A herd of independent minds

I read Francis Wheen warily, not knowing from paragraph to paragraph whether I’m going to agree or start swearing. I read young Oliver very warily indeed: most of what he writes is drivel and some of it’s repulsive. And I don’t read Aaro at all if I can possibly help it.

Wheen, Kamm, Aaronovitch: it’s an unpromising troika. They’ve come together to launch an attack on the Guardian over Emma Brockes’ silly and slapdash interview with Noam Chomsky (which has been taken down from the Guardian Web site but can still be read at Chomsky’s own site, apparently). More specifically, the trio object to the Guardian‘s apology for the interview; they argue that the apology goes too far in correcting the misleading impression given by the interview, painting Chomsky – and, incidentally, Diana Johnstone – in an unwarrantedly favourable light. They have argued this case in a letter of around 4,500 words to the Guardian‘s Reader’s Editor, who has – understandably – concluded that it raises issues outside his competence.

I haven’t seen the letter, but I believe I’ve read enough about this somewhat quixotic endeavour – primarily on Kamm’s blog – to form a judgment on it. My judgment is that it’s a really positive initiative, which I support wholeheartedly. Chomsky is a tendentious and untrustworthy polemicist, whose partisans react with outrage (and in numbers) to criticism of his arguments – and whose rhetorical skills make it extraordinarily difficult to construct a cogent critique. (For illustration, wade through this page, recommended recently by a Chomsky partisan.) On both counts, it is very much to the credit of Kamm & co that they are making the effort; it’s a lot more than I’d care to do just now.

A little background from 1995:
Milan Rai, Chomsky’s politics (Verso, £10.95)

Review printed in New Statesman and Society, 18/8/1995

Since 1969 Noam Chomsky has been one of the foremost radical critics of US foreign policy. Chomsky assiduously documents both the promotion of US interests around the world and the biases and omissions in subsequent media coverage. The resultant portrait of power, corruption and lies is presented as a rational deduction from objective study: the implication is that the government’s apologists cannot plead either difference of opinion or ignorance, but stand self-convicted of lying in the service of power. This is a serious matter: the mendacity of the “intelligentsia” entrenches the limitations of US political culture, foreclosing the prospects for any kind of political reform. Chomsky himself, by contrast, shoulders the responsibility of intellectuals, which is “to speak the truth and to expose lies”.

Milan Rai’s presentation of Chomsky’s politics is detailed, comprehensive and uncritical. Rai has even emulated Chomsky’s habitual contemptuous dismissals of his opponents: Auberon Waugh is characterised, not very accurately, as a “brainwashed intellectual”. (A larger problem is Rai’s treatment of French classicist Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s writings on Chomsky, who had – for reasons which remain obscure – written a relatively friendly preface to a work by Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson; Rai dismisses Vidal-Naquet’s criticisms undiscussed as “falsehoods”). This book is thus a missed opportunity. Notwithstanding the enormous value of Chomsky’s work in setting the record of US foreign policy straight, his political assumptions deserve a more thorough and more critical examination.

US society, for Chomsky, is dominated by the “elites”: a term which refers variously to the state apparatus, big business, journalists and academics. The relationship of the elites to the US population is that of an occupying power to a subject territory: the choice is between resistance to elite power and collaboration. Similar considerations apply to the US elites’ relationship with the rest of the world. Indeed, Chomsky denies any significance to the internal politics of nations affected by US foreign policy: “It’s just the same things in Washington playing themselves out in different parts of the world”. Prior to 1989 arguments of this sort even led Chomsky to disparage criticism of the Soviet Union: “the moral value of this work is at best very slight”.

Elite rule is sustained by the “propaganda system”, whereby intellectuals abjure their truth-telling responsibility in favour of manufacturing consent to the status quo. A nuanced analysis shows the “propaganda model” to be multi-faceted: conformity is produced by the economic interests of media businesses, government requirements, cultural resistance to unorthodox analyses and reluctance to put in the necessary work, as well as – what is more commonly cited in practice – the moral turpitude of journalists. (A more accurate term than “propaganda” might have been “received ideas within the capitalist media”). Chomsky even acknowledges the existence of journalists who “use whatever leeway they have”, without thereby modifying his judgment on the class as a whole. Given this level of over-determination and defence against counter-examples, Chomsky’s finding that the model is “one of the best-confirmed theories in the social sciences” is to be expected.

Unsurprisingly, Chomsky’s arguments are at their weakest with respect to the question of what is to be done. On one hand, intellectual self-defence against elite lies is easy (it only requires “ordinary common sense”); on the other, “it does require a degree of fanaticism”, which explains why so few have followed Chomsky’s lead. Chomsky approves non-participation in US presidential elections (“people are intelligent enough to understand that … they are voting for Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola”); he also advocates voting: “you’ve got to multiply those little differences in policy by the power of the United States.” Tactical considerations are a moral necessity (“if you write, you have a moral responsibility to consider the consequences of what you write”); then again, “you should do what you think is right and not what’s going to be tactically useful”.

This analysis is conducted, despite Chomsky’s stress on objectivity and rationality, in highly polemical terms. Fascism, Stalinism, terrorism are constant reference points: the US intelligentsia inhabits an “intellectual culture dedicated to terrorist values and policies”; “Fascism is deeply rooted in everyone’s mind in the United States”. While assertions like these are invariably backed up by meticulously syllogistic arguments, the terminology seems designed to raise the rhetorical stakes: analysis turns into name-calling.

These paradoxes rest on the two convictions which underpin Chomsky’s politics. There is a quasi-anarchist stress on the primacy of power relations: capitalism, Communism and fascism all hinge on the control of society by a bureaucratic or managerial elite (“Bolshevism and American liberalism are basically manifestations of the same thing”). This is a powerful vision which illuminates many real continuities; however, it needs to be qualified in the light of history if it is not to turn into a theory of the uniform and interchangeable evil of the elites. This kind of qualification can seem to elude Chomsky, who has argued that the Nazis were among the true victors of the Second World War.

Equally significant is the view – stated by Rai as an ethical truism – that “we must take responsibility for what our society does”. This stress on duty explains the persistent tone of outrage in Chomsky’s work: as a responsible US citizen and intellectual, Chomsky weighs the actions of the US government and the intellectual class and finds them wanting. If, as the “elite” model dictates, the US government is quasi-fascist and the intellectual class composed of power-worshippers, this only rouses Chomsky to greater moral indignation. The classical radical analysis of the state – as an illegitimate imposition on society for which nobody is responsible but the bastards themselves – is foreign to him.

The final paradox of Chomsky’s work is that, however ill-founded his convictions may be, his Herculean labours “to speak the truth and to expose lies” are inconceivable without them. Chomsky is perhaps best seen as a figure like Orwell or Ruskin, his virtues inseparable from his faults. Like those predecessors, when Chomsky goes wrong, he goes seriously wrong; but when he’s right he’s unsurpassable.
[ends]

The conclusion is kinder than I’d be now, obviously.

PS No, I know he didn’t write it as a preface. He wrote a statement solicited by Serge Thion, a (left-wing) associate of Faurisson, and gave it to Thion with instructions to use it as he saw fit. When he heard that Thion planned to use it as a preface to Faurisson’s work he objected, but too late to prevent it appearing; however, he has subsequently repented the objection. In short, he wrote “a relatively friendly [statement which appears as] a preface to a work by Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson [with Chomsky's consent, despite initial objections]“.

PPS On Chomsky, Johnstone and Srebrenica, see Lee Bryant’s comments here and this from Attila Hoare. (Personal to JM – I don’t know why Attila’s writing for them either. Because they asked him, probably.)

In any English town

Mark Honigsbaum, the Guardian:

Curators, librarians and archivists across Britain are being asked to scour their collections in search of documents and items relating to the lives of gay people, with a view to establishing a “virtual museum” of lesbian and gay history.Backed by the museums documentation watchdog, MDA, the group Proud Heritage this week began sending out a two-page survey requesting that institutions throughout the country list the gay and lesbian documents and artefacts in their collections. “For the first time ever, we are asking museums, libraries and archives throughout Britain to revisit their holdings and reveal what they have that is queer,” said Proud Heritage’s director Jack Gilbert. “At the moment these are not classified correctly, or held completely out of context and never see the light of day.”
[...]
According to Mr Gilbert the aim is to establish a national database first, featuring a few key virtual exhibits. Once the database was up and running, he said, Proud Heritage would look for a site for a permanent museum, possibly in the King’s Cross area of London.

At the moment these are not classified correctly… You don’t have to be Dave Weinberger to have mixed feelings about that statement. Clearly there’s a case for saying that many of these artifacts aren’t classified adequately, inasmuch as historians of gay experience don’t have an obvious point of access to them – and this could be provided by the proposed database. And, clearly, tagging an artifact with ‘gay’ doesn’t preclude tagging it with ‘Wales’ and ‘early nineteenth-century society’ (the Ladies of Llangollen) or with ‘literature’ and ‘penal reform’ (Wilde’s cell at Reading Gaol).

But classifying an artifact only as ‘gay’ would, in almost all imaginable cases, be no more ‘correct’ than classifying it under any other single term. The project of a physical museum of gay history is welcome in terms of visibility, but in taxonomic terms it’s a step back from the purely ‘virtual’ database project. Like any other thematically-organised museum, it would consist – almost by definition – of exhibits which were ‘not classified correctly’ and ‘held completely out of context’.

Museums promote the illusion that the map is the territory: the structure and layout of the galleries, and the arrangement of the exhibits they contain, are designed to reproduce a certain way of structuring knowledge. (The perfect museum would be its own memory palace.) But an illusion is what it is. Objects can only reside in one place, but knowledge can be fluid and multi-dimensional; pressures to collapse those dimensions – whether in the name of group identity or commerce – should be resisted.

Not that group identity and commerce are necessarily that far apart.

Denis Campbell, the Guardian:

Six per cent of the population, or about 3.6 million Britons, are either gay or lesbian, the government’s first attempt to quantify the homosexual population has concluded.
[...]
Publication of the figure comes as big name companies such as Barclays bank, Hilton hotels and cosmetics giant L’Oreal join the growing rush to cash in on a gay economy which is worth tens of billions of pounds. Barclays has just received research which showed that gays and lesbians enjoy a combined annual income of £60 billion.
[...]
Barclays spokesman Michael O’Toole admitted the bank is very keen to woo Britain’s gays and lesbians by portraying itself as sympathetic to gays’ desire for equality. ‘We want to position ourselves as the bank of choice for Britain’s gay and lesbian community,’ he said. ‘There’s more of a push going on now to enter this market of about 2.5 million adults.’

The key word here is ‘market’. If Barclay’s is planning to make it easier for gay couples to take out mortgages and insurance policies, this is all to the good, but O’Toole’s ambitions clearly go further. The gay ‘market’ is not like, say, the ‘market’ represented by devout Muslims: Barclay’s plan for those 2.5 million adults is not to introduce them to personal banking, but to encourage them, firstly, to identify as gay; secondly, to perceive Barclay’s as a gay-friendly bank; and thirdly, to switch to Barclay’s on that basis. Identifying as English or middle-aged, a Frascati-drinker or a Manchester City supporter, a dog-owner or a Labour voter would just get in the way: if you’re gay, Barclay’s is the bank for you. The benefits for the bank are obvious; the benefits for their prospective customers, less so.

Knowledge – including our knowledge about ourselves – can be fluid and multi-dimensional; pressures to collapse those dimensions should be resisted.

PS I usually let my titular quotes stand with their cover unblown, but in this case I’ll make a partial exception. For me these are probably the best – certainly the most moving – four lines ever written on the subject of exploring knowledge and where it leaves you. What I’m still not sure about is whether it’s a despairing renunciation, a challenge or a celebration. Cue music:

About the university the pages let you down
It helps you find your way around in any English town
About the university the pages are in French
It helps you find your way around in any English town

I wouldn’t pay him any mind

Ellis:

Nobody I know ever buys a volume of poetry.

Me. I bought two volumes of poetry just the other week – Getting the hang of it and Singing the city, both by Colin Watts (who brought them along to a reading I attended). I can recommend both of them, despite the unfortunate fact that the city in question is Liverpool (is there any city in Britain less in need of celebration?)

Modern poets aren’t saying anything anyone wants to read. Pop music has pushed poetry into obscurity. The only people who buy poetry are students, forced to do so for their courses, Eng Lit graduates, and people who themselves write poetry.

