Posted by: Dave | May 23, 2008

Musings on the Techno-Takeover

Recently Jon over at culturshock made an insightful post in which he points out how the relationship between technology and distance makes the latter subjective. For example, traveling from Toronto to New York City would be a short trip on a plane, a mid-sized journey by train or car, and a long and arduous pilgrimage by foot. In a striking similarity, the technologies we use for “perceptual, cognitive, and social” reasons have a dramatic effect on the boundaries of those faculties. Furthermore, we really notice it when our reach is suddenly shortened – say, when the internet connection dies – we find ourselves on the phone with our ISPs because we’re suffering from the Internet-Bends, like a culture of cyberpunk SCUBA surfers.

I enjoyed reading about this because it’s right in line with some subjects I’ve been thinking about lately. The other day I stumbled across whisperings about the development of something called The Semantic Web, which is potentially what “Web 3.0” could shape up to be. It’s being worked on by Sir Tim Berners-Lee – credited as the inventor of the WWW, if you didn’t know – and his colleagues. While the link I provided gives an in-depth explanation, here’re the nuts and bolts:

Right now, all the data on the web exists to be readable by humans, be it text or multimedia. Simply put, the Semantic Web would make all that information readable by machines as well. This means that, taking into consideration the advancement in computing power and so on, we could have a vastly more efficient system for finding the information we need. More efficient, because now our computers would find relevant information for us. (Think it sounds too futuristic? Guess again. Developments so far are based around XML, which is already widely used.)

Now, combine that with the notion of ubiquitous computing, and you have a fairly utopian vision on your hands; the key point being that utopias never work – or haven’t yet – which makes this both amazing and terrifying. In a world saturated with “Everyware” devices that tell us everything we need to know, what can we expect? Here are some questions I have. Apologies if they’re somewhat disjointed.

Crowdsourcing. To use the term liberally – with the idea being to arrive at answers based on a poll of humans and/or other machines. How would this work? How does a machine determine what is “good” information, and do we give them authority to do this?

Multilingualism to match multimedia. Will Semantic Web technologies be able to “read” information out of more than just text? What about video? Imagine if a computer could look at an image, say, Mona Lisa, and tell you it’s a portrait of a woman. Imagine what would happen if it encountered one of those optical illusions. “It’s a seedy-looking man. No wait, it’s the word “Liar”. No wait, it’s a man. No wait, it’s….” *kernel panic*

General Effect on Society – especially Education. Seriously, consider the redundancy of writing a research paper for school, or more importantly, the redundancy of traditional school itself. Would we predominantly be training the youth to manage machines that control other machines? Do we even need to teach them that, or would they already know that, too?

McLuhan likened modern media to a central nervous system for entire cultures, and perhaps the entire human race. And that was before the internet even came about. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here, but I’m reminded of Asimov’s brilliant sci-fi short story, The Last Question, because I can’t help thinking all of this is a pretty strong indication that we’re going to develop some sort of cosmic mind. But before matters reach that extreme, we have this potential problem to consider:

Too much info = Indecision = Less Productive? I sell electronics, and one thing I know is that if I tell customers all about every product that could possibly interest them, they get overwhelmed with it all and hit a wall of indecision. And then I don’t make a sale and go back to watching What Not to Wear, because daytime TV programming is seriously lacking. Anyway, let’s say people with high-stakes jobs like doctors and police officers are fitted with some piece of everyware that’s feeding them all the information about their current situation they could ever need. Do they risk being overloaded with info? I’d say it’s almost a sure thing. So that points to the obvious solution of the computer(s) selecting the best answer.

Take a moment to let that sink in. How does one write an algorithm that is sophisticated enough to make the best decision regarding such a wide variety of subjects?

The answer: very carefully, I guess.

Disclaimer: Haven’t had time to do a lot of reading on the semantic web yet. Some of my questions might be answered in the material I’ve linked.



  1. I’ve been off the grid for too long, but its great to come back and find you writing as insightfully as ever, keep it up!

    Pierre de Chardin, in his sweeping cosmological account of evolution, considered the emergence of a non-local, networked mind as the next big thing. Fifty years later, the internet seems to be on track to do just that. While hardly paranormal, telecom tech continues to blow me away in terms of what it does to us as people. The semantic web seems to promise the removal of yet another step in the already lightning-quick retrieval of data from the web.

    Two notes of interest for you, my friend:
    – Check out Andy Clark, a cognitive science philosopher who got me back into this stream of thinking. A great start would be the excerpt from his 2003 book, Natural Born Cyborgs (

    – In terms of the framework of the future web, I’ve taken big interest in the XML-based language of APML (AP standing for Attention Profile). It merits some reading, so that you can start seeing the changes it brings as it is implemently more broadly across the web.

    Really diggin the blog


  2. Thanks for the feedback and the info. All noted!

  3. […] subject(s) Jon and I blogged about recently have been floating around in the back of my head since then. Instead of repeating myself, […]

  4. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Chore!

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