Cloud Street

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Know what I mean

Back here, I wrote:
Tagging, I'm suggesting, isn't there to tell us about stuff: it's there to tell us about what people say about stuff. As such, it performs rather poorly when you're asking "where is X?" or "what is X?", and it comes into its own when you're asking "what are people saying about X?"
This relates back to my earlier argument that all knowledge is cloud-shaped, and that tagging is simply giving us a live demonstration of how the social mind works. In other words, all there is is "what people are saying about X" - but some conversations have been going on longer than others. Some conversations, in fact, have developed assumptions, artefacts, structures and systems within and around which the conversation has to take place. The conversation carried on in the medium of tagging isn't at that stage yet, perhaps, but it will be - the interesting question is about the nature of those artefacts and structures.

Now (with thanks to Anne Galloway) over to Dan Sperber.
When say, vervet monkeys communicate among themselves, one vervet monkey might spot a leopard and emit an alarm cry that indicates to the other monkeys in his group that there's a leopard around. The other vervet monkeys are informed by this alarm cry of the presence of a leopard, but they're not particularly informed of the mental state of the communicator, and they don't give a damn about it. The signal puts them in a cognitive state of knowledge about the presence of a leopard, similar to that of the communicating monkey — here you really have a smooth coding-decoding system.

In the case of humans, when we speak we're not interested per se in the meaning of the words, we register what the word means as a way to find out what the speaker means. Speaker’s meaning is what's involved. Speaker’s meaning is a mental state of the speaker, an intention he or she has to share with us some content. Human communication is based on the ability we have to attribute mental state to others, to want to change the mental states of others, and to accept that others change ours.

When I communicate with you I am trying to change your mind. I am trying to act on your mental state. I'm not just putting out a kind of signal for you to decode. And I do that by providing you with evidence of a mental state in which I want to put you in and evidence of my intention to do so. The role of what is often known in cognitive science as "theory of mind," that is the uniquely human ability to attribute complex mental states to others, is as much a basis of human communication as is language itself.

I am full of admiration for the mathematical theory of information and communication, the work of Shannon, Weaver, and others, and it does give a kind of very general conceptual framework which we might take advantage of. But if you apply it directly to human communication, what you get is a mistaken picture, because the general model of communication you find is a coding-decoding model of communication, as opposed to this more constructive and inferential form of communication which involves inferring the mental state of others, and that's really characteristic of humans.
For Dawkins, you can take the Darwinian model of selection and apply it almost as is to culture. Why? Because the basic idea is that, just as genes are replicators, bits of culture that Dawkins called “memes” are replicators too. If you take the case of population genetics, the causal mechanisms involved split into two subsets. You have the genes, which are extremely reliable mechanisms of replication. On the other hand, you have a great variety of environmental factors — including organisms which are both expression of genes and part of their environment — environmental factors that affect the relative reproductive success of the genes. You have then on one side this extremely robust replication mechanism, and on the other side a huge variety of other factors that make these competing replication devices more or less successful. Translate this into the cultural domain, and you'll view memes, bits of culture, as again very strong replication devices, and all the other factors, historical, ecological, and so on, as contributing to the relative success of the memes.

What I'm denying, and I've mentioned this before, is that there is a basis for a strong replication mechanism either in cognition or in communication. It's much weaker than that. As I said, preservative processes are always partly constructive processes. When they don’t replicate, this does not mean that they make an error of copying. Their goal is not to copy. There are transformation in the process of transmission all the time, and also in the process of remembering and retrieving past, stored information, and these transformations are part of the efficient working of these mechanisms. In the case of cultural evolution, this yields a kind of paradox. On the one hand, of course, we have macro cultural stability — we do see the same dish being cooked, the same ideologies being adopted, the same words being used, the same song being sung. Without some relatively high degree of cultural stability — which was even exaggerated in classical anthropology — the very notion of culture wouldn't make sense.