Well, all right – Ellis isn’t actually wrong as such. (I’m a folk singer and, in a small way, a performance poet; I’d gone along that night primarily to do one of my own pieces, and was pleasantly surprised that Colin’s work was actually worth listening to and reading.) But isn’t this a bit like saying ‘the only people who read blogs are people who themselves write blogs’? In other words, even if it’s true, is it a problem?

I used to take poetry very seriously indeed; I used to aspire to be another Browning – or Tennyson at a pinch – with my poems appearing in the broadsheets and my collections selling the way celebrity biographies do now. Perhaps needless to say, I used to look on the poets who actually achieved success and gained a wide audience – from Pam Ayres right up to John Cooper Clarke – with the grestest of disdain: performance poetry? what would that be? It came as a disappointment to realise that, by and large, poetry was read by people who read poetry magazines: the conversation that was conducted in poems was no longer happening in the mainstream press, and the sheer brute genius of my poetry wasn’t going to make it happen there. But the point is – the point always is – to find where there’s a conversation happening and see if you can contribute to it. If you want poetic conversations, you can find them; they may not look like you expect them to, though.

My demands, my angels

Peter Campbell on Samuel Palmer:

Palmer and his friends, meeting together in Shoreham, called themselves the Ancients. Like the Pre-Raphaelites who came afterwards and the German Nazarenes in Rome who had gone before, they were a brotherhood of artists – the first of the kind in England – who wished to renew art from medieval sources. The Ancients didn’t live communally, as the Nazarenes had done, and, unlike the Pre-Raphaelites, who were supported by Ruskin, had no critical backer. … Not all the Ancients were painters or engravers; it seems that they were as much a society of like-minded aesthetes as a school with a single visual aesthetic. There was no manifesto. In what is recorded of them, mainly in memoirs written years later – stories of night-time walks in the countryside round Shoreham and recitations from Macbeth and The Mysteries of Udolpho – the impression is of a group getting high on ideas rather than serious art workers. William Vaughan notes … that Palmer’s son ‘darkly remarked of certain early notebooks by his father’ – he later destroyed them – that ‘they showed “a mental condition which, in many respects is uninviting. It is a condition full of danger, neither sufficiently masculine nor sufficiently reticent.”’

In another country, in another century:

The “Hamburg Theses” are assuredly the most mysterious of all the documents produced by the Situationist International. Many such documents had a wide circulation; others were often reserved for a discreet audience.The “Hamburg Theses” were referred to several times in situationist publications, but without a single quotation from them ever being given … They were in fact the conclusions (kept secret by agreement) of a theoretical and strategic discussion bearing on the whole of the activity of the SI. This discussion took place over two or three days early in September 1961, in a randomly-chosen series of bars in Hamburg, beween G. Debord, A. Kotanyi and R. Vaneigem, who were then returning from the fifth Conference of the SI, held at Göteborg from the 28th to the 30th of August. Alexander Trocchi, not present in person at Hamburg, would later contribute to these “Theses”. Quite deliberately, with a view to preventing anything which might have given rise to external remarks or analysis from circulating outside the SI, nothing was ever put on paper regarding this discussion or its conclusions. It was agreed that the most simple summary of these conclusions, rich and complex as they were, could be delivered in a single sentence: The SI must now realise philosophy. Even this sentence was not written down. The conclusion was so well hidden that it has remained secret up to now [1989].

The “Hamburg Theses” had a considerable significance in at least two respects. Firstly, because they mark the main turning point in the entire history of the SI. But equally as a form of experimental practice: from this point of view, they were a striking innovation in the history of artistic avant-gardes, who until then had all given the impression of being only too eager to explain themselves.

The conclusion stated evoked a famous formulation by Marx in 1844 (in his Contribution to a critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). It meant that, from that moment, we must no longer accord the least importance to the ideas of any of the revolutionary groups which still survived, heirs as they were of the old movement for social emancipation which had been crushed in the first half of the century; and that we could therefore count on nobody but the SI itself to begin another era of challenge to power, recommencing from all the starting points of the movement which had been constituted in the 1840s. … the “Hamburg Theses” marked the end of the SI’s first period – the search for a genuinely new artistic terrain (1957-61); they also fixed the point of departure of the operation which led to the movement of May 1968, and what came after.

A condition full of danger, perhaps. A group getting high on ideas rather than serious art workers, definitely – but what a group, and what ideas.

Guy Debord, 28/12/1931-30/11/1994

Bernard, Bernard, disait-il, cette verte jeunesse ne durera pas toujours

PS The birthday game (introduced to me by Chris Dillow), takes me to page 200 of the 1997 Internationale Situationniste anthology (from which the passage translated above was taken), and thence straight back to Debord (the only other possibilities are Joergen Nash, Attila Kotanyi and Helmut Sturm). I can’t find any personal connection with anyone who was born on Debord’s birthday, but I can say that John von Neumann and Linus Torvalds have both had considerable influence on my life. Not as much as Debord, though.

PPSThat Bossuet quote was one of Debord’s favourites, but it’s a bit sentimental – it’s not the outlook of a true revolutionary. Let’s face it:

Les avant-gardes n’ont qu’un temps; et ce qui peut leur arriver de plus heureux, c’est, au plein sens du terme, d’avoir fait leur temps. Après elles, s’engagent des opérations sur un plus vaste theatre. On n’en a que trop vu, de ces troupes d’élite qui, après avoir accompli quelque vaillant exploit, sont encore là pour défiler avec leurs décorations, et puis se retournent contre la cause qu’elles avaient défendue. Il n’y a rien à craindre de semblable de celles dont l’attaque a été menée jusqu’au terme de la dissolution. Je me demande ce que certains avaient espéré de mieux? Le particulier s’use en combattant. Un projet historique ne peut certainement pas prétendre conserver une éternelle jeunesse à l’abri des coups.

Guy Debord, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978)

We are your friends

I recently attended an “e-Government Question Time” session, organised in connection with this conference. There were some good points made: one speaker stressed the importance of engaging with the narratives which people build rather than assuming that the important facts can be read off from an accumulation of data; one questioner called the whole concept of ‘e-government’ into question, pointing out that the stress seemed to be entirely on using the Web/email/digital TV/texting/etc as a mechanism for delivering services rather than as a medium for democratic exchanges. Much more typical, though, was the spin which the mediator put on this question as he passed it on to the panel:

That’s a very good question – what about democracy? And conversely, if it’s all democracy where does that leave leadership?

The evening was much less about democracy than it was about leadership – or rather, management. This starting-point produced some strikingly fallacious arguments, particularly in the field of privacy. The following statements were all made by one panellist; I won’t single him out, as they were all endorsed by other panellists – and, in some cases, members of the audience. (And no, identifying him as male doesn’t narrow it down a great deal. The people in the hall were 3:1 male to female (approximately), the people on stage 6:1 (precisely).)

I like to protect my own privacy, but I’m in the privileged position of having assets to protect. When you’re looking at people who have got nothing, and in many cases aren’t claiming benefits to which they’re entitled, I don’t think safeguarding their privacy should be our main concern.

At first blush this argument echoes the classic Marxist critique of the bourgeois definition of human rights – if we have the right to privacy, what about the right to a living wage? But instead of going from universalism to a broader (and hence more genuine) universalism, we’ve ended up with the opposite of universalism: you and I can worry about privacy, but it doesn’t apply to them. Superficially radical, or at least populist – you can just hear David Blunkett coming out with something similar – this is actually a deeply reactionary argument: it treats the managed as a different breed from the people who manage them (I like to protect my own privacy, but…). Management Fallacy 1: ‘they’re not like us’.

We’re talking about improving people’s life chances. We need to make personal information more accessible – to put more access to personal information in the hands of the people who can change people’s lives for the better.

Management Fallacy 2: ‘we mean well’. If every intervention by a public servant were motivated by the best interests of the citizens, safeguards against improper intervention would not be required. And if police officers never stepped out of line, there’d be no need for a Police Complaints Commission. In reality, good intentions cannot be assumed: partly because the possibility of a corrupt or malicious individual getting at your data cannot be ruled out; partly because government agencies have other functions as well as safeguarding the citizen’s interests, and those priorities may occasionally come into conflict; and partly because a government agency’s idea of your best interests may not be the same as yours (see Fallacy 3). All of which means that the problem needs to be addressed at the other end, by protecting your data from people who don’t have a specific reason to use it – however well-intentioned those people may be. One questioner spoke wistfully of the Data Protection Act getting in the way of creative, innovative uses of data. It’s true that data mining technology now makes it possible to join the dots in some very creative and innovative ways. But if it’s data about me, I don’t think prior consent is too much to ask – and I don’t think other people are all that different (see Fallacy 1).

I’ve got no objection to surrendering some of my civil liberties, so-called

Have to stop you there. Management Fallacy 3: ‘it looks all right to me’. The speaker was a local government employee: a private individual. His policy for handling his own private data doesn’t concern me. But I would hope that, before he came to apply that policy more generally, he would reflect on how the people who would be affected might feel about surrendering their civil liberties, so-called. (Perhaps he could consult them, even.)

Carry on:

I’ve got no objection to surrendering some of my civil liberties, so-called, if it’s going to prevent another Victoria Climbie case.

Management Fallacy 4: ‘numbers don’t lie’. (Or: ‘Everything is measurable and what can be measured can be managed’.) This specific example is a common error with statistics, which can be illustrated with the example of a hypothetical test for the AIDS virus. Let’s say that you’ve got an HIV test which is 95% accurate – that is, out of every 100 people with HIV it will correctly identify 95 and mis-identify 5, and similarly for people who do not carry the virus. And let’s say that you believe, from other sources, that 1,000 people in a town of 100,000 carry the virus. You administer the test to the entire town. If your initial assumption is correct, how many positive results will you get? And how confident can you be, in percentage terms, that someone who tests positive is actually HIV-positive?

The answers are 5900 and 16.1%. The test would identify 950 of the 1000 people with the virus, but it would also misidentify 4950 people who did not have it: consequently, anyone receiving a positive test result would have a five in six chance of actually being HIV-negative. What this points to is a fundamental problem with any attempt to identify rare phenomena in large volumes of data. If the frequency of the phenomenon you’re looking for is, in effect, lower than the predictable rate of error, any positive result is more likely to be an error than not.

Contra McKinsey, I would argue that not everything can or should be measured, let alone managed on the basis of measurement. (If the data-driven approach to preventing another Climbie case sounds bad, imagine it with the addition of performance targets.) Some phenomena – particularly social phenomena – are not amenable to being captured through the collection of quantitative data, and shouldn’t be treated as if they were.

What all these fallacies have in common is a self-enclosed, almost solipsistic conception of the task of management. With few exceptions, the speakers (and the questioners) talked in terms of meeting people’s needs by delivering a pre-defined service with pre-defined goals, pre-defined techniques, pre-defined identities (me service provider, you service recipient). There were only occasional references to the exploratory, dialogic approach of asking people what their needs were and how they would like them to be met – despite the possibilities for work in this area which new technologies have created. But then, management is not dialogue.

Social software may start with connecting data, but what it’s really about is connecting people – and connecting them in dialogue, on a basis of equality. If this goal gets lost, joining the dots may do more harm than good.

Because he’s a big bloke

[Sorry about the hiatus - life called.]

John Stevens:
I genuinely never thought I’d say this, but I am now convinced that the monster who executed this young woman in cold blood should, in turn, be killed as punishment for his crime.

Logically, I don’t have a problem with the concept of vendetta. I’m a peaceable type – I’ve never really been in a fight, let alone beaten anyone up – but if you were to kill one of mine, I would assuredly want to kill you or one of yours. Which would of course put me in exactly the same position as you – and so it would go on until there was nobody left, basically. The open-endedness of the vendetta is its major design flaw. In practice there is no equivalence between your loss of a son and my loss of a brother: each of them was a unique and irreplaceable person, and both deaths cry out for redress. Consequently each of us has a good and pressing reason for breaking the taboo on unregulated violence within our community – just this once, you understand… Vendetta corrodes community.

There are two basic approaches to managing the vendetta. At one extreme, it can be managed by the imposition of a superior authority – backed by the threat of superior force – on both parties: think of Mob feuds being halted by the intervention of a capo, perhaps with one final, sanctioned hit to balance the books. At the other, it can be replaced from below, by collective conflict-resolution processes which end in the imposition of penalties sanctioned by the community as a whole. The oldest Greek tragedy, the Oresteia, celebrates and re-enacts precisely this recognition of the corrosiveness of vendetta, and its replacement by sanctions imposed by a deliberative community.

These are two extremes; actually existing criminal justice systems have elements of both. The fundamental argument against the death penalty is that – as John Stevens unwittingly reveals – it moves us further from vendetta-replaced-from-below and closer to vendetta-managed-from-above:

the monster who executed this young woman in cold blood should, in turn, be killed

Should, in turn, be executed in cold blood by a monster. But our monster.

