the experts on the side of orthodoxy. It is only those who challenge orthodoxy who are expected to have relevant credentials. There is nothing inherently wrong with supporting the orthodox view, but it does mean there is less pressure to examine assumptions.

My initial example of bad social science was calling Donald Trump a psychopath. Suppose you said Trump has narcissistic personality disorder. This might not seem to be bad social science because it accords with the views of many psychologists. However, agreeing with orthodoxy, without accompanying deployment of expertise, does not constitute good social science any more than disagreeing with orthodoxy.

Lessons

It is all too easy to identify examples of bad social science in popular commentary. They are commonplace in political campaigning and in everyday conversations.

Being attuned to common violations of good practice has three potential benefits: as a useful reminder to maintain high standards; as a toolkit for responding to attacks on social science; and as a guide to encouraging greater public awareness of social scientific thinking and methods.

Bad Social Science as a Reminder to Maintain High Standards

Most of the kinds of bad social science prevalent in the Australian vaccination debate seldom receive extended attention in the social science literature. For example, the widely used and cited textbook Social Research Methods does not even mention ad hominem, presumably because avoiding it is so basic that it need not be discussed.

It describes five common errors in everyday thinking that social scientists should avoid: overgeneralisation, selective observation, premature closure, the halo effect and false consensus.[21] Some of these overlap with the shortcomings I’ve observed in the Australian vaccination debate. For example, the halo effect, in which prestigious sources are given more credibility, has affinities with honour by association.

The textbook The Craft of Research likewise does not mention ad hominem. In a final brief section on the ethics of research, there are a couple of points that can be applied to the vaccination debate. For example, ethical researchers “do not caricature or distort opposing views.” Another recommendation is that “When you acknowledge your readers’ alternative views, including their strongest objections and reservations,” you move towards more reliable knowledge and honour readers’ dignity.[22] Compared with the careful exposition of research methods in this and other texts, the shortcomings in public debates are seemingly so basic and obvious as to not warrant extended discussion.

No doubt many social scientists could point to the work of others in the field — or even their own — as failing to meet the highest standards. Looking at examples of bad social science can provide a reminder of what to avoid. For example, being aware of ad hominem argumentation can help in avoiding subtle denigration of authors and instead focusing entirely on their evidence and arguments. Being reminded of confirmation bias can encourage exploration of a greater diversity of viewpoints.

Malcolm Wright and Scott Armstrong examined 50 articles that cited a method in survey-based research that Armstrong had developed years earlier. They discovered that only one of the 50 studies had reported the method correctly. They recommend that researchers send drafts of their work to authors of cited studies — especially those on which the research depends most heavily — to ensure accuracy.[23] This is not a common practice in any field of scholarship but is worth considering in the interests of improving quality.

Bad Social Science as a Toolkit for Responding to Attacks

Alan Sokal wrote an intentionally incoherent article that was published in 1996 in the cultural studies journal Social Text. Numerous commentators lauded Sokal for carrying out an audacious prank that revealed the truth about cultural studies, namely that it was bunk. These commentators had not carried out relevant studies themselves, nor were most of them familiar with the field of cultural studies, including its frameworks, objects of study, methods of analysis, conclusions and exemplary pieces of scholarship.

To the extent that these commentators were uninformed about cultural studies yet willing to praise Sokal for his hoax, they were involved in a sort of bad social science. Perhaps they supported Sokal’s hoax because it agreed with their preconceived ideas, though investigation would be needed to assess this hypothesis.

Most responses to the hoax took a defensive line, for example arguing that Sokal’s conclusions were not justified. Only a few argued that interpreting the hoax as showing the vacuity of cultural studies was itself poor social science.[24] Sokal himself said it was inappropriate to draw general conclusions about cultural studies from the hoax,[25] so ironically it would have been possible to respond to attackers by quoting Sokal.

When social scientists come under attack, it can be useful to examine the evidence and methods used or cited by the attackers, and to point out, as is often the case, that they fail to measure up to standards in the field.

Encouraging Greater Public Awareness of Social Science Thinking and Methods

It is easy to communicate with like-minded scholars and commiserate about the ignorance of those who misunderstand or wilfully misrepresent social science. More challenging is to pay close attention to the characteristic ways in which people make assumptions and reason about the social world and how these ways often fall far short of the standards expected in scholarly circles.

By identifying common forms of bad social science, it may be possible to better design interventions into public discourse to encourage more rigorous thinking about evidence and argument, especially to counter spurious and ill-founded claims by partisans in public debates.

Conclusion

Social scientists, in looking at research contributions, usually focus on what is high quality: the deepest insights, the tightest arguments, the most comprehensive data, the most sophisticated analysis and the most elegant writing. This makes sense: top quality contributions offer worthwhile models to learn from and emulate.

Nevertheless, there is also a role for learning from poor quality contributions. It is instructive to look at public debates involving social issues in which people make judgements about the same sorts of matters that are investigated by social scientists, everything from criminal justice to social mores. Contributions to public debates can starkly show flaws in reasoning and the use of evidence. These flaws provide a useful reminder of things to avoid.

Observation of the Australian vaccination debate reveals several types of bad social science, including ad hominem attacks, failing to define terms, relying on dubious sources, failing to provide context, and not checking claims. The risk of succumbing to these shortcomings seems to be magnified when the orthodox viewpoint is being supported, because it is assumed to be correct and there is less likelihood of being held accountable by opponents.

There is something additional that social scientists can learn by studying contributions to public debates that have serious empirical and theoretical shortcomings. There are likely to be characteristic failures that occur repeatedly. These offer supplementary guidance for what to avoid. They also provide insight into what sort of training, for aspiring social scientists, is useful for moving from unreflective arguments to careful research.

There is also a challenge that few scholars have tackled. Given the prevalence of bad social science in many public debates, is it possible to intervene in these debates in a way that fosters greater appreciation for what is involved in good quality scholarship, and encourages campaigners to aspire to make sounder contributions?

Contact details: bmartin@uow.edu.au

References

Blume, Stuart. Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial. London: Reaktion Books, 2017.

Booth, Wayne C.; Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup and William T. FitzGerald, The Craft of Research, fourth edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Collier, David; Fernando Daniel Hidalgo and Andra Olivia Maciuceanu, “Essentially contested concepts: debates and applications,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 11(3), October 2006, pp. 211–246.

Ekman, Paul. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. New York: Norton, 1985.

Hilgartner, Stephen, “The Sokal affair in context,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, 22(4), Autumn 1997, pp. 506–522.

Lee, Bandy X. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Martin, Brian; and Florencia Peña Saint Martin. El mobbing en la esfera pública: el fenómeno y sus características [Public mobbing: a phenomenon and its features]. In Norma González González (Coordinadora), Organización social del trabajo en la posmodernidad: salud mental, ambientes laborales y vida cotidiana (Guadalajara, Jalisco, México: Prometeo Editores, 2014), pp. 91-114.

Martin, Brian. “Debating vaccination: understanding the attack on the Australian Vaccination Network.” Living Wisdom, no. 8, 2011, pp. 14–40.

Martin, Brian. “On the suppression of vaccination dissent.” Science & Engineering Ethics. Vol. 21, No. 1, 2015, pp. 143–157.

Martin, Brian. Evidence-based campaigning. Archives of Public Health, 76, no. 54. (2018), https://doi.org/10.1186/s13690-018-0302-4.

Martin, Brian. Vaccination Panic in Australia. Sparsnäs, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2018.

Ken McLeod, “Meryl Dorey’s trouble with the truth, part 1: how Meryl Dorey lies, obfuscates, prevaricates, exaggerates, confabulates and confuses in promoting her anti-vaccination agenda,” 2010, http://www.scribd.com/doc/47704677/Meryl-Doreys-Trouble-With-the-Truth-Part-1.

Neuman, W. Lawrence. Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, seventh edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2011.

Scott, Pam; Evelleen Richards and Brian Martin, “Captives of controversy: the myth of the neutral social researcher in contemporary scientific controversies,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall 1990, pp. 474–494.

Sokal, Alan D. “What the Social Text affair does and does not prove,” in Noretta Koertge (ed.), A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 9–22

Stokes, Patrick. “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion,” The Conversation, 5 October 2012, https://theconversation.com/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978.

Wright, Malcolm, and J. Scott Armstrong, “The ombudsman: verification of citations: fawlty towers of knowledge?” Interfaces, 38 (2), March-April 2008.

[1] Thanks to Meryl Dorey, Stephen Hilgartner, Larry Neuman, Alan Sokal and Malcolm Wright for valuable feedback on drafts.

[2] For informed commentary on these issues, see Bandy X. Lee, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

[3] Pam Scott, Evelleen Richards and Brian Martin, “Captives of controversy: the myth of the neutral social researcher in contemporary scientific controversies,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall 1990, pp. 474–494.

[4] The AVN, forced to change its name in 2014, became the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network. In 2018 it voluntarily changed its name to the Australian Vaccination-risks Network.

[5] In 2014, SAVN changed its name to Stop the Australian (Anti-)Vaccination Network.

[6] Brian Martin and Florencia Peña Saint Martin. El mobbing en la esfera pública: el fenómeno y sus características [Public mobbing: a phenomenon and its features]. In Norma González González (Coordinadora), Organización social del trabajo en la posmodernidad: salud mental, ambientes laborales y vida cotidiana (Guadalajara, Jalisco, México: Prometeo Editores, 2014), pp. 91-114.

[7] Ken McLeod, “Meryl Dorey’s trouble with the truth, part 1: how Meryl Dorey lies, obfuscates, prevaricates, exaggerates, confabulates and confuses in promoting her anti-vaccination agenda,” 2010, http://www.scribd.com/doc/47704677/Meryl-Doreys-Trouble-With-the-Truth-Part-1.

[8] Brian Martin, “Debating vaccination: understanding the attack on the Australian Vaccination Network,” Living Wisdom, no. 8, 2011, pp. 14–40, at pp. 28–30.

[9] E.g., Paul Ekman, Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage (New York: Norton, 1985).

