Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Spirits that We Called

MARCH 13th 2008: Until Wednesday, the Presidential candidate [insert name here] scored high in the polls. Then a Google search for his name showed up as first hit a report on an alleged child abuse committed by the candidate, published by Mary S. (name changed) on her personal website. The story was backed up by the following highly ranked hits that indicated two similar events during his youth, though reliable sources were missing. Within less than one hour, the reports were echoed on thousands of weblogs, appeared on digg and reddit, the original websites received 200,000 hits within the first 6 hours, until the server crashed down. Immediate press releases by the candidate's PR groups did not appear on the Google listing, and could only be accessed by secondary links. It took until the next day that printed newspapers could attempt to clarify the situation.

NOVEMBER 9th 2011: Two independent eye witnesses report on their weblogs about Chinese military violently overtaking the government in Khartoum, Sudan. The reports score first hit on the key words 'world news', 'news' and 'foreign politics' at Google, later also on 'Sudan', and 'China'. Reports by the Chinese government denying the events did not appear on the Google ranking. The events were picked up by various TV stations, using the provided YouTube videos of extremely bad quality and doubtful sources. Dozens of reporters asked the White House for a statement. The President said he would not tolerate China getting a grip on Sudan's oil resources. The Shanghai Composite Index fell 541.12 points.

DECEMBER 30th 2015: Six months after Google and Yahoo was bought by Frederic F., multi-billionaire and president of several global companies, it was officially announced that Google will further improve the quality of search results, and counteract the drawbacks of information overload. Beginning New Year's day 2016, the algorithm will filter out "low quality sites, sites of obscure origin, and doubtful content", as the press release states. Yet it remains unclear who sets these criteria. Frederic F. answered inquires with "Customers trust us. We will not disappoint them, and remain truthful to our philosophy to do no evil." He explained the need for such a change with the accumulation of outdated and irrelevant information on the web and added "Google will do its best to provide the user with correct information. Our employees are working hard to provide an excellent service to foster global knowledge."

I. Information Overload

Information is one of the most important resources in today's world. In a rapidly changing environment that gets complexer every day, the availability and accuracy of information is essential already to preserve the status quo, and indispensable to further progress.

‘Information overload’ isn't just an error message my brain produces when I check the arXiv, and an expression that I've made up for fun, but a rather unsurprising and well known side effect of a tightly connected world. The human brain's capacity to process input is limited. Today you are confronted with more information than you a) need and b) can deal with. The challenge today is not to collect all information you can possibly get, but to filter it and extract the relevant bits.

You can notice how your brain has learned to deal with information overload: by only skimming this side, losing attention already at this paragraph - because it's not obvious to you what it might be good for listening to me [1].


“[I]nformation overload is not only caused by the sheer volume of information, but also because of the complexity or confusing structure of information that might overtax the user’s cognitive skill to focus on relevant information ... Therefore Helmersen et al. (p. 2) characterize information overload as “difficulties in locating, retrieving, processing, storing and/or reretrieving information due to the volume of available information.” Information overload may lead to stress, health problems, frustration, disillusionment, depression, as well as impaired judgment and bad decision making ... From an ethical perspective, these consequences of information overload are problematic, because they undermine several basic principles, especially the requirement of participants’ autonomy/self-determination and the nonmaleficence principle.”
Behr, Nosper, Klimmt & Hartmann (2005) Some Practical Considerations of Ethical Issues in Virtual Reality Research, Presence Teleoperators & Virtual Environments 14:6, 668 (2005).


The internet collects and hosts an increasing amount of data. Besides potentially resulting in “frustration, disillusionment, and depression” as claimed in the above quote, a database without tools to find the relevant information however is above everything else useless: Badly ordered information is no information, and badly ordered information can be fatal. Envision a library without any cataloguing. Of what use is it if you're told everything you need to know can be found somewhere on these four floors, filled with bookshelves up to the ceiling?

Luckily, thanks to ingenious software masters, we have today powerful search engines that help us structure the available information.

Und nun komm, du alter Besen!
Nimm die schlechten Lumpenhüllen
Bist schon lange Knecht gewesen:
nun erfülle meinen Willen!
Come on now, old broom, get dressed,
these old rags will do just fine!
You're a slave in any case,
and today you will be mine!



II. Filtering Information

It is 2008. Today's school kids have grown up with the internet. It promises answers to all questions you can possibly have. And if you can't find an answer, ask the expert. Even better, you will find support no matter which opinion you happen to hold, or which side of an argument you want to defend. And you will somewhere come across a forum of likeminded friends that confirm your convictions.

What criteria is it that people use to filter information? A high Google ranking is without doubt useful to pass a first filter. Note, I neither said a high Google ranking is an indicator for quality, nor do I assume people are not aware of that. It is just a fact, that what ranks highly on search engines is more likely to be read [2]. And what is more likely to be read is more likely to stick. Esp. children who haven't been taught how to deal with information they find on the internet are prone to make mistakes in judgement, but confirmation bias is a fairly wide spread habit among all ages.

Besides this, people give a higher value of importance to information just because they hear or read it repeatedly. What's in your face is in your mind. There must be something going on when many people point into the sky. That's what advertisements take advantage of, that's what meta filters like digg and reddit do, and that's what search engines do: directing attention, filtering your information.

Now you can tell me everyone of us should be rational, we should always check sources, doubt unverified reports even if repeated several times. We shouldn't believe what we read without questioning it. We should seek accuracy and not easy entertainment. We should, we should, we should [3]. But face it, many people don't. Because they just don't have the time, or are not interested enough, and the most commonly used criteria in this case is to follow the masses. Read what others read (the posts with the most comments?) go where many people link to, talk what others talk about, pay attention to what many people consider relevant. Majority offers security, Wikipedia is trustworthy, Google has proved useful.

No go back to my opening line: “Information is one of the most important resources in today's world.” Accuracy and availability of information is essential for the progress of our societies. You can direct people's opinions with the information you given them, and in the way you provide it. You don't need hard censorship for that, it is more efficient to leave people the illusion of knowledge. It doesn't matter if there's a right for free speech, if you can make sure little people listen to what they shouldn't hear. Majority offers security, Wikipedia is trustworthy, Google has proved useful?

The preface of this post are three examples of how easily tempering with search engine algorithms can today affect opinions. Effectively, this interferes with our political systems since information is the basis for our decisions. Note, our decisions are *not* based in the information that is 'theoretically' available - somewhere, somehow - but on the information that is 'practically' available in our head, because we've read it, because we recall it, because we consider it consciously or unconsciously relevant.


Ein verruchter Besen!
der nicht hören will!
Stock, der du gewesen,
steh doch wieder still!
Be you damned, old broom,
why won't you obey?
Be a stick once more,
please, I beg you, stay!



III. Politics on the Web

The internet today has aspects of different political systems: capitalist anarchy and direct democracy, that reflect in the most frequently used services on the web.

III a. Googlism

Information has always been filtered by the media, and there has always been an influence by this on our political opinion making process. People have always fought for attention. New is

a) The necessity. The increasing need for such a filter, and the the relevance this ordering mechanism obtains through this. Consider Google, Yahoo, and MSN were down for 24 hours and the consequences.

b) The centralization. Google isn't the only search engine, but without doubt the presently most popular one. Millions of people world wide rely on it. How many would even notice if all hits after page 3 were missing?

Combine that with the problems into which old-fashioned print media runs, because they have trouble selling yesterday's news. Those who structure the information of many people have political influence. This is not a virtual, but a very real reality. The internet affects our daily lives, and it is still mostly a legal vacuum [4]. If I was a terrorist, I'd overtake the Google headquarter, and prominently place a couple of fake reports causing the US economy tumbling down, setting the stage for another war. You think that wouldn't work? Think twice. We life in a world where a couple of cartoons can kill dozens of people.

The Google ranking of a website can be pushed by various means. If a company, or lobby, can afford to hire an expert in search engine optimization, they can literally buy a good ranking. Even better if they invest in paid links, or further advertisement.

The internet is presently mostly a capitalist anarchy with communist (shareware/no private properties) areas, that are struggling for structure. It offers the possibility to focus lots of influence in the hand of little people. The archetypical nerd community the web started with is today a small minority among those who just use the net they are being offered.

