review : ambient findability - peter moreville

This review was several months in the coming. To be honest, I found the book difficult to engage at first.

The first four chapters of the book were difficult to experience. The tone of the author was a bit self-indulging in the sense that the discussions seemed to be unnecessarily drawn out and the examples and references felt to be a tapestry of hip: quoting William Gibson and Chrsitopher Alexander, including various du jour technologies and well as the liberal sprinkling of buzzwords. One extreme example was the term ‘ubicomp’. It was never defined in the text. There was a specific mention of ‘ubiquitous computing’ but it was after several instances of the abbreviation and the formal connection between the two was never made (or so is my recollection).

Starting in chapter five and through chapter seven, the book’s focus shifted enormously and the discussions went from cool technologies to the impact of socially defined metadata. That is, information on the web is tagged (classified) by any user (folksonomies), rather than experts (taxonomies), via bookmarking services such as, blog aggregators like Technorati that catalog tags bloggers use on their posts as well as vendors like Amazon where users tag items the service sells.

If the book had developed the content of chapters five through seven, dropping the glamour of the previous chapters, most of which didn’t particularly go anywhere, it would have been a better read.

It may be that I’m not the right audience. I am familiar with the technologies, as well as their advantages and shortcomings, mentioned in the earlier part of the book. Perhaps a reader with less experience would take away more. All said and done, while the numerous quotes and references are a bit distracting in the earlier part of the book, mainly because they aren’t particularly well integrated to the discussion, their inclusion makes this a great book for someone looking for a place to start and then later digging deeper into the topics.
The general topic of the book really captures my interest on several levels. First, there is the mathematician in me that wants to expose the essence of things. I want to arrive at a universal truth. In doing so, you have a complete understanding of your world and that has to improve findability. Information, however, doesn’t neatly inherently conform to classification.

Second, the academic in me has serious concerns about the implications social tagging has in the long run of knowledge evolution. There is the argument on which Wikipedia is based: if enough people are paying attention, any errors in the long run will iron themselves out. Perhaps. And for certain domains this is the case. Science’s history is loaded with examples of inaccurate theories that have been accepted by the scholars of the time. I am less concerned about some areas (e.g., the natural hair color of the lead singer of some pop group) than others (e.g., medical information).

In a similar vein, I question, as we evolve our ability to find and aggregate data to produce information to include significant use of artificial intelligence, what influence directed attacks of disinformation could have on the validity of unchecked results. Over time, complacency derived from the continued use of a trusted tool might leave us vulnerable. In a sense, could this give rise to an “information virus”? I’m not well-versed in AI and don’t know how hard it is to teach an machine to unknow truth – or perhaps beat truth to it.

Lastly, and more importantly, it definitely hints at something larger though perhaps not directly. I have been frustrated with the web in its current form – and probably have expressed this in previous posts. The flat representation of the deep space that is the web is limiting. As we begin to understand our data more completely, could this enable us to have better tools for working with it? Some search tools are heading in this direction (e.g., KartOO, Mooter, Ujiko).

So, in the end, you might find this an interesting read. If nothing else, you will end up with numerous references for other books and articles you’ll want to check out.

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