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<nettime> 7Cs of Deep Search
Konrad Becker on Fri, 28 Nov 2008 19:41:10 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> 7Cs of Deep Search

The "Deep Search" conference presentation videos are now online at
http://world-information.org/wii/deep_search/en/videos  - the book (in
English and German) will be published at Transaction and Studienverlag in
spring. Below some thoughts on search.


* * * * * * *

7Cs of 21C Search 
Culture, Context, Classification + Command, Control, Communications,

How do things relate to each other? What is essential to one thing in
relation to another? How does subjective meaning and generalized or
objectified attributions of sense interrelate? What does it mean for our
sense of self- and how we relate to each other? What is meaning, how does it
develop? These questions have puzzled humankind for ages. In an era of
digital information, of human-machine interfaces and robotic data spiders,
surfing in the vast space of electronic data all on their own, they become
vastly relevant. Proteus, an early sea-god In Greek mythology, can foretell
the future.  But he answers only to someone who is capable of capturing him
and changes his shape to avoid this. More than ever, in a time of
information-explosion, it is not enough that data is useful but it needs to
be findable and accessible. Even though it can be quite hard to define the
difference between similar and dissimilar objects, it is yet significantly
more difficult for abstractions and ideas. However, finding information is
not the opposite of losing it but an active effort to recognize
interconnections in systems of meaning. Searching is an act of imagination,
an approximation of expected outcomes, where findings inscribe themselves
into the future. 

Dragons of Chaos and Social Fiction

Ancient cultures had concepts of an ocean of information and a deep-sea
monster dwelling in its dark expanse. The Black Winged Night of the Dragon
of Chaos, the "vast and dark void" of Tiamat, from whose dismembered body
the cosmos emerged and the world was formed. These demonic creatures mirror
anxieties associated with a space of chaotic and unstructured information,
untouched by the logo-centric rays of solar deities and the light of reason.
Adrift on the seas of knowledge, navigation is at the root of modern
sciences. Kybernos, the steersperson of the seafaring ancient Greeks,
maneuvering the nautical routes with the help of bright stars in the sky,
lent its name to the science of cybernetics. This discipline of control and
feedback, first applied in the field of ballistic course-plotting, stood at
the beginning of many present-day information and communication
technologies. Trying to produce intelligent maps of the world, these maps
often reveal more about their authors than the territory it describes.
Classification, elemental in mapping conceptual spaces of knowledge,
typically mistakes transient social fictions for real and physical
unchangeable facts. It happens time and again, particularly in relation to
race, gender, and social institutions and any other domains where there is a
vested interest in the making of realities. 

Self-fulfilling Voodoo Categories 

Names give advantage to those who know them, the ability to call forth, to
evoke or even to command the powers related to a name. Always there has been
an intimate relation between knowledge and control and it is a power to have
authority to name something. Problem solving involves a process of naming
things and issues and to frame the context to attend to them. To bring order
into the classes of names and hierarchies of designations is not only a
practical or formal scientific issue but a religious one as well.
Categorization is type of cognitive voodoo related to deep-rooted beliefs
that the world is/was created by the use of language, by the spelling out of
names and, as a result, the universe can be influenced by a correct use of
name and order. And it can be - but not quite that simply. Luckily, to
create shared worldviews and to produce ideological conceptual fields is
more complex. Conjurers of classification, trying to force their hubristic
will unto the world, may underrate the forces at work in the mind of others.
They become victims of wishful thinking regarding the level of agreement
that can possibly be achieved. Fortunately, for a start, the world is not
necessarily compliant to voodoo categorization. Rigid standardization is
actually hard to come by in a world where research is an ongoing process
with changing definitions and a constant drift of understanding. It is a
meshed up reality of unexpected shifts in perspective and dynamic
interrelations with ever varying trajectories of power. To consent on a
standard there needs to be an agreement first and that can't possibly happen
be where conformity does not exist. Nonetheless, expert "scientific?
classification can be used to advance an agenda, to create a reality that in
itself forms an effective case for a particular interpretation of reality.
Cataloging schemes are hardly the discovery of a true "natural order" but
authored, and the purpose is chosen, not given. Categorization in a field of
knowledge doesn?t necessarily document a given reality but produces
knowledge in a particular interpretation of perception. Classification
systems are notoriously off track, but evidently good for the game of
self-fulfilling projections of ideological power. 