One can hope that there are self-regulatory mechanisms that save our societies from being influenced by a small groups of people because users would just chose different companies, different information sources. Or maybe some nerdy guys would set up their own 'better' search engine. That might work. But there is no guarantee it will. It is far from clear what a majority of people would consider 'better' for whatever reason. If I see what a majority of people considers interesting on digg, I have my concerns about relying on a self-regulatory mechanism to work out.

Relying on the good will and rationality of a majority of people is a decent approach, but it is naive. I hope that by now you see how much power lies in the hand of those who order, filter and structure our information, and that this has an impact on our political system, the opinion making process, and the decisions that we reach. In my nightmares I see the President's consultants putting together their briefings by Googling some keywords. Yes, maybe users would indeed just chose different companies, and everything would work out fine, but do you want to rely on it?

People make mistakes, and the majority doesn't always make the right choice.

That's why we have a representative democracy [5]. That's why our countries have constitutions that can't be changed from one day to the other. That's why we have laws to protect our freedom, that's why we have "executive and judicial officers" that are "bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution" [6]. We shouldn't privatize part of the executive and we shouldn't hand over filtering information to private companies. It is almost tragically comic to me that all concerns about Google that I find in the media circle around economical power:

"One senior executive at Time Warner, who did not want to be identified, because Time Warner’s AOL division is a Google partner, says, “Sometimes I don’t know what to think of Google. We have the best relationship of anyone with Google. On the other hand, you always have to worry when someone gets so much more powerful than all the competition out there. This is why I come down to this: I hope the government starts understanding this power sooner rather than later.”"
The Search Party, by Ken Auletta, The New Yorker, Jan 14th 2008


Yes, I too hope the government starts understanding this power - the political power.

IIIb. Wikiarchy

I find it quite interesting to follow the developments of non-profit collaborative projects like Wikipedia. Wikipedia has certainly proved useful, and in my perception the quality of articles has tremendously improved over the last years. It has been a while since I came across a statement that I could immediately tell was blatantly wrong. It is a good quick reference, and I prefer it often over other sites if only for the simple reason that the sites are well maintained, easily readable, and cross-referenced.

However, here as much as with Google, I find the influence exerted by these sites worrisome, because I believe many people are not sufficienly aware of this influence, especially the younger generation. In a certain sense, Wikipedia seems to appear very trustworthy and likable, up to the point that I have to feel bad for criticising it and expect some comments to vehemently defend it. Isn't it after all a community project? Anti-authoritarian? Democratic? GOOD in capital letters? Danah Boyd from Many 2 Many expressed her concerns as follows:

"My concern - and that of many of my colleagues - is that students are often not media-savvy enough to recognize when to trust Wikipedia and when this is a dreadful idea. They quote from it as though it cannot be inaccurate. I certainly distrust many classic sources, but i don’t think that an “anti-elitist” (a.k.a. lacking traditional authority and expertise) alternative is automatically better. Such a move stinks of glorifying otherness simply out of disdain for hegemonic practices, a tactic that never gets us anywhere."
Danah Boyd, Academia and Wikipedia, Jan 4th 2005


It's not only a tactic that doesn't get us anywhere, but a tactic that can simply go wrong for the same reason I mentioned above: the majority isn't always right. Wikipedia works as long as those who are not experts realize they are not experts, know that they don't know, respect the rules and don't execute their potential power.

In his article 'Digital Maoism', Jaron Lanier formulated his concerns like this

"The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy."

I recommend you read the full article, it's one of the most insightful writings I've come across for a long time [7]. I find it so to the point, I'll borrow another paragraph:
"A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds. This is analogous to the claims of Hyper-Libertarians who put infinite faith in a free market, or the Hyper-Lefties who are somehow able to sit through consensus decision-making processes. In all these cases, it seems to me that empirical evidence has yielded mixed results. Sometimes loosely structured collective activities yield continuous improvements and sometimes they don't. Often we don't live long enough to find out."

The belief that problems will be corrected I find very nice because it puts faith in mankind, but I wouldn't want to rely on it. It is quite an interesting trend that people rely so much on the common sensus. It is a trend though that can go wrong exactly because it does not necessarily have a self-correcting mechanism. Relevant for people's decisions is not only the information they have. But how much information they believe they have, and how accurate they believe it to be. Combine that with the faith in Google and Wikipedia. Is there information not on the internet?

On the other hand, what I find very interesting in these developments is that Wikipedia isn't just a direct democracy, it has guidelines for editing, and de facto indeed has a power structure. This is interesting to me because it is pretty much like witnessing the formation of a political system. Though it is quite clear where it should go, if Wikipedia wants to remain a high quality source of information, and that's what you'll read in the next section.

Herr und Meister, hör' mich rufen!
Ach, da kommt der Meister!
Herr, die Not ist groß!
Die ich rief, die Geister,
werd' ich nun nicht los.
Lord and master, hear my call!
Ah, here comes the master!
I have need of Thee!
from the spirits that I called
Sir, deliver me!


IV: Representative Democracy

In the early nineties, I was a member of the social democratic party in Germany, and I was a strong believer in direct democracy. The internet was fresh and new, and it seemed to me like the perfect tool to make reality what I thought had been given up for practical reasons: decisions being made by all the people. It wasn't difficult to extrapolate that internet access would catch on like a fire and that in some decades almost all households would be connected, fast, easily, with access to all the information they need to make decisions.

At this time I was really excited about it, registered the first domain I ever had (demokratie-im-netz/democracy on the web) and tried to get a critical mass of people behind me. I didn't get very far though. Essentially, nobody was listening to me. What I should have expected given that the average age of the people I was faced with was somewhere in the upper 50ies, and most of them had not the faintest idea what I was talking about. World wide what?

Either way, though I am not generally easy to discourage there were two reasons I gave up on this. For one, at some point I had to make a decision between politics and physics. The latter won, that's why I am today where I am [8]. The other reason was that I came to realize that the adjective 'representative' is an essential ingredient to the democratic system.

The tasks in our society have become increasingly specialized. Most jobs require a years long education. If you want a good performance you look for a specialist, for an expert, somebody who has experience where you don't. I wouldn't want to make important decisions if I don't have the time or the education to do it well. So we elect representatives to do this job, people that have a good qualification for this. (I am afraid though big part of the frustration with politics/politicans today is a result of the low expertise status in the government. What can I say. It's a democracy. You get what you vote for.)

Either way, the election of representatives is beneficial for two reasons. The one is to increase expertise in decisions, above what could possibly be done by all people - most of which have a day job and other things to do. The other reason is that people's opinions are easily influenced by events with large emotional impact, and are prone to irrational fluctuations on too short timescales. Lanier put it like this: "One service performed by representative democracy is low-pass filtering." The drawbacks of direct democracy, and the reasons why we today have representative democracies however haven't yet been fully acknowledged. Let me quote from the Google Corporate Philosophy:

4. Democracy on the web works.

Google works because it relies on the millions of individuals posting links on websites to help determine which other sites offer content of value. Google assesses the importance of every web page using a variety of techniques, including its patented PageRank™ algorithm which analyzes which sites have been "voted" the best sources of information by other pages across the web.


Determining 'content of value' and 'assessing the importance' of webpages is limited by the way the system operates, which presently does no use the advantages of the small adjective 'representative'.

The point is that the problems we are facing on the internet have already been solved. Read your constitution. What is missing are elected representatives whose task it is to pursue the majority's goals, formulated as a set of rules/criteria/regulations. I will give you a concreate example: What I would consider a useful search engine is one that has a rating of websites by varios criteria like accuracy, entertainment, visual appeal, whatever. I don't want such a rating to be done by everybody clicking on a scale of stars. I don't want judgement to be made by anonymous people, nor an algorithm, nor an algorithm modified by anonymous people.

I do not care how many links go to a site if it is only an echo of another article, or - even worse - contains nothing than advertisements and links to other sites. I want there to be a group of people who is responsible to provide a certain quality, a group of people whose names are known, and who explain their qualifications, opinions and decisions (I don't mind pseudoanonymity if it suffices to prove expertise). The internet is the ideal tool to provide representatives with feedback, and a useful platform for people to explain their qualifications, and to convince a majority they are trustworthy.

The recently launched Wikia Search, a search engine wikipepia-style with open source algorithm and user feedback, is an interesting experiment. The concept doesn't really convince me though for the reasons that should have become clear by now. There is the possibility the user feedback will optimize popularity (like digg), and not quality in the site's ranking. And though popularity is one interesting criteria to order sites, it shouldn't remain the only one. The "wiki-style social ranking" they advertise doesn't seem to me to a sufficient guarantee that expertise will be increased among those who provide the feedback.