[10] On Wikipedia I am categorised as an “anti-vaccination activist,” a term that is not defined on the entry listing those in the category. See Brian Martin, “Persistent bias on Wikipedia: methods and responses,” Social Science Computer Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, June 2018, pp. 379–388.

[11] See for example David Collier, Fernando Daniel Hidalgo and Andra Olivia Maciuceanu, “Essentially contested concepts: debates and applications,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 11(3), October 2006, pp. 211–246.

[12] Brian Martin. “Caught in the vaccination wars (part 3)”, 23 October 2012, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/12hpi-comments.html.

[13] The only possible exception to this statement is Michael Brull, “Anti-vaccination cranks versus academic freedom,” New Matilda, 7 February 2016, who reproduced my own summary of the key points in the thesis relevant to Australian government vaccination policy. For my responses to the attack, see http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/controversy.html – Wilyman, for example “Defending university integrity,” International Journal for Educational Integrity, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2017, pp. 1–14.

[14] Brian Martin, Vaccination Panic in Australia (Sparsnäs, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2018), pp. 15–24.

[15] E.g., Stuart Blume, Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial (London: Reaktion Books, 2017).

[16] Brian Martin. “Caught in the vaccination wars”, 28 April 2011, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/11savn/.

[17] For own commentary on Wakefield, see “On the suppression of vaccination dissent,” Science & Engineering Ethics, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2015, pp. 143–157.

[18] Brian Martin. Evidence-based campaigning. Archives of Public Health, Vol. 76, article 54, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1186/s13690-018-0302-4.

[19] Patrick Stokes, “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion,” The Conversation, 5 October 2012, https://theconversation.com/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978.

[20] Martin, Vaccination Panic in Australia, 292–304.

[21] W. Lawrence Neuman, Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, seventh edition (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2011), 3–5.

[22] Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup and William T. FitzGerald, The Craft of Research, fourth edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 272–273.

[23] Malcolm Wright and J. Scott Armstrong, “The ombudsman: verification of citations: fawlty towers of knowledge?” Interfaces, 38 (2), March-April 2008, 125–132.

[24] For a detailed articulation of this approach, see Stephen Hilgartner, “The Sokal affair in context,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, 22(4), Autumn 1997, pp. 506–522. Hilgartner gives numerous citations to expansive interpretations of the significance of the hoax.

[25] See for example Alan D. Sokal, “What the Social Text affair does and does not prove,” in Noretta Koertge (ed.), A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 9–22, at p. 11: “From the mere fact of publication of my parody, I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn’t prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or the cultural studies of science — much less the sociology of science — is nonsense.”

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “Belief in a Weird World: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 1-5.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-470

H. P. Lovecraft’s creation, Cthulhu, is one of the world’s most famous symbols of the weird.
Image by Chase Norton via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Weird is a strange word. The idea of weirdness itself is rather strange, as suits the subject I suppose. Bernard Wills has written the essay anthology Believing Weird Things, in part, to explore what weirdness is. The book itself, however, is rather weird. Or at least, it’s weird to an academic audience.

Let me explain. While I write quite a few book reviews for SERRC, over the last while, the amount of time between my receiving a review copy and actually writing and submitting the review of the book has lengthened from a flexible to a messianic duration. So my reviews often end up being informed by other reviews of the same book, where others have gotten around to it before me.

So this review is also, though in small part, a rebuke to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things published late last year.[1] Although it remains far from perfect, Wills has written a book that is both challenging and accessible to a wide audience. Believing Weird Things is a popular book of philosophical thought, in the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s public philosophical essays. For some audiences of researchers, a book of that character may be too weird to understand at first.

What Is Weird? The Weird? Weirdness?

Whether something is weird is not a matter purely of ontology. There is no weird in itself, since weirdness is a relational property. Something is weird only in comparison to something else, relative to surroundings, wider environments, or the expectations of people regarding those surroundings and environment.

Weirdness is most fundamentally an epistemological concern. When a sudden disturbance appears in the smooth flowing of a natural process, that disturbance is simply disruptive and destructive. We as self-conscious observers may call it weird, but regarding the process and its disruption in themselves, there are matters of fact alone.

Science-fiction and horror literature has probed the nature of weirdness in more nuance than many philosophical arguments. The weird unsettles expectation, which creates an immediate fear and a profound fear. Speaking immediately, a weird encounter is a sign that presumptions about the reliability of the world to sustain your own life are in doubt. That causes fear for your life.

The more profound fear of the weird inspires is that, more than just your life being at risk, the fundamental nature of reality is at risk. It would be extremely dangerous to encounter creatures like the Shoggoths of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” one of the stories that helped forge the genre of weird fiction, but their nature is weird enough such an encounter would call into doubt everything you believed about reality itself.

To be weird is to have a character or nature that is such an anomaly for your expectations of how and what the world is, as to be unnerving. A natural process cannot be unnerved, only a self-conscious subjectivity. What is, is; what is weird must be understood as weird.

Weirdness, therefore, is in the eye of the beholder. At least that’s what I would say if I were disposed to cheap clichés. Different people with different histories, cultures, moral and aesthetic values will consider different things weird.

The Relative Relativity of Weirdness

Wills himself describes it well in his essay on Rastafarian religious beliefs, one of the best in the volume. Rastafarianism is a Caribbean religious minority, its people marginalized in the faith’s Jamaican birthplace. The religion’s cultural influence far outshines its size because of the global fame and historical influence of Rastafarian musicians in reggae, such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Lee Scratch Perry.

But to someone raised in a generally Christian culture, some Rastafarian beliefs are genuinely strange, even though much of the religion is a clear outgrowth of the Abrahamic tradition. The Rastafarian Jah is the same God as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Rastafarianism recasts the Jewish concept of the chosen people to refer to all Africans who suffered from colonization and the Atlantic slave trade, their Exodus being the ongoing process of decolonization. Like Islam, the moral principles of the religion incorporate rituals of worship into everyday social life, and it roots those moral principles in the shape of world history.

Rastafarian parallels with Christianity are, as Wills and I agree, rather weird. Rastafarianism has a Messiah figure that operates according to the same metaphysical principles as Christ. Haile Selassie I, Ethiopian Emperor from 1930 to 1974, is the living incarnation of God for Rastafarians.

I use the present tense because Rastafarians hold that Selassie is alive in some form, despite his 1974 assassination in Ethiopia’s communist uprising. In all seriousness, I expect there eventually to be a theological schism in Rastafarianism over how to reconcile their faith with the fact that Selassie was murdered and his body stuffed under the toilets of a palace bathroom, discovered decades later, long after that palace had been converted into government offices.

I can talk about this with an air of humour, as though I’m joking from a position of relative privilege at the expense of Rastafarianism and Rastas. The detachment that allows me to dehumanize Rastafarian culture with this smirking bemusement is rooted in my attitude toward the faith: it is alien, a culture I know only through song lyrics and cultural stereotypes. I find the Rastafarian faith’s messianism weird, but only because I was not raised a Rasta or near any Rastafarian communities.

In Wills’ best essays, he uses these extended philosophical case studies to uncover the epistemic, political, and moral implications of who considers what weird, and why.

Bernard Wills - Believing Weird ThingsA Disjointed Path to Its End

The only real problem I have with the book is that not all of its essays are as good as its best. If I can use terms that more often describe albums, Believing Weird Things is a little front-loaded. The book is divided roughly in half. The first essays explore weird ideas and beliefs as a philosophical historian building a book of fascinating case studies. The second half of the book describes different ways in which weirdness has been weaponized, how difference and strangeness become no longer guides to fascinating places, but targets to be destroyed.

If I can take a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean, consider this. The best essay in the first half of Believing Weird Things is “Why I Am Not a Rastaman.” The best essay in the book’s second half is “Portrait of an Islamophobe.”

Yet I don’t want to linger too long on praise for the actual best essay in the volume, where Wills insightfully and incisively identifies the dynamics of racist discourse that show how Islamophobic ideology merges the dehumanization of colonial racism with the paranoia and massification of classical European anti-Semitism.

That’s all I really need to say other than that “Portrait of an Islamophobe” alone is ethically worth your buying Believing Weird Things at its affordable price, expressly for the purpose of rewarding Wills with one more purchase in his next royalty payment.

So when my biggest critique of a book is that some essays aren’t as good as others in an essay collection, you can be pretty sure that I don’t have a significant problem with what he’s doing. Believing Weird Things ends with two essays that originally appeared in earlier forms at SERRC, two analyses of the nationalist turn in Western conservatism.

Those essays offered quality insights on the true nature of conservatism as a tradition of English political philosophy whose classical works were the landmarks of Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke, and how the nationalism that dominates today’s right wing itself betrays many of the principles of those great thinkers.

However, they make for an odd fit with the other essays of the book, all of which explicitly experiment with our concept of the weird to develop a new philosophical insight. These last two essays are fine in themselves, but as they appear in Believing Weird Things, they amount to filler tracks that stand apart from the main themes and style of the book.

Misunderstanding the Will to Weirdness

My last point is a soft rebuttal to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things. I couldn’t help but find Dentith’s critiques a little off the mark, since they were rooted in a conception of the weird that Wills didn’t share. This conception of the weird is rooted in Forteana, the study and archiving of generally weird and strange phenomena, rumours, objects, folklore.

There are two central organizing concepts in the work of Charles Fort, as he first developed his project and how it has continued since. They are anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism. Fortean catalogues of weird things and events make no attempt to understand these departures from the norm as expressions of some underlying order. This is anti-systematicity, which parallels skepticism of skepticism, the refusal to doubt that something exists or occurred merely because its existence contradicts or is contrary to established knowledge.

Any system of knowledge based on these principles of anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism will regularly produce weirdnesses, because if you hold them, you will accept without much trouble radical departures inductively valid expectations about what is and is not possible. But these principles do not exhaustively define what is weird or what weird is. Fortean epistemology is openness to the weird, but does not itself define that which is weird. Dentith’s analysis of Wills’ work conflates the two.

But Dentith’s error is a learning opportunity for us in who the best audience for Believing Weird Things would be. Dentith’s misinterpretation flowed from his prior experience in academic research. Earlier in his career, the study of Forteana and the works of Michael Shermer, particularly his 1997 Why People Believe Weird Things, was important to his intellectual development.

