Saturday, 31 July 2010

Blogging as "autosave for our entire culture"

Interesting talk by Scott Rosenberg (one of the Salon pioneers), who has written a useful history of blogging.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

One way street to the iPad, paywalls and linked data

Writing in 1925, Walter Benjamin senses a radical change, not just in the physical forms which contain writing, but also in the nature of writing itself:

"Just as this time is the antithesis of the Renaissance in general, it contrasts in particular to the situation in which the art of printing was discovered. For whether by coincidence or not, its appearance in Germany came at a time when the book in the most eminent sense of the word, the book of books, had through Luther's translation become the people's property. Now everything indicates that the book in this traditional form is nearing its end."

This from a section entitled "Attested Auditor of Books" in Benjamin's brilliant collection One-Way Street, written in his usual aphoristic (blogging?) style (from which I will, with apologies, quote extensively). The internet has also been credited with allowing cultural output to become "the people's property", and leading to important changes in the forms which that output takes.

Benjamin isn't talking about the internet, but he is talking about a change in the form of "print", driven and shaped by economic and technological forces:

"Printing, having found in the book a refuge in which to lead an autonomous existence, is pitilessly dragged out onto the streets by advertisements and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos."

So there are further parallels. The production of text, once controlled by publishers (in the broadest sense), is now subject to different forces - the kind of economic chaos Rupert Murdoch is trying to tame with his paywall? Perhaps.

There follows a lovely passage about the perpendicularity of text:

"If centuries ago it began to gradually lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desk before finally taking to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than the horizontal plane, while film and advertisement force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular."

There's no argument that electronic content has, in the past, been mainly consumed on upright monitors in the "dictatorial perpendicular". There has been a lot of toing-and-froing over how effectively e-readers and the like can mimic "real" books (screen brightness, electronic ink) - I wonder how much thought has been given to the angle of reading and how it affects our consumption of print. Do the Kindle and the iPad herald an era when texts will once again cosily recline on their beds?

(Lacking either an iPad or a Kindle, I attempted to mimic "horizontal reading" by laying my monitor flat on the desk - don't try this at home. And yes, it does seem to make an immediate difference to one's attitude to the text, at least for this reader.)

If all this seems a bit prophetic - how about this for child/internet anxiety, 1925-style?

"... before a child of our time finds his way clear to opening a book, his eyes have been exposed to such a blizzard of changing, colourful, conflicting letters that the chances of his penetrating the archaic stillness of the book are slight"

It might sound like Benjamin is fondly harking back to this "archaic stillness" - but read on:

"... the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems. For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index."

Not content with scholarly research databases, Benjamin goes straight onto linked data:

"It is quite beyond doubt that the development of writing will not infinitely be bound by the claims to power of a chaotic academic and commercial activity; rather, quantity is approaching the moment of a qualitative leap when writing ... will take sudden possession of an adequate factual content."

So words will not just carry the "ordinary" meaning that they have in text, but will be imbued with further meaning by the nature of their representation. Anyone who has worked with XML, let alone RDF (a "method for the conceptual description and modelling of information") will find this kind of thing familiar.

Signing off, Benjamin says that "poets" will be the new masters of language, implying that an understanding of the deep and various meaning of words will once again become of prime importance in a new system of communication. Perhaps we all need to be poets in the modern world. Again, his words seem prophetic:

"With the foundation of an international moving script they [poets] will renew their authority in the life of peoples, and find a role awaiting them in comparison to which all the innovative aspirations of rhetoric will reveal themselves as antiquated daydreams."

In the jargon of the poetry workshop, or equally of the linked data practitioner "don't tell - show!"

Anyone in search of a real treat could do worse than track this book down - if only for the next section, subtitled "Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to write Fat Books" - point II as an example:

"Terms are to be included for conceptions that, except in this definition, appear nowhere in the book"

Or the wonderful, and thankfully, online Writer's Technique in Thirteen Theses

"Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight"

So much for Benjamin the blogger!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Context and meaning in search

My 18 month old son has just discovered sentences - or, more specifically one sentence - "Where's it gone?" (pronounced as one word - "Wezzigonn?" ). He throws his ball into the bushes. He looks at me dolefully and says "Wezzigonn?". I retrieve the ball. He throws it into the bushes. He looks at me dolefully and says ... well, you get the picture. Essentially, he thinks "Where's it gone?" is a single word which means "Fetch the ball, Dad". And the interesting thing is that in the context of the "game" I understand exactly what he means.

In Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations he posits a "language game" involving a builder and his assistant. Every time the builder needs another slab he shouts "Slab!" and his assistant duly brings him a slab. So the single word "Slab!" functions as the sentence "Bring me a slab!" in this context.

(He also discusses a variation where every time the builder needs a slab he calls out "Bring me a slab!". An observer who doesn't speak the same language assumes that "Bring me a slab!" is the word for "slab" and when building a wall himself calls to his assistant "Pass me a 'bring-me-a-slab'!" These kind of misunderstandings are commonly found in placenames - such as Bredon Hill, meaning "Hill Hill Hill".)

I suppose the point of all this is that context gives language meaning. Which is all very well if you're building a house, buying some cabbages, throwing a party etc. But what about when you "speak" into a search box. Where do you get your context from then? Do you have to play around with clever search modifiers so the interface understands that when you search Google Images for "bondage" you're looking for pictures of serfs?

Not entirely - at least not in Google and not in Amazon, which both use contextual information to give you relevant results. [In]famously, these interfaces give very different results depending on whether you are logged in. People get pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea of this 'contextual information' - how it's gathered, where it's stored. But the use of contextual information to give language meaning is an essential part of communication.

Libraries have thousands of users and millions of resources crying out to be introduced to each other. But our search mechanisms tend to be context-less. Lorcan Dempsey has said Discovery happens Elsewhere. For users of university libraries, discovery happens in context-heavy environments such as reading lists, citations, seminars, lectures. By the time they get to our interfaces they know exactly what they want. Then they find it (or don't).

Can we start to build some context into our own systems? And what kind of context would be useful? We can say straight off that for students the most useful context is what course they're doing (something we will soon have access to, and which I've blogged about elsewhere). If we also have access to course materials (i.e. reading lists) we can really start to provide useful context for searches. How about if we have access to the content of books and articles - in particular the citations they contain? Could we start to put our searches in the context of a scholarly network based on citation?

Or do we run the risk of second-guessing what users are searching for, and getting it wrong? There are endless anecdotes about people changing their relationship status on Facebook and immediately being bombarded with ads for wedding planners/speed dating. If people change course do we start serving up different results? And if discovery happens in context, how far should the library go in providing context, and how much should it leave to others?

PS Emma has pointed out that little Henry is playing the Fort-Da game and that along with Lorcan and Wittgenstein, Freud could also be added to the list of tags!