December 13, 2004
Rings of (Nerd) Power
November 15, 2004
Meaning and Animal Compassion
Day 2 at the ASIST Annual Meeting is all about Meaning.
First, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web and director of the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C (located in the Stata Center at MIT), promises us the real world through the magic of the "semantic web." Whereas the protocols that make up the world wide web, TCP/IP, HTTP, html and others represent syntatic agreement for creating and sharing hypertext, the semantic web represents a method for reaching semantic agreement about the content of our hypertextual communications.
The idea is that you define your terms within a specific domain. If you're creating learning objects in a courseware system and your using the Learning Object Metadata and IMS Content Packaging system you define what those schemas mean by a "Contributor" or "Manifest". That way, someone else in an institutional repository system which uses Dublin Core Metadata and the Metadta Encoding and Transmission Schema can programmatically and systematically map those to "Creator" and "StructMap".
This is accomplished without the creation of a grand unified Ontology (essentially one big set of definitions for everything that everybody uses). Instead everyone who adopts Semantic Web technologies warrants that they'll provide their domain specific definitions and then programs can interpret these definitions and find equivilancies.
The definition mechanism is the Uniform Resouce Identifier. A glorified url of the form http://... It is important to remember that uri's aren't the things they define, even in the virtual world. They're still nothing more than names. Just like menu entries aren't food and you can't eat them (I'm sure people have tried).
For example, I could define myself via a vCard or even just a plain old vanilla html where I've deposited my curriculum vitae or just some contact info. Then whenever I include myself in the metadata for any web content I create, I don't just write in my name, I point to the web page where I've defined myself. The mechanism for pointing is RDF, which is just a logical triple of the form Subject-Predicate-Object.
The idea is that you build your collection of information to share with the world from the viewpoint of in between really big scale operations and really small scale ones. You correlate the definitions provided under you and you make your definitions with an eye to their inclusion in larger correlations. The same definition activity goes on at all levels. The semantic web is a fractal web and it realizes the hermetic wisdom As Above, So Below.
You build your data system as a module of modules, incorporating data from different domains. You don't have to set definitions for each data store you tap into and you expose your data for even larger system via standards that allow the larger system to do likewise in aggregating you. No one is forced to one semantic standard, but each can understand each other with a minimum of human supervision.
I think there are two illusions in the RDF grand scheme.
The first is the Aristotelian Illusion that we can speak definitively that any one label, even a rdf triple, is the thing being captured. Despite explicit recognition that uri's are not the things they represent we still interact with triples as if they are. For example, is Gary Marchionini his entry in the NACO authority file maintained by OCLC or the similar record on Amazon? Obviously he's neither, and we should be pointing to some human being in space-time (assuming we share his inertial system). Who has the right to define him? Is it possible to dice up the entire universe into non-competitive domains? I can't imagine it for identity definitions, what about conceptual? I can't get past the dread that good old social conflict will subvert all our technological advances. I would really like to understand better how RDF plans to live happily with a myriad of definitions that don't quite match exactly.
The second illusion is that RDF encourages interoperability without gobbling up smaller standards. It attempts to let semantic standards alone, but it dictates a common syntax. The last time the W3C tried this was html, and how long did it take for the major browsers to implement three or four different flavors of html and the DOM? And how long did it take before the browsers started playing nice and made it easy for content providers to produce material that worked the same way across all systems. I would love to see the semantic web's game plan for avoiding the same sort of hijacking of the "standard."
The one thing that I do like is that Mr. Berners-Lee seems to be in concert with Ms. Hertz and a lot of others regarding the economies of scale on the internet. RDF and the semantic web proposes a solution to bad economies of scale regarding standardization and interoperability of data systems on the web. Departmentalizing the job of defining the content on the web lets everyone do their share and gives more responsibility to the content provider to produce good metadata at the time that they create their content. In a post-modern information society it's no longer good enough to dump your data on the world, you've gotta tell us what it means to you. Sounds kind of silly, but it goes a long way towards improving communication and understanding.
Secondly, Gary Marchionini (not Gerry) presents again, this time in Rhode Island in a presentation called, "Why can't Johnny file?" in which librarians lament the poor information organization behavior of the average user of the new information technologies. It is Gary's contention that we do not need to teach him to file. That there are better things for humans to be doing than organizing our inboxes and hard drives.