In the introduction, Wills frames his own Believing Weird Things as a response to Shermer’s arguments from the end of the last century. Dentith critiques Wills for having chosen an apparent interlocutor from more than 20 years ago, seeing this as an attempt to restore Shermer’s ideas to a place in contemporary philosophical debates in the spheres of academic publication. But Wills never justifies such a restoration in his own book. Indeed, Wills never refers to Shermer in as much detail in the rest of the book as he does in the introduction.

Such a use of Shermer appears sloppy, and I do think Wills should have been a little more explicit in explaining the role that Shermer’s work plays in his own thinking. A figure who plays such a major role in an introduction, but disappears throughout the main body of the book makes for poor academic writing.

But Wills’ only mistake here was having given Dentith the opportunity to make his own mistake. Wills does not aim to restore Shermer to some more prestigious position in academic philosophical debates. Engaging with Shermer’s ideas has a more personal meaning for Wills, because a chance encounter with Shermer’s work was the inspiration for a trilogy of books that explore the nature of weirdness, of which Believing Weird Things is the second.

Wills refers to the work of Shermer to invoke him as an inspiration for his in-progress trilogy. Invoking an intellectual ancestor is not a reason that can inspire most academic writing, especially that based in paywalled research journals. Dentith did not understand this aspect of Believing Weird Things because he kept his analysis inside the context of the academician’s writing.

Conclusion: Life Is Weird

Bernard Wills has written a book for a general thinking audience, a contribution to the social and ethical antidotes to rouse the red-pilled from their dogmatic slumbers. Believing Weird Things asks readers to re-evaluate what they consider reasonable and strange, that weirdness is a category without a simple definition or clear boundaries.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

Wills, Bernard. Believing Weird Things. Montréal: Minkowski Institute Press, 2018.

[1] Okay, that makes me sound way, way too late.

Author Information: Nadja El Kassar, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch.

El Kassar, Nadja. “A Critical Catalogue of Ignorance: A Reply to Patrick Bondy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 49-51.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46U

Image by Lynn Friedman via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to critiques of El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Including Bondy, Patrick. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 9-14.

Thanks to Patrick Bondy for these inspiring comments that allows me to further explain the arguments and rationale of the integrated conception of ignorance. 

Weak and Strong Ignorance

Bondy’s suggestion that there is weak ignorance and strong ignorance just as there is strong and weak knowledge is very interesting and perceptive (Bondy 2018, 11-12). But I take it that this distinction is more relevant for defenders of the propositional conception of ignorance, in particular supporters of the Standard View and New View.

In my reply to Peels (2019), I suggest that we should not see knowledge and ignorance as simple opposites, nor that their accounts should be mirrored. And in the original article I have argued that the Standard View and the New View are not adequate for capturing ignorance. Therefore, Bondy’s suggestion and the related criticism of the debate between the Standard View and New View is not as pertinent for my integrated conception of ignorance, but I think it should be taken seriously as an alternative approach to distinguishing forms of ignorance.

“Agential Ignorance” and “Agential Conception of Ignorance”

I need to point to a terminological issue in Bondy’s reply that may be central for distinguishing conceptions of ignorance and particular instances of ignorance, and thus also for motivating and defending the integrated conception of ignorance: Bondy swiftly changes between “agential conception of ignorance” and “agential ignorance” and seems to use these terms interchangeably. Similarly, for “structural conception of ignorance” and “structural ignorance”.

But these terms are importantly distinct: the former refers to a conception or an approach, the latter to a form of ignorance, or also particular instances of ignorance. In my article I only discuss agential conceptions and structural conceptions and I do not use the terms “agential ignorance” or “structural ignorance” because I am specifically interested in conceptions of ignorance

Practical Ignorance

Bondy, like Peels, points out that I do not address lack of practical knowledge or lack of know-how. Again, I fully agree that this is an open question in my article and for the integrated conception and I look forward to addressing this question in more detail. In his reply, Bondy suggests that my integrated conception can be extended to apply to such “practical ignorance” in the following way:

Theoretical ignorance: this would remain as El Kassar formulates her integrated conception of ignorance, as “a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices)”

Practical ignorance: a disposition of an agent that manifests itself in her actions – where S fails to φ, or S does not φ well or properly – and her practical attitudes (ethical and pragmatic attitudes, ethical or practical virtues and vices). (Bondy 2018, 13)

Yet, I have to reject this charitable extension. Bondy, as well as Peels, is right that there is work to do in this field, but simply imposing the integrated conception on “practical ignorance” would not be appropriate, nor is it an approach that I would wish to take.

First, I doubt that we can simply replace epistemic attitudes, virtues and vices with practical attitudes, practical virtues and vices to cover the practical case. Second, I think we need to respect the highly-evolved debate about know-how and include their concerns and arguments in any account that wants to address the lack of know-how or lack of practical knowledge. Any further conclusions require starting communication between the different fields and debates – a genuinely exciting prospect for philosophy of ignorance!

A first step might be to examine the terminology that we are using: Bondy discusses “practical ignorance” but maybe the term “incompetence” is more apt for these practical cases? Interestingly enough, psychologists who work on ignorance and meta-ignorance sometimes frame ignorance in terms of incompetence, see, for example Dunning in describing the Dunning-Kruger-Effect (Dunning 2011, 260).

Finally, and more fundamentally, I do not see why one should go for a unified account of theoretical and practical ignorance that uses the same components for both forms of ignorance. As I explain in my reply to Peels, I think that one should not aim for a unified account of ignorance and knowledge but instead take the phenomena seriously as they are. For now I take the same considerations to hold for theoretical ignorance and practical ignorance.

“We Can Say Everything That We Want to Say About Ignorance”

Bondy claims that “we can say everything we want to say about ignorance” (Bondy 2018, 9) with the propositional conception. But his claim is based on the assumption that what I call constituents of ignorance really are just causes of ignorance and I hope that my clarificatory remarks in this reply and my reply to Peels’ contribution explain why the assumption is not warranted and why the propositional conception does not say enough about ignorance. Let me briefly return to some arguments to motivate my position:

One problem is that Bondy’s (and Peels’) interpretation of closed-mindedness and other virtues or vices as causes of ignorance makes it seem as if these virtues and vices are naturally efficient causes; i.e. they turn the original claim that epistemic virtues and vices are co-constituents of ignorance into the claim that they are efficient causes.

But I would like to hear more about why we should draw this conclusion or why it is warranted. Again, a parallel in philosophy of know-how may be helpful in that context: know-how as a disposition does not explain why a performance occurred, it explains “why a certain kind of act … is possible in the first place” (Löwenstein 2017, 85, emphasis in original). And, similarly, a disposition, like open-mindedness or closed-mindedness, does not explain why someone does not know that p or why someone is ignorant of that particular fact. We need events in the world, decisions, beliefs, and motivations and the like to explain why someone is ignorant.

Second, as I say in the article, ignorance is more than a doxastic issue, it also has an attitudinal component, how one is ignorant – not how one has become ignorant, but the particular character of one’s ignorance. That also involves more than saying what kind of ignorance (e.g. propositional ignorance or practical ignorance) the particular instance belongs to. There is another facet of ignorance that is constitutive of ignorance and it cannot be captured by the propositional conception since it is restricted to the doxastic component.

That is why I want to say more about ignorance than just refer to the doxastic component. And even more, I suggest that everyone who wants to capture actual instances of ignorance should want to say more about ignorance than the propositional conception does.[1]

Contact details: nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch

References

Bondy, Patrick. 2018. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (12): 9–14.

Dunning, David. 2011. “The Dunning–Kruger Effect.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44:247–96. Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-385522-0.00005-6.

Löwenstein, David. 2017. Know-How as Competence: A Rylean Responsibilist Account. Studies in Theoretical Philosophy, vol. 4. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.

Peels, Rik. 2019. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (1): 10–18.

[1] Thanks to David Löwenstein and Lutz Wingert for helpful discussions.

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla, mpadillacruz@us.es.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Successfulness of Venting and Its Venues.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 39-48.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46P

Image by Emery Way via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article continues the points from Padilla-Cruz, Manuel. “On the Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Venting: A Reply to Thorson and Baker.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 21-30.

And the author ultimately replies to Juli Thorson & Christine Baker (2019) Venting as Epistemic Work, Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1561762.

In their recent paper “Venting as epistemic work”, Juli Thorson and Christine Baker (2019: 5) depict venting as a face-to-face action. They deem it to differ from consciousness-raising in that the audience of a venting episode may already have their consciousness raised about some state of affairs. Its importance is claimed to reside in its emotional helpfulness: it enables venters to make “[…] sense of the tangled thoughts and feelings” resulting from the epistemic injustice originating it (Thorson and Baker 2019: 6).

Venting succeeds, the authors argue, when the audience understand testimonial and hermeneutical injustices, even if implicitly, and have “[…] the right kind of standpoint” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 4). This facilitates recognition of the venter’s credibility and may prompt the audience to initiate epistemic work by undertaking the appropriate remedial action to eradicate the epistemic injustice in question.

Such a remedial action may simply amount to a re-assessment of the venter’s epistemic personhood. However, venting may be risky and be likely to cause further epistemic damage, Thorson and Baker (2019: 5-6) aver, if someone vents to the wrong person, i.e., a person who has already undermined or is prone to undermine her epistemic personhood.

In a previous paper, I have addressed the pragmatic and conversational features that enable an adequate and precise characterisation of venting (Padilla Cruz 2019). For it to spark off epistemic work, venting must certainly meet certain requisites, which unveil its felicity conditions (Searle 1969). In terms of propositional content, venting must focus on a recent or past state of affairs. While its preparatory condition establishes that the venter must assess the state of affairs as negative or unfair to herself, its sincerity condition determines that the venter must genuinely believe the state of affairs to be detrimental to herself.

Finally, its essential condition sets that venting must be an attempt by the venter to have her audience recognise that the state of affairs in question has affected her negatively and given rise to a variety of feelings like indignation, anger, disappointment, anxiety, etc.

