Fionn Murtagh’s Blog

Themes: information economy, intellectual property, research

Archive for January 2010

Can Quality Survive in Our Web 2.0 World?

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The views of Jaron Lanier, and his new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto”, Knopf, New York, express well the major worry as regards the direction our information infrastructure is moving.

To take a step backwards, in our current crisis of innovation (innovation is all that can ultimately take us out of the global downturn) it is useful to note how all of our society’s information infrastructure has come from publicly funded research and education. For the web itself, this includes in particular document management in physics, and the user interface from computer science.

But recently a very dark and gloomy picture is emerging. The “wisdom of the crowd” seems to more often result in deep-going anti-intellectual behavior. Mediators and information aggregators alone, it seems, generate vast revenue streams, through advertizing mostly, and the primary producers of ideas and information are locked out and potentially even starved out after they have served their role.

Lanier’s laying out of these issues goes far and deep. In seeing a contribution by cloud computing to the financial collapse in 2008, he notes: “The core issue is that when someone owns a key node of the network through which everyone’s information flows, the position is so advantageous that it undermines the very notion of an economy. It is like owning everyone’s blood.” Lanier is not opposed to the technology. Climate change, he notes, cannot be understood or even properly detected without cloud computing. And yet there is a problem that he sees as originating in “the fantasy that information is alive in its own right”.

What is sorely needed in regard to the evident autonomy (accepted: fetishism too) of data and information is a great deal more understanding of the currents and streams and rivers that underpin the data and information. These currents, streams and rivers of data and information are necessary for every minute of individual and social life. How is this to be addressed? Data and information need to be seen as part and parcel of the myriad individual and social narratives that are continually made and remade.

I aspire strongly to the finding of narrative quality even if, often enough, quality must have truck with quantity. For a good start on this, see my 2008 Boole Lecture or my 2005 Correspondence Analysis book. The deep semantics of information can be analyzed. Having some handle therefore on meaning, that ability can be taken subsequently in the direction of promoting quality. That’s the dream: to have radically new ways of tracing out the rivers and streams of narrative meaning in information in any form (text, spoken, visual, etc.).

There is a long way to go but there is a lot of hope of having innovative ways of addressing the information and data problems – indeed nightmares – that Lanier illuminates. In spite of the instrumentalism and reductionism of the age, interest in finality, in quality, and in ethics, have not disappeared. As one small example of that, a recent talk in Dublin (“Against reductive explanation”) by the noted Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor was packed out with maybe 400+ in attendance.

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Written by Fionn Murtagh

2010/01/31 at 17:17