His main argument repeats the thesis of his earlier presentation in Cambridge. Let the machines do what the machines do, let the humans do what the humans do.
I agree with him to a point. And that point is this: It's less important to teach someone to file a file so they can find it later than it is to teach them to ask better questions about the information content of the file.
That said I have two caveats and hopefully some clarification.
First, Gary assumes future advances in technology. I am far more wary of making any bold predictive statements about the advance of automatic indexing of multimedia resources or facial recognition software. I wouldn't design instructional methods or encourage information behaviour that relies on a technology to present itself.
Second, Gary equates filing and other organization activities with discovery. In fact, there are three reasons to organize information by filing or classifying and the ability to find it again later is the least of the three. The second most important of the three is to be able to communicate something about the information to others. This information organizing activity is all-pervasive in our society and extends from sharing ipod playlists to writing surveys of the scholarly literature in a particular field.
The thing that we communicate when we share our organizations isn't some grand unified Ontology that we discover. We can all admit that there isn't one master organizing scheme that we can teach to. Rather by sharing our personal organizational efforts with others we share our relationship to information, our worldview, and creating this relationship is the most important thing we do when we file. We need to teach filing and classifying as one part of a larger program to teach people how to develop good relationships with information, how to evaluate it properly, how to find more and better information, how to put it to work for you, and how to relate it to existing personal information stores. We need to teach how to recognize how information affects our thinking, and how our thinking colors the information we encounter. In this respect all filing and classifying can be viewed as interpretation, and we should teach such basic skills as organizing things into simple buckets to see what happens. This is how we teach kids to invent/discover meaning in the world they encounter.
Near the end of the question and answer session following the presentation a fellow stood up and made the most salient point of the day. The session was titled wrong. We shouldn't teach filing, we should teach organizing. How stuff is stored in a server or hard drive or repository or database isn't what we need to know. But we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. We do need to know how to intellectual and mentally store stuff away. I would offer that what the fellow meant was that we should teach people how to mark up content, to add metadata that describes for themselves and others the personal and social context in which they interact with information and which captures the relative meaning which they found in it.
Okay, Number 3
So the Omaha people would send their young persons at puberty on what white folks ended up calling vision quests. What they were really trying to do was gain the favor of Wakonda (think the Tao rather than Yahweh). The idea was that a sincere child who stood in place for four days with clay rubbed on their head would be more likely to influence Wakonda than a cynical adult. As might be expected, the kids starting recieving visitations from different mediums, animate and inanimate. These visitations turned what was originally an event of supplication on behalf of the tribe into a personal appeal to the most imporant force in the universe for help throughout life, undertaken when a child was "old enough to know sorrow," in other words to engage in tribal relations as an adult.
This is the prayer that all Omaha know, that they all sing as they stand Non'zhinzhon, "as sleeping," for four days, trying to think the happiest thoughts they can for their future.
Wakonda thethu wahpathin atonhe
Wakonda! here, needy, he stands, and I am he
When the kids come back they can't say anything about the animal for four days, then they can go talk to someone who also was visited by their same medium (and they can talk to no one else, and no one else asks). The elder helps them to understand what happened and what it might mean for their relationship to the tribe.
It is said of that the medium "has compassion on" the child, that this is its motive for impelling its particular form on the child for the rest of the child's life. It has decided to take an interest in the child's future because it pitys the child.
I like the idea of going out to gain the favor of some animal or the other. I especially like the no talking about it for four days rule. It seems to really drive the experience home and allow the child to come to terms with it, to properly prepare before talking about it. Once the child has talked it over with an elder the child then goes out and finds the physical expression of that medium and fashions a trophy. If a hawk visited the child, the child would journey until he crossed paths with a hawk, would kill it and preserve the bird as a visible sign of his visitation, the child's most prized possession.
Kids would even become junkies for the process, going through it over and over again until they settled down with a family (if they became holy persons, today called roadmen, they continued the process their whole lives). It was generally frowned upon once one became a respectable member of adult society.
I read all of this from the Omaha Indian book by Alice Fletcher and Joseph La Fleshe. The bible for all things Omaha. When I put on my white perspective, it seems funny that a whole tribe of Indians with active social and cultural traditions would pore over a government scholarly study for ideas on how to be more Indian. It seems a testament to the horror of any culture being systematically euthanized by another.