However, a series of issues still deserve consideration in order to gain a fuller understanding of why venting can result in epistemic work:

  • What does having “the right kind of standpoint” involve?
  • When or why may venting actually be dangerous?
  • Can the interactional locus of venting be limited to face-to-face interaction?

The first issue will be tackled from the angle of Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2002, 2004), a cognitive pragmatic model that considers the linguistic properties of utterances and the mental operations that they trigger during comprehension. The second issue will be dealt with from an anthropological angle, some notions coming from psychology and the sociocultural or sociolinguistic branch of pragmatics. More specifically, part of the discussion will rely on concepts and viewpoints contributed by politeness theories, which centre on human verbal action, its conflict-generating or aggressive potential, and how this is softened or redressed. The last issue will be tackled from the perspective of digital discourse analysis, which looks into communicative behaviour through the new technologies and how these are exploited for various social practices and purposes. To conclude, in addition to summarising some of the views and ideas this reply presents, some suggestions for further research will be given.

On the Achievement of the Effects Associated With Venting

Thorson and Baker (2019) simply state that venting may result in epistemic work when the audience have “the right kind of standpoint” but they do not duly explain what they take such a standpoint to amount to. This is something that may be done from a cognitive angle by relying on a pragmatic framework concerned with what the human mind does when processing intentional stimuli like utterances: Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2002, 2004). In particular, the effect attributed to venting may be accounted for on the basis of the relevance-theoretic notions of cognitive environment, mutual cognitive environment and metarepresentation.

Individuals represent reality mentally by constructing assumptions or forging beliefs, and store those that they regard as true. When a state of affairs actually is, or is likely to be, mentally represented, it becomes manifest to an individual, since he in effect entertains, or may entertain, (a) belief(s) about it. The whole set of beliefs about states of affairs that he entertains makes up his cognitive environment (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995: 39). Although cognitive environments are highly idiosyncratic, those of two or more individuals may be similar in some respects, i.e. as regards their contents. If this happens, those individuals share a mutual cognitive environment (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995: 42).

The information that individuals process and mentally represent interacts with already stored information in three ways: by lending support to and strengthening old information, by contradicting and subsequently eliminating it, or by yielding new information that can only be derived from the joint interaction of both old and recently processed information. New information coming from such an interaction amounts to contextual implications (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995: 108).

On the other hand, utterances are public –i.e. perceptible, audible– representations of either other private representations –i.e. thoughts, beliefs– or other public ones –i.e. utterances produced by other individuals. Therefore, utterances are metarepresentations of the speaker’s own thoughts, but they can also be used to metarepresent the thoughts attributed to other individuals or the utterances that they (might) have produced.

In the former case, utterances are descriptive metarepresentations; in the latter, they are attributive metarepresentations, as long as there is an (easily) identifiable source of those thoughts or utterances. Furthermore, when utterances attributively metarepresent other individuals’ thoughts or words, speakers can also express their own attitudes towards the metarepresented content. The range of attitudes that they can express includes dissociative, endorsing or questioning ones. Expression of any of them renders utterances echoic metarepresentations (Wilson 1999; Noh 2000; Sperber 2000).

In heavy-load venting episodes where the audience know nothing about the complainable beforehand, the venter descriptively metarepresents her own thoughts and thus makes manifest to the audience assumptions amounting to new information. If the audience sense that the beliefs about the complainable that they forge are similar to those of the venter and experience similar feelings about it, there arises a cognitive mutuality or similarity between their respective cognitive environments, which is indispensable for those individuals to share a common or similar viewpoint. Such a cognitive mutuality will increase if the venter and her audience feel that they (can) further derive similar contextual implications from the beliefs manifest to themselves (Padilla Cruz 2010, 2012).

It is when such a cognitive mutuality or similarity between the venter and the audience’s respective cognitive environments is perceived that venting creates the necessary condition leading to epistemic work: the audience is acquainted with a situation, how someone experiencing it feels, its potential consequences and, eventually, how to fight it. When the audience is unaware of a problematic or unfair situation beforehand, this would be what must happen for them to have the right standpoint and be ready to undertake epistemic work.

In turn, when the audience already knows about an unfair situation and the venter is conscious of this, venting does not only metarepresent and make manifest the venter’s beliefs, but also attributively metarepresents beliefs already manifest to the audience. Similarity between the venter and the audience’s respective cognitive environments already exists, so these intersect in some respects: there is shared information or knowledge about what is vented.

Additionally, both the venter and her audience would realise that they do share (a) common negative attitude(s) towards the vented state of affairs. Hence, the venter may also simultaneously express, in addition to any of the negative attitudes characteristic of venting, a further one of endorsement with that of anger, frustration, wrath, etc., which she is certain that the audience also hold towards the state of affairs in question (Padilla Cruz 2007, 2008, 2010).

Consequently, when the audience are familiarised with what is vented, the venter may signal “the right kind of standpoint” by attributively metarepresenting beliefs already entertained by the audience, expressing her own negative feelings and simultaneously endorsing those of the audience. Such an endorsement is essential for venting to incite epistemic work because it indicates the alignment of the participants in the verbal episode as regards their viewpoints and feelings about the vented unjust state of affairs (Padilla Cruz 2010, 2012).

Why May Venting Be Dangerous?

Through heavy-load venting the venter achieves cognitive mutuality with her audience, whereas in maintenance venting such a mutuality already exists because the venter and her audience’s respective cognitive environments intersect in some respects. Venting, however, may be dangerous, and Thorson and Baker (2019) suggest that this may be the case when someone vents to the wrong person. If so, that person may inflict further epistemic damage.

The cognitive underpinnings of this undesired effect of venting are to be found mainly in an absence of cognitive mutuality, precisely. In other words, the venter and her audience’s cognitive environments not only do not intersect, but are different and perhaps (radically) opposed. To put it differently, the assumptions about the complainable which are manifest to the venter and her audience or the beliefs that these entertain do not match. As a result, the venter’s action becomes conflictive, in Leech’s (1983) terms: it questions, challenges or even attacks the audience’s viewpoint. Or, in Brown and Levinson’s (1987) view, her action amounts to an act threatening the audience’s face.

From an anthropological perspective, individuals are endowed with two quintessential attributes: rationality and face. The latter is the private and public self-image that every competent member of a sociocultural group claims for himself or herself (Goffman 1959, 1967). It is a rather vulnerable, two-sided personal attribute consisting of positive face, or the desire to be liked, appraised and admired, and feel that one’s actions are perceived as desirable or adequate by other people, and negative face, or the desire not to be questioned or challenged, and feel that one’s freedom of action is not curtailed by other people or their actions (Brown and Levinson 1987: 101, 129).

Threats to face stem from an individual’s own actions but also from other people’s actions, so that individuals may put at risk their own positive and negative face, but also those of other individuals at the same time.

Face is a complex and non-stable personal attribute liable to constant (re-)negotiation actions. Its more specific components may even be defined culturally (Arundale 1999). According to Spencer-Oatey (2000, 2008), face may even include what she labels quality face, which is linked to an individual’s skills, capacities, role, job, etc., and identity face, which is connected with the individual’s self-ascription to a sociocultural group, self-delineation, values, beliefs, ideology, viewpoints, etc.

When something is vented to a person with differing ideas or views, the venter is somehow challenging that person’s ideas or views, and thus challenging that person’s identity face. Or, following Brown and Levinson (1987), the venter threatens her audience’s positive face, as their viewpoints, ideas or beliefs about a state of affairs may be implicitly suggested not to be desirable, right or adequate. Venting, then, becomes a face-threatening act.

The reason why such challenge or threat arises is to be found in two psychological traits. On the one hand, confirmation bias or perseverance of belief (Klayman 1995). This is the human tendency to tenaciously adhere to beliefs obtained or conclusions drawn by one’s own means and for which enough supportive evidence is thought to exist. Confirmation bias makes individuals reluctant to abandon beliefs that they think are well rooted or well founded on evidence or reason.

As a consequence, individuals become or remain egocentric –the other psychological trait– and almost blindly trust their own set of beliefs without further questioning and do not admit other individuals’ perspectives. This may also explain why when something is vented to someone, venting may turn out dangerous: the hearer might not be open to differing views and ready to accept criticism, and would perceive the venter’s action as an attack. To it, he would react with some sort of counterattack intended to affirm and secure a safe epistemic position where his beliefs remain unquestioned.

On the Face-to-Face Nature of Venting

Paradoxically, even though the example of venting with which Thorson and Baker (2019) begin their discussion is an e-mail received by one of them, they contend that successful venting must be a face-to-face activity. In other words, venting must occur in situations characterised by the interlocutors’ physical co-presence, where there is immediacy, sequentiality and synchronicity in their verbal contributions (Biber 1988).

Such a claim is excessively restrictive and ignores other advantageous, more recent, less traditional, less text-based forms of communication where those four features of conversational interaction need not be indispensable: computer-mediated communication –e-mailing, instant messaging, blogs, discussion forums, message boards or websites[1]– mediated social networks –Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, to name but some– or the many applications for instant texting.

Venting needs not solely occur in face-to-face contact, but could also be successfully accomplished through any of these new technologies, which greatly facilitate visibility or exposure by reaching larger audiences (Signorelli 2017: 4). Indeed, venters could benefit from what these new technologies now offer in order not to simply achieve their goals, but also to increase the impact of their action and secure the desired reaction(s).

The advent and consolidation of new technologies like the computer decades ago, and the mobile phone or the smartphone more recently, gave rise to new forms of communication that rapidly spread and became new sites for a plethora of social practices (Androutsopoulos 2011: 281). As the technologies were developed and updated to satisfy further social, interactive needs, such forms of communication massively gained adept users and these introduced new conventions and ways of interacting: acronyms, lack of punctuation, new opening or closing formulae, innovative address forms, briefness in messages, etc. (Gains 1999; Wellman and Haythornthwaite 2002; White 2014).

As a result, communication was progressively deprived of its traditional defining features. Their absence may involve disadvantages and increase the probability of misunderstanding, above all when certain new conventions are unknown (Economidou-Kogetsidis 2011, 2016; Padilla Cruz, forthcoming), but the new technologies have attempted to overcome them by facilitating an incredibly rich variety of communicative resources that endow interaction through them with an additional characteristic: multimodality.