All the Print that Fits, or Not

While ordering and structuring of knowledge has always been central to the
findability of past information, at least since the library of Alexandria, a
sorting concept like alphabetic order by author is a much more recent
fashion. Today's dominant library classification system conserves the 19th
century worldviews of one Mr. Dewey and his limited grasp of realities
beyond a white protestant US middle class. The inventor of the Decimal
Classification System of books was fond of the metaphor of an army to
restore order in a chaotic mob of information, to impose a hierarchical
structure and to force ideas into military style organization charts. Melvyl
Dewey, was making bold assertions about the world when, in 1876, he threw
all non-Christians into one single category, listed very last in all
categories about religion. Designers of the Soviet library's catalog system
produced similar strong ideological statements about the world when they
established the top category "Works of the classical authors of
Marxism-Leninism." This demonstrates the problem of mapping catalogue
systems onto one another, or to match classification schemes - they each
portray a different universe. The US Library of Congress classification
system had to put a "former" label in front of their Soviet Union Category,
and still ranks tiny countries like "Austria" or "Switzerland" on the same
level of relevance as the continents of Africa and Asia. These funny
distortion effects of reality and relevance are also rooted in the need to
find physical objects, books or atlases on shelves. When the software of
concept and classification meets with the hardware of the tangible and the
immaterial interacts with the physical, it can produce unexpected results.
Compared with smart automated search and indexing-technologies, the
traditional categorization systems loose out in finding things in large
digital resources. But obscured by obsolete habits and outdated strategies
from earlier efforts of structuring knowledge, attempts at categorization of
information and research resources in the electronic realm can be highly
inadequate. Digital information needs no shelf and the question comes up if
predefined categorizations are such a good idea after all. A main reason for
Google's success was that there is no virtual shelf, no awkward
pre-constructed file system. But with shelf space, even if it distorts the
space of knowledge in curious ways, at least it is easy to see if it's full
or empty.

Mentalist Catalogues and Fortune Cookies

Professional catalogue and categorization workers strive to avoid the
context-dependent and temporary at all cost, but always end up in the middle
of it.  Trying to establish law and order in the information sphere some
warriors of categorization, seem oblivious to the nature of transient
realities and the fuzzy inflections of meaning. Catalogers' interests and
requirements necessarily dominate over the more objective need of navigating
the complexity of the world. They breed cognitive management technologies
blind to cultural and subjective ambiguity and the slipperiness of
context-dependent statements. Ideas of an objective ordering of abstract
space are based on a religious notion of immaculate purity. They feed on
dangerous ideologies of cybernetic control that imagine the manifest world
to be reducibly to a single viewpoint. Language is a complex temporal and
spatial dynamic of signs and representation in relation to signified
objects. In general linguistics there are no positive terms, only
differences. Those working on categorization and building the ontology of
classification systems intended to provide stable continuation over time
have to organize the world ahead. Categorizing things in advance means to
forecast the future, which is the magical practice of oracles, clairvoyant
seers or spiritist mediums. And it is exactly the traps of categorization
that mentalists and cold readers exploit in their illusionist stage shows.
Organizational schemes deteriorate with time and scale and the cost of
support for highly managed centralized large volumes soon becomes
prohibitive. Even though demand driven systems like Google are fortunate not
have to use advance predictions and projections of what one needs to know,
the massive scale of data remains to be a key technology challenge.