“For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH or STATE” – ‘by art’, which is to say, by collective human will and intelligence and imagination. It’s a burden, and it’s a responsibility.

Which side of the table?

[Pardon the long silence - life called.]

Shelley:

I think Google Base is a fun experiment, and I’m willing to play a little. It will be interesting to see the directory, especially if the company provides web services that aren’t limited to so many queries a day. But I never forget that Google is in the business to make a profit. If we give it the power, it will become the Wal-Mart of the waves–by default if not by design. Is that what you all want? If it is, just continue getting all misty eyed, because you’ll need blurred vision not to see what should be right in front of you.

I think this is precisely right. I find a lot of the comment on Google Base strange and slightly depressing, in the same way I find a lot of Web 2.0 talk strange and depressing. In the context of social software, when I use a word like ‘enclose’ – or a word like ‘monetise‘ – it means something quite specific and entirely negative: it’s a red-flag word. So it’s weird, to say the least, to see the same words used positively. It’s only a little less strange to see these concerns acknowledged, then batted away as trivial or meaningless (Tom: “Making data available for everyone to use is keeping it in the public sphere.” (I’m Phil #2 in those comments, by the way)).

It seems to me that there’s a fundamental tension between the demands of commerce and the nature of social software, as defined by Tom some time ago:

We believe that for a piece of Social Software to be useful:

  • Every individual should derive value from their contributions
  • Every contribution should provide value to their peers as well
  • The site or organisation that hosts the service should be able to derive value from the aggregate of the data and should be able to expose that value back to individuals

You add content, which has value for you and to other users; the host derives further value from the aggregate of content; the host exposes that added value to all users. Beautiful.

What this suggests is that social software – unlike, say, the e-business of the late 1990s – is all about the content. Specifically, it’s all about freely and collectively contributed content, either held in common or held in trust for the commons. So monetising social software is qualitatively different from making money out of a new piece of stand-alone software, because it’s the contributed content which has the original value – and makes the added value possible. Tangentially, I’m not sure whether Doc Searls gets this or not, and not only because his article’s had a well-deserved slashdotting. On a first reading I got the impression he was saying that both the Net and the Web are valuable common resources which should not be fenced off for the sake of making money, but that part of what makes them valuable is that they’re great environments for fencing things off and making money. (Oh, and we should stop saying ‘common’ because if you put ‘ist’ on the end it sounds kind of like ‘communist’, and when Eric Raymond hears the word ‘Communist’ he reaches for well, you know.) It’s a great article, though, and I look forward to taking a more considered look at it when the tide subsides.

One of Doc’s points is that the Web is, figuratively, all about publishing – a profession which, like many bloggers, I’ve seen close up. Just under ten years ago, I went from Unix sysadmin to magazine editor, and rapidly discovered that commercial publishing looks very different from the inside. Perhaps the biggest single shock was the realisation that content doesn’t matter. Obviously I tried to make it the best magazine I could (and it got better still under my successor), but at a fundamental level editorial content wasn’t what it was about. If the advertising department sold enough space, we made a profit; if they didn’t, we didn’t. (Show me a magazine that relies on the cover price and I’ll show you a magazine with money worries. Show me a publication that gets by on the cover price and I’ll show you an academic journal.) The purpose of the magazine was to put advertisements in front of readers – and the purpose of the editorial was to make readers turn all the pages.

So there’s nothing very new about Google’s business model: Google Base is to the Web what a commercial magazine is to a fanzine – or rather, a whole mass of different fanzines. The only novelty is that we, the fanzine writers, are providing the content: the content whose sole function, from the point of view of Google as a commercial entity, is to attract an audience which will look at ads.

But that’s quite a big novelty.

Bill Burnham:

In my next post I will talk about Google Base’s impact on the “walled garden” listings sites. I’ll give you a hint: it won’t be pretty.

Unless, of course, you like really big gardens with really high walls.

Update: I wrote, I find a lot of the comment on Google Base strange and slightly depressing, in the same way I find a lot of Web 2.0 talk strange and depressing. Cue Cringely:

Google has the reach and the resources … And you know whose strategy this is? Wal-Mart’s. And unless Google comes up with an ecosystem to allow their survival, that means all the other web services companies will be marginalized. … the final result is that Web 2.0 IS Google. Microsoft can’t compete. Yahoo probably can’t compete. Sun and IBM are like remora, along for the ride. And what does it all cost, maybe $1 billion? That’s less than Microsoft spends on legal settlements each year. Game over.

As an aside, I love the idea of International Business Machines as a parasite on the behemoth that is Google; I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But the accuracy or not of Cringely’s prediction concerns me less than his tone, which I think can reasonably be called lip-smacking: “Google’s going to 0wn the Web! Wow!” (Quick test: try reading that sentence out loud with a straight face. Now try substituting ‘Microsoft’ – or, for older readers, ‘IBM’.) This enthusiasm for big business – as long as it’s a cool big business – strikes me as both dangerous and weird, not to mention being the antithesis of what’s made the Net fun to work with all these years. But it is a logical development of one branch of the ‘Web 2.0′ hype – an increasingly dominant branch, unfortunately.

This is the new stuff

Thomas criticises Wikipedia’s entry on folksonomy – a term which was coined just over a year ago by, er, Thomas. As of today’s date, the many hands of Wikipedia say:

Folksonomy is a neologism for a practice of collaborative categorization using freely chosen keywords. More colloquially, this refers to a group of people cooperating spontaneously to organize information into categories, typically using categories or tags on pages, or semantic links with types that evolve without much central control. … In contrast to formal classification methods, this phenomenon typically only arises in non-hierarchical communities, such as public websites, as opposed to multi-level teams and hierarchical organization. An example is the way in which wikis organize information into lists, which tend to evolve in their inclusion and exclusion criteria informally over time.

Thomas:

Today, having seen an new academic endeavor related to folksonomy quoting the Wikipedia entry on folksonomy, I realize the definition of Folksonomy has become completely unglued from anything I recognize (yes, I did create the word to define something that was undefined prior). It is not collaborative, it is not putting things into categories, it is not related to taxonomy (more like the antithesis of a taxonomy), etc. The Wikipedia definition seems to have morphed into something that the people with Web 2.0 tagging tools can claim as something that can describe their tool

I’m resisting the temptation to send Thomas the All-Purpose Wikipedia Snark Letter (“Yeah? Well, if you don’t like the wisdom of the crowds, Mr So-Called Authority…”). In fact, I’m resisting the temptation to say anything about Wikipedia; that’s another discussion. But I do want to say something about the original conception of ‘folksonomy’, and about how it’s drifted.

Firstly, another quote from Thomas’s post from today:

Folksonomy is the result of personal free tagging of information and objects (anything with a URL) for one’s own retrival. The tagging is done in a social environment (shared and open to others). The act of tagging is done by the person consuming the information.

There is tremendous value that can be derived from this personal tagging when viewing it as a collective, when you have the three needed data points in a folksonomy tool: 1) the person tagging; 2) the object being tagged as its own entity; and 3) the tag being used on that object. … [by] keeping the three data elements you can use two of the elements to find a third element, which has value. If you know the object (in del.icio.us it is the web page being tagged) and the tag you can find other individuals who use the same tag on that object, which may lead (if a little more investigation) to somebody who has the same interest and vocabulary as you do. That person can become a filter for items on which they use that tag. You then know an individual and a tag combination to follow.

This is admirably clear and specific; it also fits rather well with the arguments I was making in two posts earlier this year:

[perhaps] the natural state of knowledge is to be ‘cloudy’, because it’s produced within continuing interactions within groups: knowledge is an emergent property of conversation, you could say … [This suggests that] every community has its own knowledge-cloud – that the production and maintenance of a knowledge-cloud is one way that a community defines itself.

If ‘cloudiness’ is a universal condition, del.icio.us and flickr and tag clouds and so forth don’t enable us to do anything new; what they are giving us is a live demonstration of how the social mind works. Which could be interesting, to put it mildly.

Thomas’s original conception of ‘folksonomy’ is quite close to my conception of a ‘knowledge cloud’: they’re both about the emergence of knowledge within a social interaction (a conversation).

The current Wikipedia version of ‘folksonomy’ is both fuzzier and more closely tied to existing technology. What’s happened seems to be a kind of vicious circle of hype and expectations management. It’s not a new phenomenon – anyone who’s been watching IT for any length of time has seen it happen at least once. (Not to worry anyone, but it happened quite a lot around 1999, as I remember…)

  1. There’s Vision: someone sees genuinely exciting new possibilities in some new technology and writes a paper on – oh, I don’t know, noetic telepresence or virtual speleology or network prosody…
  2. Then there’s Development: someone builds something that does, well, a bit of it. Quite significant steps towards supporting network prosody. More coming in the next release.
  3. Phase three is Hype. Hype, hype, hype. Mm-hmm. I just can’t get enough hype, can you?
  4. The penultimate phase is Dissemination: in which everyone’s trying to support network prosody. Or, at least, some of it. That stuff that those other people did with their tool. There we go, fully network prosody enabled – must get someone to do a writeup.
  5. Finally we’re into Hype II, also known as Marketing: ‘network prosody’ is defined less by the original vision than by the tools which have been built to support it. The twist is that it’s still being hyped in exactly the same way – tools which don’t actually do that much are being marketed as if they realised the original Vision. It’s a bit of a pain, this stage. Fortunately it doesn’t last forever. (Stage 6 is the Hangover.)

What’s to be done? As I said back here, personally I don’t use the term ‘folksonomy’; I prefer Peter Merholz’s term ‘ethnoclassification’. Two of my objections to ‘folksonomy’ were that it appears to denote an end result as well as a process, and that it’s become a term of (anti-librarian) advocacy as well as description; Thomas’s criticisms of Wikipedia seem to point in a similar direction. Where I do differ from Thomas is in the emphasis to be placed on online technologies. Ethnoclassification is – at least, as I see it – something that happens everywhere all the time: it’s an aspect of living in a human community, not an aspect of using the Web. If I’m right about where we are in the Great Cycle of Hype, this may soon be another point in its favour.

None of you stand so tall

In the previous post, I showed that the canonical ‘power law’ chart which underlies the Long Tail image does not, in fact, represent a power law. What it represents is a ranked list, which happens to have a similar shape to a power law series: as it stands, the ‘power law’ is an artifact of the way the list has been sorted. In particular, the contrast which is often drawn, in this context, between a power law distribution and a normal distribution is inappropriate and misleading. If you sort a list high to low, it can only ever have the shape of a descending curve.

There are counter-arguments, which I’ll go through in strength order (weakest first).

Counter-argument 1: the Argument from Inconsequentiality.

In the post which started it all, Clay wrote:
the shape of Figure #1, several hundred blogs ranked by number of inbound links, is roughly a power law distribution.

Note weasel wordage: it would be possible to argue that what Clay (and Jason Kottke) identified wasn’t really a power law distribution, it was just some data which could be plotted in a way which looked oddly like a power law curve. Thankfully, Clay cut off this line of retreat, referring explicitly to power law distributions:

power law distributions are ubiquitous. Yahoo Groups mailing lists ranked by subscribers is a power law distribution. LiveJournal users ranked by friends is a power law … we know that power law distributions tend to arise in social systems where many people express their preferences among many options.

And so on. When we say ‘power law’, we mean ‘power law distribution’: we’re all agreed on that.

Except, of course, that what we’re talking about isn’t a power law distribution. Which brings us to…

Counter-argument 2: the Argument from Intuition.

The pages I excerpted in the previous post specifically contrast the power law distribution with the ‘normal’ bell curve.

many web statistics don’t follow a normal distribution (the infamous bell curve), but a power law distribution. A few items have a significant percentage of the total resource (e.g., inbound links, unique visitors, etc.), and many items with a modest percentage of the resources form a long “tail” in a plot of the distribution.

we find a very few highly connected sites, and very many nearly unconnected sites, a power law distribution whose curve is very high to the left of the graph with the highly connected sites, with a long “tail” to the right of the unconnected sites. This is completely different than the bell curve that folks normally assume

The Web, like most networks, has a peculiar behavior: it doesn’t follow standard bell curve distributions … [it] follows a power law distribution where you get one or two sites with a ton of traffic (like MSN or Yahoo!), and then 10 or 20 sites each with one tenth the traffic of those two, and 100 or 200 sites each with 100th of the traffic, etc.