For instance, texting or messaging tools incorporate a wide range of emoticons enabling the expression of psychological states (Yus Ramos 2014) and offer the possibility of sending images, videos or voice notes. Similarly, e-mail servers, websites, blogs, discussion forums and message boards allow various formats for attachments and postings –textual and (audio)visual– which enable addition of photographs, drawings, videos, recordings, presentations, etc.

Moreover, discussion forums and message boards permit diverse participants to make their contributions or replies to a particular message, thus generating polylogues. All these resources are not only exploited by the users in order to make their informative intention[2] clearer or to secure correct understanding by helping other users visualise something, but also affect how users carry out their various social practices in the distinct venues that the new technologies offer. As a consequence, specific genres have been reshaped and redefined.

Each of the new technologies may be an excellent venue for venting and any communicative resource may be exploited for venting. Indeed, photographs, videos or drawings may become the first, initial contribution to a potential technology-mediated exchange that will actually unfold when (an)other participant(s) react(s) by means of a reply, further comments, postings, etc.

Subsequent reactions may give rise to polylogues, threads, (mass) forwarding, sharing, etc. Accordingly, it is possible to vent not just orally or textually through more traditional verbal means or written media, but also by displaying videos, posting comments, sharing pictures, etc. Venting, then, can also be multimodal and polylogal.

In this respect, Signorelli (2017) has shown how members of an online community subvert dominant discourses concerning obesity through their messages. Similarly, Garcés-Conejos Blitvich (2018) has also explained how a user of the new technologies took advantage of them in order to denounce the unfair, prejudiced and racist behaviour of a customer at a service encounter.

Smartphone in hand, the user recorded the customer’s offensive, denigrating and abusive words on site and posted the video, which was viewed and shared by several other users. This sparked off an impressive number of furious comments and reactions that resulted in the customer being prosecuted for misconduct, abuse and racism.

Conclusion

When the audience is not previously acquainted with the topic of venting, the venter metarepresents and makes manifest her own viewpoints, and voices her negative feelings with a view to achieving cognitive mutuality with her audience. If the audience is already aware of its topic, the venter metarepresents the thoughts and ideas that she attributes to them, and endorses their negative feelings.

Thus, the venter hints that cognitive mutuality between her and the audience actually exists. Cognitive mutuality increases when the audience feel that they can draw contextual implications that are similar to those that the venter can draw.

Cognitive mutuality is essential for achieving the pursued effects through venting, as it involves an alignment between the venter and her audience. If their cognitive environments are not mutual and do not intersect in any respect, venting may be perceived as a questioning of the audience’s ideas, ultimately threatening their identity. This is why venting may be dangerous and lead to further epistemic damage: the audience may attempt to secure their epistemic position by counterattacking.

Venting cannot be limited to traditional forms of social interaction such as face-to-face verbal communication or written communication. On the contrary, it may appear in more recent technology-mediated forms of communication, which potential venters can certainly take advantage of with a view to reaching larger audiences and magnifying its impact. The new and fascinating challenge that pragmatists, analysts of mediated discourse and communication, researchers in the new technologies and social epistemologists interested in venting now face is to examine and account for the dynamics of newer technology-based forms of venting and their contribution to fighting and eradicating injustices and inequalities.

Future research could look into the characteristics of and constraints on multimodal and polylogal venting, and ascertain their effectiveness. Scholars could additionally examine strategies and techniques deployed in order to increase the exposure of vented states of affairs and the (dis)advantages of specific media or venues. It could also be illuminating to investigate if venting can blend with or shade into other actions such as shaming.

These are just some avenues for future research which will surely shed much light onto this social and epistemic practice and its consequences, and widen our understanding thereof.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

References

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Economidou-Kogetsidis, María. “Variation in Evaluations of the (Im)Politeness of Emails from L2 Learners and Perceptions of the Personality of their Senders.” Journal of Pragmatics 106 (2016): 1-16.

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Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Mindreading and the Communicative Functions of Phatic Utterances.” In Modern Developments in Linguistics and Language Teaching, edited by Tatiana Dubrovskaya and Yrina Kitayeya, 141-146. Moscow: MNEPU (Penza Branch), 2008.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Metarepresentation and Indirect Complaints: A Relevance-Theoretic Approach.” In In the Mind and across Minds: A Relevance-theoretic Perspective on Communication and Translation, edited by Ewa Wałaszewska, Marta Kisielewska-Krysiuk and Agnieszka Piskorska, 167-187. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Metarepresentation, Attitudinal Utterances and Attitude Combination: A Relevance-theoretic Approach.” In Relevance Studies in Poland. Volume 4: Essays on Language and Communication, edited by Agnieszka Piskorska, 75-88. Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2012.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis.” In The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, edited by Carol A. Chapelle, 1-6. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Venting. Reply to Thorson and Baker.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 21-30.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “El malentendido.” Forthcoming.

Searle, John. Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Signorelli, Julia A. “Of Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Hamplanets, and Fatspeak: The Venting Genre as Support and Subversion on Reddit’s r/Fatpeoplestories.” MA diss., The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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Thorson, Juli, and Christine Baker. “Venting as Epistemic Work.” Social Epistemology. A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy (2019).

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White, Jonathan. “Standardisation of Reduced Forms in English in an Academic Community of Practice.” Pragmatics and Society 5, no. 1 (2014): 105-127.

Wilson, Deirdre. “Metarepresentation in Linguistic Communication.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 11 (1999): 127-161.

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Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Relevance Theory.” In The Handbook of Pragmatics, edited by Larry Horn and Gregory Ward, 607-632. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Yus Ramos, Francisco. “Not All Emoticons Are Created Equal.” Linguagem em (Dis)curso 14, no. 3 (2014): 511-529.

[1] In technical terms, the difference between a discussion forum and a message board is that the former contains chains of comments on an issue or topic that may be read in block, while the latter organises contributions in thematic groups that can be selected by users.

[2] An individual’s informative intention is the intention to make manifest a specific set of assumptions, i.e. the intention to transmit a specific message (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995).

Author Information: Nadja El Kassar, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch

El Kassar, Nadja. “The Irreducibility of Ignorance: A Reply to Peels.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 31-38.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46K

Image by dima barsky via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to critiques of El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Including Peels, Rik. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 10-18.

Thanks to Rik Peels for his thought-provoking comments which give me the opportunity to say more about the arguments and rationale of my article and the integrated conception. 

General Remarks About Two Approaches to Ignorance

Rik Peels’ and Patrick Bondy’s replies allow me to highlight and distinguish two approaches to ignorance, one that focuses on ignorance as a simple doxastic (propositional) phenomenon and another that regards ignorance as a complex epistemological phenomenon that is constituted by a doxastic component and by other epistemic components. The distinction can be illustrated by Peels’ conception and my integrated conception of ignorance proposed in the article. Peels’ conception belongs with the first approach, my conception belongs with the second approach.

As Peels’ reply also evinces, the two approaches come with different assumptions and consequences. For example, the first approach presupposes that accounts of knowledge and ignorance are symmetrical and/or mirror each other and, consequently, it will expect that an account of ignorance has the same features as an account of knowledge.

In contrast, the second approach takes ignorance to be a topic in its own right and therefore it is not concerned by criticism that points out that its account of ignorance makes claims that an account of knowledge does not make or does not fit with an account of knowledge in other ways. I will return to this distinction later. A major concern of the second approach (and my conception shares this concern) is to develop an account of ignorance sui generis, not an account of ignorance in the light of knowledge (or accounts of knowledge).

Why Peels’ Attempt at Reducing the Integrated Conception to His View Fails

Peels argues that the integrated conception of ignorance boils down to the conception of ignorance that he endorses. However, if I understand his considerations and arguments correctly, the observations can either be accommodated by my conception or my conception can give reasons for rejecting Peels’ assumptions. Let me discuss the three central steps in turn.

Doxastic Attitudes in the Second Conjunct

As a first step Peels notes that “the reference to doxastic attitudes in the second conjunct is … redundant” (Peels 2019, 11) since holding a false belief or holding no belief, the manifestations of ignorance, just are doxastic attitudes. But the doxastic attitudes in the second conjunct are not redundant because they capture second-order (and in general higher-order) attitudes towards ignorance, e.g. I am ignorant of the rules of Japanese grammar and I (truly) believe that I do not know these rules.

Socratic ignorance also includes more doxastic attitudes than those at the first level of ignorance. Those doxastic attitudes can also constitute ignorance. Peels’ observation indicates that it might be advisable for me to talk of meta-attitudes rather than doxastic attitudes to avoid confusion about the double appearance of doxastic attitudes.

Epistemic Virtues and Vices and the Nature of Ignorance

Peels’ second step concerns the other two components of the second conjunct. Epistemic virtues and vices “[do] not belong to the essence of being ignorant” (Peels 2019, 11). But I do not see what reasons Peels has for this claim. My arguments for saying that they do belong to the nature of being ignorant from the original article are still valid. One does not capture ignorance by focusing only on the doxastic component.

This is what my example of Kate and Hannah who are ignorant of the fact that cruise ships produce high emissions of carbon and sulfur dioxides but have different epistemic attitudes towards not knowing this fact and thus are ignorant in different ways is meant to show. Their being ignorant is not just determined by the doxastic component but also by their attitudes.

This does not mean that all ignorance comes with closed-mindedness or open-mindedness, it just means that all states of ignorance are constituted by a doxastic component and an attitudinal component (whichever attitudes fills that spot and whether it is implicit or explicit is an open question and depends on the relevant instance of ignorance). I am interested to hear which additional reasons Peels has for cutting epistemic virtues and vices from the second conjunct and delineating the nature of ignorance in the way that he does.

Ignorance as a Disposition?

Peels’ third step consists in a number of questions about ignorance as a disposition. He writes:

“[O]n the El Kassar synthesis, ignorance is a disposition that manifests itself in a number of dispositions (beliefs, lack of belief, virtues, vices). What sort of thing is ignorance if it is a disposition to manifest certain dispositions? It seems if one is disposed to manifest certain dispositions, one simply has those dispositions and will, therefore, manifest them in the relevant circumstances.” (Peels 2019, 12, emphasis in original).