Modern Ghost Logic

For complex information systems, it is essential that machines not only
respond and interact with humans but with each other as well. What are they
talking behind our back? Semantic computer networks run on ontologisms and
first order logic reducing logical inference down to simple rules.
Syllogisms are a form of logical argument described by Aristotle as "...
certain things being stated, something other follows of necessity from their
being so." The classic example is: Humans are mortal. Greeks are human.
Therefore, Greeks are mortal. This kind of Cartesian logic not only sounds
stiff and technical, but based on absurd absolutes invariably leads to
ridiculous conclusions. Clay Shirky gives the following example: If - Count
Dracula is a Vampire + Count Dracula lives in Transylvania + Transylvania is
a region of Romania + Vampires are not real - the only logical conclusion
from such a set of statements is that Romania isn't real. Sometimes the move
from the logical to the silly is closer than it appears. Computers are very
well adjusted to syllogisms but the world can't be reduced to unambiguous
statements that can be effortlessly recombined. At the dawn of the 20th
century, Sherlock Holmes significantly propagated the suggestion that
brilliantly smart people arrive at unavoidable conclusions by connecting
antecedent facts, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever
remains, however improbable, must be the truth."  
Holmes inventor Arthur Conan Doyle not only popularized the value of
deductive reasoning but was deeply engaged in fairy photography,
conversations with ghosts and a range of other spooky entities. Doyle is an
enthusiastic follower of late 19th century Spiritualism, a complex
socio-cultural adaptation to the advancements in science and new
technologies. Holmes is part of this response to a beginning modernity,
where the irrational and rational meet at the dawn of mass societies. The
cocaine driven pseudo-rationalism of logical deduction was a hysterical
reaction to an ambiguous world filled with libidinal ectoplasm and an
explosion of things from industrial scaled production machines. Painting
pictures of a simplified world in a narrowed down logic is soothing and
somewhat comforting. Unfortunately, the unnerving daily reality - from
ancient times to high tech societies and urban angst - mostly involves
incomplete, inconclusive or uncertain and highly context-dependent
information. Machines are good at logical reasoning that works well in
places like index tables and this is where computer assisted automation is
largely useful and effective. Humans handle information based on "feelings",
popular heuristics, intuition, paranoia, wild speculations, and peer
pressure or group dynamics. People rely on imitation, tradition or
repetition and many other methods but rarely on syllogistic reasoning or
deductive logic. 

Do Ideas Dream of Electric Sheep?

In its philosophical origins, the term ontology means the study of entities
and their relations in a systematic account of existence. This tradition,
less concerned with what is than with what is possible, asks, "What exists?"
The object is a purely speculative purpose, not to facilitate action but to
advance understanding. Ontological implications of categorization are highly
problematic and ideas of "natural" classification betray essentialism
beneath an epistemological cover. Ontology, which is about making clear and
explicit statements about entities in a particular domain, has variable
definitions in itself. Computer sciences and the field of digital knowledge
management/classification have now taken this word "ontology", and have
applied it to the problem of machine intelligible information and an
explicit specification of a conceptualization. Their organizing of
collections of entities, things or concepts into related groups and
hierarchical trees is based on such categorization and classification.
Philosophers like to accuse each other of category errors, a semantic or
ontological error. As in "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously"; properties
are ascribed to things that supposedly could not have that property.
Similarly, it is seen as a mistake to conceptualize the mind as an object of
immaterial substance because it appears meaningless for a dynamic set of
dispositions and capacity. Unfortunately there is no agreement on how to
actually identify category mistakes. Ontologisms call for domains with
central and legitimate authority, a confined stable corpus with limited
entities and clear edges suitable to formal categories. Strictly regulated
realms of juridical systems are just such an example. It requires
participants to be highly trained cataloguers, high levels of expertise and
user coordination and authoritative reference sources for decision making.
Closed ontological domains of hierarchic nature are typical for religious
systems. Not only psychotic personalities institutionalized or not, try to
bring order into the world by endless and bizarre lists or Byzantine systems
of classification in private cosmologies. But they are also the base for a
critical psychological discipline of controlled paranoia, Cabbalist
analytical methodologies, and other gymnastics of the mind.  Furthermore,
there are long traditions specializing in experimentally induced deliriums
of interpretation and artificially produced individual delusions of
reference. These include techniques for the cathartic shattering of
categories through the paradox and the breakup of false identifications in
the perplexities of Zen riddles.
Blind Taxonomies and Orders of the Imagination 