One of my Latin teachers at school had an infuriating habit, for which (in the best school-story tradition) I’m now very grateful. If you read him a translation which didn’t make sense (grammatically, syntactically or literally) he’d give you an anguished look and say, “But how can that be?” It was a rhetorical question, but it was also – infuriatingly – an open question: he genuinely wanted you to look again at what you’d written and realise that, no, actually that noun in the ablative couldn’t be the object of the verb… Good training, and not only for reading Latin.

If you’ve got this far, do me a favour and re-read the excerpts above. Then ask yourself: how can that be?

As long as we’re talking about interval/ratio variables – the only type for which a normal distribution can be plotted – it’s hard to make sense of this stuff. What, to put it bluntly, is being plotted on the X axis? The best I can do is to suppose that the X axis plots number of sites: A few items have a significant percentage of the total resource; a very few highly connected sites; one or two sites with a ton of traffic. There’s your spike on the left: a low X value (a few items) and a high Y (a significant percentage of the total resource).

But this doesn’t really work either. Or rather, it could work, but only if every group of sites with the same number of links had a uniquely different number of members – and if the number of members in each group were in inverse proportion to the number of links (1 site with n links, 2 sites with n/2 links, 3 sites with n/3 links, 4 sites with n/4 links…). This isn’t impossible, in very much the same way that the spontaneous development of a vacuum in this room isn’t impossible; a pattern like that wouldn’t be a power law so much as evidence of Intelligent Design.

This is an elaborate and implausible model; it’s also something of a red herring, as we’ll see in a minute. It’s worth going into in detail, though; as far as I can see, it’s the only way of getting these data into a power law distribution, with high numbers of links on the left, without using ranking. And cue…

Counter-argument 3: the Argument from Ranking.

Over to Clay:

The basic shape is simple – in any system sorted by rank, the value for the Nth position will be 1/N. For whatever is being ranked — income, links, traffic — the value of second place will be half that of first place, and tenth place will be one-tenth of first place. (There are other, more complex formulae that make the slope more or less extreme, but they all relate to this curve.)

“The value for the Nth position will be 1/N” (or proportionate to 1/N, to be more precise); alternatively, you could say that N items have a value of 1/N or greater. (Have a think about this one – we’ll be coming back to it later.) Either way, it’s a power law, right? Well, yes – and no. It’s certainly true to say that a ranked list with these properties confirms to a version of the power law – specifically, Zipf’s law. It’s also true to say that Zipfian rankings are associated with Pareto-like power law distributions: we may yet be able to find a power law in this data. But we’re not there yet – and Clay’s presentation of the data doesn’t help us to get there. (Jason’s has some of the same problems, but Clay’s piece is a worse offender; it’s also much more widely known.)

The first problem is with the recurrent comparison of ranked graphs with bell curves. Adam: “a ranked graph … by definition is *always* decreasing, and can *never* be a bell curve”. If anyone tells you that such and such a phenomenon follows a power law rather than a normal distribution, take a good look at their X axis. If they’ve got ranks there, the statement is meaningless.

Secondly, the graph Clay presented – a classic of the ‘big head, long tail’ genre – isn’t actually a Zipfian series, for the simple reason that it includes tied ranks: it’s not a list of ranks but a list of nominals sorted into rank order.

I’ll clarify. Suppose that we’ve got a series which only loosely conforms to Zipf’s Law, perhaps owing to errors in the real world:

Rank Value
1 1000
2 490
3 340
4 220
5 220
6 180
7 140

Now, what happens on the graph around values 4 and 5? If the X axis represents ranking, it makes no sense to say that the value of 220 corresponds to a rank of 4 and a rank of 5: it’s a rank of 4, followed by no ranking for 5 and a rank of 6 for the value of 180. We can see the point even more clearly if we take the alternative interpretation of a Zipfian list and say that the X axis tracks ‘number of items with value greater than or equal to Y’. Clearly there are 6 items greater than or equal to 180 and 5 greater than or equal to 220 – but it would be nonsensical to say that there are also 4 items greater than or equal to 220. Either way, if you have a ranked list with tied rankings this should be represented by gaps in the graph.

This may seem like a minor nitpick, but it’s actually very important. Back to Adam:

One nice thing about a ranked graph is that the “area” under the curve is equal to the total value associated with the items spanned on the ranked axis

Or, in the words of one of the pieces I quoted in the previous post:

In such a curve the distribution tapers off slowly into the sunset, and is called a tail. What is most intriguing about this long tail is that if you add up all the traffic at the end of it, you get a lot of traffic

What we’re talking about, clearly, is the Long Tail. Looking at some actual figures for inbound linkage (collected from NZ Bear earlier this year), there are few tied ranks in the higher rankings and more as we go further out: 95 unique values in the first 100 ranks and 79 in the next 100. Further down, the curve grows flatter, as we’d expect. The first ten rankings (ranging from 5,389 down to 2,142 links) correspond to ten sites; the last ten (ranging, predictably, from 9 down to zero) correspond to a total of 14,445. As Adam says, if you were to graph these data as a list of nominals ranked in descending order, the ‘area’ covered by the curve would give you a good visual impression of the total number of links accounted for by low-linked sites: the Long Tail, no other. But this graphic does not conform to a power law – not even Zipf’s Law. A list conforming to Zipf’s Law would drop tied ranks – it would exclude duplicates, if that’s any clearer. Instead of a long tail, it would trail off to the right with a series of widely-spaced fenceposts. (“In equal 9126th place, blogs with 9 links; in equal 9593rd place, 8-linkers…”)

Long Tail, power law: choose one.

You can have a Long Tail, but only by graphing a list of nominals ranked in descending order.

You can have a power law series with rankings, but only by replacing the long tail with scattered fenceposts.

Even more importantly, neither of these is a power law distribution. Given the appropriate data values, you can derive a power law distribution from a ranked list – but it doesn’t look like the ‘long tail’ graphic we know so well. I’ll talk about what it does look like in the next post.

Put your head back in the clouds

OK, let’s talk about the Long Tail.

I’ve been promising a series of posts on the Long Tail myth for, um, quite a while. (What’s a month in blog time? A few of those.) The Long Tail posts begin here.

Here’s what we’re talking about, courtesy of our man Shirky:

We are all so used to bell curve distributions that power law distributions can seem odd. The shape of Figure #1, several hundred blogs ranked by number of inbound links, is roughly a power law distribution. Of the 433 listed blogs, the top two sites accounted for fully 5% of the inbound links between them. (They were InstaPundit and Andrew Sullivan, unsurprisingly.) The top dozen (less than 3% of the total) accounted for 20% of the inbound links, and the top 50 blogs (not quite 12%) accounted for 50% of such links.


Figure #1: 433 weblogs arranged in rank order by number of inbound links.

It’s a popular meme, or it would be if there were any such thing as a meme (maybe I’ll tackle that one another time). Here’s one echo:

many web statistics don’t follow a normal distribution (the infamous bell curve), but a power law distribution. A few items have a significant percentage of the total resource (e.g., inbound links, unique visitors, etc.), and many items with a modest percentage of the resources form a long “tail” in a plot of the distribution. For example, a few websites have millions of links, more have hundreds of thousands, even more have hundreds or thousands, and a huge number of sites have just one, two, or a few.

Another:

if we measure the connectivity of a sample of 1000 web sites, (i.e. the number of other web sites that point to them), we might find a bell curve distribution, with an “average” of X and a standard deviation of Y. If, however, that sample happened to contain google.com, then things would be off the chart for the “outlier” and normal for every other one.If we back off to see the whole web’s connectivity, we find a very few highly connected sites, and very many nearly unconnected sites, a power law distribution whose curve is very high to the left of the graph with the highly connected sites, with a long “tail” to the right of the unconnected sites. This is completely different than the bell curve that folks normally assume

And another:

The Web, like most networks, has a peculiar behavior: it doesn’t follow standard bell curve distributions where most people’s activities are very similar (for example if you plot out people’s heights you get a bell curve with lots of five- and six-foot people and no 20-foot giants). The Web, on the other hand, follows a power law distribution where you get one or two sites with a ton of traffic (like MSN or Yahoo!), and then 10 or 20 sites each with one tenth the traffic of those two, and 100 or 200 sites each with 100th of the traffic, etc. In such a curve the distribution tapers off slowly into the sunset, and is called a tail. What is most intriguing about this long tail is that if you add up all the traffic at the end of it, you get a lot of traffic

All familiar, intuitive stuff. It’s entered the language, after all – we all know what the ‘long tail’ is. And when, for example, Ross writes about somebody who started blogging about cooking at the end of the tail and is now part of the fat head and has become a pro, we all know what the ‘fat head’ is, too – and we know what (and who) is and isn’t part of it.

Unfortunately, the Long Tail doesn’t exist.

To back up that assertion, I’m going to have to go into basic statistics – and trust me, I do mean ‘basic’. In statistics there are three levels of measurement, which is to say that there are three types of variable. You can measure by dividing the field of measurement into discrete partitions, none of which is inherently ranked higher than any other. This car is blue (could have been red or green); this conference speaker is male (could have been female); this browser is running under OS X (could have been Win XP). These are nominal variables. You can code up nominals like this as numbers – 01=blue, 02=red; 1=male, 2=female – but it won’t help you with the analysis. The numbers can’t be used as numbers: there’s no sense in which red is greater than blue, female is greater than male or OS X is – OK, bad example. Since nominals don’t have numerical value, you can’t calculate a mean or a median with them; the most you can derive is a mode (the most frequent value).

Then there are ordinal variables. You derive ordinal variables by dividing the field of measurement into discrete and ordered partitions: 1st, 2nd, 3rd; very probable, quite probable, not very probable, improbable; large, extra-large, XXL, SuperSize. As this last example suggests, the range covered by values of an ordinal variable doesn’t have to exhaust all the possibilities; all that matters is that the different values are distinct and can be ranked in order. Numeric coding starts to come into its own with ordinals. Give ‘large’ (etc) codes 1, 2, 3 and 4, and a statement that (say) ’50% of size observations are less than 3′ actually makes sense, in a way that it wouldn’t have made sense if we were talking about car colour observations. In slightly more technical language, you can calculate a mode with ordinal variables, but you can also calculate a median: the value which is at the numerical mid-point of the sample, when the entire sample is ordered low to high.

Finally, we have interval/ratio or I/R variables. You derive an I/R variable by measuring against a standard scale, with a zero point and equal units. As the name implies, an I/R variable can be an interval (ten hours, five metres) or a ratio (30 decibels, 30% probability). All that matters is that different values are arithmetically consistent: 3 units minus 2 units is the same as 5 minus 4; there’s a 6:5 ratio between 6 units and 5 units. Statistics starts to take off when you introduce I/R variables. We can still calculate a mode (the most common value) and a median (the midpoint of the distribution), but now we can also calculate a mean: the arithmetic average of all values. (You could calculate a mean for ordinals or even nominals, but the resulting number wouldn’t tell you anything: you can’t take an average of ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third’.)

You can visualise the difference between nominals, ordinals and I/R variables by imagining you’re laying out a simple bar chart. It’s very simple: you’ve got two columns, a long one and a short one. We’ll also assume that you’re doing this by hand, with two rectangular pieces of paper that you’ve cut out – perhaps you’re designing a poster, or decorating a float for the Statistical Parade. Now: where are you going to place those two columns? If they’re nominals (‘red cars’ vs ‘blue cars’), it’s entirely up to you: you can put the short one on the left or the right, you can space them out or push them together, you can do what you like. If they’re ordinals (‘second class degree awards’ vs ‘third class’) you don’t have such a free rein: spacing is still up to you, but you will be expected to put the ‘third’ column to the right of the ‘second’. If they’re I/R variables, finally – ’180 cm’, ’190 cm’ – you’ll have no discretion at all: the 180 column needs to go at the 180 point on the X axis, and similarly for the 190.

Almost finished. Now let’s talk curves. The ‘normal distribution’ – the ‘bell curve’ – is a very common distribution of I/R variables: not very many low values on the left, lots of values in the middle, not very many high values on the right. The breadth and steepness of the ‘hump’ varies, but all bell curves are characterised by relatively steep rising and falling curves, contrasting with the relative flatness of the two tails and the central plateau. The ‘power law distribution’ is a less common family of distributions, in which the number of values is inversely proportionate to the value itself or a power of the value. For example, deriving Y values from the inverse of the cube of X:

X value Y formula Y value
1 1000 / (1^3) 1000
2 1000 / (2^3) 125
3 1000 / (3^3) 37.037
4 1000 / (4^3) 15.625
5 1000 / (5^3) 8
6 1000 / (6^3) 4.63

As you can see, a power law curve begins high, declines steeply then ‘levels out’ and declines ever more shallowly (it tends towards zero without ever reaching it, in fact).

