Sunday, 29 November 2009

What epistemology has to tell us about Apple's rumored tablet

Epistemology is the study of knowledge - how do we know something, and how sure are we that we're right? It is a subject that the Apple blogosphere pays even less heed to than our intelligence agencies, and one that deserves greater attention.

If we claim to be absolutely certain that a piece of intelligence is true, what we mean is that it has a 100% probability of being true. Equally, if we claim that a the piece of intelligence is absolutely false, then we mean that there is a 0% probability of it being true. In reality, of course, most intelligence lies somewhere in the middle. (And from a philosophical perspective, all knowledge lies somewhere in the middle - but that's a separate topic!)

Acquiring intelligence, is a complex business, involving endlessly changing probability. As new information comes to light, the probability that a piece of intelligence is true may increase (if the new information corroborates the intelligence) or decrease (if it contradicts).

So how does this all relate back to Apple rumors? In the Apple rumosphere, we acquire knowledge in one of three ways.
  • Sudden revelation: Like an unexpected product announcement during a Stevenote - something leaps to a 100% certainty in as much time as it takes to say "one more thing".
  • Uncorroborated prediction: An analyst or blogger makes a prediction, citing an anonymous source. These events move the probability up a few clicks - how much they push dial is dependent of the past track record of the analyst/blogger and this is a pretty weak form of indicator.
  • Creeping determinism: This is where hype steadily builds within the blogosphere, in a relentless feedback loop. It starts with idle speculation. Others misinterpret speculation as prediction, and anticipation escalates. An analyst here or there may pour fuel onto the fire by making a prediction based upon uncorroborated chatter, but implying that they have a separate source. Steadily probability builds.
But why should the probability increase in the creeping determinism scenario? After all, where no reliable sources are cited, the chatter is built upon nothing more than idle speculation.

To answer this question, we should note that in epistemology, the absence of information is also intelligence, or as Donald Rumsfeld famously once put it, the "known unknown." In the creeping determinism scenario, the absent information is any comment from Apple. Where the rumor community gets ahead of itself with speculation, Apple usually finds a way to discreetly damp down expectations. Phil Schiller, Apple's VP for Global Marketing, will make a remark to a friendly journalist, for example, saying that the product line up for the holidays is now set. Therefore, each day that passes with growing speculation and no expectation management from Apple, this known unknown increases the likelihood of the intelligence being accurate.

So, what hype has being feeding the rumor mill of late, with Apple giving no word to manage expectations? The fabled Apple Tablet, of course. Indeed, since the speculation has now reach mainstream publications, and still no word from Apple, the probability has practically reached 100%. When something becomes a certainty through sudden revelation, you can't miss it. But with creeping determinism, it is a gradual process - like the hands of a clock - you can't see any change, even as they're moving before your eyes.