Mnemonic devices and memory hooks do not work not because they are
objective. On the contrary, the ancient Ars Memoria applies narrative
structuring of the imagination and visual anchoring of information in the
geometry of thought. Typologies and taxonomies do not make assertions that
can be judged true or false, but rather they are tools for organization and
stabilizing of thoughts about a shared reality. Geekish dreams of an
"Ontology of Everything" aside, most proponents of semantic webs do seem
sufficiently aware that building a top-down ontology or taxonomy that works
for everyone and describes everything is not an option. They assert that
this research enables local communities of interest to create their own
ontology ? and is not pursued for the enforcement of a New World Order of
authoritarian classification. The reification of typologies is not unusual,
but building taxonomies in the na?ve belief that they represent the
hierarchical structure of reality can be considered as rather unenlightened.
In the real world of vast domains of proliferating entities that overlap in
multiple ways, unstable and without clear boundaries, ontological
structuring does not work well in broad access for non-expert users. The
desired level of consistency in a normative classification setting
influences the balance between complexity, simplification and scale. Either
there is broad agreement in a narrow band of users, or slight agreements in
broad groups. 

Stereotypes and the Exploitation of Subjectivity

Distributed use of tags in flat hierarchies enables a new heterogeneity with
large amounts of specific intelligence that improves organizational value
with scale and time. Triggered by users with similarities in classifying,
collaborative tagging may disproportionately reinforce each other's views,
predisposition and foregone conclusions. Specialist blindness, enthusiastic
favoritism, tribal fads, gangland attitudes or stereotype prejudices can
develop a strong dynamic of skewing issues based on questionable validity of
judgment. But if tagging remains transparent, it allows preserving
individual, conflicting or even heretical viewpoints without having to force
them into the straightjacket of temporal mainstream opinions. It
accommodates statistical distributions where frequently the infrequent
events make up a majority. The total volume of the long tail of events with
low popularity can exceed those with high popularity and Internet ventures
have leveraged this for their business. This outreach to the obscure and far
out, disconnecting the service model from the peak-idiocy blockbuster demand
curve from has certainly made media programming somewhat more intelligent.
It has also contributed to the commercial exploitation of cultural niche
markets and marks the transition from the traditional disciplinarian modes
of preconfigured categories towards the new societies of control; from
educational indoctrination to the fluid mining of cognitive response and
reaction flows in opinion poll perception management. The so called "Web 2.0
interfaces" enable the commoditization of subjectivity where social networks
are exploited and then licensed back to the user. 

Digital Eyes and the Hidden Gods

"The perfect search engine would be like the mind of God" Google co-founder
Sergey Brin once said. Accordingly, digital search engines aim for maximum
reach and maximum recall. In the beginning is the search term but Google
wants to process all the information in the world and "understand exactly
what you mean". Without users, there is no mind of God. Google has now
become the mainstream oracle of choice, the waves of zeitgeist queries
breaking on the rocks of solidified identities. A recent USC study of the
"Center for the Digital Future" found that a majority believes that "most or
all of the information produced by search engines is reliable and accurate."
Increasingly, people rely on online resources for their routine intake of
daily news instead of traditional print newspaper. Clearly, the issue of
ranking and the intrinsic ordering of information and the underlying
measuring and organization system prove to be a factor in forming
worldviews. Imagination, shaped by information we consume, in turn
predetermines what we are looking for. Google news is by now a classic
example of online news aggregation. Google's ranking logics and indexing
methods result in exclusion and their news service hardly qualifies for
pluralism of viewpoints. Search results based on skewed but hidden mechanics
of classification lack in inclusiveness, fairness and scope of
representation. Their ranking practices are a trade secret, and when
suddenly alternative information vanishes from top search results there is
simply no way of finding out "why?". It is a decentralized system, where all
users become transparent to deep marketing data-mining practices and
motivational research, but with an impenetrable center where at the core
remains a hidden god. While a corporation may run its server systems on open
source software, any political or economic influence remains hidden and the
key providers of search and retrieval technology are completely
unaccountable to questions of censorship and manipulation. In an age where
access to information is largely controlled by a few companies, this is one
of the most problematic aspects of the search engines.