V. Summary

The Sorcerer's apprentice that I have quoted here is a poem by J.W. Goethe. The apprentice is excited about the power he has witnessed, and while the master is away plays around with the broom. Unfortunately, things don't go as expected. He involuntarily causes trouble he doesn't know how to deal with, eventually culminating in the famous line "Die ich rief, die Geister, werd' ich nun nicht los," which translates roughly into: "I can't get rid of the spirits I called." In the poem, the master comes to help and sends the broom back into the closet.

The internet is a great invention and a powerful tool. It has a large and increasing influence on our daily lifes, as well as on our opinion- and decision making processes that eventually affect the quality of our living. It is as much an opportunity as a danger. We should be very cautios to ensure that self-organized structures on the internet - that are presently (still!) operating mostly in legal vacuum - do not interfere with our political systems. And this potential very really exists.

„In die Ecke
Besen, Besen!
Seids gewesen,
denn als Geister
ruft euch nur zu seinem Zwecke
erst hervor der alte Meister!”
“Back now, broom,
into the closet!
Be thou as thou
wert before!
Until I, the real master
call thee forth to serve once more!”


Der Zauberlehrling, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe -- The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Translation by Brigitte Dubiel



Download print version (pdf) of this text.



[1] And now you're confused because I don't tell you ;-)
[2] If you're one of the 100 visitors per day that comes to this blog searching for 'Map of America' you know what I mean.
[3] New Year's resolutions, anybody? Yawn.
[4] And each time I have to read through insults in blog's comment section, it is the first
Basic Law that sounds in my ears: "Article 1 (1) Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority."
[5] The overwhelming majority of visitors on this blogs comes from North America and Central Europe. Apologies to those who can not identify with my use of 'we' when it comes to the political system.
[6] The basics of the politial system are quite similar in Germany, with exception of the President's role and details of the election processes.
[7] Except that the title doesn't make sense to me, I can't see any Mao in the game.
[8] Unpacking the boxes of my 5th move in 4 years, writing this blog post on a Sunday afternoon, while my husband is on the other side of the atlantic ocean. Wait, who ordered that?

45 comments:

Neil' said...

Bee,

This is good writing, scary and thought-provoking: Should be in print, like Parade Magazine ;-) !

There are some strategies to help deal with this, like maybe comparative search engine combiner that shoes the differences between results of different SEs. Also, also there needs to be a solid Wikipedia complaint site (not just their own discussion pages) where people list alleged mistakes, but of course who knows which of those are true! It's scary to think of how hard it might be to check, but to some extent the Delphi Poll method (pooling hopefully expert opinion) can be put to work.

Curious observation on how changing or intervention in search criteria apparently affected me: For several years, search for "quantum measurement paradox" put some pages I commented on in the top 2-3 in Google (in large part because many academics pitched in and left links, and it went to lepp.cornell as www.lepp.cornell.edu/spr/2000-11/msg0029236.html.

Then, last summer, soon after I bragged about that on various blogs (incl. this one) and NGs for a few weeks (God only knows why so much then), and posted the active links into same, there was a nearly sudden change: the same search only pulled up my pages into about #s 10-12 etc. That's not too bad actually for anyone to get for a *subject* search, but it irked me. Yet on some SEs, I was still close to the top.

After I posted about it to alt.comp.google, a respondent stated the following similar experience:

"
I remember mentioning my unofficial FAQ (http://
gpsgfaq.googlepages.com/index.html) in a few webmaster newsgroups and
the ranking lowered maybe in a few days or weeks (can't remember
anymore). Those newsgroups are mirrored on many web forums, so maybe
Google saw that as link spamming.

Anyway, here are some pages about Google Updates in case you haven't
already read them:

http://www.kichus.in/2007/06/19/different-votes-on-buffy-the-google-june-2007-update/
http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3370555.htm
http://www.webmaster-talk.com/the-google-forum/96465-google-backlinks-update.html
http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/minty-fresh-indexing/
http://googlesystem.blogspot.com/2007/07/google-indexing-many-web-pages-in-real.html
"

So does Google really retaliate against braggarts? Maybe you have little sympathy for them, but (if so), this is nevertheless a distortion of the actual popularity/linking of the sites found in the search.

Comments? Similar experiences or scoop?

Damien said...

Your representative democracy is already at work on the web: I read yours and other science blogs because they are written by people who have similar ideals to myself and I trust that the information they find most interesting is most likely what I will find most interesting. And they implicitly verify their qualifications to be my representative by their "scientific fame".

It seems that blogging is an excellent example of how good things can arise by just letting people do whatever they want.

Bee said...

Hi Neil':

Thanks for the nice words. Since you mentioned print, this reminded me to add the link to a print-version of the above post.

There are some strategies to help deal with this, like maybe comparative search engine combiner that shoes the differences between results of different SEs. Also, also there needs to be a solid Wikipedia complaint site (not just their own discussion pages) where people list alleged mistakes

Yes, there are certainly ways to improvement. What I have tried to express in my writing above though is that all this is destined to remain unsatisfactory. No algorithm will be able to replace a representative democracy. If anybody would ever claim this to be the case, I think I'd be the first to leave the country. There are certainly things that automatized algorithms can optimize (everything that can be extracted from a website's source text), but it will never work for other criteria, like humor or scientific value. No 'comparative search engine combiner' will be able to do that, and no open source algorithm will learn how to do that (unless the internet becomes self-aware that is, I wouldn't count on it though).

In fact, I too have been somewhat disturbed by the recent change in the Google search algorithm that became effective Jan 1st: You might find this interesting.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Damien

Your representative democracy is already at work on the web: I read yours and other science blogs

Yes and no. You are right that science blogs are an interesting aspect of the problem to find trusted experts, and I do in fact think that these science blogs act like a certain meta filter of exactly the kind I think about, in the sense that visitors can (ideally) rely on the websites mentioned there to be of good quality and the explanations to be of a certain accuracy etc.

That I find very interesting, and is also one of the reasons why I am curious to see how the story of science blogs develops. However this is only one of the aspects I mentioned above that are important. The other relevant feature is continuity, and this is an aspect where the whole blogosphere seems to dramatically fail. In particular, it seems to be the place to create and propagate hypes that distort the importance of the actual content.

For this reason I do not think that blogs are a useful tool, as they put too much weigh on the NEW factor, and loose memory extremely fast. A wikipedia entry e.g. is there and occasionally gets updated. Ideally I would want my website to be structured in a mixture of both: I'd like to have some subject-tree where one could add or modify entries, and in addition a 'new' listing that shouldn't be too complicated to include. I think that the tendency of people to rate 'new-ness' over content is a bad trend, because it supports fast and inaccurate reporting. And it is a trend the blogosphere promotes (so occasionally I feel really bad for being part of it). It is of a certain advantage in some areas, but not in all. Peer review takes time, and that is for a good reason. Thinking needs time, otherwise the result is sloppyness. That is one of the aspects of 'Information Overflow': that people always have the impression that they might be missing something, have to be the first, have to appear up-to date, or are afraid they might not know something etc. I am reasonably sure we will learn how to deal with that. The question is in which way. It was only halfways a joke when I wrote that the typically short attention span of the blog-reader is one way our brains have figured out how to deal with that. It's not a good way.

how good things can arise by just letting people do whatever they want.

Yes. They 'can' arise. But there is also the possibility that things go wrong. If you let people do whatever they want, they will need a subgroup that thinks ahead, or they will run against a wall. Best,

B.

Mark A. Thomas said...

People just don't know. Google is the new world order albeit digital empire. A result is that corporate and government cream rises to the top and negative impressions are pushed down relatively quick. The wealthy and powerful will own the top and people will believe the positive propaganda they read. The disfavored will be sandboxed or sandpiled to the bottom. The Info-coons know that most people will not look past three pages on searches while the deep web to the masses might as well be "davy jones locker".

Tkk said...

Bee, I am pleased to see you writing such a deep article on an emerging global phenomenon. The world can benefit from your work both in physics and other matters of importance such as this posting. You have added to my hope that your generation will make seminal contributions to mankind in the future, despite my observation that too many 30-something have lost their ways.