Got all that? Right. Quick question: how do you tell a normal distribution from a power-law distribution? It’s simple, really. In one case both low and high values have low numbers of occurrences, while most occurrences are in the central plateau of values around the mean. In the other, the lowest values have the highest numbers of occurrences; most values have low occurrence counts, and high values have the lowest counts of all. In both cases, though, what you’re looking at is the distribution of interval/ratio variables. The peaks and tails of those distribution curves can be located precisely, because they’re determined by the relative counts (Y axis) of different values (X axis) – just as in the case of our imaginary bar chart.

Back to a real bar chart.

Figure #1: 433 weblogs arranged in rank order by number of inbound links.

The shape of Figure #1, several hundred blogs ranked by number of inbound links, is roughly a power law distribution.

As you can see, this actually isn’t a power law distribution – roughly or otherwise. It’s just a list. These aren’t I/R variables; they aren’t even ordinals. What we’ve got here is a graphical representation of a list of nominal variables (look along the X axis), ranked in descending order of occurrences. We can do a lot better than that – but it will mean forgetting all about the idea that low-link-count sites are in a ‘long tail’, while the sites with heavy traffic are in the ‘head’.

[Next post: how we could save the Long Tail, and why we shouldn't try.]

Cleanse us with your healing grin

Briefly (and partially recycledly): in comments on a recent post at Owen’s blog, Owen’s Dad wrote a sizeable denunciation of Margaret Thatcher, adding as an afterthought

(I should perhaps have added to the preceding catalogue her merciless destruction of the Conservative Party as a credible party of government and as an effective opposition capable of holding an equally wayward and arrogant government to account.)

Thatcher’s destruction of the Conservative Party… It would mean we didn’t have to give any of the credit to Blair, which appeals. And it makes a certain horrible kind of sense. As a political leader, Thatcher was heavily reliant on personal relationships and personal qualities – her own ability to grasp an argument and make a connection with political acquaintances (both of which Brian remarks on) were central parts of the Thatcher programme, as was her personal ability to impose herself on the Cabinet and Parliament. Seen from inside that personality, obsequious cronies and yes-men are a good thing to have about you: you already know you’re right, after all, and people offering alternatives and qualifications will only slow you down. Hence Thatcher’s contempt for the Civil Service; hence, also, an attitude to the Conservative Party itself which was equivocal, to say the least. As a machine for exalting Thatcher and delivering power to her, it was very much a good thing. As an organisation with its own history, its own activities and its own ideas – I hardly see that Thatcher would understand a party having that kind of hinterland, let alone respect it. Much of the relationship between Thatcher and her party makes more sense if we assume, simply, that she held the party in contempt, and that she had no more concern for its long-term wellbeing than for the independence of the Civil Service.

This discussion was sparked off in the first place by a post on Stumbling and Mumbling about Thatcher’s economic legacy. In it, Chris Dillow suggests that Thatcher was a class warrior disguised as an economic liberal, and that her governments burned into the public mind an association between free-market liberalism and reactionary politics. I think that association was there already – and that the charge goes further. Consider the classic Thatcherite phrase There Is No Alternative. There are those (Chris probably included) who would argue that there was, sooner or later, no alternative to implementing a good chunk of Thatcherite economic liberalism. However, properly considered, this position leaves room for unlimited debate about timing, mechanisms, allocation of costs and benefits, etc. What’s most truly poisonous about Thatcherism is that this broad policy stance was conflated, quite illegitimately, with the eternal There Is No Alternative of the charismatic leader: there is no alternative to me, and hence there is no alternative to my interpretation of economic necessity. Nor was Thatcher above working the trick in reverse, deriving legitimacy for her own authority from the inevitability of economic change (we couldn’t go on like we were before). Both ways round, it’s a nasty rhetorical trick – and one which Blair has picked up and made his own.

So the point is not just that, under Thatcher, economic liberalism got associated with class war from above. It also got associated with messianic ‘big bang’ visions of social change and charismatic authoritarian-populist leadership – and the whole shebang got painted in the livery of Historical Inevitability. Blair then took over the core assumptions of the Thatcher style wholesale (albeit without the charm and the brains to entirely bring it off). We’re still living in Thatcherland.

Spare a thought, finally, for the Tory Party, which caught the effects first and worst. The awful succession of no-hope Tory leaders – soon, apparently, to reach some kind of nadir with the coronation of Cameron – tells us what kind of state the party’s in these days. It’s a battered, confused and demoralised organisation, barely able to express anything more than a vague yearning for a new leader, a young leader, a strong leader… A leader who’s not one of them; a leader who will smile and smile and treat them bad.

Vote Green! (Can you even name the party leader(s)?)

Good neighbors

[Updated 20/10 - tidying-up, response to Adam, Malik quote ect ect]

Shelley:

Through the various link services, last week I found that my RSS entries were being published to a GreatestJournal site. I’d never heard of GreatestJournal, and when I went to contact the site to ask them to remove the feed, there is no contact information. I did find, though, a trouble ticket area and submitted a ticket asking the site to remove the account.

In reply, “GreatestJournal” (whoever they are) told Shelley that her RSS feed was in the public domain, so they could do whatever they liked with it. (“You might wish to take your feed down if you don’t want people to use it.” That’s helpful.)

One other thing: the email in which they conveyed this information had a copyright notice at the bottom. (Shelley reprinted it anyway.)

Coincidentally, I’d recently been reading this post on EconoMeta, in which Adam talks about our changing relationship with our personal data:

one important part of Web 2.0 is the separation of user data from the applications that use it, and the idea that users should own and control this data.

the switching costs imposed by Web 1.0 companies to get a competitive advantage are being replaced by different switching costs created by the *users* of Web 2.0 companies … [e.g.] the switching costs created by the value of a social network at MySpace or a reputation on eBay, as opposed to the switching cost created by the email address and “walled garden” at AOL.

Separation of user data from applications? Check. User ownership and control? Um, not so much.

It seems to me that this is (depending on how charitable you’re feeling) a naive oversight, a lurking contradiction or a dirty little secret at the heart of the “Web 2.0″ vision: it’s not about the users. Here’s Tim O’Reilly, no less:

Let’s close, therefore, by summarizing what we believe to be the core competencies of Web 2.0 companies:

  • Services, not packaged software, with cost-effective scalability
  • Control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them
  • Trusting users as co-developers
  • Harnessing collective intelligence
  • Leveraging the long tail through customer self-service
  • Software above the level of a single device
  • Lightweight user interfaces, development models, AND business models

So we’ve got software companies harnessing collective intelligence, leveraging the Snaggly Fence* – and, of course, exercising control over unique data. Unique and hard-to-recreate data. Unique data that’s continually enriched by its users. We’re talking social software, aren’t we?

It seems increasingly clear that there are two sides to Web 2.0. The sunny side – the ‘social software’ side – is where we ask questions like:

Q: How will the data sources become unique and impossible to recreate?
A: By being enriched!
Q: How will the data be enriched?
A: Through being used by people!
Q: How will people use the data?
A: Quickly, easily, intuitively and in their thousands!

That’s also the easy side of Web 2.0 – there aren’t too many posers there, as you can see.

But there’s another side, where we ask questions like “Who will own those data sources?” – and, increasingly, “How will they get hold of them to begin with?” Which, I think, is where GreatestJournal comes in. In comments at Shelley’s post, Roger Benningfield made the Web 2.0 connection:

I came across a whole swarm of Web 2.0 stuff in my aggregator. “Microformats, XHTML, death to walled gardens!” they cried.And I thought, “Oh, you guys are *fucked*.” Because ultimately, the business models they’re envisioning are going to make GreatestJournal’s response look friendly in comparison. If they ever manage to build any momentum (questionable), they’re going to hit a brick wall of posts like this one… a *big* wall.

Case in point: a thoroughly odd development called Sxore. Adina: “The idea is that if a user signs up to comment on one blog, they’ll be able to comment on other blogs. … Sxore creates an RSS feed for each user. Presumably you can follow comments made by that user across different blogs. So, if you think someone has good ideas about blog visualizations, you get to read what they also think about President Bush.” Hmmm. What was that about users owning and controlling their data again?

Om Malik has been having similar thoughts:

if we tag, bookmark or share, and help del.icio.us or Technorati or Yahoo become better commercial entities, aren’t we seemingly commoditizing our most valuable asset – time. We become the outsourced workforce, the collective, though it is still unclear what is the pay-off. While we may (or may not) gain something from the collective efforts, the odds are whatever “the collective efforts” are, they are going to boost the economic value of those entities. Will they share in their upside? Not likely!Take Skype as an example – it rides on our broadband pipes, for which we a hefty monthly charge. It uses our computers and pipes to replace a network that cost phone companies billions to build. In exchange we can make free phone calls to other Skype users. I have no problems with that. I had no problems with Skype charging me for SkypeIN and SkypeOUT calls as well, for this was only a premium service only to be used if and when needed.

However, now that it is part of eBay, I do cringe a little.

It seems to me that the Web 2.0 hype is about social software, but only in the sense that it’s about monetising social software: in Marxist terms it’s a form of primitive accumulation. In non-Marxist terms, it’s enclosure: appropriating something that exists outside the circuit of trading and ownership and managing the supply so that it can only be obtained within that circuit. Or: stealing it and selling it back. I don’t know what the GreatestJournal business model is, or how Sxore are planning on making their money; probably something perfectly obvious and straightforward. But it seems to involve turning our work into their assets. I’m not too keen.

In response to Adam (in comments), my concern isn’t that it’s impossible to draw a line where the benefits of social software can coexist with monetisation (I myself use and endorse the fine products of Blogger.com, after all). What worries me, firstly, is that the drive for monetisation is producing pressures for closure (and enclosure). Secondly, that half the people who advocate Web 2.0 seem to share the company perspective to the point of positively welcoming these developments (see the O’Reilly sermon linked above) – while a lot of the rest are so committed to the vision as to be spectacularly ill-prepared to put up any resistance.

My immediate reaction to Shelley’s GreatestJournal post was to leap to the defence of walled gardens – “Walled gardens are full of people!”. It’s a nice line, but on reflection I don’t think it’s quite right. What we’re hearing is a sublime (although far from unprecedented) example of chutzpah – a critique of barriers by advocates of enclosure. The blogosphere isn’t a walled garden, it’s a wide-open common where nobody has ownership rights. An enclave which can’t be strip-mined isn’t walled in; all that’s happened is that the predators – who would put their own fences around it if they could – have been walled out. Long may they remain so.

(The Americanism in the title is deliberate, incidentally.)

*There Is No Long Tail

Keep the masses from majority

Geoff Hoon made some unusually revealing statements about Labour Party democracy today on The world this weekend.

Essentially, the Hoon line is that there is – and should be – no such thing. Hoon was asked whether dissenters from the leadership could draw legitimacy from the Labour conference, which had passed motions critical of the New Labour clique now running the party. In other words, do Labour MPs have any right to express the democratically-agreed views of the Labour Party, if these differ from the positions of the New Labour leadership? He replied:

[left-wing MP] was elected on the Labour Party manifesto, as was I. He is bound to deliver that manifesto, as am I.

Time was, it would be generally recognised that party conference decisions were binding on the party as a whole, the leadership included; a Labour Prime Minister who wanted to set aside conference decisions would have many critics and few supporters. Conference’s role has long been advisory at best – one of the first priorities in the construction of the New Labour machine was the marginalisation of the party’s formal democratic structures (party conference and the National Executive). Now, apparently, we’re into a new phase. Not only does the leadership have every right to ignore what the party says; the party has no right to speak. Party policy is leadership policy; what the party itself thinks is sublimely irrelevant.

Hoon’s view of democratic procedure within the parliamentary Labour Party followed similar lines: for the parliamentary party to assert itself against the leadership would not only be ill-advised, it would be illegitimate. Specifically, Hoon was asked about the possibility of a leadership challenge. He replied:

recently, at a general election, [Blair] received the overwhelming support of the British people

It’s hard to ignore the fact that this is a bare-faced lie: even if we assumed that every single Labour voter was moved by a burning desire to give Blair his or her support, that would still only account for 23% of the British people. There’s also the inconvenient, but well-documented, fact that many Labour voters gave the party their vote despite Blair. But this is secondary. The real question is whether the Labour Party exists as an organisation, capable of formulating and expressing collective viewpoints as to its policies and leadership. The Hoon line is essentially that it doesn’t exist, or that it exists but should be treated as if it doesn’t. Not the Labour Party but the New Labour clique has been anointed by the electorate, on terms set out in the party manifesto, and its word should henceforth be law.