Playgrounds for Spooks

Search, data mining and information retrieval technologies are in high
demand by state or business intelligence agencies and spooks are on the
board of all major commercial operations. These technologies are
indispensable in security operations, risk management and for Command,
Control, Communications, Computing and Intelligence (C4I) systems. They can
be used for humanitarian aims or rescue missions, but in an asymmetric
digital war on terror, information sorting and retrieval can be turned into
virtual or physical search and destroy operations. This is the playground
for the total Information awareness officers and their panoptic Eye of
Providence. Subverting search engine capabilities for their all seeing Eye?s
massive surveillance of personal information flowing across the digital
networks, breeding information paranoia and data panic to haunt the
crossroads of search technologies. And the liberty to engage in social,
cultural and intellectual activities free from oversight, in privacy and
autonomy vanishes from sight. Data mining and retrieval applications are
developed in vastly expensive software suites that are then beyond the reach
of civil society organizations, independent researchers or critical
initiatives. These powerful applications are not supported as tools for the
public, but are used as weapons against this public by those who can afford
it. Further evolvement of semantic technology will enhance the uncanny
ability to identify, understand and manipulate individuals without their
knowledge or awareness. In the name of diversity, accessible and transparent
applications are required and the cryptology of open secrets must remain
open source. A dynamic system of heterogeneous multiplicity including
peer-to-peer exchange interfaces and open source search strategies, scalable
personal information crawler and anonymous engines are needed as well as
decentralized cluster architectures without central servers. Tools of
cultural intelligence production should be in the hands of the many and not
the privilege of the few. A truly free market of competing ideas requires
access to the tools of computer aided analyzing and inferring and democratic
diversity of making sense means broad accessibility of automated information

Augmented Cyborg Cognition

Many experts see advancements in information processing move towards a
stronger human-computer symbiosis in a range of fields that include
bio-cybernetics and cognitive sciences. Human system integration is the
buzzword for new human/machine interfaces in speed and depth enhanced
information retrieval and decision making. Augmented Cognition wants to beat
human cognitive limitations through adaptive computation. An adaptive user
interface involves sensors for determining user state and emotions, and
inference engines and classifiers to evaluate incoming sensor information.
Computational systems that continually adapt to their users and through
sensing, learning, and inferences understand trends, patterns, and
situations relevant to context and goals. Away from systems of linear or
static text and the electronic typewriter towards advanced statistical text
analytics, information mining and enhanced pattern recognition. Obviously
the jet fighter pilot is currently the prototypical cyborg. But both pilots
and the information workers on the ground have to filter relevant
information from vast amounts of data in no time and act on the results. It
appears only natural that DARPA is a leading player in a technology that
shapes the future of warfare and information dominance. Since any
sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, without a
practical understanding of how it operates, this emerging technology remains
a black art. Arcane sciences of high-powered and excessively funded labs set
out to influence information landscaping. 

Embedded Information Politics

Futuristic applications and computational complexity aside, technologies of
the mind are political philosophy masked as neutral code. Innocent utilities
that blend into the routine of everyday work and leisure, shading, blinding
or subtly bending our perception in various ways, weave cognitive threads
into the fabric of reality. 
Deliberately designed to yield results in a limited frame of reference, or
na?ve mechanisms of ideologies in specific domains, these cognitive tools
are always political. Classification is not merely a retrieval tool, but
also an embedded element of the ongoing construction of a work context and
its' associated dynamic processes and mechanisms. The logic of everyday
language and political rhetoric typically evolve from a hierarchy of
semantic objects where its' assumptions are presented as god-given and
"natural". However, in the daily reality of info overflow it is imperative
to acknowledge both arbitrariness and willful designation, and that
hierarchies are not miraculously produced by nature itself. What is at stake
is nothing less than the informational constitution of societies and their
institutions. Throughout the heterogeneous fields of search research and the
formation of applied sciences at the foundations of a democratic public,
cultural intelligence is the thread to look for.

Konrad Becker


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