Thursday, October 05, 2006

Mind Reading

Rhetoric mailing lists around the country, including the venerable WPA listserv for writing program administrators, have been commenting on yesterday's story in the New York Times about "Software Being Developed to Monitor Opinion of the U.S.," which is being funded by the Office for Homeland Security. The computer program uses sentiment analysis to gauge relative positive or negative opinions of our nation's policies in the international press, on the same principle as aggregating data on movie reviews.

The researchers, using an grant provided by a research group once affiliated with the Central Intelligence Agency, have complied a database of hundreds of articles that it is being used to train a computer to recognize, rank and interpret statements.

The software would need to be able to distinguish between statements like “this spaghetti is good” and “this spaghetti is not very good — it’s excellent,” said Claire T. Cardie, a professor of computer science at Cornell.

Professor Cardie ranked the second statement as a more intense positive opinion than the first.

There are two disturbing things to notice about the article. Yet again, "rhetoric" is implicitly denigrated, by being associated with the enemy. Furthermore, the project also monitors American newspapers, such as "The Miami Herald and The New York Times." Rather than targeting Al Qaeda, it surveils media in allied countries in Europe as well.

Media surveillance of terrorist entities has become a cottage industry under the current administration, which has fattened the coffers of many supposedly expert firms. One company, IntelCenter, offers Terrorist Threat Intel Packages (TTIP) to its customers, so that alerts about nascent jihadist offenses can be sent to subscriber's cell phones like baseball statistics.

Of course, I like to see my money go to places like Memri TV, which collects clips from Middle Eastern television. In its "Favorites" section, you can see how Iranian TV explains how the new Disney Pirates of the Caribbean is a Zionist plot. Personally, I think the Ask a Ninja review of the latest Johnny Depp vehicle may be funnier.

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