Friday, May 9, 2008

Assignment #4: Information Access


Texts Used: “As We May Think” by Vannavear Bush; “Return to Babel” by Boast, Bravo, & Srivanasan

The next time you’re on YouTube, take a look at what might be the most important part of the page (sans the video): the tags. The tags, which facilitate YouTube’s search feature, determine who sees the video; they play off of interests, or popular searches. It’s not uncommon to see users tag their videos with popular buzzwords, often just to catch the eye of more viewers – relevancy is optional. When Vannavear Bush first conceptualized the MEMEX in 1945, he saw, in fact, a relatively simple system which played off of “the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain,[1]” much in the same way as these tags do. In creating databases, hyperlink maps, and indexes, we create “management tools, not access tools[2]” - but management tools may be all that we need. Although the ED2 project seeks to “make the Web a true knowledge resource[3]” by claiming a greater emphasis on temporality, spatiality, authorship, & contention from information objects, changing the system “to recognize and accommodate the negotiated, narrative, emergent, and incommensurable nature of knowledge production and use[4]” can be, depending on the user, superfluous.

The acquisition of “knowledge” in the sense that Srivanasan describes it is not necessarily the primary aim of the Internet, nor would it be its most beneficial function of mankind as a whole. It may be the nature of today’s culture, but complete understanding of a subject is, most likely, a bit much for the average user. “…the knowledge of a particular topic… rarely can be uncovered within a single description or descriptive trope.[5] Why should it? Bush’s concept of the MEMEX was based upon the instantaneous accessibility of knowledge, “provision for the consultation of the record by the usual scheme of indexing.[6] Greater depth of understanding via narrative and personal perspective should be (and certainly is) accessible to those who seek it – not forced upon a curious individual simply seeking an introduction to a topic.

(There are, however, limitations to the MEMEX concept that were eventually overcome by the modern nature of information technologies. First, the concept of storage limitation; although the MEMEX could hold a great deal of information, it was ultimately finite. The presence of information over a worldwide distributed network [i.e. the Internet] allows for the compilation of even more data, the “process of tying two items together[7]”. Secondly, there seems to be an over-reliance on codes. By using codes to pull up certain material, one has to know each code specifically [the “mnemonic” bookmarking for frequently used codes notwithstanding] to pull up a certain text. There’s also no way to look for a certain passage. However, the emergence of “search engines” has served to alleviate many of these concerns; further discussion of this phenomenon, however, is beyond the scope of this posting.)

ED2 claims to concern itself primarily with three issues: “temporality/spatiality, authorship, & contention from information objects.[8] It cites the concept that “Knowledge claims are of a time and place... Information objects are translations of these authored stories to timeless abstractions.” While the first statement may be valid, the second is not necessarily true; many “information objects” such as website postings and wiki entries have information (either externally visible or embedded) on who authored or edited the piece of information, when (date and time), and even where (IP information). As for the contentions of information objects, i.e. the constant discourse & debate over the validity of information, the claim that “the transformative processes that create information remove these dynamics[9]” is more than a bit misleading. At least in terms of mainstream information (encyclopedias, news articles, etc.), information is subject to constant revision, most visible in the discussions over information found readily throughout Wikipedia and its many contributors. Additionally, scientific resources such as Nature, although static in individual publication, are dynamic in their constant revision of knowledge through the publication of many information objects on one subject over a period of time.

Ultimately, the question of how information should be labeled, organized, indexed, and distributed, is one of ontology – “the way in which a certain community negotiates the conceptualization & organization of its knowledge and information.[10] For the indigenous groups described in “Return to Babel,” a greater contextual understanding is certainly desirable. However, for the “mass audiences” of society, to which the Internet predominantly caters, the current system of information organization & retrieval is more than sufficient. As mankind’s store of information grows with time, its ease of accessibility may grow as well – it all depends upon the systems in place which govern & facilitate our own inquisitive minds, “blazing trails” through the past, present, and future.

[1] Bush, 6.

[2] Srivanasan, 1.

[3] Srivanasan, 9.

[4] Srivanasan, 9.

[5] Srivanasan, 6.

[6] Bush, 7.

[7] Bush, 7.

[8] Srivanasan, 9.

[9] Srivanasan, 10.

[10] Srivanasan, 6.

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