Our probabilistic non-binary minds break on through

ETech Day 3: Ontology is Overrated – BloggingETech.com – etech.weblogsinc.com These are notes by Alberto Escarlate about Clay Shirky’s talk about ontology & the Long Tail.

In real life real minds don’t think alike, that’s when del.icio.us comes into scene. The distribution of tagging is a long tail — few users with lots of tag entries and lots with few. The distribution of tags for one individual user is also a long tail. Lots of tags about few subjects and lots of not so frequent tags. Modeling the distribution of how users tag one individual URL is al so — you guessed right — a long tail. Lots of people tag the URL with one or two tags.

This is the called organic categorization — user and time are core attributes; one-off categories are lost in the rear end of the tail (the system is the editor); the semantics are in the users, not in the system; merges are probabilistic, not binary.

This quote sums up what I have found so exciting about the web of late – the ideas that disturb my sleep – that somehow we are making cyberspace more psychological. And there is something very psychological about the long tail.

For example, the long leading tail of an emerging feeling. Take trust or anger. We can see it was building when we look back, but we can’t quite see where it began. It emerges until it has a peak. Perhaps the bell curve image would do as well, at least for some things but the L curve or the J curve is like the curve of what Moreno identified as warm up. Warm up was central to Moreno’s work, the well known slogan among psychodramatists is: “it is all in the warm up’.

In the warm up to a psychodrama session or in a psychotherapy session for that matter, it is always as if we are wanting to catch what is already there. The patterns pre-exist their manifestation. We tune in. And with the idea of the long tail of words the idea of the collective unconscious is simple to see as an empirical fact! 80% of us choose the same tag for everything. And everything is more or less (say 80%) tagged in the same way. Language is not precise, but probabilistic, we need to tune in to the long tail at the thin end to see our individuality. A myth is a tag for an experience, 80% of us are likely to get it.

Tags are not messy. The graphs (yet to be fully realised) will be beautiful, organic alive. They may be piles of leaves and not trees – to use one metaphor, but they blow in patterns that will astound us with their beauty. Beauty is a reliable guide to truth in science even but definitely in the psychological realm. But how do we see this beauty? It is there… maybe but how do we know? After careful musing we know about 80% … but I still see a picture – perhaps a 3d image that will reveal all as truth. 10 x 10 gives it a go as to all the “tag charts” such as this one. The picture in my mind is much better though – a crystal palace of curves.

Right now is the beginning of a merging of two senses of the word ontology. The technical sense of the word ontology; what exists per force of definition in a system design, is bouncing up against the metaphysical sense of ontology; relating to the study of what is real. Real in virtual reality and *at the same time* real in the collective unconscious.

It is a momentous event this tagging development. It is something I had not anticipated or noticed, though it has been happening for all along – that the fundamentals of categorisation and classification would transform with the advent of the Internet and thus transform us all. How long have we lived with the Aristotelian systems of heirachy and linear patht through branches of human knowledge on the “tree of knowledge”? Forever and it is suddenly tipped over!

McLuhan saw it coming though!


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