Yes Google delivers potential information overload. But Google is only a facilitator, and other facilitators can come along. What's important are the web contents, the human creators of that content. While Google have some control over priority, it is the receiver who have control over filtering, and therefore the usefulness of the content. Once a receiver links up with the creator, Google is no longer needed. (Such as me visiting your blog.) The role of search engines over the Net will always been quite limited. That's also why Google is trying mightily to go beyond search, into the originator of contents (Google Maps) and facilitator of peer-to-peer interactions of which social networking webs are an early form.

a quantum diaries survivor said...

Hi Bee,

sorry for the off-topicness ... I will justify myself by quoting the "too-much information" paradigm. Two things:
1) thanks for pointing to the sense of science website
2) there is a bunch of nice pictures from a talk of yours at susy06.blogspot.com - just wanted to make sure you knew.

Cheers,
T.

Phil Warnell said...

Bee,

I’m sorry that I sort of jumped the gun on you article as the subject was opened up in the comments of one of you previous posts. I must admit that we share many of the hopes and fears in regards to this emerging technology. My own experience with it all, as merely a consequence of age, runs back even further then your own. That is back to the days of what I refer to as the preinternet, where the masses first put up what was called bulletin boards and used much cruder technology such as 300 baud modems, which delivered text at a speed that could be exceeded by the average reader. This progressed through to the first limited gateways like CompuServe and eventually to the World Wide Web we have today. In these early years access was limited primarily to some extend by technical ability, interest, and personal priority and to a lesser extend financial considerations. The only reason I review all this is to remind everyone of the foundations on which it was built.

With this vantage point I’ve watched it begin from what was at first almost entirely an individual(s) human creation to where it has come today which is being the property of the large corporations and the vested interests. What has been gained with this is affordability,wider access, speed and increased content; some good and some bad. The mix however is increasingly going more and more to the latter. When it is all said and done however my primary personal concern is as I stated in your previous entry. I use the two in comparison only as examples of the much wider phenomena. So I will pose the question once more.

Wikipedia is information prioritized by human consensus and mitigated by human referees. Google is information prioritized and mitigated by a referee that constitutes to be an algorithm. The former reflects humanity as it is and the later as it is becoming. This may represent a turning point in our evolution or could be the flash point to our fall. How should we decide or rather on what bases can we?

I realize in your post that in part you have raised some of the same concerns, yet at the same time you view it more strongly as an instrument of traditional politics, which ironically is the exact opposite to the aspirations of its founders and first disciples. This also forms part of my concern, for I feel the internet should be promoted to serve as the counterexample to how humanity might organize themselves in terms of the individual adding direct input into the opinions formed and actions taken. Not the other way around were it serves only as the vehicle to expedite the demise of the individual to form what will be recognized as only the collective. I strongly believe then it should be structured and organized to reflect the needs and thoughts of the collective, while respecting the value of the individual and defending his right to remain one.

Regards,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Tommaso:

Thanks. I have more or less successfully tried to ignore these photos for more than a year. The dress was new, I bought it the previous day. Maybe I shouldn't have worn it for the talk though, it might have been a bit too. oohm. short. Anyway, I am always embarrassed about photos I have to look at of myself giving talks. Those from the Loops aren't better. (Tried to keep the trousers together with a safety pin but it didn't work, so they sit dangerously low.) I think somebody should nominate me for the golden blackberry, the most inappropriately dressed physicist or something. Best,

B.

PS: But I really like the dress! It's actually two, worn above each other.

Bee said...

Hi TKK,

You have added to my hope that your generation will make seminal contributions to mankind in the future, despite my observation that too many 30-something have lost their ways.

Most of them would agree I am the one who has lost her way, and most of the time I would agree with them. But besides this, it's not my generation who is in charge now. It's those in their early 50ies who are. It's people a big fraction of whom doesn't know what html is, and for whom rss-feed could be a fast food chain (I am sorry if that is insulting, I don't think the blogosphere provides a very good average picture, so this probably won't reflect in the visitors here).

This huge inertia in implementing technological changes can become a problem when times are changing fast. The adaption works way better in companies than in governmental institutions, which creates an unfortunate imbalance that makes matters only worse (as a result, the brighter people leave politics/science and go to where they are listened to, not to mention better paid, thereby further contributing to that imbalance. call it the brain drain of politics).

It's the same problem really like the one I had in the early 90ies, still, people don't listen. Not only to me (that I could understand), but to warnings of their intellectual elite (if you allow the expression, I don't particularly like it, but I hope you know what I mean). That's what I've tried to express in my recent post On The Edge. There is an overwhelming conscious and unconscious sense of 'it will all work out somehow', which *might* be the case, but really, should we rely on it? I don't see myself actually as a big worrier, but what is striking in these discussions is that I very rarely find arguments that would weaken any of these concerns (see e.g. Lanier's article I quoted above), people nod, but ignore. It reminds me scarily of the environmentalist movement in the 80ies, arising energy problems, global warming. There has been very little disagreement neither on the facts, nor on what should be done, but most of the world has just ignored it. It took three decades for these thoughts to sink in. (Time it takes for the 30somethings to become the generation in charge?). It's a time span we don't have for the problems we are facing now.

Yes Google delivers potential information overload. But Google is only a facilitator, and other facilitators can come along. What's important are the web contents, the human creators of that content. While Google have some control over priority, it is the receiver who have control over filtering,

I might have made myself somewhat unclear in my writing. It is not Google that 'delivers' information overload. The web provides information overload. It needs to be filtered somehow. And Google is one of the most frequently used tools to do it. Yes, others can come along, but as I mentioned above, there is no guarantee for this, neither that these others might raise to equal or higher importance, or actually solve any problem. "it is the receiver who have control over filtering" is pretty much an illusion. The actual, de facto control we really have over the information we obtain is very limited. This is what I mentioned above. Theoretically yes, you could go through all the Google hits and hopefully find the information you regard the most relevant, you could 'control' that filtering. But practically little people do, they rely on what Google spits out, so who is in control, effectively?

You mention later: most people have found themselves some network of trusted sites and connections that they rely on. Yes, this provides effectively an information filter, and it's one that I find very useful. It has the drawback though that people tend to stay within circles that confirm their already hold believes. That however is a habit which is way older than the internet. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I hope you understand now why I did not address your earlier comment to the other post.

at the same time you view it more strongly as an instrument of traditional politics, which ironically is the exact opposite to the aspirations of its founders and first disciples.

I am not sure actually what you mean with 'traditional' in this context, so let me leave this aside. The internet being an instrument of politics is not so much my view as just a fact. To quote Wikipedia (yes!): "Politics is the process by which groups of people make decisions." Forming opinions and obtaining information is part of that -- there is no doubt the internet is part of the process by which we make decisions, whether we like that or not. And it is a part that becomes more and more important, even more so since many of the higher quality print magazines/newspapers are struggling with the competition. This is not a view, it is just reality. And it is unsurprising at least to me. Politics is all about opinion and decision making, obviously a large and tightly connected network with an increasing information database will play a major role in that.

The point I was trying to make is that we should be aware of that, and learn how to deal with it in a timely manner. I.e. yesterday.

This also forms part of my concern, for I feel the internet should be promoted to serve as the counterexample to how humanity might organize themselves in terms of the individual adding direct input into the opinions formed and actions taken. Not the other way around were it serves only as the vehicle to expedite the demise of the individual to form what will be recognized as only the collective. I strongly believe then it should be structured and organized to reflect the needs and thoughts of the collective, while respecting the value of the individual and defending his right to remain one.

I totally agree on the latter. Not surprisingly this is also the aim our constitutions have: address the needs of the collective while respecting the value of the individual and defending his right to remain one. That's why I say it is not actually a new question we are facing here, so why should we reinvent the wheel?

Wikipedia is information prioritized by human consensus and mitigated by human referees. Google is information prioritized and mitigated by a referee that constitutes to be an algorithm. The former reflects humanity as it is and the later as it is becoming.

I don't agree that Wikipedia 'reflects humanity as it is' for the reasons I have explained in the post above. It fails to appropriately implement the specialization in different areas that has taken place in our society in form of representatives with expertise. This is in my opinion a pretty well established mechanism to increase quality, and it is actually not clear to me why this hasn't been tried. You find a very similar structure occasionally in a forum where there are some 'expert' administrators that moderate the discussions etc. Yet there is often some ambiguity of how these people come to do the job, and whether they are actually qualified, and/or what the guidelines are (or if they've ever read them).

This may represent a turning point in our evolution or could be the flash point to our fall. How should we decide or rather on what bases can we?

