Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The search for meaning

A few weeks ago Google launched its "Knowledge Graph" product on the .com site. For certain search terms you now get a synopsis of curated information, including related topics. It is probably the closest thing yet to a common application of the long-heralded semantic web, leaving aside more specialised tools like Wolfram Alpha.

The result is modest. The underlying ontology is limited to well understood entities such as people and places where relationships are straightforward to define. Search for "Ridley Scott" and you are told that "people also search for" Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender (from Prometheus), but not Harvey Keitel and David Carradine (from The Duellists). In other words, the superficial hive mind familiar from Amazon is at work.

Tim Berners-Lee's vision of machine-readable metadata that would make the Web more intelligent was an important meme that helped fuel the techno-utopianism of the last decade. It also produced a backlash against techno-hubris and a warning that data about data was likely to be of no better quality that the data itself. The semantic web is an elitist ideal. It assumes that a software agent can shield you from the stupidity of the masses and winnow quality from the chaff. The irony is that those sections of the web that most benefit from metadata are the ones that want to provide fine-grained crap, such as shopping, porn and gossip. The big evolution in metadata has been the development of dynamic tagging, the folksonomies of trending hashtags. This is hardly an example of the superior intelligence envisaged, #epicfail.

Funnily enough, the imagined scenario Berners-Lee and his co-authors used to introduce the concept back in 2001 includes not only "semantic web agents" but phones that could control other devices and handheld browsers. In the event, it is these incidental props that have proved more significant, both technically and culturally. Google's Knowledge Graph looks like it has been designed as an app for a smartphone display.

I was reminded of the unpredictability of technology when I saw Prometheus recently and followed it by re-watching Alien and Aliens in strict chronological plot order (I was indulging my inner nerd). The latest film is a prequel, but is not too bothered with the continuity of technology or social mores (only one bad boy is allowed a crafty fag, despite most of the crew in Alien puffing away merrily). It also has a more profound mission objective, the search for the meaning of life, whereas the earlier (that is later) episodes were concerned with extracting minerals or blowing the crap out of the alien brood.

Like most modern SF films the ship is awash with transparent touch displays. The attraction for film-makers is that these provide great shots, with the camera able to look at the actor's pensive face through the display of illegible backward writing. In practice this technology would be pure ostentation and would probably give you a migraine. The one time a transparent 3D display made some sense was when they mapped the internal structure of the alien installation. In Aliens they had 2D plans displayed on a touch-controlled light table. This was pretty funky back in the 80s, though it turned out to be a commercial damp squib when Microsoft finally released their Surface tabletop computer in 2007.

The mining ship in Alien was called Nostromo, a reference to Joseph Conrad's 1904 novel about revolution in a fictional South American state. That centred on a silver mine, whose product leads to corruption and war. The escape shuttle in Alien is called Narcissus, a reference to Conrad's Nigger of the Narcissus, a book about the tension between human sympathy and order (and loyalty to the owner's purpose) on a ship beset by storms. There are some interesting parallels here, though it's also possible that Ridley Scott chose these names simply because he liked Conrad, having previously filmed one of his short stories as The Duellists.

Aliens, directed by James Cameron, kept the references going by naming the main ship the Sulaco, after the fictional town in the novel Nostromo. In Prometheus, the Conradian reference is more oblique. The android David watches David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia while the human crew are in suspended animation. Lean had planned to film Nostromo shortly before his death, and his lead in Lawrence, Peter O'Toole, also starred in a version of Conrad's Lord Jim.

What these subtle and ambiguous references show is that the embodiment of concepts in symbols, and the inter-relationship and harmony of different symbols, is not something that follows obvious and logical rules. I was always sceptical about the semantic web because it seemed to me that transferring the burden of intelligence from the user of data to the data itself was not only unfeasible but undesirable. Meaning is elusive and contingent, a bit like Jonesy the cat.

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