Begging the Cloud question

Aristotle, who defined question-begging

“Begging the question” is a logical fallacy known as petitio principii in Latin. It occurs when the user–sometimes maliciously,  often just ignorantly–uses a premise to his argument that, under closer inspection, cannot be supported. The fallacy is useful for those who want to prove something–it assumes part of the conclusion.  The Grimm’s Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is an dramatization of what can happen when this logical fallacy gets going.

But just because humans at least as far back as Aristotle have identified a logical fallacy doesn’t mean it will be avoided.  On the contrary, people beg the question because it is so easy and so pleasant–it conforms to the user’s desires, offering a logical “resolution devoutly to be wished.” It is useful for those wishing to promulgate popular movements.

In EducationLand USA, there is plenty of question-begging going on. One big example of petitio principii is so successful that it underlies federal policy on public schools for the last decade. It is the assumption that student learning and educational quality can be accurately measured with standardized testing. It assumes that educational activity can be analyzed and quantified. While very convenient, the assumption cannot be logically allowed–billions to the Educational-Industrial-Complex notwithstanding.  If you look at the “Blueprint for Reform” of Arne Duncan and  Obama, you’ll see them begging the testing question, big time. The policy argument

  • We want to track student progress in learning
  • Standardized testing is effective in tracking student progress in learning
  • We should be sure no child is left un-standardized tested

assumes a lot in the second premise. The University of Colorado’s National Educational Policy Center points out that Obama’s plan for ensuring a high-quality free public education puts “an overwhelming reliance, with little or no research justification, on standardized test scores as a measure of student learning and school success.

Kind of like stepping out on a cloud and expecting it to hold your weight, isn’t it?

photo from http://elmhurst.patch.com

Well this week in west suburban Chicagoland, a strong storm blew through our town on Tuesday evening. It wasn’t, thank God, a tornado, but in my town, its 80+ mph winds knocked over old trees and stripped away thousands of  weak limbs. These arboreal Acts of God in turn pulled down and disconnected power lines, and suddenly, over 200,000 people  had no electricity. Unless they had their own generators, my 21st century American neighbors were suddenly forced to live “in Conestoga wagon days,” as one resident told the hyperlocal news source. Candles, conversations, and cold showers became the atavistic endeavors in powerless post-storm homes.

The persisting outage points up how tentative our civilization is, how reliant on electrical power, which is way too subject to random devastation for anyone to get cocky. When the storm shut down power to the our summer school and the school district’s servers, no back-up generators kicked in [how that is possible, I do not know]. The district’s server-based email, webpage, and administrative function thus went down for two days. Summer school was canceled. No electricity–one slender “given” occurs–and nothing could happen. Of course, national security was not threatened. In fact, it was a pleasant vacation for most. But the storm blew away one’s easy assumption that the web will always be there. It exposed our begging the connectivity question.

photo from http://elmhurst.patch.com

As we proceed on our electronic-mediated way, it is startling just how much our civilization demands enormous trust from the individual (via begged question premises). To move confidently towards one’s modern work goals, one needs to trust

  • one’s power source, of course, but also 
  • one’s hardware manufacturer, 
  • one’s OS provider, 
  • one’s ISP, 
  • one’s electronic transactions, 
  • one’s web-based media like I-tunes and youtube (who really reads all the small print?),
  • one’s “watchdog agencies” (like the FCC) to keep information “open” and censorship away, and in this era of “cloud-based” services, 
  • one’s digital content, archived in the vast network of servers and LANs that is the Internet 
And that is just an initial list.

So far, the cloud seems pretty reliable. It’s been three years, and Google Docs have not disappeared on me. And when the weather wiped out my local server-based resources, I was able to function within the thrice-backed-up Google cloud.

But how safe is it to assume that someday, it won’t be devastated by some unforeseen (or maliciously executed) force?  How can I hedge against that possibility as I proceed, shooting out and attaching humble filaments to the universal mind-web, when a digital storm could blow it all instantly over?

As glorious and mighty as the Internet seems, it is, alas, still dependent on power, access, and a whole bunch of other conditions to work.

I do not say this to be negative. Like the child in Grimm’s fairy tale, “I’m just sayin’…” what I see.

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