How then do we reconcile this relative macro stability at the cultural level, with a lack of fidelity at the micro level? ... The answer, I believe, is linked precisely to the fact that in human, transmission is achieved not just by replication, but also by construction. ... Although indeed when things get transmitted they tend to vary with each episode of transmission, these variations tend to gravitate around what I call "cultural attractors", which are, if you look at the dynamics of cultural transmission, points or regions in the space of possibilities, towards which transformations tend to go. The stability of cultural phenomena is not provided by a robust mechanism of replication. It's given in part, yes, by a mechanism of preservation which is not very robust, not very faithful (and it's not its goal to be so). And it’s given in part by a strong tendency for the construction — in every mind at every moment — of new ideas, new uses of words, new artifacts, new behaviors, to go not in a random direction, but towards attractors. And, by the way, these cultural attractors themselves have a history.
There's more - much more - but what I've quoted brings out two key points. Firstly, communication is not replication: in conversation, there is no smooth transmission of information from speaker to listener, but a continuing collaborative effort to present, construct, re-present and reconstruct shared mental models. The overlap between this and the 'knowledge cloud' model is evident. Secondly, construction has a context: the process of model-building (or 'thinking' as we scientists sometimes call it) is always creative, always innovative, and always framed by pre-existing cultural 'attractors'. And these cultural attractors themselves have a history - you could say that people make their own mental history, but they do not do so in circumstances of their own choosing...

This is tremendously powerful stuff - from my (admittedly idiosyncratic) philosophical standpoint it suggests a bridge between Schutz, Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu (and I've been looking for one of those for ages). My only reservation relates to Sperber's stress on speaker's meaning ... a mental state of the speaker. I think it would enhance Sperber's model, rather than marring it, to focus on mental models as they are constructed within communication rather than as they exist within the speaker's skull - in other words, to bracket the existence of mental states external to communicative social experience. On this point Schutz converges, oddly, with Wittgenstein.

Sperber's argument tends to underpin my intuition on tagging and knowledge clouds: if all communication is constructive - if there is no simple transmission or replication of information - then conversation really is where knowledge develops, or more precisely where knowledge resides. Sperber also helps explain the process by which some conversations become better-established than others; we can see this as a feedback process, involving the development of a domain-specific set of 'attractors'. These would perhaps serve as a version of Rorty's 'final vocabulary': a shared and unquestionable set of assumptions, a domain-specific backdrop without which the conversation would make no sense.

One final thought from Sperber:
The idea of God isn't a supernatural idea. If the idea of God were supernatural, then religion would be true.
Well, I liked it.

Monday, September 26, 2005

If I drew a detailed map

Several months ago, I wrote (regarding the Wikipedia page on 'anomie'):
For what I'd want to know about a concept like that, that page is pretty dreadful. It veers wildly between essentialism (there is a thing called 'anomie' and we know what it is, across time and space) and nominalism (different people have used this combination of letters to mean different things, who knew?). What's not there is any sense of the history of the concept
I was reminded of this argument by Tom's recent comments on the 'penis envy' page ("I know this article on penis envy is bullshit, and it's been on my 'to do' list of things to fix for weeks, and I've got nowhere"). The problem here is that making things more complicated is a lot harder than keeping them simple. What's worse, the kind of people who are critical of other people's simplifications tend also to be critical of their own work, which means that getting the complicated version written and getting it right is a long and painstaking job. Which, in turn, means that in the absence of serious incentives it's quite likely not to get done. Wikipedia's native system of informal incentives breaks down, in other words, where the workload gets too large - and, when it comes to making things more complicated (and getting it right), the workload starts at 'large' and goes up.

I was talking about this stuff with a friend the other day (hi Chris!) when he came up with a proposal for filling the incentive gap. The idea is to mobilise peer pressure among the population of disgruntled complexifiers. What we want isn't so much an army of subject experts as a group of people who mistrust simple explanations and are good at digging out and writing down the underlying complications, in any of a number of fields. Hacks rather than professors, essentially - but good hacks. A list of apparently oversimplified Wikipedia articles could then be drawn up, and each one could be offered to names picked from the pool. I'll just reiterate that I'm not talking about people with expert knowledge, so much as perfectionists with inquiring minds. The Wikipedia articles I've mentioned left me with a stack of unanswered questions, which I'd happily devote a few evenings to answering if I was being paid to do so - or if I had any incentive to do so. A virtual tap on the shoulder from an online group of pedantic curmudgeons might just do the job.