When I think Omaha about it, it seems just another story. There are two kinds of stories in the book. The stories of the elders that Alice and Joseph recorded, and Alice and Joseph's own stories.
I've heard most of the stories in the book from third party sources like my grandpa and grandma Charlie Stabler and Elizabeth Sansouci.
Going to pray to Wakonda was just one of the many rites that a child passed through towards becoming an adult and forming an appropriate relationship with the nation and the world. It, "required a voluntary effort by which, through the rite of fasting and prayer, the man came into direct and personal relations with the supernatural and realized within himself the forceful power of the union of the seen with the unseen," as Alice says.
Seems like the child is finding meaning in the universe and finding ways to share that meaning. Seems Alice and Joseph are also finding meaning and sharing it.
The totem is metadata and its shared, in fact, it's the only part of the experience that is shared with everybody. And it needs no one definition.
January 13, 2004
On Reading the Preface and Introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth
So enough with the Tolkien posts already, but here's another one, and more good stuff on the website proper. I was in Pandemonium Books and Games today obtaining a copy of The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay when I came across the book by Bradley J. Birzer named above. Naturally, it was added to the purchase.
This is the sort of exegesis that makes the LotR special to me. Tolkien had two ultimate purposes in crafting the world of Middle-Earth. 1. To provide the United Kingdom with a myth cycle to rival its germanic and scandanavian neighbors. 2. To provide a blueprint and a "hope for a renewal of Christendom and an end to the ideologically inspired terror of the twentieth century." (Birzer, xxv)
Tolkien was a Christian Humanist.
If you really want to understand how Tolkien reconciles myth and Christianity, and puts forth his vision of a humanistic world, read Birzer's book. For those disinclined to scholarship, you can find the same thing straight from the horses mouth, the way J.R.R. Tolkien knew to say it best, in legend. Just read the last story of his to be published before his death, Smith of Wootton Major.
For the non-christians who can't find an easy entrance into the bible, just look to the five major heroes of the LotR as exemplars of Western Christendom. Each of the five show how one answers the Christian Humanists two questions, "(1) What is the role of the human person within God's creation? and (2) how does man order himself within God's creation?" (Birzer, xxv) The heroes are Gandalf, Aragorn, Faramir, Frodo and Sam, for those of you scoring at home.
I am not willing to follow Tolkien all the way back to his Catholicism, but I do follow him in rejecting the direction of modern thought. I am going to paraphrase and sometimes downright copy Bircher's words in providing that direction and Tolkien's rejection.
Myth is treated historically as a way (often the best way) to interpret, explain and provide meaning to a world that is immediately experienced by the community that makes the myth.
Secular modernity has removed itself from this immediate interaction with a "richly felt and imagined reality." (Birzer, xxiii) Paradoxically, pragmatism takes us further from an understanding of and an existence in the world than myth. When we disallow as "real" all knowledge not gained through the operation of the senses, we're not left with enough to produce a viable interpretation. Birzer quotes Romano Guardini's, Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, page 20: "In this new sphere things are no longer directly detected, seen, grasped, formed or enjoyed; rather they are mediated by signs and substitutes."
This leads the modernist to reject myth (and religion) as a lie. The postmodernist looks on myth as one subjective narrative among many with no inherent truth. Both relationships reject that myth contains anything that might help us transcend our limited data and make right sense of the world. This seems to many folks a wrong or false interaction with the world.
Neither viewpoint is ready to answer the question that seems an appropriate end of human inquiry to most of us, which of the many narratives we have to choose from are true(transcendent)? This question, is in my eyes, the dilemma of the postpostmodernist. How does one sift throught the nuggets and find out what's really going on? Evidence of a continuing human need to find these truths might be found in recognition that the fact that we have rejected so many of our past belief structures is a likely causal culprit for the sudden explosion of UFO cults in our communities.
Tolkien's sieve was Christianity, hence the need to sanctify the myths he wrote, to make them acceptably christian in message and method. In this pursuit he follows a long tradition of monks and priests incorporating pagan rituals and beliefs into the Christian Ideology to make the religion more palatable.
The rest of us who don't agree with the full message of Christianity are left to our own devices, but we can still appreciate the effort and the artistry, the genius of Tolkien's project and his product.
I've added some other nice quotes I culled from Birzer to the <language> section of the website. Check 'em out.