I think Hoon’s remarks are revealing and significant – and significant in part because they reveal far more than a better-briefed (or more intelligent) member of government would have done. Through long repetition, the critique of New Labour’s ‘control freak’ tendencies has acquired the kind of familiarity that breeds contempt, but Hoon’s comments show just how serious a matter this is – and how destructive it can be. The founding of the Labour Party was a major advance in the history of British democratic representation. Many previous leaders had done their best to hobble Labour Party democracy or stifle its voice, but nobody before Blair had set about dismantling the machinery with such nihilistic gusto. What Hoon’s remarks signal is that Blair’s project of organisational vandalism is more or less complete: the Labour Party has been destroyed.

Not that Blair would put it quite that bluntly, or for that matter as bluntly as Hoon. But then, eight years down the track, it’s not glad confident morning in anyone’s book; the first generation of New Labour hacks and Old Labour fellow-travellers is a distant memory. These days, you really can’t get the staff. It’s the time of the apparatchik: the time of maximum contempt for ordinary party members, with minimum justification. And so we have Hoon: the fourth-year plodder who gets appointed as a prefect (for want of alternative candidates) and promptly starts holding forth about the selection criteria: they don’t take just anyone, you know. I don’t expect they’d want you

Once, the Labour Party was built, and the building of the party was a major advance in the history of British democratic representation. But now…

Maintenant c’est joué. L’hacienda, tu ne la verras pas. Elle n’existe pas.
Il faut construire l’hacienda.

Everything playing at once

Dave:

I no longer look at the front page of the NY Times to tell me what’s important. I look at it to see what people like the editors of the NY Times think is important. I’m finding the news that matters through the Internet recommendation engine: Blogs, emails, mailing lists, my aggregator, websites that aggregate and comment on news, etc.

Brief thoughts (also appearing in comments at Dave’s): we’re back with finding out what people say about stuff. Which is, ultimately, all there is to find out. Knowledge – and, for that matter, news – has always been produced in cloud form, as an emergent property of conversations. When we counterpose knowledge to conversation, we’re really saying that certain conversations have ended – or been brought to an end – and left unchallenged conclusions behind them. What’s changed is that, until recently, the conversations which produce knowledge (and news) have taken place within small and closed groups, so that most of us have only seen the crystallised end-product of the conversation. What Wikipedia, blogging, RSS and del.icio.us give us is the rudiments of a distributed conversation platform, enabled by pervasive broadband. (Which is why the ownership of the authority to stop the conversation – and crystallise the cloud – is such a big issue.)

Some are mathematicians

Or: of Dylan and Dylanophiles. Scorsese’s No Direction Home is glorious, although I think the BBC’s decision to show it in two halves is debatable; after Part One I was left wondering how, having got as far as 1966, they were going to fit the next 39 years of Dylan’s career into Part Two. I was still wondering when Part Two ended. Apparently what happened after 1966 was that Dylan had a motorbike accident and stopped touring; after that some other events may have taken place, but apparently we can’t be sure at this stage.

No Direction Home both was and wasn’t a revelation. I’ve been a Dylan fan in a small way for a long time, although ‘fan’ doesn’t seem quite the right word: he’s just there, monumentally. I realised during the programme that I’d heard far too little of his early stuff; album purchases are going to be required, but I can’t decide whether to start with Bob Dylan and make up the gaps chronologically, or just go straight for Blonde on blonde.

Still, hearing some of his stuff from 1965-6 for more or less the ahem first time koff had the advantage of giving me some idea just how strange a departure it must have seemed at the time. One point which Scorsese’s film underlined was that going electric wasn’t the only break Dylan made. In one of the many post-concert vox pops – some of which, to judge from the accents, must have been at the Free Trade Hall gig, although Manchester was never credited on the titles – a disgruntled fan curtly dismissed the second-half electric set before excoriating Dylan’s solo set at some length: his singing was out of tune, his rhythm was off and he kept playing that bloody harmonica… And, you felt, he kept playing those weird new songs. One telling moment during the electric set saw Bob pouring oil on troubled waters by announcing that the next number was a protest song. The effect was immediate: the booing died away; there was an anticipatory hush and some scattered cheering. Then the band started up. Playing “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat”. You’ve got to love him for that.

Which isn’t to say that ‘protest songs’ were a wrong turning for Dylan – any more than the repertoire of traditional songs that got him started, and led naturally into the ‘protest’ phase. On the contrary, Scorsese’s film suggested that breaking with the ‘protest’ repertoire was the single most important, and most creative, thing that Dylan ever did – but that the energy released by that break came only partly from Dylan’s discomfort with being seen as a ‘protest singer’; partly, it grew from his success in that role.

Clearly, I’m not the first person to notice that several of the songs on The times they are a-changin’ can be called political. Still, I think it’s worth stressing that they should be called political – particularly in the current climate of Arnoldian, high-culture Dylanophilia, which fits Dylan’s own claim to a kind of apolitical humanism only too well. (I’ll come back to last week’s Dylan tribute concert further on, but really – what was Barb Jungr doing? I’d come close to losing the will to listen during Odetta’s languid take on “Mr Tambourine Man” – not a particularly frisky song in the best of readings – but dear Lord, Jungr’s “Like A Rolling Stone”… How does it feel? It feels like I’m watching a rich kid’s drama school audition, actually.)

Retrospectively, anyway, Dylan likes to present himself as doing no more than stand up for universal values – for justice against injustice, freedom against tyranny – and perhaps some of his ‘protest songs’ can bear that reading; “Blowin’ in the Wind”, with that weirdly complacent dying fall closing each verse, for one. (Although, as Mavis Staples pointed out in Scorsese’s film, the first two lines meant something quite specific to Black Americans at the time.) But “The Times They Are A-Changin’”?

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Rhyming “heed the call” with “Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall” – in other words, Heed the call and get out of the way – is not the work of a disengaged prophet of peace and freedom. And that’s not to mention “Masters of war” or “The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll”, let alone “Only a pawn in their game” – a deeply political response to the murder of Medgar Evers, one of the most scandalous events of those years. Dylan didn’t give a voice to a generation; he gave a voice to a movement, and the movement gave him the world he needed to write about. According to Joan Baez, Dylan wrote “When the ship comes in” in reaction to being refused a hotel room (very Pirate Jenny); but I think that very exorbitance – so familiar from his later work – only came to him in the first place through his engagement with something much bigger.

After that, and because of that, there was more he could do; the 1966 tour was when it started. The songs the Free Trade Hall audience wanted to hear were what enabled Dylan to write the songs he played there – and kept the audience from hearing them. It was extraordinary seeing those images of thousands of fans queuing to see Dylan, only to turn on him when he started playing. It would be silly to invoke the Golden Bough or Orpheus’s sparagmos, but still – there’s something singular, and singularly intense, about the anger of the betrayed fan. In after-show footage Dylan looked both shaken and perplexed – All the booing! Why are they booing, man? Most likely, from that point on, they’d go their way and he’d go his.

They weren’t just booing, mind you. At the Free Trade Hall, the legendary shout of “Judas!” was followed, from somewhere else in the auditorium, by “You pillock!” (This may have been aimed at the first heckler rather than Dylan, it’s hard to be sure.) On the Scorsese film, we heard one heckler call out “Go home, Bobby” (nasty little diminutive there); later, as Dylan settled himself at the piano and adjusted his vocal mike, somebody called out “Try switching it off.” (And yes, these were people who’d paid for tickets, queued up, etc – they’d probably queued up for tickets, come to that.) It may be a Manchester thing. In my experience, Manchester audiences have a good line in heckling; for some people it’s an integral part of the evening’s entertainment. I wasn’t into Dylan at the time of the 1966 tour and didn’t live in Manchester; otherwise I might have been at the Free Trade Hall that night, if only I’d been more than five years old. But I did see Robyn Hitchcock, years later, take the stage to be greeted immediately by a double-act of hecklers:

Heckler 1: “Here he is, the man himself.”
Heckler 2: “He’s got a beer-gut!”
H1: “He’s a footballer.”
H2: “And a very good one!”

I don’t think Robyn Hitchcock is easily fazed, but they did it. He quelled them later, though. The two of them had started outbidding each other in guesses as to the precise length of the grotesquely elongated legs of the hallucinated Scottie dogs encircling the protagonist’s deathbed in that night’s introduction to “The Yip song”. (As one might.) Robyn broke off to interrupt them (“Eight feet!” “Ten feet!”), saying with some dignity, “No – you can say that, but it doesn’t make it true. Because this is how it was.” They shut up after that.

Robyn, coincidentally, was one of the three best acts at the tribute concert last week, although for some unknown reason they limited him (uniquely) to one song; he did what I took, rather embarrassingly, for one of his own. (Still. Hands up who’s got Time out of mind…) The other two were Martin Carthy (his “Hattie Carroll” was dreadful, but he did a wonderful “Scarborough Fair”) and K T Tunstall, who played the first two tracks of Blood on the Tracks – yes, starting with “Tangled up in blue”. (She made a pretty good fist of it, I have to say, as well as disrupting an increasingly precious evening with some welcome amplification – 39 years on, had we learnt nothing?)

I confess I was outraged when KT announced “Tangled up in blue”: I couldn’t imagine anyone but Dylan singing it (it’s so personal, so autobiographical) Listening to the song and re-reading the lyrics afterwards, I realised that I’d been thinking of it as a straightforward narrative with a couple of flashbacks – and that it’s anything but. It’s actually quite hard to say what happens in “Tangled up in blue”, and it’s impossible to say in what order it happens. Even the one reasonably clear section (narrator goes to topless bar, gets picked up by waitress) is impossible to place: has he found “her” again or is this their first meeting? The dialogue suggests both, at one point in two successive lines -

“I thought you’d never say hallo,” she said,
“You look like the silent type”

- which makes it impossible to settle on either. Straight after that, we’re into

I lived with them on Montague Street

Them? She was married when we first met, which would fit – but We drove that car as far as we could… sounds like a different episode from She had to sell everything she owned… – and neither of them sounds like Her folks, they said our life together/Sure was going to be tough. (Is he even talking about the same woman?) It’s an extraordinary piece of writing: not so much like a story, more like knocking a box of slides on the floor and describing them as you pick them up – but with none of the tricksy coolness that image suggests.

What sticks in my mind from “Tangled up in blue”, apart from a couple of wonderful lines in the first verse, is the way it ends. We’ve had

music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air

and the narrator has… just kept on:

The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on

Then there’s this strange writing-off of an entire scene, casual, almost playful in its phrasing, but at the same time stern and unmistakably final:

All the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started, I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives

What they’re doing with their lives Living them, you feel like replying – and it got started when the movement circus left town (or got beaten, or got co-opted – either way, it wasn’t there any more). Living, is what they’re doing with their lives – it’s mundane and it’s limited, but what else are you going to do?

Me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint

Yes, on one level it’s tired old rock troubadour imagery; yes, it would be interesting to compare it with the amount of time Dylan spent touring that year, let alone the time he spent on the road in any meaningful sense. But on another level, damn it, he’s right. Social movements change lives, both in the experience of the movement and more permanently: new forms of sociality, new forms of communication, new ways of conceiving and portraying the world can survive a movement’s ebb. Anyone who lived through the Civil Rights movement and then returned to their studies (or their husband’s carpentry), unchanged by what had happened, had missed out on something. And they’d missed out in a way that Dylan (for all his self-seeking arrogance, for all his ambition) didn’t miss out. One of the many achievements of that movement was turning Bob Dylan into a poet.

Scaring the nation

Or: what’s being said about the Walter Wolfgang incident, and what isn’t.

It’s appalling that this should happen to an old man / a lifetime Labour Party member / a former refugee from Fascism

This is roughly the Blair line. I have every respect and sympathy for Walter Wolfgang as an individual, but really… spare us. Blair’s recourse to this argument suggests a worrying confusion between ethics and sentiment, between ‘wrong’ and ‘unpleasant’. (A very New Labour confusion, incidentally.) If Walter had been a strapping twenty-year-old who’d recently joined the party from the BNP, what happened to him wouldn’t have been any less wrong. (An ex-fascist being manhandled by security would have had a certain entertainment value, admittedly, but it would have been just as wrong.)