These questions seem to indicate to Peels that the dispositional character of ignorance on the integrated conception is unclear and therefore disposition may be removed from the integrated conception. It does not make sense to say that ignorance is a disposition.

But Peels’ questions and conclusion themselves invite a number of questions and, therefore, I do not see how anything problematic follows for my conception. It is not clear to me whether Peels is worried because my conception implies that a disposition is manifested in another disposition that may be manifested or not, or whether he is concerned because my conception implies that one disposition (in the present context: ignorance) may have different stimulus conditions and different manifestations.

In reply to the first worry I can confirm that I think that it is possible that a disposition can be manifested in other dispositions. But I do not see why this is a problem. An example may help undergird my claim. Think e.g. of the disposition to act courageously, it is constituted at minimum by the disposition to take action when necessary and to feel as is appropriate. Aristotle’s description of the courageous person reveals how complicated the virtue is and that it consists in a number of dispositions:

Now the brave man is as dauntless as man may be. Therefore, while he will fear even the things that are not beyond human strength, he will fear them as he ought and as reason directs, and he will face them for the sake of what is noble; for this is the end of excellence. But it is possible to fear these more, or less, and again to fear things that are not terrible as if they were.

Of the faults that are committed one consists in fearing what one should not, another in fearing as we should not, another in fearing when we should not, and so on; and so too with respect to the things that inspire confidence. The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and with the right aim, in the right way and at the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave; for the brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way reason directs. (Nicomachean Ethics, 1115b 17-22)

The fact that courage consists in other dispositions also explains why there are many ways to not be virtuously courageous. For the present context all that matters is that a disposition can consist in other dispositions that can be manifested or not.

The second worry might be alleviated by introducing the notion of multi-track dispositions into my argument. A multi-track disposition, a term widely acknowledged in philosophical work on disposition, is individuated by several pairs of stimulus conditions and manifestations (Vetter 2015, 34). Thus, ignorance as a disposition may be spelled out as a multi-track disposition that has different stimulus conditions and different manifestations.

Peels also argues against the view that epistemic virtues themselves are manifestations of ignorance. But I do not hold that epistemic virtues simpliciter are manifestations of ignorance, rather I submit that epistemic virtues (or vices) necessarily appear in manifestations of ignorance, they co-constitute ignorance.

Enveloped in Peels’ argument is another objection, namely, that epistemic virtues cannot appear in manifestations of ignorance, it is only epistemic vices that can be manifestations of ignorance – or as I would say: can appear in manifestations of ignorance. Peels claims that, “open-mindedness, thoroughness, and intellectual perseverance are clearly not manifestations of ignorance. If anything, they are the opposite: manifestations of knowledge, insight and understanding.” (Peels 2019, 12, emphasis in original)

Let me address this concern by explaining how ignorance can be related to epistemic virtues. Being open-mindedly ignorant, and being ignorant in an intellectually persevering way become more plausible forms and instantiations of ignorance if one recognizes the significance of ignorance in scientific research. Think, e.g., of a scientist who wants to find out how Earth was formed does not know how Earth was formed and she may dedicate her whole life to answering that question and will persist in the face of challenges and setbacks.

Similarly, for a scientist who wants to improve existing therapies for cancer and sets out to develop nanotechnological devices to support clinicians. She can be open-mindedly ignorant about the details of the new device. In fact, most scientists are probably open-mindedly ignorant; they do want to know more about what it is they do not know in their field and are after more evidence and insights. That is also one reason for conducting experiments etc. Firestein (2012) and several contributions in Gross and McGoey’s Routledge Handbook of Ignorance Studies (2015) discuss this connection in more detail.

Thus, Peels’ third step also does not succeed and as it stands the integrated conception thus does not reduce to Peels’ view. But I’d be interested to hear more about why such a revision of the integrated conception suggests itself.

Correction Concerning “How One Is Ignorant”

Let me address a cause of confusion in the integrated conception. When I call for an account of ignorance to explain “how one is ignorant”, I do not want the account to explain how one has become ignorant, i.e. provide a genetic or causal story of a particular state of ignorance. This assumption leads Peels and Bondy to their objections concerning causal components in my conception of the nature of ignorance.

Instead, what I require, is for an account of ignorance to capture what one’s ignorance is like, what epistemic attitudes the subject has towards the doxastic component of her ignorance. The confusion and the fundamental objections to the integrated conception may be explained by the different approaches of ignorance that I have mentioned at the start of my reply.

No Mirroring Nor Symmetry Required

Peels notes that theories of knowledge do not include a causal story of how the subject became knowledgeable, nor about the quality of the subject’s knowledge, and from this he concludes that the integrated conception of ignorance which he takes to provide such a causal story must be rejected. However, as it stands, his argument is not conclusive.

First, it builds on confusion about the claims of the integrated conception that I have addressed in the previous section (3): the integrated conception does not provide a causal story for how the subject became ignorant, nor does it claim that such a causal story should be part of an account of the nature of ignorance. Rather, it spells out which additional features of ignorance are also constitutive – namely, an epistemic attitude – in addition to the doxastic component accepted by everyone.

Second, it is unclear why theories of knowledge and theories of ignorance have to presuppose a current-time slice approach, as effectively endorsed by Peels. Some theories of knowledge want to distinguish lucky true belief from knowledge and therefore look at the causal history of the subject coming to their true belief and therefore reject current-time slice approaches (e.g. Goldman 2012).

Third, Peels’ objection presupposes that theories of knowledge and theories of ignorance have to contain the same constituents and features or have to be symmetrical or have to mirror each other in some way, but I do not see why these presuppositions hold. Knowledge and ignorance are obviously intimately connected but I am curious to hear further arguments for why their accounts have to be unified or symmetrical or mirrored.

The Distinction Between Necessary and Contingent or Accidental Features of Ignorance

Peels argues that my conception confuses necessary and contingent or accidental features of ignorance but it is not clear what reasons Peels can give to support his diagnosis. My conception specifically distinguishes necessary components of ignorance and contingent/accidental instantiations of a necessary component of ignorance.

Peels’ discussion of my example of Kate and Hannah who both do not know that cruise ships have bad effects for the environment seems to jumble necessary features of ignorance whose instantiation is contingent (e.g. open-mindedness instantiates the epistemic attitude-component in open-minded ignorance) and contingent features of ignorance that trace back the causal history of an instance of ignorance. Peels writes:

Hannah is deeply and willingly ignorant about the high emissions of both carbon and sulfur dioxides of cruise ships (I recently found out that a single cruise trip has roughly the same amount of emission as seven million cars in an average year combined). Kate is much more open-minded, but has simply never considered the issue in any detail. She is in a state of suspending ignorance regarding the emission of cruise ships.

I reply that they are both ignorant, at least propositionally ignorant, but that their ignorance has different, contingent features: Hannah’s ignorance is deep ignorance, Kate’s ignorance is suspending ignorance, Hannah’s ignorance is willing or intentional, Kate’s ignorance is not. These are among the contingent features of ignorance; both are ignorant and, therefore, meet the criteria that I laid out for the nature of ignorance. (Peels 2019, 16-17)

Hannah’s and Kate’s particular epistemic attitudes are (to some extent) contingent but the fact that ignorance consists in a doxastic component and an attitudinal component is not contingent but necessary. In other words: which epistemic attitude is instantiated is accidental, but that there is an epistemic attitude present is not accidental but necessary. That is what the integrated conception holds. I’m interested to hear more about Peels’ argument for the opposing claim in the light of these clarifications.

Being Constitutive and Being Causal

Peels’ argumentation seems to presuppose that something that is constitutive of a state or disposition cannot also be causal, but it is not clear why that should be the case. E.g. Elzinga (2018) argues that epistemic self-confidence is constitutive of intellectual autonomy and at the same time may causally contribute to intellectual autonomy.

And note also that a constitutive relation between dispositions does not have to entail a causal relation in the sense of an efficient cause. Some authors in Action Theory argue that a disposition is not the cause of an action; rather, a decision, motivation, desire (etc.) is the cause of the action (cf. Löwenstein 2017, 85-86). I do not want to take sides on this issue, this is just to point out that Peels’ approach to something being constitutive and being a cause is not straightforward. (See also Section 4 in my upcoming reply to Patrick Bondy.)

Other Forms of Ignorance

Peels notes that my approach does not capture objectual and procedural ignorance as spelled out by Nottelmann (e.g. Nottelmann 2016). He tries to show that the integrated conception does not work for lack of know-how: “not knowing how to ride a bike does not seem to come with certain intellectual virtues or vices” (Peels 2019, 13) nor for lack of objectual ignorance: “if I am not familiar with the smell of fresh raspberries, that does not imply any false beliefs or absence of beliefs, nor does it come with intellectual virtues or vices” (Peels 2019, 13).

I am glad that Peels picks out this gap in the article, as does Bondy. It is an important and stimulating open question how the integrated conception fits with such other forms of ignorance – I am open-mindedly ignorant with respect to its answers. But the article did not set out to give an all-encompassing account of ignorance. Nor is it clear, whether one account will work for all forms of ignorance (viz. propositional ignorance, objectual ignorance, technical/procedural ignorance). Peels’ observation thus highlights an important open question for all theories of ignorance but not a particular objection against my integrated conception.

At the same time, I am skeptical whether Peels’ proposed account, the threefold synthesis, succeeds at capturing objectual and procedural ignorance. I do not see how the threefold synthesis is informative regarding objectual and procedural ignorance since it just states that objectual ignorance is “lack of objectual knowledge” and procedural ignorance is “lack of procedural knowledge”. Peels’ formulates the Threefold Synthesis as follows, with an additional footnote:

Threefold Synthesis: Ignorance is an epistemic agent’s lack of propositional knowledge or lack of true belief, lack of objectual knowledge, or lack of procedural knowledge.9

9If the Standard View on Ignorance is correct, then one could simply replace this with: Ignorance is a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in lack of (propositional, objectual, or procedural) knowledge. (Peels 2019, 13)

I do not see how these statements go toward capturing lack of competence, e.g. not possessing the competence to ski, or lack of objectual knowledge, e.g. not knowing Paris. I guess that philosophers interested in ignorance and in this issue will have to carefully study the phenomena that they want to capture and their interrelations – as Bondy starts to do in his Reply (Bondy 2018, 12-14) – in order to set out to adequately capture what Peels calls lack of objectual knowledge or lack of procedural knowledge.

