Friday, May 01, 2009

Fluff vs Meaning

I was just reading about Wolfram Alpha, a "computational knowledge engine" due later this year. You can read about it too, or simply accept this synopsis on the BBC by its creator, Stephen Wolfram:
"Wolfram Alpha is like plugging into a vast electronic brain," he wrote earlier this year. "It computes answers - it doesn't merely look them up in a big database."
He goes onto say something that really rubbed me up the wrong way, that the system is really good at "removing linguistic fluff".


'Linguistic fluff'? I call that 'meaning'.
As Faris has said, "words are where we live."

Thankfully, someone more intelligent than me - Dr Boris Katz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - speaks up in the same article:
"I believe he is misguided in treating language as a nuisance instead of trying to understand the way it organises concepts into structures that require understanding and harnessing."
Optimisation scares me when it sacrafices meaning. I'm all for better, faster ways of doing things, but we are at risk of losing context. And context is everything.

Lloyd Shepherd, Head of Future Media Solutions at Channel 4 Television seems to agree. For a very different project, he has been spending "more time than is healthy mulling over how to bring local information together effectively" and presenting some findings. One of which was this:
"Wonderful as they are, there's something rather unnourishing about and Everyblock. And I think that's because they're just not very good at tracking emerging narratives, which is something local newspapers do rather well. Narratives are where aggregation fails, I reckon."
While off the topic of linguistics, I recall a talk the phenomenal Seth Godin, gave - I think at Google some time ago. Someone asked him what he thought about Google maps. He was a little dismissive, saying it was fine and everything, but essentially a gimmick. That he didn't need to be messing about with maps, but instead an application should access his diary and email, know where he needs to go and save the address to his phone. Or something very similar.

Sounds wonderful, but the map isn't just a gimmick, it's context. The application could also just email the address to your driver directly and you'd never have to know where you are at all. But that just doesn't feel right to me.

Is there a happy medium between optimisation and meaning? Or are we in a downward spiral towards having everything but knowing nothing?


Anonymous neilperkin said...

Great post. Been thinkng about this sort of stuff recently too. Reminds me of that quote about advertising from Dave Winer:

“Advertising will get more and more targeted until it disappears, because perfectly targeted advertising is just information. There’s little point in saying something until the time is right, then you just have to say it once, and the idea takes over and does all the work.”

In this context, where's the room for a narrative, or a story, or an inspiring idea? All a bit scary...

9:40 am  
Anonymous Pomona Belvedere said...

Well, one way of interpreting this targeting is to say it can only happen in the course of a narrative. (How else do you know how or where to target? And can't they think up some verb that doesn't involve killing?)

This post reminded me of a heated discussion I had once with someone who had learned speed reading, and found it vastly superior. I opined as how it might be good for badly-written but information-rich stuff, but that I would never want to read something good that fast. He just couldn't get that and I couldn't explain it in a way that got across. There's a multilayered richness we lose when we move too fast. It's like taking vitamins instead of eating food.

5:56 am  
Blogger Andy Whitlock said...

Neil, that's an excellent quote. It does a better job explaining some of this stuff than I did! :)

Pomona, your vitamin analogy is great too. I agree.
Although in terms of the narrative being relevant to the reader and the moment, it makes sense, but doesn't quite satisfy my discomfort. If this Wolfram Alpha thingy spat out a clever answer, I would still need to see where the different parts of it came from. I can't trust an answer that appears to plop out of the ether with no surrounding context. Maybe that's why I'm not religious ;)

2:12 pm  

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