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Tuesday, 9 November 2004

Umbrella.

[sunrise]

I hark back to the old days, when my brother and I used to stand around in our kitchen talking and eating too much toast together. I was at Uni, so my head was constantly exploding with new and interesting tidbits from my areas of study which vaguely included anthropology, philosophy, biology and classics.

Since Andy was already a rising biological star at the time, and surprisingly well-rounded in a (frustrating) number of disciplines (circa 1991-2), we were perfect candidates for indulging in joint theoretical wanderings.

It was over too much toast that I discussed one of my pet ideas... that there is less and less of a need for human biological evolution these days. This is me speaking as an employed, educated white woman mind you, who has access to various things humans have made so we don't die all the time, like spectacles, guns, aspirin, bandaids, umbrellas... (I don't have a gun. Never have, never will.)

In the place of biological evolution comes its cultural equivalent. The concept that it is now more difficult to survive in a cultural context than out on the savanna with the king of the jungle. There are many, many cultural 'tricks' we employ to stay alive. Some are far more mundane than others, but the point is, if we didn't do these things (like joining a rowing team, or sending our kids to school, or voting for an idiot), we may well end up weighing 600 pounds and dying on in our couches (even though this sorry death in itself is still a reflection of culture). Am I skipping around too much? Oh well. I like thinking in broad strokes... you know, macro, big-picture and all that.

[midday]

So, what about this thing called folksonomy (or ethnoclassification, as peterme prefers)? It's a relatively new term coined to describe what's beginning to happen online when you assign metadata to objects. Basically, the premise is that - unlike a taxonomy - folksonomy is user-defined (and quick to create and ad-hoc), so not necessarily transportable (to another individual), and often far from generic. Actually, it's very often highly creator-centric (or emic), and therefore hard to interpret if you aren't the person who's defined it. This idea returns to the mundane that I mentioned a while ago. For example, there might be a lady who has added her own metadata to, say, her *cough* photo collection - perhaps not even grokking* what she's doing - but that's ok, except that she ends up with a big ol' pile of stuff that's unusable, even for her. She might have a big bunch of photos, each tagged with something different, so there is no uniformity to her classification system, even within her own context.

[afternoon tea]

Let's just say that two people used the same tag. There's a networked connection. Imagine if you could make a map of all the connections between how people classify their data in a folksy way?

Now, i'm going to take another big jump with no explanation:

[sunset]
The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree... As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.
- Charles Darwin

There's this thing called phylogeny. Phylogeny is the evolutionary history of a taxonomic group... It could be seen as a general representation of biological "replicators" like a species or a specific gene. Phylogeny allows you to infer shared history. And I quote - because it's easier than rephrasing right at this moment - "Together with cosmology, phylogenetic inference has a unique position in science in that one does not try to draw general conclusions, but produce a statement of a particular and unique event history."

So, imagine a tag is a little bit like a gene. Wouldn't it be cool if you could see how a tag moved in an evolutionary, and networked data space, and how it tried connections/relations, some of which took off, and some of which devolved? I think so! The classic "Tree of Life" map of this (in biological terms) is a big ol' map of all the species we know about and what their precedents and antecedents are. But, I don't think the tree model will suffice for representing user-generated metadata, mainly because (in photo tags at least) the things you choose to add can be determined by what your friends do, and as your own network evolves and shifts, so does the way it adds metadata collectively. It's not so much about a tag surviving and being propogated, but more about relationships that surround any one tag. The more relationships that come into and out of any one tag, the more 'useful'/'focussed'/'popular'/'embiggened' it will be. So, maybe rather than a strictly hierarchical tree-like model to represent that sort of space, a net (something that can illustrate for reticulation and cross-pollination in information) would be a more suitable. Or, perhaps even an umbrella.

[midnight]

Where's Andy and toast when I need them?

* to grok: To understand profoundly through intuition or empathy. (I thought this was a made-up word, until more than one Canadian used it.)

Posted at 5:06 am
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