What Does One Want From an Account of Ignorance?

Peels’ reply evinces that anyone who wants to develop an account of ignorance needs to answer a number of fundamental questions, including: What is it that we want from an account of ignorance? Do we want it a unified account for knowledge and ignorance? Do we want a simple account? Or do we want to adequately capture the phenomenon and be able to explain its significance in epistemic practices of epistemic agents? I want the account to be able to do the latter and have therefore put forward the integrated conception.

Two Clarificatory Remarks

In closing, I would like to add two clarificatory remarks. Peels suggests that the structural conception and agnotology are identical conceptions or approaches (Peels 2019, 15-16). But even though there are signficant connections between the structural conception and agnotology, they are distinct.

The examples for the structural conception in my article are from feminist epistemology of ignorance, not from agnotology. I do not want to engage in labelling and including or excluding authors and their works from fields and disciplines, but there are differences between works in epistemology of ignorance and agnotology since agnotology is often taken to belong with history of science. I would not want to simply identify them.

I do not see how Peels’ observations that the examples for agential conceptions of ignorance include causal language and that the conception of ignorance that he finds in critical race theory does not fit with someone being ignorant “of the fact that Antarctica is the largest desert on earth” (Peels 2019, 14) present objections to the integrated conception.

If there are claims about the causes of ignorance in these theories, that does not mean that my conception, which is distinct from these conceptions, makes the same claims. I specifically develop a new conception because of the advantages and disadvantages of the different conceptions that I discuss in the article.[1]

Contact details: nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch

References

Aristoteles. 1995. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. Volume Two. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Bondy, Patrick. 2018. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (12): 9–14.

Elzinga, Benjamin. 2019. “A Relational Account of Intellectual Autonomy.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 49 (1): 22–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/00455091.2018.1533369.

Firestein, Stuart. 2012. Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Goldman, Alvin I. 2012. Reliabilism and Contemporary Epistemology: Essays. New York, NY.: Oxford Univ. Press.

Gross, Matthias, and Linsey McGoey, eds. 2015. Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies. Routledge International Handbooks. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Löwenstein, David. 2017. Know-How as Competence: A Rylean Responsibilist Account. Studies in Theoretical Philosophy, vol. 4. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.

Nottelmann, Nikolaj. 2016. “The Varieties of Ignorance.” In The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance, edited by Rik Peels and Martijn Blaauw, 33–56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9780511820076.003.

Peels, Rik. 2019. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (1): 10–18.

Vetter, Barbara. 2015. Potentiality: From Dispositions to Modality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] Thanks to David Löwenstein and Lutz Wingert for helpful discussions.

Author Information: Manuel Padilla-Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla, mpadillacruz@us.es.

Padilla-Cruz, Manuel. “On the Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Venting: A Reply to Thorson and Baker.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 21-30.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46B

Image by Rolf Dietrich Brecher via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Juli Thorson and Christine Baker have recently set the spotlight on a verbal activity which, in their view, may yield rather positive outcomes in oppressive or discriminating environments: venting. This is claimed to play a significant role in fighting epistemic damage.

Although their discussion is restricted to cases in which women vent to other women who are acquainted with unfair epistemic practices in the asymmetrical and hierarchical social groups to which they belong, in “Venting as epistemic work” the authors contend that successful venting can make people aware of oppressive social structures, their place in them and possible solutions for the epistemic damage that those structures cause.

As a result, venting enables individuals to regain trust in their epistemic practices, author knowledge, and accept their own epistemic personhood (Thorson and Baker 2019: 8).

Damage, Personhood, and Venting

Thorson and Baker’s (2019) argumentation relies on two crucial elements. On the one hand, the notion of epistemic damage, which, in an analogous way to Tessman’s (2001) concept of moral damage, is defined as a harm curtailing an individual’s epistemic personhood. This is in turn described as the individual’s “[…] ontological standing as a knower”, “[…] the ability to author knowledge for [oneself]” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 2), or, in Borgwald’s words, “[…] the ability to think autonomously, reflect on and evaluate one’s emotion, beliefs, desires, and to trust those judgments rather than deferring to others” (2012: 73).

Epistemic damage hampers the development of a person’s knowledge-generating practices and her self-trust in her ability to implement them (Thorson and Baker 2019: 2).[1] It is inflicted when someone cannot assert her epistemic personhood because she fears that what she says will not be taken seriously. Consequently, the victim suffers testimonial smothering (Dotson 2011) and gets her self-trust diminished and her epistemic personhood undermined.

On the other hand, the authors’ argumentation is based on a differentiation of venting from both complaining and ranting. These three verbal actions are depicted as contingent on the presence of an audience, expressing “strong feelings” and conveying “agitation about some state of affairs or person” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 3), but neither complaining nor ranting are believed to involve expectations for a change in the state of affairs that gave rise to them.

Complaints, the authors say, may be left unaddressed or the solution proposed for their cause may turn out unsatisfactory and leave it unfixed, while ranting is “a kind of performance for someone” (Thorson and Baker 2019: pp.) where the ranter, far from engaging in conversation, simply exposes her views and expresses anger through a verbal outburst without concern for an ensuing reaction. Venting, in contrast, is portrayed as a testifying dialogical action that is typically performed, Thorson and Baker (2019: 4-5) think, in face-to-face interaction and where the venter does have firm expectations for subsequent remedial action against a state of affairs: denied uptake, sexist comments, silencing or undermining of cognitive authority, to name but some.

By expressing anger at (an)other individual(s) who wronged her or frustrated confusion at their actions, the venter seeks to make her audience aware of an epistemic injustice –either testimonial or hermeneutical– which negatively affects her epistemic personhood and to assert her own credibility.

Thorson and Baker (2019: 7) also distinguish two types of venting, even if these are not clear-cut and range along a continuum:

  1. Heavy-load venting, which is a lengthy, time-consuming and dramatic activity following a serious threat to epistemic personhood increasing self-distrust. It aims for recognition of credibility and reaffirmation of epistemic personhood.
  2. Maintenance venting, which is a “honing practice” requiring less epistemic work and following situations where there are “lack of uptake, dismissal, or micro-aggressions” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 7). Its goal is reinforcement or maintenance of epistemic personhood.

Despite their valuable insights, a series of issues connected with the features defining venting and characterising its two types deserve more detailed consideration in order to gain a fuller understanding of the reasons why venting can actually have the positive effects that the authors attribute to it.

Firstly, its ontology as a verbal action or speech act (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) needs ascertaining in depth with a view to properly delimiting it and adequately differentiating it from other related actions. Secondly, in addition to length and goal, a further criterion should be provided so as to more accurately characterise heavy-load and maintenance venting. Addressing the first issue will help unravel what venting really is and how it is accomplished, while dealing with the second one is fundamental for capturing the subtleties individuating the two types of venting.

What follows addresses these issues from two disciplines of linguistics: pragmatics to a great extent and conversation analysis to a lesser extent. The former, which is greatly indebted to the philosophy of language, looks into, among others, how individuals express meaning and perform a variety of actions verbally, as well as how they interpret utterances and understand meaning.

More precisely, the issues in question will be accounted for on the grounds of some postulates of Speech Act Theory (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) and contributions on complaints made from this framework. Conversation analysis, in turn, examines how individuals structure their verbal contributions with a view to transmitting meaning and how conversational structure determines interpretation. Although Thorson and Baker (2019) admit that an analysis of venting from a linguistic perspective would be fruitful, unfortunately, they did not undertake it.

1) Venting as a Speech Act

Thorson and Baker (2019) take venting, complaining and ranting to be three distinct speech acts that have in common the expression of anger. To some extent, this is right, as there is much confusion in the literature and researchers consider venting and ranting the same speech act “[…] and use the terms synonymously” (Signorelli 2017: 16). However, venting and ranting could rather be regarded as sub-types or variations of a broader, more general or overarching category of speech act: complaining.

Venting and ranting satisfy in the same way as complaining four of the twelve criteria proposed by Searle (1975) in order to distinguish specific verbal actions: namely, those pertaining to the illocutionary point of the act, the direction of fit between the speaker’s words and the external world, the expressed psychological state and the propositional content of the utterance(s) whereby a verbal action is attempted. In other words, complaining, venting and ranting share similar features stemming from the speaker’s intentionality, the relationship between what she says and the external world, her psychological state while speaking and the core meaning or import of what she says. Complaining would then be an umbrella category subsuming both venting and ranting, which would differ from it along other dimensions.

1.1) Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Complaints

Pragmatists working within the fruitful speech act-theoretic tradition (Austin 1962; Searle 1969, 1975) have made illuminating contributions on complaints, which they have classified as expressive acts wherewith the speaker, or complainer or complainant, expresses a variety of negative feelings or emotions. This is a relevant aspect unveiling illocutionary point or intentionality. Such feelings or emotions include anger, irritation, wrath, frustration, disappointment, dissatisfaction, discontent, discomfort, anxiety, despair, etc.

This is another key point, but it shows this time the expressed psychological state (Edmondson and House 1981; Laforest 2002; Edwards 2005). In fact, the expression of such feelings and emotions –a further important issue linked now to the communicated propositional content (“I am angry at/disappointed by p”)– differentiates complaints from other expressive acts like complimenting, where the expressed psychological states are positive: admiration, approval, appraisal, etc. (Wolfson and Manes 1980; Manes and Wolfson 1981).

