The AOL data mess

by Eszter Hargittai on August 7, 2006

Not surprisingly this is the kind of topic that spreads like wildfire across blogland.
AOL search data snippet

AOL Research released (link to Google cache page) the search queries of hundreds of thousands of its users over a three month period. While user IDs are not included in the data set, all the search terms have been left untouched. Needless to say, lots of searches could include all sorts of private information that could identify a user.

The problems in the realm of privacy are obvious and have been discussed by many others so I won’t bother with that part. (See the blog posts linked above.) By not focusing on that aspect I do not mean to diminish its importance. I think it’s very grave. But many others are talking about it so I’ll focus on another aspect of this fiasco.

As someone who has research interests in this area and has been trying to get search companies to release some data for purely academic purposes, needless to say an incident like this is extremely unfortunate. Not that search companies have been particularly cooperative so far – based on this case not surprisingly -, but chances for future cooperation in this realm have just taken a nosedive.

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Wikipedia imitates Pynchon

by Henry Farrell on August 7, 2006

Two “very”: “interesting”: articles in the _Economist_ this week on disinformation and the Internet From the first:

bq. Russia’s interests are once again being promoted by information sources that look plausible, at least until you look closely at their antecedents. Take, for example, the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDISS), a grand-sounding outfit that says it works on “result-oriented nation-building for new and emerging states”. … the ICDISS … has no address and no telephone number. Although its website, and an entry on a write-it-yourself encyclopedia, Wikipedia, claim that it was founded in 1999, there is no trace of its activities, or of its supposed staff members, in news databases or the internet before January this year. Since then, it seems to be solely involved in promoting Transdniestria. …One plausible conclusion is that the Kremlin is engaged in a new push to support Transdniestria and three similar statelets.

The second goes into more detail about this mysterious organization, which claims to run conferences involving well known diplomats and academics, but only appears to exist in references from web pages.

bq. The Wikipedia entry’s history shows that some unkind person has tried to change it, to say that the ICDISS is based not in Washington, DC but in the Transdniestrian capital, Tiraspol, and is made up not of 60 diplomats and specialists, but four officers of the ministry of state security there.

Since the publication of the article, the relevant “Wikipedia entry”: has been put under consideration for deletion; the _Economist_ journalist who wrote the expose (or, if you want to be careful, someone who appears to be the _Economist_ journal who wrote the expose), is engaged in a “debate”: on the Talk page with a veteran Wikipedia contributor (who appears to have been highly active on the Transdniestria page) who claims to have been at one of their conferences. Curiouser and curiouser.

Recent ‘Continental Philosophy’

by John Holbo on August 7, 2006

I’m teaching ‘Recent Continental Philosophy’ this semester, and I’m curious about the origins of the term – ‘continental philosophy’, that is. I’m tempted by the quite feeble joke that all continental philosophy is of very recent origin because the term is of very recent origin, even though it names something that is approximately 200 years old (if you want to start with Kant, as I do.) Or at least 100 years old (if you want to start with Husserl.) I don’t see much evidence of regular usage of ‘continental philosophy’ before the 1980’s. I think I more or less agree with what Simon Critchley says in the following passage from the Blackwell Companion to Continental Philosophy [amazon]:

Although there is no consensus on the precise origin of the concept of Continental philosophy as a professional self-description, it would seem that it does not arise as a description of undergraduate and postgraduate courses in philosophy before the 1970s. It is clear that this happened in the USA before Britain, where the first postgraduate courses in Continental philosophy were offered at the Universities of Essex and Warwick in the early 1980’s, although undergraduate courses in the Continental philosophy were available at Warwick from the mid-1970’s. in the American context, and to a lesser extent in Britain, the term “Continental philosophy” replaced the earlier formulations, “Phenomenology” or “Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.” These terms are preserved in the names of the professional associations most closely associated with Continental philosophy in the English-speaking world, the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy founded in 1962 and the British Society for Phenomenology founded in 1967. it would seem, then, that in the postwar period, Continental philosophy was broadly synonymous with phenomenology (often in an existential garb), a fact that is also reflected by certain introductory American book titles from the 1960’s: An Invitation to Phenomenology (1965), and Phenomenology in America (1967). It is perhaps indicative that the latter title is both mimicked and transformed in 1983 with the appearance of Continental Philosophy in America. The reason why “Phenomenology” is replaced with “Continental Philosophy” is not absolutely clear, but it would seem that it was introduced to take account of the various so-called poststructuralist Francophone movements of thought that were increasingly distant from and often hostile towards phenomenology: to a lesser extent Lacan, Derrida, and Lyotard, and to a greater extent Deleuze and Foucault.

So, to summarize, Continental philosophy is a professional self-description that overlays a prior and more pernicious cultural opposition between the “British” or “Anglo-American” and the “Continental” and which has been pragmatically refined over the years. (p. 4)

Critchley thinks the perniciousness is the fault of the Anglos, for being close-minded. I am inclined to think that there is probably equal close-mindedness to be found on both sides, if it comes to that. But setting the question of blame aside, does anyone have anything much to add to the above?