One of the most important criteria in this regard is the resilience of the system, i.e. the question of how well we are potentially able to correct a tendency into a wrong direction. The way to achieve that is to allow feedback, to process it in a way that it can act as a correction, and not to focus power in the hands of little people. Again, these are the same problems that our political systems were set up to deal with. You are asking how should we decide. You have been following this blog for a while, so you should know my answer. I don't have a solution, I only point the way to get there: A system should be set up such that mistakes can be corrected without it having to go through a major breakdown. Thinking ahead helps. I believe in the scientific method. I believe that exporting involved questions to a elected committees of experts is the best way to deal with the complexity of the decisions we face today. I don't believe in the wisdom of large groups without specific expertise. Indeed, I find large groups of people generally scary. It is a complex system, hard to predict where opinions will go, and it's not a good idea to rely on their judgement. To repeat a phrase I seem to use constantly: nothing of that is new. It's been known since decades (if not centuries). Sometimes I am afraid in the era of the internet, knowledge passed on from earlier times becomes increasingly less accessible and less acknowledged. Brave new world.

Best,

B.

amaragraps said...

I don't agree that Wikipedia 'reflects humanity as it is' for the reasons I have explained in the post above. It fails to appropriately implement the specialization in different areas that has taken place in our society in form of representatives with expertise.

Dear Bee: My suggestion to help guide the situation to move in a better direction is to (gently?) suggest and often to our colleagues to put their tidbits of expertise into Wikipedia. If we keep up the pressure, then it will become a common outreach strategy for all of our scientific activities.

The other point which noone has mentioned here yet (if they did,then I missed it, my apologies), is the danger of "Google History". That is, if Google hasn't heard about it, then it doesn't exist. We all fall into traps about it, even me, who is supposedly aware. Below are relevant quotes from this article by Mark LeVine published in 2003 in the Orange Country Weekly.

"Since I can’t find it on Google, you’re obviously lying," Mr. Prager informed me—and his listeners—as we returned from a commercial.

"Later, as my head cleared, I began to realize just how dangerous our on-air exchange was for the future of history—as a scholarly discipline and a public trust. To begin with, the Google standard of history assumes that if something hasn’t made it onto the web, it never happened. This is clearly nonsense, as there are innumerable contemporary events that never become Googleable "facts" because the people involved have neither the access to official "recorders of history" (such as reporters, activists or scholars) nor the technology to put it on the web themselves. Or the information could be on the web, but in Arabic, French, Japanese or a hundred other languages Prager might not have the software to decipher."

"Google history also ignores the fact that quite a few important events occurred before the birth of the web. Did the Revolutionary War not happen because it’s not cached by Google or in the Times’ online archive?"

"The problems of Google history are not restricted to the competing claims of Israeli and Palestinian violence. A group of high school teachers recently showed me the materials they’ve been given to help their students learn about Iraq. It reads like Google history—a few names and dates, with the nuances and complexities of the country’s history and our role in it nowhere to be found. Worse still, most of the materials were created by several mainstream news organizations for their "educational" websites. This is one reason professors frown on students using the web for research."

"There’s a reason history should be written by historians and not by Internet software or talk-show hosts: Who else today has the time and patience to sift through the past to unearth the events and ideas that are fundamental to reasoned public debate on the most crucial issues facing our society? The ancient Greeks long ago realized that history is crucial to democracy; especially in wartime, we Googleize it at our peril."

Neil' said...

Bee, thanks for the pdf line, yet unless you already told us I was thinking of a literal print medium publication, I am sure you can get this into Wired or etc, their site or even better the actual paper mag. too.

I get the understanding, that the new Google search method discriminates against older pages that may be more worthy than the newer ones.

Bee said...

Dear Amara:

First, thanks for letting us know how the story went on with your move - I haven't yet had the time to reply. I hope you manage to assemble the couch (that PhD must be good for something!). Stefan and I we were also slightly worried about my bookshelf, which isn't standing really vertical as it should due to the soft carpet, but at least it is standing. I've been moving with that same shelf from Arizona to California to Canada, and two more times into a new apartment - it is a small miracle actually it hasn't been more damaged than a couple of scratches.

The other point which noone has mentioned here yet (if they did,then I missed it, my apologies), is the danger of "Google History". That is, if Google hasn't heard about it, then it doesn't exist.

Thanks for pointing this out so clearly, this is what I meant to indicate with

"Relevant for people's decisions is not only the information they have. But how much information they believe they have, and how accurate they believe it to be. Combine that with the faith in Google and Wikipedia. Is there information not on the internet?"

and my above reply to Phil:

"I am afraid in the era of the internet, knowledge passed on from earlier times becomes increasingly less accessible and less acknowledged."

In essence this is what lead me to the comparison with the fly bumping against the window (that I used in this earlier post) : a system that loses memory isn't able to correct mistakes. I agree with your concerns on that matter. It also has very real consequences for our community. Is it only me who has the impression that it happens increasingly often, that people re-invent ideas? Especially people who have little or no access to journals that are not on the web, or just don't use them, are prone to conclude something hasn't been done because they haven't heard of it, and the arXiv doesn't show up anything. This actually brings me to another problem, that about finding the right keywords but this is a different topic.

My suggestion to help guide the situation to move in a better direction is to (gently?) suggest and often to our colleagues to put their tidbits of expertise into Wikipedia. If we keep up the pressure, then it will become a common outreach strategy for all of our scientific activities.


I have never contributed to Wikipedia, and even though I wouldn't generally exclude it, I currently have no inclination to do so. For this reason I am also not going to exert any pressure on my colleagues. I actually don't think it is our job to re-type textbooks into Wikipedia articles. If there are people who like to do so, fine, great, maybe Universities and Institutions should have somebody in public outreach who takes care of that, but above all I think researchers should spend their time on doing research (meaning, I should do some work now...).

As I said above, I don't mind Wikipedia but I think I made clear why I am unconvinced of the way the system is set up, and this is one of the reasons I don't want to contribute. The other reason is that I like to write, but I like to write my way, and I have fun embedding explanations into little stories with pictures etc. This is a creativity I can't outlive on Wikipedia, it's just not for me.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Neil',

I was thinking of a literal print medium publication, I am sure you can get this into Wired or etc, their site or even better the actual paper mag. too.

Will think about. Not sure though whether it's worth the effort. In my experience publication is an extremely annoying process that I don't want to go through unnecessarily. If somebody wants to print it, fine, I don't mind (see Science Anthology in the side bar).

I get the understanding, that the new Google search method discriminates against older pages that may be more worthy than the newer ones.

Yeah, that was also my impression. Given what I said above about how I dislike the emphasis the internet puts on NEW-ness above everything else (minor criteria like content or quality), I find it a remarkable progress towards regress that Google supports this trend which in its promotion and amplification of hypes is actually worrisome (see Lanier's remark about low-pass filters). I can't but wonder whether decisions like those are due to the fact that just nobody actually thinks about the sociological consequences. The Google Philosophy of 'do no evil' sounds in my ears rather ironic. Good will is necessary, but not sufficient. This reflects to me again that gap which has developed between the humanistics and the natural sciences. Best,

B.

Uncle Al said...

1) The future is created by those who work to create it.
2) Never underestimate the power of large groups of stupid people (e.g., the de facto US Christian Republican Party).
3) Who watches the Watchers? Entropy watches the Watchers.

Democracy requires a significant fraction of interested citizenry to be usefully educated and to exercise civic responsibility. Hillery Ramrod Clinton shedding alligator tears in New Hampshire to overturn primary election predictions is a eulogy for democratic process. 20 minutes after 11 September 2001 occured President Bush the Lesser was still reading a book about goats to kindergartners.

Will the next President be Aleric the Invisigoth? Small wonder, that, with gold exceeding $(USD)900/oz while being €607/oz.

amaragraps said...

Hi Bee:

For those who missed it, the tail end of the Moving Saga is here. No my PhD didn't help me assemble my futon couch, nor did it help me with balancing my bookshelves! (My geeky friends were endlessly amused that it was my bookshelves of physics books that toppled over. :-) I would suggest slipping more pieces of cardboard underneath the front of your bookshelves to help them lean backwards (to offset the weight of the books).

I think that you are already performing an admirable information service for the community. Only instead of people finding your information in Wikipedia, they find find it with Google (yes!) at your web sites. Being aware of the Google algorithms, since so many people depend on them, should be discussed as often as possible, I think.

