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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

The Ontic Web

In Computer Science, Culture on August 7, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Recently I’ve been reading about RDF, which is an attempt by the World Wide Web Consortium to create a standard way of representing information about “resources,” which is the word that they use for things.  I’m no fan of XML—a relative of RDF that provides a way to store every type of information in the same horrible HTML-like syntax—and RDF certainly shares its tendency to complicate people’s jobs.  But although the broadness of RDF’s goals all but guarantees its unwieldiness, I’m beginning to think that there is a need for a computer-processable way of writing “ontologies” beyond the interoperability concerns that motivated the RDF project.

It’s almost too easy to do the postmodernist critique of totalizing schemes with systems like RDF.  The example used in the primer for the OWL 2 Web Ontology Language, a commonly-used extension to RDF, is a system for describing family relationships.  Using OWL’s vocabulary for talking about the types of relationships that can hold between things, they define what it is to be a parent, a sibling, and so forth, in statements like this:

EquivalentClasses( :Person :Human )

The authors claim that they do not

intend this example to be representative of the sorts of domains OWL should be used for, or as a canonical example of good modeling with OWL, or a correct representation of the rather complex, shifting, and culturally dependent domain of families. Instead, we intend it to be a rather simple exhibition of various features of OWL.

Sure enough, we get to the zinger a few sections in.

Frequently, the information that two individuals are interconnected by a certain property allows to draw further conclusions about the individuals themselves. In particular, one might infer class memberships.  For instance, the statement that B is the wife of A obviously implies that B is a woman while A is a man.

Even when they’re only used as examples, categorization schemes tend to turn into power plays.  Think how a person who just married her girlfriend would feel reading that.

But information modeling isn’t all retrograde.  There’s an admirable example in Sam Hughes’s very funny essay about how database engineers will have to adapt to gay marriage.  And there is more to RDF than what I would Heideggerianly call ontics—the description of categories and subcategories of things.

One type of program that people have developed for RDF is the inference engine, which attempts to mimic human reasoning by drawing conclusions from the knowledge represented in files.  Whether or not they will lead to a serious AI, people have put these tools to use straightaway for a quite different purpose, that of checking the consistency of their work while putting ontologies together.  This is a different application of the technology from that of defining standard vocabularies to enable different software systems to work together, which is where RDF has found the most application (and which is admittedly very important).  It has less to do with the finished product (the ontology file) than with what we learn in the process of writing it, and with the input that the computer is able to give to the writer as revision proceeds.

I’m like . . .

In Culture on June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm

I just discovered (a few months late) the mesmerizing Tumblr “What Should We Call Me.”  Each post on the blog pairs generalized descriptions of situations with animated GIFs, most often showing a facial expression or bodily motion.  This almost perfectly exhibits something that Lisa Zunshine talks about in her paper “Theory of Mind and Fictions of Embodied Transparency.”  “Embodied transparency,” as Zunshine defines it, is a class of fictional tropes in which a character involuntarily reacts in a way that reveals their emotions to others, whether through a facial expression or through a bodily movement.  The GIFs on “What Should We Call Me” are the converse of this type of trope, conventionalized representations that follow in their wake once people realize that the reactions, once assumed to be involuntary, can be replicated (in this case literally) and subverted.

Zunshine writes that there is an “arms race” between artists who wish to convince the audience that reactions are genuinely involuntary and others who wish to turn them into tropes that can be performed.  This causes mental states to appear to “retreat” from the possibility of transparent expression, as more and more tropes are proven subject to deceptive performance (78).  But I wonder if there isn’t a sense in which the conventionalization of emotional expression can bring people closer to other people’s minds.  I’ve long been a defender of artfulness over ideas of authenticity that exclude it, and conventional bodily reactions—or GIFs that get passed around in lieu of them—provide a way of expressing emotions whose intentionality can be clearly seen by all.  They don’t transparently convey emotions, to be sure, but another level of expression can take place that appeals to the audience’s ability to understand the underlying intention, which does not involve communication through the act, but which is a precondition for all acts of communication.

Looking to the future

In Culture, Politics on October 29, 2011 at 5:16 pm

In the Sixteenth century, the word “innovation” connoted a rebellion or an insurrection, a violent affront to the prevailing order. This usage suggests a small-c conservatism that’s largely lost out to the big-L Liberal value system in the West: in just about every sector of Western society we can locate something like a desire for progress, even if only on the personal level – personal progress being for the left, roughly, fulfilling one’s potential, and for the right, charitably, earning rewards. We can perhaps locate a descendant of the old contempt for the new in the religious-right emphasis on “family,” although that is debatable since a family is meant to be generative. Maybe it subsists in the anti-immigrant fringe, but it is difficult to find in its pure form. Unlike monarchs, those with the greatest interest in maintaining today’s institutions, financiers, are too embroiled in the quest for new markets to be small-c conservatives. But I wonder if those two different fundamental values, preservation and progress, are not really of a piece. In The Typological Imaginary Kathleen Biddick argues that the Christian idea of the present superseding the past, as the New Testament supersedes the Old and (in some theologies) the state of the soul at death supersedes what comes before, has dug itself into the foundations of Western thought more deeply than the religion itself. Perhaps this supersessionary notion of time makes it difficult to imagine a value system that doesn’t have something to do with the future, whether in the desire to make it better than the present or the desire that it be like the past. The thought of values that don’t involve the future in some way is alien indeed. Imagine valuing neither the continuation nor the change of a particular state of things, but something purely within a state of things, and purely in the present: imagine that what one fundamentally values in life is to eat apples, and nothing more, with nothing about the assurance of future apples underneath.

This would be, I suppose, to be satisfied being a ghost for Halloween, rather than struggling to be original.