That just leaves the task of assembling the group. Here, Chris made the brilliant suggestion of using PledgeBank. Something like this:
I will take part in a group of volunteers who will improve Wikipedia by correcting and extending inaccurate and simplistic entries on social science concepts, but only if another 99 people do so too.
I think it could work. What do you think?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A place for everything

Or: what ethnoclassification is, and what folksonomy isn't.

When it comes to tagging, I'm facing both ways. I think it's fascinating and powerful and new - qualitatively new, that is: it's worth writing about not just because it's shiny, but because there's still work to be done on understanding it. At the same time, I think it's been massively oversold, often on the back of rhetorical framings which only have a glancing relationship with evidence or logic. Tagging is fascinating and powerful and new, but a lot of the talk about tagging has me tearing my hair.

I'll pick on a recent post by Dave Weinberger. (Personal to DW: sorry, Dave. I'm emphatically not (is that emphatic enough?) suggesting that you're the worst offender in this area.)
Let's say you type in "africa," "agriculture" and "grains" because that's what you're researching. You'll get lots of results, but you may miss pages about "couscous" because Google is searching for the word "grain" and doesn't know that that's what couscous is made of. Google knows the words on the pages, but doesn't know what the pages are about. That's much harder for computers because what something is about really depends on what you're looking for. That same page on couscous that to you is about economics could be about healthy eating to me or about words that repeat syllables to someone else. And that's the problem with all attempts by experts and authorities to come up with neat organizations of knowledge: What something is about depends on who's looking.
Let's say you come across the Moroccan couscous web page and you want to remember it. So you upload its Web address to your free page at that lists all the pages you've saved. Then asks you to enter a word or two as tags so you can find the Moroccan page later. You might tag it with Morocco, recipe, couscous, and main course, and then later you can see all the pages you've tagged with any of those words.

That's a handy way to organize a large list of pages, but tagging at really took off because it's a social activity: Everyone can see all the pages anyone has tagged with say, Morocco or main course or agriculture. This is a great research tool because just by checking the tag "agriculture" now and then, you'll see every page everyone else at delicious has tagged that way. Some of those pages will be irrelevant to you, of course, but many won't be. It's like having the world of people who care about a topic tell you everything they've found of interest. And unlike at Google, you'll find the pages that other humans have decided are ABOUT your topic.
What strikes me about this passage is that Dave changes scenarios in mid-stream: Let's say you come across the Moroccan couscous web page... How? Google couldn't find it. Let's compare like with like, and say that you're still looking for your couscous page: what do you do then, if not go to and type in "africa," "agriculture" and "grains"? Once again, assuming that whole-site searches aren't timing out, you'll get lots of results (particularly since doesn't seem to allow ANDing of search terms) but you may miss pages about "couscous" - and checking the tag "agriculture" now and then won't necessarily help. Google will miss the page if the term 'couscous' doesn't appear in the source (which doesn't necessarily mean 'appear on screen', of course); will miss it if the term hasn't been used to tag it (even if it is in the source).

Google vs is an odd comparison, in other words, and it's not at all clear to me that the comparison favours It's great to get classificatory(?) input from the users of a document, of course - as I said above, tagging is fascinating and powerful and new - but in terms of information retrieval it can only score over a full-text search if

1. the page has been purposefully tagged by a user
2. the page has been tagged with a term which doesn't appear in the page source
3. a second user is searching for information which is contained in the page, using the term with which the first user tagged it

I don't think tagging advocates think enough about what those conditions imply. For example, at present I'm the only user to have tagged Mr Chichimichi's Tags are not a panacea; I tagged it with 'tagging', 'search' and 'ethnoclassification'. Until I did so, anyone looking for it would have been out of luck. Even Google wouldn't be much help - the word 'ethnoclassification' doesn't appear anywhere in the text. No, until a couple of days ago your only way of stumbling on that post would have been to run a clumsy, counter-intuitive Google search on terms like 'tagging', 'tags', 'folksonomies' and 'social software'. (Google even knows that 'folksonomies' is the plural of 'folksonomy', so searching on the singular form would work just as well. That's just not fair.)