My philosophy about Wikipedia is that since it is the place where many people go first for information about a topic, I should try to give them good information if I have some 'expert' knowledge about a topic. My writing style (and sometimes the contents) are transformed in the process by the Wikipedia editors and community though, though, so I understand about your desire to keep your own style and content. And I'm not a regular blogger, unlike you, for reasons of my own typing limitations. (Although, now that I have a livable salary, I will probably be writing publicly more.) You and I have naturally chosen the venues that suit us best for information content and distribution.

Bee said...

Hi Amara: Sorry for mingling up the link - I meant it to go to the comment you mention. No idea why I instead copied to href to your profile? Best, B.

amaragraps said...

Ah hah! Just received in email this notice of a talk, that seems very relevant to this topic.

*************************************************************
Stanford Seminar on People, Computers, and Design (CS547)
see http://hci.stanford.edu/seminar for the quarter's schedule
Gates B01 (NEC Classroom) and SITN, 12:30-2:00pm PDT (UTC 19:30)
Video: http://scpd.stanford.edu/scpd/students/courseList.asp CS547
*************************************************************
Friday, January 18, 2008

Dan Russell , Google
http://dmrussell.googlepages.com/

How good Google searchers get to be that way

Some searchers are very effective at finding stuff with search engines, others seem to have trouble getting their questions answered. Why are some searchers so good, and what do they do differently than others? I'll talk about some of the differences between searchers at different proficiency levels and what it means to learn how to search and research∑ and what the difference is. It's not the same as what you might have learned in a library skills class 20 years ago.

**************************************************************
Daniel M Russell is a research scientist at Google where he works in the area of search quality, with a focus on understanding what makes Google users happy in their use of web search. He studies how people do their searches, trying to understand the most common traps and pathways to successful Google use. Dan has been a researcher at IBM's Almaden Research Center, Apple's Advanced Technology Group and Xerox PARC. He received his PhD from the University of Rochester before there was a world-wide web, and remembers a time when email addresses didn't end in .com or .edu. He enjoys long distance running, making music and word play, becoming disgruntled when he can't do all three in one day.

**************************************************************

John G said...

Wikpedia can certainly have biased people doing some editing in their favor. For example, Walmart editing the page on their outsourcing practices. You want both sides presented, but do you always get that?

http://www.maltastar.com/pages/msFullArt.asp?an=14323

Bee said...

Hi Amara:

Only instead of people finding your information in Wikipedia, they find find it with Google (yes!) at your web sites.

I am not actually sure about that. Databases are at least good for analysis, so here is what Google analytics says about the visitors that come to this website. The amount of people who comes here through search engines is ~ 30%. Almost half of the people come by direct referrals (CV, Not Even Wrong, other blogs sidebars, a couple of homepages, places where Backreaction has been mentioned etc), the remainder is direct traffic, I believe that probably includes bookmarks and covers most of the frequent readers. The presently most highly ranked keywords that lead people to this blog are:

1. backreaction 1,087
2. garrett lisi 243
3. bee lisi 176
4. backreaction blog 164
5. sabine hossenfelder 161
6. casimir effect 144
7. lubos motl 94
8. gzk cutoff 92
9. phil warnell 87 (Phil, is that you??)
10. back reaction 64
11. peter woit 59
12. renormalization 54
13. advent calendar backreaction 53
14. lee smolin 53

The number is labeled as 'visits', but I am not actually sure visits per what, so forget about the absolute value. Usually Peter and Lee rank higher, whereas the advent calendar is probably only temporarily there. Lisi surprisingly still going strong. Either way, it seems to me that most of the people who come here use the Google toolbar (as I often do) instead of a bookmark, i.e. they probably exactly know what they are looking for (Bee Backreaction) anyhow. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Ah, I guess the Phil-Warnell searchers are looking for this? Interesting, kind of.

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

that's the best and most impressive text I've read lately - thank you very much! It offers so many thoughts and ideas, where should I start?

Of the scenarios you describe, the third one seems pretty scary to me - this Frederic F is, somhow, the ultimate Blofeld, just that James Bond blowing up the google computing centre probably wouldn't help.

About wikipedia, I've read last week, by chance, in the current newletter of the History of Science Society (unfortunately, text not online yet) a piece by Sage Ross, where he argues that the most often read text about, say, Albert Einstein is the Wikipedia entry, and that it matters if errors or long-dispelled myths should be propagated in Wikipedia articles.

According to him, such errors should be corrected by the experts who recognize them and can do so, and he claims that, from his own experience, careful explanations backed-up with clear references to the literature usually are not edited away.

Here is a related text by him (PDF file) "We Cannot Allow a Wikipedia Gap!" - I am not quite sure what actually the Wikipedia Gap refers to. In my reading, closing the "Wikipedia Gap" means "making sure your area of research is represented amply and accurately". About the fear of wasting time on a text that get's edited ways, he writes "In practice, the good and well‐sourced content in most articles is remarkably stable; usually the worst long‐term threat to a solid article is the accretion of trivial details.", and as a bonus, you "will draw people to your work, especially for those interested in related topics."

Hm...

About google, the Swiss "Die Wochenzeitung" has a very interesting "Google Spezial" (text in German). There is one interesting article about the "Deep Web", content that is not found by search engines. I am not actually sure if this is related to the Deep Web problem, but in my opinion there is a "Google Gap" if you look for introductory material on any topic that can typically be found in textbooks, but which is not covered in Wikipedia. On that eye, the web seems to be blind, and google quite useless...

Best, Stefan

Bee said...

Hi Amara,

Thanks, I will keep his name in mind for the conference that I'm trying to organize, hope to have a progress report on that at some point.

Hi John,

Yeah, I know that story, not a pretty one. My concerns about Wikipedia however go into a different direction. I.e. think about topics where the majority has strong opinions that are however not rationally supported. It doesn't matter in such a case whether there are some guidelines. A guideline isn't of much use if many people ignore it, and if they form a majority one can't do anything about it. That's why we have laws and ways to enforce them. The analogy might be a bit crude, but maybe you understand what I mean. One such a problem are taboos or e.g. political correctness, or call it the problem with the 'dangerous ideas'. There might be a prevailing sense that one 'should' not say certain things because they are not nice or might hurt people etc, and it might very well be that a majority feels better when certain articles are formulated somewhat 'nicer'. Try as an example of such a complicated topic e.g. The Female Brain quality and neutrality is disputed (the article sounds to me like written by someone who didn't like the book because she found it offending), the discussion doesn't seem to go anywhere. Similarly, try Race and Intelligence. See the problem? I actually don't see how Wikipedia with the present organization will ever be able to get that straightened out, unless they come to a similar conclusion like I suggest with the representing experts in certain areas that are chosen because they are (hopefully) able to discuss the topic objectively, outside the majorities emotional reactions. Best,

B.

Plato said...

My suggestion to help guide the situation to move in a better direction is to (gently?) suggest and often to our colleagues to put their tidbits of expertise into Wikipedia. If we keep up the pressure, then it will become a common outreach strategy for all of our scientific activities.

This was the point I made in the previous blog posting Bee. You as a expert have that option.

How many people you know with science degrees have contributed to Wikipedia?

I have had this conversation some time ago 2005, where such a conclusion was made as I have written it. I think Amara you do not have to be gentle about it.

If it's wrong you say so.

amaragraps said...

Dear Stefan, I'm not certain in which way, but 'Wikipedia Gap', if you look at the author's references is an oblique reference to Dr. Strangelove's "Mine Shaft Gap",

from Wikipedia ;-)

"The bomb explodes, and, according to the Soviet ambassador, life on Earth's surface will be extinct in ten months due to the Doomsday Machine. Dr. Strangelove recommends to the President that a group of about 200,000 people be relocated deep in a mine shaft, where the nuclear fallout cannot reach them, so that the USA can be repopulated afterwards. Because of space limitations, Strangelove suggests a gender ratio of "ten females to each male," with the women selected for their sexual characteristics, and the men selected on the basis of their physical strength, intellectual capabilities and their importance in business and the government. General Turgidson rants that the Soviets will likely create an even better bunker than the US, and argues that America "must not allow a mine shaft gap." "

... which is, itself, a reference to the 'Missile Gap' between the USSR and the USA.

In this context, since knowledge is power and the the author describes islands of specialized knowledge, he hopes that gaps of knowledge don't become too great? I.e. that Wikpedia becomes a widespread tool of knowledge dissemination for everyone (my guess).

stefan said...