It’s appalling that Labour should treat dissenters this way

This is closer to the mark. The idea of suppressing all heckling at a Labour Party conference in the 1970s or 1980s would make a cat laugh. You’ve got to wonder quite how much the party membership has changed in that time – does nobody oppose the leadership any more? Or have the members simply been managed into submission? We knew, of course, that the New Labour takeover had involved restructuring the apparatus of the Labour Party; perhaps until Wednesday we didn’t appreciate quite how far it’s gone. Wednesday’s scenes put me in mind of accounts of BUF meetings in the 1930s (“a solitary heckler was quickly removed from the hall by burly stewards”). To be fair, the WRP in its heyday had a similar way with dissent; if Blair’s a Fascist, so was Gerry Healy. (So, not quite out of the woods yet, Tony.)

It’s appalling that the Terrorism Act should be invoked

I almost endorse this line of argument wholeheartedly. The Terrorism Act 2000 (commonly known as TACT) explicitly classifies as terrorism such activities as politically-motivated vandalism, political protest which threatens the ‘health and safety’ of the public and politically-motivated hacking. Even more alarmingly, it makes no distinction between the action itself and the threat of carrying it out. As I said earlier, if I threatened to take down the Home Office Web site on behalf of NO2ID, that threat would in itself amount to terrorism. The same would be true of threatening to impinge on public health and safety by… oh, I don’t know… preventing petrol tankers from leaving oil refineries, say, or clogging up the M4 with a convoy of farm vehicles. TACT, in other words, is a catch-all law, which can be used to criminalise as much or as little of the spectrum of effective political protest as the government of the day chooses. This is not only an authoritarian law, it’s an arbitrary law – a law which legitimises arbitrary state action instead of limiting it.

This vein of arbitrary authoritarianism runs right through TACT. Section 44 of TACT, under which Walter was supposedly detained, is all about defining situations in which police powers can be extended. Section 44 enables a senior police officer to issue an authorisation, covering a specified area for a period of up to twenty-eight days, under which the police have extended powers to stop and search people and vehicles. The authorisation must be issued because the person giving it considers it expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism. Once it’s issued, however, individual searches don’t need to be justified; the existence of the authorisation, together with a police officer’s stated belief that the search is related to the prevention of terrorism (as defined by TACT), is justification enough. Assuming that the area of the conference was already covered by a section 44 authorisation, all that would be needed to justify hauling Walter Wolfgang out of the conference hall and searching him would be a police officer’s belief – well-founded or not, reasonable or not, the law explicitly makes no distinction – that Walter was on the verge of committing a terrorist act and that searching him would bring to light articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism. For instance, after shouting ‘Nonsense!’ Walter might have advocated mass civil disobedience in order to bring the country’s war effort to a halt; a blockade of military bases would certainly create a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public. He might even have called for protesters to vandalise missiles and war planes (serious damage to property). And he might have been about to take a list of military bases from his pocket and read it out (articles of a kind…). Of course, he wasn’t about to do any of these things, but the police weren’t to know that. Under the provisions of section 44 of TACT, Sussex Police were entirely justified in searching Walter; which is to say that TACT is a arbitrary, authoritarian monstrosity.

But they didn’t search him. And what’s not being said about this incident is:

It’s appalling that the police should have exceeded their powers

Contrary to much popular belief, the police do not have a legal right to play Simon Says: failure to comply with a police officer’s requests is not a criminal offence. More specifically, the police do not have an unfettered right to detain people – indeed, this is precisely why section 44 of TACT was invoked in this case. But TACT doesn’t give them this right either – section 44 provisions, as broad as they are, relate only to searches. If, as most observers seem to agree, Walter was detained under section 44, then he was detained unlawfully.

When it comes to outrage, this incident is a target-rich environment: New Labour management of dissent is genuinely appalling, as is TACT. But there seems to be yet a third level of arbitrary authoritarianism. Section 44 may give the police a free hand in selecting people to search, but that’s all it does. Wednesday’s incident suggests that Sussex Police, at least, are interpreting it as giving them much broader powers to clamp down on protest – and they’re not, as yet, being called to account. That’s really worrying.

Know what I mean

Back here, I wrote:

Tagging, I’m suggesting, isn’t there to tell us about stuff: it’s there to tell us about what people say about stuff. As such, it performs rather poorly when you’re asking “where is X?” or “what is X?”, and it comes into its own when you’re asking “what are people saying about X?”

This relates back to my earlier argument that all knowledge is cloud-shaped, and that tagging is simply giving us a live demonstration of how the social mind works. In other words, all there is is “what people are saying about X” – but some conversations have been going on longer than others. Some conversations, in fact, have developed assumptions, artefacts, structures and systems within and around which the conversation has to take place. The conversation carried on in the medium of tagging isn’t at that stage yet, perhaps, but it will be – the interesting question is about the nature of those artefacts and structures.

Now (with thanks to Anne Galloway) over to Dan Sperber.

When say, vervet monkeys communicate among themselves, one vervet monkey might spot a leopard and emit an alarm cry that indicates to the other monkeys in his group that there’s a leopard around. The other vervet monkeys are informed by this alarm cry of the presence of a leopard, but they’re not particularly informed of the mental state of the communicator, and they don’t give a damn about it. The signal puts them in a cognitive state of knowledge about the presence of a leopard, similar to that of the communicating monkey — here you really have a smooth coding-decoding system.In the case of humans, when we speak we’re not interested per se in the meaning of the words, we register what the word means as a way to find out what the speaker means. Speaker’s meaning is what’s involved. Speaker’s meaning is a mental state of the speaker, an intention he or she has to share with us some content. Human communication is based on the ability we have to attribute mental state to others, to want to change the mental states of others, and to accept that others change ours.

When I communicate with you I am trying to change your mind. I am trying to act on your mental state. I’m not just putting out a kind of signal for you to decode. And I do that by providing you with evidence of a mental state in which I want to put you in and evidence of my intention to do so. The role of what is often known in cognitive science as “theory of mind,” that is the uniquely human ability to attribute complex mental states to others, is as much a basis of human communication as is language itself.

I am full of admiration for the mathematical theory of information and communication, the work of Shannon, Weaver, and others, and it does give a kind of very general conceptual framework which we might take advantage of. But if you apply it directly to human communication, what you get is a mistaken picture, because the general model of communication you find is a coding-decoding model of communication, as opposed to this more constructive and inferential form of communication which involves inferring the mental state of others, and that’s really characteristic of humans.
[...]
For Dawkins, you can take the Darwinian model of selection and apply it almost as is to culture. Why? Because the basic idea is that, just as genes are replicators, bits of culture that Dawkins called “memes” are replicators too. If you take the case of population genetics, the causal mechanisms involved split into two subsets. You have the genes, which are extremely reliable mechanisms of replication. On the other hand, you have a great variety of environmental factors — including organisms which are both expression of genes and part of their environment — environmental factors that affect the relative reproductive success of the genes. You have then on one side this extremely robust replication mechanism, and on the other side a huge variety of other factors that make these competing replication devices more or less successful. Translate this into the cultural domain, and you’ll view memes, bits of culture, as again very strong replication devices, and all the other factors, historical, ecological, and so on, as contributing to the relative success of the memes.

What I’m denying, and I’ve mentioned this before, is that there is a basis for a strong replication mechanism either in cognition or in communication. It’s much weaker than that. As I said, preservative processes are always partly constructive processes. When they don’t replicate, this does not mean that they make an error of copying. Their goal is not to copy. There are transformation in the process of transmission all the time, and also in the process of remembering and retrieving past, stored information, and these transformations are part of the efficient working of these mechanisms. In the case of cultural evolution, this yields a kind of paradox. On the one hand, of course, we have macro cultural stability — we do see the same dish being cooked, the same ideologies being adopted, the same words being used, the same song being sung. Without some relatively high degree of cultural stability — which was even exaggerated in classical anthropology — the very notion of culture wouldn’t make sense.

How then do we reconcile this relative macro stability at the cultural level, with a lack of fidelity at the micro level? … The answer, I believe, is linked precisely to the fact that in human, transmission is achieved not just by replication, but also by construction. … Although indeed when things get transmitted they tend to vary with each episode of transmission, these variations tend to gravitate around what I call “cultural attractors”, which are, if you look at the dynamics of cultural transmission, points or regions in the space of possibilities, towards which transformations tend to go. The stability of cultural phenomena is not provided by a robust mechanism of replication. It’s given in part, yes, by a mechanism of preservation which is not very robust, not very faithful (and it’s not its goal to be so). And it’s given in part by a strong tendency for the construction — in every mind at every moment — of new ideas, new uses of words, new artifacts, new behaviors, to go not in a random direction, but towards attractors. And, by the way, these cultural attractors themselves have a history.

There’s more – much more – but what I’ve quoted brings out two key points. Firstly, communication is not replication: in conversation, there is no smooth transmission of information from speaker to listener, but a continuing collaborative effort to present, construct, re-present and reconstruct shared mental models. The overlap between this and the ‘knowledge cloud’ model is evident. Secondly, construction has a context: the process of model-building (or ‘thinking’ as we scientists sometimes call it) is always creative, always innovative, and always framed by pre-existing cultural ‘attractors’. And these cultural attractors themselves have a history – you could say that people make their own mental history, but they do not do so in circumstances of their own choosing…

This is tremendously powerful stuff – from my (admittedly idiosyncratic) philosophical standpoint it suggests a bridge between Schutz, Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu (and I’ve been looking for one of those for ages). My only reservation relates to Sperber’s stress on speaker’s meaning … a mental state of the speaker. I think it would enhance Sperber’s model, rather than marring it, to focus on mental models as they are constructed within communication rather than as they exist within the speaker’s skull – in other words, to bracket the existence of mental states external to communicative social experience. On this point Schutz converges, oddly, with Wittgenstein.

Sperber’s argument tends to underpin my intuition on tagging and knowledge clouds: if all communication is constructive – if there is no simple transmission or replication of information – then conversation really is where knowledge develops, or more precisely where knowledge resides. Sperber also helps explain the process by which some conversations become better-established than others; we can see this as a feedback process, involving the development of a domain-specific set of ‘attractors’. These would perhaps serve as a version of Rorty’s ‘final vocabulary’: a shared and unquestionable set of assumptions, a domain-specific backdrop without which the conversation would make no sense.

One final thought from Sperber:

The idea of God isn’t a supernatural idea. If the idea of God were supernatural, then religion would be true.

Well, I liked it.

Drop you where you stand

Ellis:

Fascinating. The only person to heckle Jack Straw at today’s Labour Party conference was an 82-year-old man, who couldn’t bear Straw’s garbage about Britain only being in Iraq to bring democracy and stability. “Lies!” he shouted. Five security guards promptly pounced. When the delegate next to the heckler told the guards to leave the old guy alone they pounced on him instead. He is apparently the chairman of the Constituency Labour Party whose parliamentary representative is John Austin MP. The delegate complains that he was violently dragged from the hall, thrown up against a wall and suffered bruising. The delegate tried to phone his MP and was told his phone would be seized if he didn’t put it away. Some of the security guards went back for the heckler. The 82 year old was subsequently detained by police. John Austin MP says he was present and couldn’t believe his ears when the cop informed the heckler that he was being “detained under section 44 of the Terrorism Act”.

The heckler, it turns out, was Walter Wolfgang, peacenik of long standing. (I used to know Walter slightly – in the early 1990s he was a Tribune contributor and a reliable presence on the Labour CND scene.) The BBC has more:

[Linda Riordan MP] was sitting just a few rows in front of the ejected man when he began shouting. “He was immediately surrounded by three or four stewards and physically lifted off his feet and bundled out of a side door,” she said.

Ms Riordan’s predecessor as Halifax MP, the prominent anti-war campaigner Alice Mahon, also witnessed the incident.She said: “We were listening to Jack talking about Iraq. This gentleman shouted `That’s rubbish, that’s a lie’. Two or three of the security people dived on him. This other chap a couple of rows in front turned round and said `You must be joking’, because this was simple political heckling. He wasn’t threatening anybody. He got manhandled out as well. I think they were really over the top.”

A Labour Party spokesman said: “Following a disturbance in the visitors’ balcony, two people were escorted out, having been asked three times to be quiet.”

As for that bit about the Terrorism Act… well, let’s not get it out of proportion:

Police later used powers under the Terrorism Act to prevent Mr Wolfgang’s re-entry, but he was not arrested.

Outlining the measures taken by its officers, Sussex Police said: “The protocol in this situation is that a police officer is called. The police officer attended and asked the man to wait for a member of the Labour Party. We wish to stress that the delegate was not arrested or searched at any point during his brief interaction with the police officer and that it is a matter for the Labour Party to decide who they allow into their conference.”

It’s just a case of providing police backup for Labour’s hired bouncers, nothing more sinister than that. Why shouldn’t they be choosy about who they let in? Just another case of privatisation of public space.

