April 28, 2008

knowledge that has no knower

Social knowing, in chapter 7, starts off with a description of “middle-aged white men� in an editorial meeting, deciding what goes on the front page of a newspaper. I just read the chat I missed before spring break…you were having a Web 2.0 editorial meeting!

Everything is Miscellaneous goes on to talk about how obsolete the old style meeting it because of sites such as Digg, where readers rank articles to decide what will be on the front page of the website.

But the overall theme in each chapter of this book seems to be that knowledge and how you get it and how you organize it, is in upheaval because of the internet and its social interaction. For those who have been critical of the upheaval, this quote sums it up: “If these experts of the second order sound a bit hysterical, it is understandable. The change they’re facing from the miscellaneous is deep and real. Authorities have long filtered and organized information for us, protecting us from what isn’t worth our time and helping us find what we need to give our beliefs a sturdy foundation. But with the miscellaneous, it’s all available to us, unfiltered� (Weinberger, 132).

It’s obvious Weinberger thinks Wikipedia is fabulous, because he gives us yet another Wikipedia example. The Encyclopedia Britannica claims to be written by “Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winner, the leading scholars, writers, artists, public servants, and activists who are at the top of their fields� (134). Wikipedia is written by anyone. Jimmy Wales, the founder, says they are more concerned with an author’s contribution, not their credentials. “We care about pseudoidentity, not identity� (135), so Zocky, a prolific contributor, has a great reputation and no one knows who this person really is.

But the whole point of being successful as a Wikipedia contributor, according to Wales, is to be neutral. “Wikipedia insists that authors talk and negotiate because it’s deadly serious about achieving a neutral point of view� (136). He also said that he considers an article neutral when people stop editing it. Weinberger calls this a “brilliant operational definition of neutrality� because it makes it a social interaction.

I haven’t come across any of the neutrality notices (Weinberger, 140) Wikipedia posts on some of its most disputed pages, but I can imagine many are on pages that are politically oriented. And, as everyone knows, politics makes for some heated discussion that is rarely neutral. It’s hard to negotiate someone to your political viewpoint.

Anyway, Weinberger goes on to talk about the back and forth of negotiation between contributors and this isn’t something I’ve wrapped my head around entirely…so two people negotiate their differences on a page and are done working on it, “Yet the page they’ve negotiated may not represent either person’s point of view precisely. The knowing happened not in either one’s brain but in their conversation. The knowledge exists between the contributors. It is knowledge that has no knower. Social knowing changes who does the knowing and how, more than it changes the what of knowledge� (144). This makes me want to say, “huh?�, but I think I get it. In social knowing, we learn things by actively working to make it understandable. We work with others to get their knowledge and pass along ours to make knowledge that is everyone’s. Anyone else want to chime in?

The benefits of disorder

The benefits of disorder

In Chapter 6 of Everything is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger argues that messiness is virtuous. Not only is order morally inferior to messiness, it conflicts with the way humans naturally think and make sense of the world. Aristotle’s clear-cut rationality is antithetical to the natural disorder of the world.

It isn’t that we don’t naturally categorize things and ideas. We do and we need categories and systems of order. Weinberger’s point is that, contrary to Aristotle, we naturally think about categories as prototypes (pg. 87). Prototypes are “basic level concepts� about a category of things that share common characteristics—like members of a family who resemble to one another.

Weinberger cites the research of Eleanor Rosch to argue that we form prototypes from the example up. The features that things have in common define the prototype. We know something is a member of a category if it has enough of the common features to satisfy the criteria for that prototype. What’s interesting is that not all things are equally good examples. Some examples can have fewer of the prototypical features. Nonetheless, we still recognize the inferior examples as members of the same category. “We can know what something means even if its can’t be clearly defined and even if it’s boundaries can’t be sharply drawn (pg. 185).�

If it looks like a dog, smells like a dog, feels like a dog, and barks like a dog, it probably is a dog. In real life, that’s good enough for most of us.

This is the opposite of what Aristotle said. He believed in a top-down, static, pre-existing order of “pure essences� that define all things. In Aristotle’s system, something belongs to a category if it satisfies the definition and all examples must be equally good examples (pg. 183).

Following the trajectory of Aristotle’s philosophy leads to problems pretty quickly. How do we categorize exceptions or those things that sort of fit a category? There’s so many things like that! His system isn’t practical.

In contrast, prototype theory is very practical. Roch’s research suggests that by knowing something has the features of a prototype, we know more about the object. Prototypes enable us to predict properties about members of a particular category. In Weinberger’s view, the predictability factor makes prototypes biologically and evolutionarily efficient for us (pg. 186).

The blurry edges of prototypes mirror the social networks we inhabit at work and in our personal lives. It also mirrors wisdom. A sophisticated understanding includes ambiguity and complexity. Insisting on simplicity, uniformity and explicit categorization leads to the opaque white space of the modern organizational chart that hide the actual goings-on of daily life. As Weinberger says, knowing is to swim in the complex (pg. 198).

Weinberger is wise to point out the differences between prototypes and folksonommies. Folksonommic categories happen even when they include fish and bicycles. They have the properties of prototypes without there having been a prototype (pg. 194). What are we to make of these? Arbitrary associations aren’t very useful even though they might be creative.

It’s a relief to know that messiness has virtue. I just wish the 3rd order of messiness applied to the physical world. If it did, there would be no good reason to straighten up the riot of clothes in my bedroom, chaos of shoes in my closet or the mail spilling out of the in-box. I would simply apply metadata to every shoe and t-shirt and leave them be.


April 27, 2008

Everything is Misc.

We learn something new everyday. We learn about miscellaneous stuff all the time. In regards to the grad reading assignment of pages 107-172 Everything is Miscellaneous , I was super intrigued about how the Universal Product Code (UPC) / bar code came to be. Here is a quick history lesson . . .

"In 1948, two graduate students at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia overheard the president of a local grocery chain asking a dean to sponsor research into how to read product information automatically. The students, Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver . . . came up with a set of straight lines . . . and in 1951 they unveiled a machine that could translate the bar codes back into numbers. . . . In 1966--four year after Silver died, at the age of thirty-eight--the idea went commercial when the National Association of Food Chains put out a call for automatic checkout machines to speed up checkout lines. . . . So the association established the Uniform Grocery Product Code, the grandparent of the Universal Product Code . . . In 1981, the U.S. Department of Defense required bar codes on all products it purchased and the UPC went mainstream. Today there are about five million items scanned every day, in more than 140 countries." (Weinberger, 2007, p. 107-108)

I never knew the history of bar codes until I read the chapter in Everything is Miscellaneous. I guess I always thought that UPC's were "always" around. Oh the things you learn! Oh the things you pass on to others that you learn . . . like what I'm doing right now. I hope I'm doing well in my third week as "Professor Nguyen" and hope you are loving learning.