Dear Amara,

oh, that's funny - I didn't not this reference to Dr. Strangelove in the references ;-)...

Reading the article I also thought that Sage Ross may refer by "Wikipedia Gap" to the potential of Wikipedia to bridging the ever‐widening gaps between the islands of specialized knowledge, though, I am not sure...

The other definition, meaning the gap between scholarly well-established knowledge and the qualitatively watered-down version that may be found in some Wikipedia entries, could work as well. For me, that's a quite catchy phrase for this problem with Wikipedia.

BTW, googling for "Wikipedia gap" brings up this blog post, which criticises the ban of Wikipedia in schools and emphasises the big value of the site as a tool for learning how to critically look up facts and search for sources. I wonder what is the gap there...

Best, Stefan

John G said...

Giving "dangerous" but possibly true ideas a proper voice is of course a problem outside Wikipedia too and if society as a whole has problems in this area, it is hard to imagine Wikipedia fixing things. The idea of the sun having a big effect on global warming fits into this category. Tony's friend Ark, who I mentioned earlier apparently shares your view that Wikipedia is a good problem to highlight in relation to dangerous ideas. His group actually downloaded Wikipedia and has created their own version:

http://www.cassiopedia.org/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page

Bee said...

Hi John:

is of course a problem outside Wikipedia too and if society as a whole has problems in this area, it is hard to imagine Wikipedia fixing things.

I think you misunderstood what I was trying to say. Wikipedia is trying to be an encyclopedia. I was pointing out problems that occur on Wikipedia that an encyclopedia with single authored articles would not have. It is very well possible to write an objective article about a topic that is not yet scientifically completely settled. Uncertainty is part of scientific progress and can be acknowledged appropriately. This is a huge problem for Wikipedia because, as I have argued, it has no good mechanism to extract the expert voices over the background noise (not yet, lets see where it goes). In nothing of what I have written above I have even argued to 'fix' things in our society. To begin with I would be fine if it doesn't get worse than it already is. Best,

B.

amaragraps said...

If one follows the Cassiopedia approach, however, then _who_ decides the approved authors?

I'm encouraged, anyhow, that multiple approaches are being tried, so we will soon know what works best.

Bee said...

Hi Plato:

This was the point I made in the previous blog posting Bee. You as a expert have that option.

How many people you know with science degrees have contributed to Wikipedia?

I have had this conversation some time ago 2005, where such a conclusion was made as I have written it. I think Amara you do not have to be gentle about it.

If it's wrong you say so.


There is nothing wrong about it. The case for me is pretty simple: I have a contract that says I am a researcher. It is not my job to write an encyclopedia, and if something like this had been written in my contract, I wouldn't have accepted the position. I am just not interested. For the same reason I do not think it is the job of any of my colleagues to provide a service they are not being paid for, and a service that is not acknowledged for their further employment or careers. I am pretty sure there are people in this world - with a science degree - who like to do that. If there aren't sufficiently many who want to do it without salary, without credits, on a website that does not have 'private property' - congratulations, you have just discovered why communism failed. Best,

B.

amaragraps said...

Dear Bee: Are you paid for blogging? If no, I suggest that still your career benefits from it.

In a marketplace of information, the useful information has advantages over the useless information. Wikipedia gives people a forum to input information, and if that information piques the readers' interest, then they will follow it up.

If you have good information on that particular topic, then they will follow Wikipedia's idea to you, as the next level of information for which they seek. No communism involved.

One can help pique the readers' interest by writing something more substantial at Wikipedia or continue in the good blogging / web article writing that one (such as yourself) does, or both!, But I don't agree that Wikipedia articles do not benefit one's personal career. There's a link between the two, and moreover, I think one can make the link stronger by writing high-quality Wikipedia articles.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“9. phil warnell 87 (Phil, is that you??)”

The only thing I can think of is that in a recent blog I posted I referred to your site as a “wonderful blog” and attached a link to the phrase. If you would like I will of course remove it. It is strange though since I don’t draw much traffic and I don’t promote, yet above all it’s not very good. The only place I show up is on science blogs and forums. I used to frequent the CompuServe Sci/Math formum in the late eighties to the middle nineties though; of course that must be it! And you said those Google guys didn’t track the old stuff. Correction I mean vintage:-)

“Ah, I guess the Phil-Warnell searchers are looking for this? Interesting, kind of.”

T’is not I. That’s some techno art Brit chap. I’m a 9th generation Canuk. Chances being though we are distantly related. I hope you’re not going to hold that against me :-)

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Amara:

No, I am not paid for blogging. Blogging is a hobby, and I want it to remain one. Luckily, I am a fast writer and in many cases the topics I write about overlap with my research. I do it because I have fun doing it. As I said, if somebody likes to write for Wikipedia, that is great, but it is voluntary, and I am certainly not going to push people into doing it. I understood Plato's comment as saying people who have the scientific expertise should contribute in that way to the increase of public knowledge, and my answer to this is simply: no, if they are researchers that's not their job. If you want to see more jobs in public outreach of science, employ people, I am certainly in favor of that.

I am sorry if that sounds not nice, but occasionally I am really tired of people who write to me asking basic science questions. I certainly do appreciate the interest, but I am not a public ask-the-expert forum, and it is not my task to answer these emails. It seems to me indeed, there is a certain demand for people who perform this function, and since it is a job that needs a proper education, reliable people, and is definitely a beneficial public service I think people should be paid for it.

Further, I don't think writing this blog helps my career in any regard. Except maybe that it helps me sorting out my thoughts, so it indirectly positively influences my research. In fact, in the reactions I get from my colleagues, writing the blog affects my reputation rather negatively, because it labels me apparently as a gossiper, not to mention an extrovert, both of which could hardly be farther away from the truth.

In a marketplace of information, the useful information has advantages over the useless information.

Sure. But at Wikipedia the advantage is not on the site of those who have the work. Don't misunderstand me, I am all for altruism and it would be great if everybody offered his or her skills and time for free to everybody, but I just don't think this will work out. As I said to Plato above, for much the same reason why communism doesn't work. It builds up on an idealized picture of humans. People just have a certain priority for their own interests over that of the collective. You will end up exerting pressure on them by telling them it is GOOD to contribute to the well-being of everybody by doing this or that, gently? I think that rather sooner or later, the Wiki-enthusiasm is going to fade out, and the owners will realize that they have to offer some kind of incentives to keep up the quality. The feeling to be GOOD because one volunteers to do something for no reward for the community doesn't reach far, and doesn't last long. Mankind hasn't changed that much in the last 5 years.

Best,

B.

amaragraps said...

Dear Bee: I do understand about not being paid to answer questions from public. If I'm struggling to pay rent (or to finish my PhD or to build my family, all of which have been my realities in the last 10 years), then I have little incentive to spend the time to answer questions. To help make clear and to alleviate misunderstanding and bad feelings, I even stated something to that effect at my web site. My philosophy is that if/when I can do a good job taking care of my priorities, then there is a spillover of what I can offer to give to the rest of the world. And when that happens, the quality is good.

Now that said, writing does clarify my thoughts, like writing clarifies yours. Stated at my web site(for why I have such a gigantuan site): "Writing is often how I clarify a concept, how I learn, or how I refresh my memory. When writing to learn, this method works by my latching onto an interesting topic, reading all that I can about it, synthesizing the information, then writing about it." So it gives me writing practice and it keeps me fresh on some topics.

Regarding Wikipedia: I've written into my grant proposals aspects of public outreach that involve Wikipedia, so there are ways to have it be more closely linked to one's job. Also, I would like to point out the psychological aspects of giving, good things, for free. Usenet, at least before the trolls added too much to the noise, ran on such altruism. And don't forget the Open Source Community. The success of the latter is why I don't think that such altruism will die any time soon.

Plato said...

Bee:I understood Plato's comment as saying people who have the scientific expertise should contribute in that way to the increase of public knowledge,

In all fairness Bee I never expected any scientist to do anything other then what they want to do, and certainly not to look at my latest theory.

I don't have one, um, I think?:)

Bee I said you have the "option." That choice is yours? No more then that.

No hard feelings either. I understand your position clearly.

Plato said...

How many people you know with science degrees have contributed to Wikipedia?

This is a legitimate question. I know of two now. I suspect there are more.

