Sep 3, 2006

Digital Universe v. Google & Wikipedia

Google is the new Microsoft these days. The company that everybody else is slowly learning to fear and hate. Yet the company motto is 'Don't be Evil'. So why the negative interest?

I guess, we don't like anybody having too much power over us. Google almost exclusively controls our window to the internet, our digitised knowledge universe. It maintains this blog website. School children don't research library books any more, they just thumb their noses up at books saying 'whatever', and search on Google for the topics of their essays. Few question if the results of their searches are facts from authoritative sources. So when they get bad grades, they may grow distrustful, disillusioned and frustrated.

Same applies to Wikipedia. Though Wikipedia does not open a window onto the internet, it opens a window onto a storehouse of contributed knowledge. Anybody can enter this site and make a contribution, by writing an article or sub-article on any topic they fancy, anonymously. Wikipedia has grown bigger than the Encyclopedia Britannica (the knowledge storehouse king in the print world) in the number of articles it contains. It's usually the major reference point in the internet for those seeking knowledge. Though it can be usually accurate, there are no factual guarantees on the information and no accountability.

Yet still, how can these web services and presences grow so important and powerful? Simple answer - you made them. The internet is very democratic, it makes leaders of those whom we vote for. The more of you that use the website - the more important it becomes. To what extent can these web presences control you? They try to make it easier for you to get what you want from them.

Now, bear with me for this paragraph. Imagine the knowledge sum of humanity organised in an internet based tree of classification. The trunk of the tree is 'everything', and the branches are the various diversifications of interest - say, Science, Humanities, Religion, Philosophy etc. Then the branch of Science may create several sub-branches - Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology and so on. Let this tree be planted by a foundation of eminent world citizens, and then each branch of knowledge be given to an acknowledged expert to maintain, let them then give each sub-branch to further specialised expert of that branch to maintain. The expert controls her/his domain, and allows contributions to be manifested on that branch that the expert knows to be authoritative, factual and relevant. Instead of expert per branch, we are also allowed expert committees. Too good to be true?

Enter the Digital Universe. Yes, that's not a term - it's a name. I recently had the good fortune to attend a presentation by Joe Firmage, CEO and founder of ManyOne Networks, and founder of the Digital Universe Foundation. I felt a bit guilty opting out of a rare department lunch happening at the same time, but I felt there was something compelling about the invite I had recieved.

Joe explained that the internet world that we experience today is very commercial and biased towards the interests that control it. It is time to take the controls of that experience back in our hands. This is initially enabled by creating portals for every area of our conceivable interest and placing these as our primary entry points into the internet. Any commercial interests would then have to address us through this unbiased medium. Other interests that are don't have commercial backing but have importance to the topic at hand would have equal representation. An example given was global warming.

These portals are like the branches that I outlined a couple of paragraphs ago, and they would be able to connect to sub-portals of more specialised interests. And the experts building these? These are called stewards. Stewards can be a single expert or a committee of experts who sign an agreement to be responsible for their portals in an unbiased way. The list of stewards already signed on so far is an intimidating list of the best-in-the-field Professors and Phd doctors. People who know what they are talking about and won't let us down with unreliable knowledge. There will be no anonymous people on this network, everyone has to provide a name and details - so there's accountability. Aside from the expert managed area, there's a public area for registered users, but it is expected to have a ratings system to determine its validity.

I was still sceptical about this whole idea, being pretty sure that the real-world scenario would not let such an idealised scenario to exist. Then I went further through their list of team members and found more impressive names. There are people from NASA, Nokia, Cisco, Morgan Stanley, and even a Hollywood Producer. Most deliciously there's Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia. So visionaries tempered by actual achievers. In the Board of Directors, there are very recognisable names like Jane Goodall, a famous primatologist and Ann Druyan, author and wife of Dr. Carl Sagan of the landmark Cosmos TV Series fame. There are a lot of significant believers in this project.

In the presentation Joe wowed us with very impressive graphical interfaces (in fact reminiscent of Cosmos TV series) that were able to present the classification (or taxonomy) of the Digital Universe and led through hyperlinks into the various platforms that have been built so far. There was also a very interesting Geographical Viewer (akin to Google Earth) that works through the browser.

It's all very interesting, though time will ultimately test whether this initiative acquires the momentum required to become a major web presence. I wish it all the best.

There may be several weaknesses. There seemed to be a sense that the Digital Universe will act as a valve that controls commercial interests taking up the internet users' mindspace. This will not make the business world happy, so will commercial interests be able to kill it? That probably depends on how many users sign up for this. If the mass of users exceeds a critical volume then businesses will have no choice, otherwise the Digital Universe will be bypassed. Currently, Joe said, that the target audience is the college going population - students and teachers. It sounds like they intend to skip current mature generations and aim for the minds that can still be moulded in their context, furthermore it's logical since they are the most likely to find this useful in their necessary research. Another point that I sensed was that it projects as a 'high-brow' site controlled by denizens in academic ivory towers. Now what determines who is qualified to be a steward? So far, it sounds that one would have to have a pantheon of academic qualifications, so non-academic experts and commentators would be unnoticed.

The internet is supposed to be, after all, the great equaliser.


Bal Anand said...

I have just read it as if it were a prayer of the cyber era!!! I have savoured every word of it- quite a 'vain -man' for my vocabulary. I am feeling at the loss of words to give vent to
my cerebral joy and the deepest sense of pride in YOU, my boy...

More to follow..may be after b'fast... I'm back after buying extra Sunday papers & bread/eggs...coming to your NBE, first the 'Grammarian' in me is uncomfortable with 'divergings'. The word diverging' is accepted as an 'adjective' only, even in the New 10th edition of the COED - the noun forms are,'divergence' & 'divergency'('invite', a classic verb, has been accepted as noun too); similarly check on subject - what you mean to use is 'subjected'- I am delighted to know the new context of 'steward' - primatologist (Zoology), taxonomy (Biology), 'wowed' (nice, also used in electronics) are impressive enrichments to my 'vocabulary bank'!

Keep on, my dear boy, your forays into ever widening horizons of cyber universe! Maan joins me in blessing her 'kaloo'.

Aditya Prateek Anand said...

Thanks a lot for the gracious comments. :) Bowing to the inevitable 'grammatical' corrections, I've changed 'divergings' to diversification. I was also a bit unsure about using 'subject' but thought to go with the mental flow. I'm replacing that with the usual 'attend'. I've also added the link to ManyOne Networks to confirm that it's a company, not a name ;)