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Book review: Darwinia
Reviewed: Friday, August 11, 2006

Summer reading: Spin
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the Omnivoire's Delimma
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the Golem's Eye
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The nature of meaning in the age of Google
Terrence A. Brooks, 2004 , (Paper URL)
Friday, July 8, 2005

Google is continually finding new uses for its vast database of hyperlinked text: spelling, mapping, definitions and so on. Terrance Brooks (who has, I assume, no relation to fantasy author Terry Brooks!) points out that Google makes use of lay indexing (i.e., folksonomies) to produce aggregations with semantic content -- meanings! Similar lay indexing lies behinds Amazon's book suggestions, Flickr's photo-sharing and's bookmark collections. In all these cases, however, a tension develops between the aggregator's algorithmic strategies and user's attempts to exploit that the strategies: spam. Each publisher would like to push Google towards her contents but Google only functions well when it can exploit the wisdom of crowds - i.e., when control is based on diversity. All of these system, then, are fundamentally social and can function when most people play "by the rules" either because they want to or because they have no other choice. Brooks says:

The culture of lay indexing is one of mistrust and ignorance: the lay indexer's ignorance of when, if, and how her work will be used, and Google's mistrust of lay indexers, whom it must assume are constantly scheming to gain an advantage over the Googlebot.


Struggling to maintain the ignorance of layindexers in the culture of layindexing contrasts sharply with the historical treatment of indexers. During the last several hundred years in the craft of book arts and scholarly journals, indexers have been honoured and respected. In this legacy culture of indexing, indexer ignorance was an anathema to be avoided, not enhanced.

The internet is new because it is 'open': anyone (in the technological world) can author anything and declare its meaning. It is:

a lawless meaning space... a novelty that most traditional meaning technologies have not anticipated. Being able to operate successfully in a lawless meaning space is, however, the key success criterion for legacy meaning technologies that are applied to Web space.

Most formal systems (e.g., Dublin Core, RDF, meta tags) ignore this dictum and are therefore ignored by Google!

Since, like most people, I'm the sort of person who usually does the right thing, I think that Brook's paper provides an interesting perspective on lay indexing, Google and the differing strategies they adapt. It would be fun to pull in the whole evolutionary games perspective (perhaps someone already has?!).

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