Dave also contrasts the world of collective knowledge through distributed tagging with attempts by experts and authorities to come up with neat organizations of knowledge. Further along in the same piece, he writes:
This takes classification and about-ness out of the hands of authors and experts. Now it's up to us readers to decide what something is about.

Not only does this let us organize stuff in ways that make more sense to us, but we no longer have to act as if there's only one right way of understanding everything, or that authors and other authorities are the best judges of what things are about.
One question: who ever said that there was only one right way of understanding everything? OK, too easy. I'll rephrase that: before tagging came along, who was saying there was one right way, etc? Who are the tagging advocates actually arguing against? (It certainly isn't librarians (context here).)

There's a difference between classifications which have a single pre-determined set of definitions and classifications which are user-defined and user-extensible. But that's not the same as the difference between having an underlying ontology and not having one, or the difference between hierarchical and flat organisations of knowledge, or the difference between single and multiple sets of classifications. A closed, expert-defined, locked-down controlled vocabulary may contain multiple sets of overlapping terms; it may be a flat list of categories rather than a 'tree'; it may even be innocent of ontology. (Thanks to Jay for pointing this out, in comments here.) If tagging is better than top-down classification, it's better because it's user-defined and user-extensible - not because it's free of the vices of ontology, hierarchy and uniformity. The idea that tagging - and only tagging - stands in opposition to a classifying universe built on hierarchical uniformity is a straw man. (But the librarians get it both ways - if a top-down classifying system is shown to be flat and plural, this can be put forward as a sign of the weakness of top-down systems; the fact that bottom-up systems are more, not less, vulnerable to Chinese Encyclopedia Syndrome is passed over.)

So, tagging systems make lousy search engines, and they don't mark a qualitative leap in the organisation of human knowledge. What they're really good for - and what makes them fascinating and powerful - is conversation. Tagging, I'm suggesting, isn't there to tell us about stuff: it's there to tell us about what people say about stuff. As such, it performs rather poorly when you're asking "where is X?" or "what is X?", and it comes into its own when you're asking "what are people saying about X?" (Of course, much tag-advocacy is driven by the tacit belief that there's no fundamental difference between what people say about X and expert knowledge of X - and that an aggregate of what people say would be equivalent, if not superior, to expert knowledge. But that's an argument for another post.)

Tagging is good for telling us what people say about stuff, anyway - and when it's good, it's very good. To see what I'm talking about, have a look at Reader2 (via Thomas). It's a book recommendation site, implemented on the basis of a user/tag system. It's powerful stuff already, and it's still being developed. Does it tell me what books are really like? No - but it tells me what people are saying about them, which is precisely what I want to know. And it couldn't do this nearly as well, it seems to me, without tags - and tag clouds in particular. This, for me, is what tagging's all about. Ethnoclassification: classification as a open-ended collective activity, as one element of the continual construction of social reality.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Who took the money?

This is a fascinating post (in Italian) by Pietro Speroni on the relationship between authority, communities and markets. This is an interesting and controversial area; the fact that Pietro also invokes the Long Tail (which, as you'll recall, is not what it seems) makes it all the more compelling (to me at least).

I'll translate as I go along; hopefully Pietro will correct me if I go wrong.
I don't believe that the ruling class has vanished. I believe that it has simply been transformed - just as the world itself is being continually transformed from day to day. Decades ago, our world was simpler - more homogeneous, less diverse. If you followed a martial art, it would be judo or karate. A game? Chess. A religion? Christian, Jewish, perhaps Muslim at the outside.
on the Net, via Google (and wikipedia), you can find the specific branch of the specific religious tradition which best meets your needs. ... And this is not true only of religions, but of everything: interests, political groups, passions, games, ways of life.
Now, every one of these groups has its own implicit hierarchy. ... And everyone is a member of more than one group. And in every group you listen to some people, and what you say influences other people.
[In every area of my life] I have leaders: people I trust; people who I admire and learn from. But they're not the same people as your leaders. Not only that, but there are other people who come to me to learn (worse luck for them!), in some fields more than in others. The process of diversification tends towards having as many groups as people - and every one of us, of necessity, becomes the small-scale leader of a small-scale group, scattered around the world.
This whole process mirrors what's happening in the economy, where a market consisting of niches is growing explosively ... The key phrase is Long Tail.
So I don't believe that the ruling class is vanishing, but that we're seeing a gradual diversification of interests, which leads to the diversification of the ruling class - accompanied by the redefinition and contraction [ridimensionamento] of the role of traditional leaders.
There's a lot that I like about this - I think Pietro's right to say that there's a new kind of process of diversification under way, and to trace it back to the Internet's basic sociality, its nature as a medium for conversation.

