Wittgenstein, #TheDress and Google’s search for a bigger truth

Robert Shrimsley at the Financial Times: “As the world burnt with a BuzzFeed-prompted debate over whether a dress was black and blue or white and gold, the BBC published a short article posing the question everyone was surely asking: “What would Wittgenstein say about that dress?

Wittgenstein died in 1951, so we cannot know if the philosopher of language, truth and context would have been a devotee of BuzzFeed. (I guess it depends on whether we are talking of the early or the late Ludwig. The early Wittgenstein, it is well known, was something of an enthusiast for LOLs, whereas the later was more into WTFs and OMGs.)

The dress will now join the pantheon of web phenomena such as “Diet Coke and Mentos” and “Charlie bit my finger”. But this trivial debate on perceived truth captured in miniature a wider issue for the web: how to distil fact from noise when opinion drowns out information and value is determined by popularity.

At about the same time as the dress was turning the air blue — or was it white? — the New Scientist published a report on how one web giant might tackle this problem, a development in which Wittgenstein might have been very interested. The magazine reported on a Google research paper about how the company might reorder its search rankings to promote sites that could be trusted to tell the truth. (Google produces many such papers a year so this is a long way short of official policy.) It posits a formula for finding and promoting sites with a record of reliability.

This raises an interesting question over how troubled we should be by the notion that a private company with its own commercial interests and a huge concentration of power could be the arbiter of truth. There is no current reason to see sinister motives in Google’s search for a better web: it is both honourable and good business. But one might ask how, for example, Google Truth might determine established truths on net neutrality….

The paper suggests using fidelity to proved facts as a proxy for trust. This is easiest with single facts, such as a date or place of birth. For example, it suggests claiming Barack Obama was born in Kenya would push a site down the rankings. This would be good for politics but facts are not always neutral. Google would risk being depicted as part of “the mainstream media”. Fox Search here we come….(More)”