The feelings and emotions voiced by the complainer concern some state of affairs –another person’s behaviour, appearance, traits, mood, etc., an event and, evidently, some injustice, too– which is regarded not to meet (personal) expectations or standards, or to violate sociocultural norms. The state of affairs originating the complaint is referred to as the complainable and is assessed or appraised from the complainer’s point of view, so complaints often involve a high degree of subjectivity (Edmondson and House 1981; Boxer 1993a, 1993b; Trosborg 1995). As expressive acts, complaints lack direction of fit: neither do they reflect the outer world, nor is this affected by or adapted to what the complainer says.

However, complaints could also be considered to some extent informative or representative acts, inasmuch as the complainer may make the hearer –or complainee– aware of the unsatisfactory state of affairs, which might have gone completely unnoticed or be utterly unknown to him. If so, complaints would be hybrid acts combining the expression of psychological states and the dispensing of information. Accordingly, they could have a words-to-world direction of fit because what the complainer says matches the world, at least from her perspective.

Complaints can be subdivided in various manners. A first twofold division can be made depending on whether the complainable pertains to the complainee or not. Thus, direct complaints concern a state of affairs for which the complainee is held responsible, while indirect complaints deal with one whose responsibility lies in a third party, who may be present at the conversational exchange or absent (Edmondson and House 1981; Boxer 1993a, 1993b; Trosborg 1995).

Another twofold distinction may be made depending on whether the complainer simply voices her feelings or has further intentions. Hence, complaints are retrospective acts when she just expresses her psychological states about some recent or past state of affairs without further intentions, or prospective when she also seeks to influence the complainee and bias his (future) course of action (Márquez Reiter 2005).

In discoursive, conversational terms, complaints can be made through just a single sentence that is produced as an utterance counting as the core act, or through more than one sentence and utterance, either in the same conversational turn or in different ones. Additional utterances make up pre-sequences or post-sequences, depending on their position relative to the core act, or moves, a label frequently used in the literature on conversation analysis.

Since they often lend support to the complaint by offering further details about the complainable, giving reasons for the complainer’s feelings and/or informing about her expections, those moves work as supportive moves. A core complaint and the possible supportive moves accompanying it are often arranged in adjacency pairs along with the utterances reacting to them, whereby the complainee agrees, shows his own psychological states, elaborates on the complaint or responds to it (Cutting 2002; Sidnell 2010; Padilla Cruz 2015; Clift 2016).

1.2) Characterising Venting

Following this characterisation, venting can be said to be a type of complaining on the basis of the following features: its topic or aboutness, its target, the participation of (an)other individual(s), dialogicality, length, the newness or known nature of its subject matter, and the predominance of the expressive and representative functions or the fulfilment of an additional influential or conative function. Of these, the first three features are fundamental, while the fourth and the fifth ones may be regarded as consequences of the third feature. Whereas the sixth one facilitates differentiation between types of venting, the seventh enables recognition of intentions other than simply voicing feelings about recent or past states of affairs.

Although solely produced by one individual –the complainer or venter– venting would be an indirect form of complaining that “[…] reveals underlying perspectives [on] a given topic, situation, or individual(s)” (Signorelli 2017: 2) and engages (an)other individual(s) who must share the assessment of, perspective on and feelings about the complainable, as well as be in a position to react in a particular manner or intend to do so in the (immediate) future.

Their sharing such viewpoints and feelings may prompt participation in the discoursive or conversational episode through tokens of agreement or commiseration, enquiries aimed at getting additional information about the complainable, further verbalisation of negative feelings through additional censuring, critique or irritated comments, and expression of commitment to future remedial action (Boxer 1993a).

Therefore, venting could be depicted as a dialogic phenomenon that is achieved discoursively and requires conversation, to which (an)other participant(s) contribute(s). As Signorelli puts it, “[…] venting is deliberately and necessarily communal” (2017: 17) and can therefore be described as a type of “participatory genre” (2017: 16) with a specific purpose, recognisable moves and characteristic rhetorical strategies (2017: 1).

Its dependency on the contribution of some other epistemic agent(s) makes venting be a cooperative action that is co-constructed by means of the joint endeavours of the venter and her audience. Its dialogic nature causes conversation to unfold through more than just one turn or adjacency pair, so venting episodes may be (considerably) longer variations of complaints, which may be performed by means of just one utterance or a brief sequence of utterances that is normally followed by reactions or responses.

Hence, venting would require more effort, time and verbal material enabling the venter to elaborate on her viewpoints, clearly express her feelings, refine, revise or deepen into the subject matter, and/or announce or hint her expectations. Through it the venter seeks to secure her audience’s future collaboration, which renders venting a long form of prospective complaining. In turn, the audience may show understanding, indicate their positioning as regards what is talked about and/or reveal their future intentions.

1.3) Venting and Related Actions

Venting cannot be judged to differ from complaining on the grounds of the likelihood for a solution to a problem to exist or to be plausible, as Thorson and Baker (2019) conjecture. If a solution to a problem actually exists, that is something external, extralinguistic. Whether the solution is worked out or sought for, and ends up being administered or not, are perlocutionary effects (Austin 1962) that escape the venter’s control. Indeed, although perlocutionary effects may be intended or expected, and, hence, insinuated and pursued through what is said and how it is said, whether a particular solution to a problem is actually given or not is something that totally falls under the audience’s control. Venting nevertheless displays pragmatic and conversational properties that single it out as a special manifestation of complaining.

On the other hand, venting is also distinct from ranting in that, regardless of whether ranting is a direct or indirect form of complaint, it initially excludes the participation of the audience. Ranting, therefore, is chiefly a monologic speech action characterised by its length and detail, too, but deprived of joint cooperation. It mainly is an “[…] individualistic production of identity” (Vrooman 2002: 63, quoted in Signorelli 2017) that is “[…] rooted in self-styling” (Signorelli 2017: 12) and whose mission is “[…] to establish and defend a position of social distance” (Signorelli 2017: 13).

If something distinguishes ranting, that may be the intensity, vividness and high level of irritation or agitation wherewith the complainable is presented, which results in a verbal outburst, as Thorson and Baker (2019) rightly put it. Relying on Searle’s (1975) parametres to classify speech acts, the strength with which ranting is performed certainly differentiates it from venting and also sorts it out as a peculiar manifestation of complaining. Ranting, then, differs from venting on the grounds of its narrative nature and emotional intensity (Manning 2008: 103-105; Lange 2014: 59, quoted in Signorelli 2017).

2) The Two Types of Venting

As pointed out, Thorson and Baker (2019) differentiate between heavy-load and maintenance venting. In their view, the former arises when nothing or very little is known about a disappointing, frustrating, irritating or unfair issue. The venter’s action, then, seems to be mainly aimed at informing her audience and giving details about the issue in question, as well as at making them aware of her feelings.

In turn, maintenance venting appears to correspond to the sort of trouble talk (Jefferson 1984, 1988) in which people engage every now and then when they are already acquainted with some negative issue. This distinction, therefore, may be refined by taking into account the informational load of each action, or, to put it differently, its informativeness, i.e. the newness or known nature of the complainable (Padilla Cruz 2006).

In informational terms, heavy-load venting may be more informative because either what is talked about is utterly unknown to the audience or both the venter and her audience are familiarised with it, but have not dealt with it beforehand. Both the informative –or representational– and the expressive function play a major role in this sort of venting: along with conveying her feelings the venter also dispenses information, the possession of which by the audience she considers is in her interest.

The informativeness of maintenance venting, in contrast, would be lesser, as the venter and her audience are already acquainted with a troublesome or disrupting state of affairs because they have previously discussed it in previous encounters. Although this type of venting still fulfils an informative or representational function, this is subservient to the expressive function and to an additional one: affirming or strengthening common viewpoints and feelings (Padilla Cruz 2004a, 2004b, 2005). This is essential for aligning the audience with herself or positioning them along with her as regards the complainable.

The low level of informativeness of maintenance venting and the affirmation or reinforcement of common viewpoints that it achieves render this sort of venting a phatic action in the sense of anthropologist Bronisław K. Malinowski (1923). It is of little informational relevance, if this is understood to amount to the newness or unknown nature of information, and, therefore, of scarce importance to the audience’s worldview. Even if maintenance venting does not significantly improve or alter their knowledge about the vented issue, like phatic discourse, it does nevertheless fulfil a crucial function: creating or stressing social affinity, rapport, bonds of union, solidarity and camaraderie between the venter and her audience (Padilla Cruz 2004a, 2004b, 2005).

These effects stem from venting’s implication that the interlocutors brought together have similar viewpoints and feelings about a problematic or unfair state of affairs. Maintenance venting, so to say, insinuates or highlights that the interlocutors may be equally affected by what is talked about, expect a similar reaction or react to it in a similar manner. It fosters a feeling of in-group membership through a topic with which the interlocutors are equally acquainted, which similarly impacts them and towards which they also hold akin attitudes (Padilla Cruz 2006).

Conclusion

Venting satisfies criteria that enable its classification as a manifestation of complaining behaviour. Owing to its target –a third party– topic –some recent or past state of affairs– and fulfilment of expressive, representative and conative functions, it amounts to an indirect prospective form of complaint. Its conversational features make it exceed average complaints made through just one conversational turn or adjacency pair, so venting requires more time and effort. However, if there are characteristics significantly distinguishing venting, these are dialogicality and engagement of the audience.

Venting certainly depends on the presence and participation of the audience. It must be jointly or cooperatively accomplished through dialogue, so it must be seen and portrayed as a communal action that is discoursively achieved. The audience’s participation is crucial for both the acknowledgement of a troublesome state of affairs and the achievement of the ultimate goal(s) sought for by the venter: fighting or eradicating the state of affairs in question. While dialogicality and participation of the audience facilitate differentiation between venting and another type of complaint, namely, ranting, the level of informativeness of what is vented helps more accurately distinguish between heavy-load and maintenance venting.

It is along these pragmatic and conversational features that venting may be more precisely described from a linguistic perspective. Although this description may certainly enrich our understanding of why it may have the effects that Thorson and Baker (2019) ascribe to it, other issues still need considering. They are left aside for future work.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

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[1] The feminine third person singular personal pronoun will be used throughout this paper in order to refer to an individual adopting the role of speaker in conversational exchanges, while the masculine counterpart will be used to allude to the individual adopting that of hearer.