But... a transformation of the ruling class? Non tanto. Pietro's larger argument is undermined by a couple of strange elisions. Firstly, it's true that we all have multiple 'authorities' - the topics of folk music, statistics, Belgian beer and operaismo are all important to me, for instance, and in each case I could name an authority I'd willingly defer to. But those people aren't the people who enforce the laws I obey, or set the level of tax I pay, or price the goods I buy, or write the newspapers I read, or appear on the news programmes I watch. The ruling class, it seems to me, is still very much in place, and whether I'm a tequila-crazed Quaker or a tea-drinking Tantric Buddhist is a matter of sublime indifference to it. Roy Bhaskar has written that historical materialists, by virtue of starting from the material facts of social existence, cannot propose absolute freedom, "a realm free of determination"; what we can envisage is moving "from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination". The world Pietro describes is a world which is governed only by those needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination. It sounds good, but I don't think we're there yet.

Secondly, on the matter of niche marketing. Pietro assumes that a proliferation of niche markets will lead to a proliferation of niche suppliers, and hence the dilution of the authority of the big suppliers. I don't see any reason to believe that this is the case. Indeed, one of Chris Anderson's own preferred examples is based on Amazon sales rank - and there's nothing very diffuse about Amazon, or the authority wielded by Amazon. Much of the buzz around the 'Long Tail' seems to derive, ultimately, from this confusion of the two meanings of 'niche'. Clearly, mining niche markets can be profitable, if you're a monopolistic behemoth like Amazon; but, equally clearly, it doesn't follow that niche suppliers can make a living in the same way. Indeed, making niches visible to companies like Amazon actually threatens existing niche suppliers. (Ask your local bookshop, if you've still got one.)

Of course, Long Tail proponents tell a different story. Back in July, Scott Kirsner quoted George Gilder thus:
His central thesis is that Internet-connected screens in the home – whether it’s the PC in your den or the plasma screen on your living room wall – are going to change the way we consume video by offering us infinite choice.
“The film business will increasingly resemble the book business,” he says, with a few best-sellers that achieve widespread popularity, and lots of publishers making a profit selling titles that no one’s ever heard of.
Lots of who doing what? Run that past us again, could you? While you're at it, send the good news to the novelist A.L. Kennedy, whose wonderful FAQ includes this:

Fewer publishing houses concentrated in conglomerate hands, trying to produce more books of less quality. No full time readers, no full time copy editors and therefore missed newcomers and pisspoor final presentation of texts on the shelves, silly covers, greedy and simple-minded bookshop chains, lunatic bidding wars designed to crush the spirit of unknown newcomers, celebrity “tighten your buns and nurture your inner pot plant” hard backs and much related insanity.
Mass markets are where the units get shifted; niche markets - like literary fiction - are where survivors linger on (until they're bought out) and upstart competitors emerge (and hang on until they're bought out). It's the logic of the monopoly, which is to say that it's the logic of the market. Some years ago a McDonald's spokesman, asked if the fast food market had reached saturation point, responded that, as far as his company was concerned, the market would only be saturated if there were no cooked food outlets anywhere on the planet apart from McDonald's. I don't think Amazon, or the publishing conglomerates, or the media companies who would source Gilder's 'infinite choice', think any differently.

But Pietro's half right: there is something interesting going on, even if it doesn't mirror what's going on in the economy; there is a process of diffusion and diversification, even if it doesn't affect the main sources of authority over our lives. In fact, what's significant about the Net is that it can host conversations which escape the marketplace and evade pre-existing ('unneeded and unwanted') forms of authority. That said, it can also reproduce the marketplace and reinvent old forms of authority - just like other conversational media.

In short, what's good about the Web is - or can be - very good; what's bad about is - or should be - very familiar.