The quality has definitely been improving. I used to date my linked references to show from the last time used to that Wikipedia reference, just to see if it had changed since using it.

I tried to add "dimensionality" to the sources of quotes and titles, to help people decide whether they want to journey to these linked sites, or not.

It is not much in the way I can contribute to the growth of the internet, but I am trying to be responsible by linking and portraying sources. Trying to be innovative with what we are given.

Also, I am busy doing other things in terms of media, political, issues confronting society, and yes science is my hobby along with writing.

The idea of first hand reporting by blogging changes a lot of things given an access to video, and events first hand. Confronting media giants, the publics views could be biased according to what one wanted to present. One had to learn to operate around that.

The Independent Media Center (aka Indymedia or IMC) is a global network of participatory journalists that reports with a generally left-wing perspective on political and social issues. It originated in and remains closely associated with the global justice movement, which criticizes neo-liberalism, and its associated institutions. Indymedia uses an open publishing process that allows anybody to contribute.

Indymedia was around before blogging made it's appearance?:)

Thomas Larsson said...


people who have the scientific expertise should contribute in that way to the increase of public knowledge, and my answer to this is simply: no, if they are researchers that's not their job.


Unless you have a permanent position, you might want to do things that look good on your CV - research, teaching and outreach. Not because it is your job, but because it is your problem if somebody else has more merits when you apply for your next job.

Besides, I think that Lubos has written quite a few of the physics articles in Wikipedia. It did not necessarily do him any good, though.

Bee said...

Hi Mark:

For reasons that are very mysterious to me our email spam filter disliked your comment, and sorted it into the junk folder. I wonder what was objectionable about it? 'corporate and government cream', or maybe 'The wealthy and powerful'?

Hi Plato:

Thanks for the clarification, and apologies for the misunderstanding on my side.

Hi Phil:

Yeah, I figured this Phil Warnell wasn't you. Did you see the site about the girl with the X-ray eyes? Keep wondering exactly which X-rays she thinks she sees.

Dear Amara:

I do understand about not being paid to answer questions from public. If I'm struggling to pay rent ... then I have little incentive to spend the time to answer questions... My philosophy is that if/when I can do a good job taking care of my priorities, then there is a spillover of what I can offer to give to the rest of the world. And when that happens, the quality is good.

Sure. As you said above, you have found your way for that, I have found mine. My statement about not being paid for public outreach was a very general one. On this blog, we try to answer questions in the comment section as far as possible. It helps matters a lot, if people have an article to read that they can refer to, and lucky occasionally other visitors help in the process. If I have the time I usually answer to emails I get, but there is a limit to this, and it happens more and more often that the only thing I can answer these people is that I am sorry, but I can't spend my whole day explaining what a Lorentz transformation is, and if they'd maybe instead consider opening a textbook or taking a physics class. I don't meant that in a nasty way, but this is not how I want my job to be.

Since the result is then that I occasionally have to hear (one could even find that in some comments on this blog - if one finds it that is) that we are 'paid by tax money' and it's our job to educate the public, I found it necessary to point out this is de facto not the case. Not only because I happen to sit in an Institute that is to a large part financed by certain fruity devices, but because my job, and that of most of my colleagues, are research positions, that's what we were employed for, that's what we have signed. PI doesn't even have teaching duties. All these efforts that take place nevertheless are completely voluntarily, and hostile comments about the arrogance of the 'ivory tower' are completely, utterly, inappropriate. I apologize for that this forward defense randomly hit you, but I find this sometimes a bit annoying. You offer a small finger, and get bitten off the whole hand, thanks. That is not the way one convinces people to contribute to communicating science, instead they will try to stay out of it.

Also, I would like to point out the psychological aspects of giving, good things, for free. Usenet, at least before the trolls added too much to the noise, ran on such altruism. And don't forget the Open Source Community. The success of the latter is why I don't think that such altruism will die any time soon.

We will see. I didn't say the altruism will die, and I share your point of view that there are beneficial psychological aspects of giving for free. What I meant to say is that Wikipedia needs too much contributors of this type, it needs them from all areas, not only the classically nerdy open source guys, and this will not last. Wiki-ing is currently fashionable, and people seem to be in a 'look what we can do together'-mood, but they will figure it doesn't pay off. There is the social network status that people obtain in the Wiki-dialogues and negotiations, but I doubt that will remain sufficient.

Hi Thomas:

Unless you have a permanent position, you might want to do things that look good on your CV - research, teaching and outreach. Not because it is your job, but because it is your problem if somebody else has more merits when you apply for your next job.

That might very well be, but the problem with Wikipedia is that you can't do that, this is what I meant to express. I mean, you can write into your CV you've spend endless hours writing articles, but there is no way to tell whether it is true, or what the quality of your contributions is.

Besides this, if you've read my post on the 'Marketplace of Ideas' you know what I think about the argument 'because it looks good on the CV' (secondary criteria, not a primary goal).

Besides, I think that Lubos has written quite a few of the physics articles in Wikipedia. It did not necessarily do him any good, though.

Well, leaving aside Lubos, I think many people try to use Wiki entries to prominently place links to their own site, or references to their own works. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Amara:

Thanks for mentioning Cassiopedia - I had not heard of that before. The site you linked to explains

Cassiopedia strives for a low signal-to-noise ratio. Therefore Cassiopedia can be read by anyone but only approved authors and editors may post content. This restriction applies to all areas of Cassiopedia, including "talk" pages for articles - unlike Wikipedia, Cassiopedia does not allow readers to post "talk" comments to articles. If we did allow that then the signal-to-noise ratio would rise considerably

Sounds interesting. I'm not exactly sure though whether keeping the signal below the noise is a desirable goal. Best,

B.

amaragraps said...

We should thank john g for the Cassiopedia reference, because I hadn't heard of it before, either.

btw, Bee, in 2000, I deleted my web site for several months and took a break from the web because I was so ... disappointed/disgusted/whatever with the behavior of strangers writing me. Demanding (always) that I do something for them, impolite (often not addressing me by my name), sometimes lying about who and what they represented, and so on. Once I've received torrents of name calling, when I was unable to answer someone's email. (I think I was having a flare up of my repetitive strain injury at the time.) There up sides and down sides to corresponding in our Brave New World, and this was definitely a phase of down sides for me. After I put my web site back up, I began to place limits for how much to correspond with strangers.

Everyone who is in the public and who has offered something good for free encounters such kind of behavior, and everyone must devise their own personal strategy for managing it. What kinds of limits, what to say to people, how to not be affected. It sounds like you have done that, or are in the process of doing that.

Bee said...

Dear Amara:

Oops, must have missed John's comment. (For whatever reasons, the comments yesterday did not arrive in chronological order, which is pretty confusing.) I am sorry to hear about the bad time you've been given by strangers writing emails. Maybe this should be said more often and more publicly, it might initiate people to rethink what they are doing. It seems to me, this is in a certain way another aspect of the communication difficulties in the virtual world. Best,

B.

amaragraps said...

I think that the 'mood' of the Web goes through phases, as well. Around 2000, many newcomers were entering the arena, many more people had just put personal computers in their home; it was a wild and new time. Conversations between people over the Internet was still a new idea for many, and so a basic kind of consideration hadn't been developed. It was too easy, at that time, to not understand that a real human was at the other end of one's quick and easy email request.

I think that blogs changed that lack of consideration for the better, because now it is clear that real people are writing their real stories. You're performing a valuable service, Bee, on many levels, even if you don't think that it helps your career (of which I disagree ;-) )

John G said...

By fixing I just meant having a meaningful unmoderated dialog on controversial subjects without the noise getting too high. I wasn't talking about finding the correct answers. Back in 1990, my original online service (Prodigy) said they didn't add politics or religion boards cause they didn't want to handle the noise, though they changed their minds later. Cassiopedia with their approving of authors and lack of reader comments is certainly adding some moderation to ward off noise and thus one has to have some trust in the owners; I very much do but everyone isn't going to, they are controversial. For example, one group member produced a widely seen video on 9-11:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A13059-2004Oct6.html

changcho said...

Hi Bee: great post as usual...
"Envision a library without any cataloguing. Of what use is it if you're told everything you need to know can be found somewhere on these four floors, filled with bookshelves up to the ceiling?"

Yes, that's the Library of Babel, except that it is seemingly infinite in all directions, but all the information you need is there, if you can find it! I first heard of this from my C. Kittel book on undergrad thermodynamics.