Still… the Terrorism Act? Here’s Section 44:

44. – (1) An authorisation under this subsection authorises any constable in uniform to stop a vehicle in an area or at a place specified in the authorisation and to search- (a) the vehicle;
(b) the driver of the vehicle;
(c) a passenger in the vehicle;
(d) anything in or on the vehicle or carried by the driver or a passenger.

(2) An authorisation under this subsection authorises any constable in uniform to stop a pedestrian in an area or at a place specified in the authorisation and to search-

(a) the pedestrian;
(b) anything carried by him.

(3) An authorisation under subsection (1) or (2) may be given only if the person giving it considers it expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism.

There’s an interesting slippage between the first two subsections and the third: the stipulation regarding the prevention of acts of terrorism refers to the authorisation, not to the individual search. Once an authorisation to stop and search has been granted – covering the whole of a specified area, for a specified period – the wording of section 44 does nothing to restrict the actions carried out under that authorisation. Which is to say that it authorises every police officer in the area to stop and search at will.

Hopefully somebody out there is now muttering about section 45 of the Act. Yes, section 45 modifies this picture substantially:

45. – (1) The power conferred by an authorisation under section 44(1) or (2)- (a) may be exercised only for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism, and
(b) may be exercised whether or not the constable has grounds for suspecting the presence of articles of that kind.

Section 45 gives with one hand but takes away with the other. 45(1)(b) explicitly confirms that s.44 legitimises arbitrary stops and searches; 45(1)(a), however, stipulates that these can only carried out for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism (emphasis added).

Now, this wording is extraordinarily broad, particularly when you consider that the Act’s definition of terrorism is pretty broad to begin with:

1. – (1) In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where- (a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-

(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.

Note that the words ‘use or threat’ in 1(1) qualify all the types of action listed in 1(2); if I threatened to take down the Home Office Web site on behalf of NO2ID, that threat would in itself amount to terrorism – and the police, if so authorised, could frisk me and confiscate any articles of a kind which could be used in connection with mouthing off about being a L337 H4x0r.

All this is alarming, mind-boggling and frankly rather weird. But it’s also a bit beside the point, since it appears that Walter Wolfgang wasn’t in fact searched (the delegate was not arrested or searched at any point during his brief interaction with the police officer). Which poses a problem for the Sussex Police. If we assume that the Terrorism Act was invoked (and assuming otherwise would mean calling several people liars) there are really only two possibilities. Either Walter was in fact searched for terrorist impedimenta, and the Sussex Police spokesperson got it wrong; or Sussex Police, in effect, stopped reading the Act before they got to section 45, and came away with the mistaken impression that an authorisation obtained under section 44 allowed police officers to stop anyone for any reason. To put it more bluntly, if they used a section 44 authorisation for purposes other than those laid down by section 45, their action wasn’t covered by the Act – and Walter would have a good case for wrongful detention.

Needless to say, I don’t hold out much hope for a prosecution. I think it’s more likely that the government will tack on a clause to work round s45(1)(a) when they review the 2005 PTA. Making it retroactive would be a stretch, but I wouldn’t rule it out; this is, after all, a government which not only wants to give the police a radical extension of summary powers but actually says so.

As for Walter, Ian McCartney MP has promised him an apology on behalf of the Labour Party. Which is nice. He’s just not going to get it in Brighton:

“I’m going to personally apologise to him,” Mr McCartney said. “I’m going to personally meet him if he takes the opportunity.” But Mr McCartney said Mr Wolfgang would not be allowed back into the conference, which ends on Thursday.

If I drew a detailed map

Several months ago, I wrote (regarding the Wikipedia page on ‘anomie‘):

For what I’d want to know about a concept like that, that page is pretty dreadful. It veers wildly between essentialism (there is a thing called ‘anomie’ and we know what it is, across time and space) and nominalism (different people have used this combination of letters to mean different things, who knew?). What’s not there is any sense of the history of the concept

I was reminded of this argument by Tom‘s recent comments on the ‘penis envy’ page (“I know this article on penis envy is bullshit, and it’s been on my ‘to do’ list of things to fix for weeks, and I’ve got nowhere“). The problem here is that making things more complicated is a lot harder than keeping them simple. What’s worse, the kind of people who are critical of other people’s simplifications tend also to be critical of their own work, which means that getting the complicated version written and getting it right is a long and painstaking job. Which, in turn, means that in the absence of serious incentives it’s quite likely not to get done. Wikipedia’s native system of informal incentives breaks down, in other words, where the workload gets too large – and, when it comes to making things more complicated (and getting it right), the workload starts at ‘large’ and goes up.

I was talking about this stuff with a friend the other day (hi Chris!) when he came up with a proposal for filling the incentive gap. The idea is to mobilise peer pressure among the population of disgruntled complexifiers. What we want isn’t so much an army of subject experts as a group of people who mistrust simple explanations and are good at digging out and writing down the underlying complications, in any of a number of fields. Hacks rather than professors, essentially – but good hacks. A list of apparently oversimplified Wikipedia articles could then be drawn up, and each one could be offered to names picked from the pool. I’ll just reiterate that I’m not talking about people with expert knowledge, so much as perfectionists with inquiring minds. The Wikipedia articles I’ve mentioned left me with a stack of unanswered questions, which I’d happily devote a few evenings to answering if I was being paid to do so – or if I had any incentive to do so. A virtual tap on the shoulder from an online group of pedantic curmudgeons might just do the job.

That just leaves the task of assembling the group. Here, Chris made the brilliant suggestion of using PledgeBank. Something like this:

I will take part in a group of volunteers who will improve Wikipedia by correcting and extending inaccurate and simplistic entries on social science concepts, but only if another 99 people do so too.

I think it could work. What do you think?

A place for everything

Or: what ethnoclassification is, and what folksonomy isn’t.

When it comes to tagging, I’m facing both ways. I think it’s fascinating and powerful and new – qualitatively new, that is: it’s worth writing about not just because it’s shiny, but because there’s still work to be done on understanding it. At the same time, I think it’s been massively oversold, often on the back of rhetorical framings which only have a glancing relationship with evidence or logic. Tagging is fascinating and powerful and new, but a lot of the talk about tagging has me tearing my hair.

I’ll pick on a recent post by Dave Weinberger. (Personal to DW: sorry, Dave. I’m emphatically not (is that emphatic enough?) suggesting that you’re the worst offender in this area.)

Let’s say you type in “africa,” “agriculture” and “grains” because that’s what you’re researching. You’ll get lots of results, but you may miss pages about “couscous” because Google is searching for the word “grain” and doesn’t know that that’s what couscous is made of. Google knows the words on the pages, but doesn’t know what the pages are about. That’s much harder for computers because what something is about really depends on what you’re looking for. That same page on couscous that to you is about economics could be about healthy eating to me or about words that repeat syllables to someone else. And that’s the problem with all attempts by experts and authorities to come up with neat organizations of knowledge: What something is about depends on who’s looking.

Let’s say you come across the Moroccan couscous web page and you want to remember it. So you upload its Web address to your free page at del.icio.us that lists all the pages you’ve saved. Then del.icio.us asks you to enter a word or two as tags so you can find the Moroccan page later. You might tag it with Morocco, recipe, couscous, and main course, and then later you can see all the pages you’ve tagged with any of those words.That’s a handy way to organize a large list of pages, but tagging at del.icio.us really took off because it’s a social activity: Everyone can see all the pages anyone has tagged with say, Morocco or main course or agriculture. This is a great research tool because just by checking the tag “agriculture” now and then, you’ll see every page everyone else at delicious has tagged that way. Some of those pages will be irrelevant to you, of course, but many won’t be. It’s like having the world of people who care about a topic tell you everything they’ve found of interest. And unlike at Google, you’ll find the pages that other humans have decided are ABOUT your topic.

What strikes me about this passage is that Dave changes scenarios in mid-stream: Let’s say you come across the Moroccan couscous web page… How? Google couldn’t find it. Let’s compare like with like, and say that you’re still looking for your couscous page: what do you do then, if not go to del.icio.us and type in “africa,” “agriculture” and “grains”? Once again, assuming that whole-site searches aren’t timing out, you’ll get lots of results (particularly since del.icio.us doesn’t seem to allow ANDing of search terms) but you may miss pages about “couscous” – and checking the tag “agriculture” now and then won’t necessarily help. Google will miss the page if the term ‘couscous’ doesn’t appear in the source (which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘appear on screen’, of course); del.icio.us will miss it if the term hasn’t been used to tag it (even if it is in the source).

Google vs del.icio.us is an odd comparison, in other words, and it’s not at all clear to me that the comparison favours del.icio.us. It’s great to get classificatory(?) input from the users of a document, of course – as I said above, tagging is fascinating and powerful and new – but in terms of information retrieval it can only score over a full-text search if

1. the page has been purposefully tagged by a user
2. the page has been tagged with a term which doesn’t appear in the page source
3. a second user is searching for information which is contained in the page, using the term with which the first user tagged it

I don’t think tagging advocates think enough about what those conditions imply. For example, at present I’m the only del.icio.us user to have tagged Mr Chichimichi’s Tags are not a panacea; I tagged it with ‘tagging’, ‘search’ and ‘ethnoclassification’. Until I did so, anyone looking for it would have been out of luck. Even Google wouldn’t be much help – the word ‘ethnoclassification’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the text. No, until a couple of days ago your only way of stumbling on that post would have been to run a clumsy, counter-intuitive Google search on terms like ‘tagging’, ‘tags’, ‘folksonomies’ and ‘social software’. (Google even knows that ‘folksonomies’ is the plural of ‘folksonomy’, so searching on the singular form would work just as well. That’s just not fair.)

Dave also contrasts the world of collective knowledge through distributed tagging with attempts by experts and authorities to come up with neat organizations of knowledge. Further along in the same piece, he writes:

This takes classification and about-ness out of the hands of authors and experts. Now it’s up to us readers to decide what something is about.Not only does this let us organize stuff in ways that make more sense to us, but we no longer have to act as if there’s only one right way of understanding everything, or that authors and other authorities are the best judges of what things are about.

One question: who ever said that there was only one right way of understanding everything? OK, too easy. I’ll rephrase that: before tagging came along, who was saying there was one right way, etc? Who are the tagging advocates actually arguing against? (It certainly isn’t librarians (context here).)

There’s a difference between classifications which have a single pre-determined set of definitions and classifications which are user-defined and user-extensible. But that’s not the same as the difference between having an underlying ontology and not having one, or the difference between hierarchical and flat organisations of knowledge, or the difference between single and multiple sets of classifications. A closed, expert-defined, locked-down controlled vocabulary may contain multiple sets of overlapping terms; it may be a flat list of categories rather than a ‘tree’; it may even be innocent of ontology. (Thanks to Jay for pointing this out, in comments here.) If tagging is better than top-down classification, it’s better because it’s user-defined and user-extensible – not because it’s free of the vices of ontology, hierarchy and uniformity. The idea that tagging – and only tagging – stands in opposition to a classifying universe built on hierarchical uniformity is a straw man. (But the librarians get it both ways – if a top-down classifying system is shown to be flat and plural, this can be put forward as a sign of the weakness of top-down systems; the fact that bottom-up systems are more, not less, vulnerable to Chinese Encyclopedia Syndrome is passed over.)

So, tagging systems make lousy search engines, and they don’t mark a qualitative leap in the organisation of human knowledge. What they’re really good for – and what makes them fascinating and powerful – is conversation. Tagging, I’m suggesting, isn’t there to tell us about stuff: it’s there to tell us about what people say about stuff. As such, it performs rather poorly when you’re asking “where is X?” or “what is X?”, and it comes into its own when you’re asking “what are people saying about X?” (Of course, much tag-advocacy is driven by the tacit belief that there’s no fundamental difference between what people say about X and expert knowledge of X – and that an aggregate of what people say would be equivalent, if not superior, to expert knowledge. But that’s an argument for another post.)

Tagging is good for telling us what people say about stuff, anyway – and when it’s good, it’s very good. To see what I’m talking about, have a look at Reader2 (via Thomas). It’s a book recommendation site, implemented on the basis of a del.icio.us-like user/tag system. It’s powerful stuff already, and it’s still being developed. Does it tell me what books are really like? No – but it tells me what people are saying about them, which is precisely what I want to know. And it couldn’t do this nearly as well, it seems to me, without tags – and tag clouds in particular. This, for me, is what tagging’s all about. Ethnoclassification: classification as a open-ended collective activity, as one element of the continual construction of social reality.

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