Schrodinger’s Internet

Whoah. Philosophy alert. I just want to warn you. I get this way from time to time.

Janet Fouts, who is a fellow panel member on our Game Changers podcast/internet radio show, raised the issue of Google’s Social Search. As I dug more and more into it, I was struck by the brilliance of Google’s strategy. I could also see how this idea of Social Search fit within the larger meta trends percolating through the web discussions lately. Two of those are the Semantic Web and the idea of Vendor Relationship Management as a continuation of the customer/individual focus of the web.

There are two ways that you can look at the internet. You can see it as an engineered network – clever, but well conceived and well planned. Engineered behaviour is there. It sets the standards, regulates the technology and regulates all of those things that allow the internet to function. In large part it was the brilliance of the intial technical design that allowed the internet to emerge from ARPAnet as the dominant form of communication in our time.

But you don’t have to have an avatar in Second Life to realize that there is more to the web than simply an engineered structure. When you stand back and look at it, you see an emergent behaviour. It truly is more than the sum of it’s technical parts.

There’s always been a little bit of a war between the engineered and the emergent. The internet is just one place where that war erupts. Who is right? Both.

Before you start trotting me off to the “home for the new aged” let me tell you, you young whipersnapper, that this is not as idiotic or wish-washy as it sounds. Believe it or not, it was proven long ago that something could indeed exist in two states at the same time.

Take light for example. Is it a particle? Or is it a wave? If you know the answer, get ready to yawn. If you don’t, get ready for me to blow your little mind. It is both. That’s right — it can be proven in the realm of physics that light is both a wave and a particle. What makes the difference? It turns out (mind blowing time again) that what makes the difference is in what you are measuring or observing. If you measure for waves, it’s a wave. If you set up instruments to measure particles, it will be a particle.

The observer and what they are looking for determines what fundamental property light has. If you took high school physics, you probably have encountered this idea that the observer affects the experiment – you probably just treated it like many do – a theoretical exercise.

In fact, that’s where it’s lived for many years. In what is called a thought experiment, the most famous of which is Schrodinger’s Cat. I’m not going to repeat the whole thing, you can use Wikipedia the same as I can. The essence is that the famous cat exists in two states – living and dead. The event is only crystalized when the observer looks into the box.

What’s the point in all this? Well, everyone is trying to label the next big theory in the development of the internet, but the one that makes the most sense to me is David Berner-Lee’s idea that our next move is to the semantic internet. In a nut shell, the semantic internet stores data in the classic fashion, but it labels it with highly symbolic identifiers in addition to the regular characteristics that drive storage and search. The semantic internet, taken to it’s extreme, allows us to have a structure to information that is based not on a top down hierarchical structure (the data model) but on the emergent properties of the various semantic links and webs as seen through the eyes and ears of the observer.

It’s a beautiful balance of engineered and emergent. On one hand, we have the standards and protocol structures necessary for storage and retrieval. Within that, there is the capacity to engage at the symbolic or semantic level. You invent your own internet by your observations and your collaborations with others.

At this point, the semantic web is still in its infancy, but with Berners-Lee and others of his ilk embracing it, we can be certain that its at least a possibility, if not an inevitability.

Why does it even matter? As I point out to those who question new developments like social media, what we are doing today is still rather primitive and doesn’t even scratch the surface of what the real time collaborative internet will be in the future. Outside of a few visionaries, I’m not sure that many of us can even envision that future. We are, after all, as I have said earlier, “immigrants on the internet” and like earlier waves of immigrants, we have hopes and dreams, but our vision of the future is limited by our current experience. Could my ancestors have imagined what we have become? I doubt it. The future, as Yogi Berra said, “ain’t what it used to be.”

For those who do see the patterns emerging in those swirling images out there, the potential is enormous. The semantic web will help us tame the information tsunami by allowing us different ways to associate with the information, extending our reach more along the lines of how we understand knowledge.

There is an emerging theoretical base which claims that our brains actually remember things on two levels. We have episodic memory and semantic memory. Episodic memory is history, dates, time and even based. Semantic memory is about learning and associating. We really do need both. One gives us the immediacy to remember what we did today. The other allows us to generalize and imagine new concepts.

The current web caters to our episodic memory. It’s facts, info, time etc. What I call the information tsunami swamps that episodic memory. Which is okay, because the facts are out there and you can google them when you need it. The internet extends our episodic memory.

The semantic web offers us another potential — it might extend our semantic memory. That allows us to not just retrieve and filter, but to combine and imagine — collectively.

Suddenly the tables are turned and the cat is looking out at us. Are we there? Or not?

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