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Understanding Media May 19, 2006

Posted by dfhuynh in research, semantic web.

Four/five years ago I could hardly make it past the first chapter of Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan, from which came the infamous sentence, "the medium is the message." I have recently returned to it and I'm now half-way through, enjoying every page. And although I'm not sure if I can re-verbalize his ideas, I do find the book very illuminating. I'd recommend it even more than I'd recommend Edward Tufte's books.

This is my effort to try to understand this new medium called the Semantic Web on which I'm doing my research.

Core to McLuhan's book, as how I understand it, is the idea that technologies shape the way humans fundamentally think and behave, regardless of how the technologies are used, that each technology bears some intrinsic characteristics independent of its use. And that humans, embedded within the technologies, cannot but think and act in some particular ways. This is a generalization of the Sapir-Whorfian hypothesis which posits that one's thoughts are moulded by whichever native language that one speaks.

The most primitive tribes of Australia and Africa, like the Eskimos of today, have not yet reached finger-counting, nor do they have numbers in series. Instead they have a binary system of independent numbers for one and two, with composite numbers up to six. After six, they perceive only "heap." Lacking the sense of series, they will scarcely notice when two pins have been removed from a row of seven. They become aware at once, however, if one pin is missing. [p.111]

The computer science researchers these days speak a few certain technical languages and are embedded within a few certain technologies. For example, some speak the "relational database" language, some speak the "Emac buffer" language, some speak the "Perl" language, … And a lot of the Semantic Web researchers speak some sort of "graph" language, although many are still stuttering and think in the "relational database" language.

For those who speak the "relational database" language, it is next to impossible to comprehend a world of graphs wherein the cost of creating relationships is zero. So they don't speak of "relationships" although ironically they deal with relational databases. They only speak of foreign keys and tables. They even have tables that contain only 2 foreign keys… If you ask me, it's another case of premature optimizations.

The Semantic Web folks are further along. They have adopted the "graph" language but then become greatly incapable of talking to the rest of the world who don't speak graphs. In vain, they take graphs and splash them on the screen, literally, creating visualizations full of nodes and arrows that are incomprehensible to everyone else.

But upon closer inspection, most of these graphs that they create are shallow, and some are just trees. It turns out, I suspect, that the Semantic Web people are simply obsessed with graphs that they try to turn everything into graphs even if they can only find shallow, tabular data. And so they are back to square one, busy exploring tools for visualizing and dealing with tabular data in graph's clothing without even realizing it.

It is amusing, puzzling, and frustrating to watch the great minds, many way "smarter" than I am, getting stuck in their own mindsets.

Once men have adopted the visual dynamic of the phonetic alphabet, they begin to lose the tribal man's obsession with cosmic order and ritual as recurrent in the physical organs and their social extension. Indifference to the cosmic, however, fosters intense concentration on minute segments and specialist tasks, which is the unique strength of Western man. For the specialist is one who never makes small mistakes while moving toward the grand fallacy. [p.124]

It is so true it is terrifying. After all, what mindset am I getting stuck in?! I will never know.



1. Johan Sundström - August 15, 2006

Being aware of your own perspective’s reachs and walls is, on the other hand, the only way of extending beyond them, short of always reaching deeply into every thought and tool and way of life that occur to you or that you stumble upon.

Of course neither introspection nor reflection afford you guarantees, only a higher likeliness of finding your frame of reference and picking up on when others reach beyond it; be it children at play, artisans of other fields at work or philosophers, religions and schools of thought knocking at your door so you may opt to follow along.

Teaching is another way of tuning in to new ways of thought, as you try to come up with new ways of phrasing knowledge or method when trying to share them with minds that work problems in other ways from your own ways.

And thanks for an interesting post.

2. ced42 - August 28, 2006

Teaching and experience is the best way to inform and relay message. You have a very intersting blog. It was full of wits and several accurate points. Keep it! Looking forward for more of it.

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