The coming postmodern era

Kevin Kelly argued convincingly that the growth in technology is creating a new world wide super organism, something Nova Spivack likes to call One Mind (OM). I argue here that this One Mind will have to be a postmodern mind: it will have to take points of view as a fundamental given. In other words it is a world of Many Many Minds (MMM) that is being born.

Concepts can take a long time from their birth to their acceptance by society. Democritus reasoned in 400BC that the earth was round, that there were other stars, and that they had planets which had life. It took a 2400 years, a trip to the moon, satellite television, mass air travel to turn these deep insights into common sense.

I think one can make the case that the massive intrusion of the Personal Computer in the 1980ies into huge numbers of household and businesses led to the strengthening of the concepts of 'efficiency' and the self. The metaphor of the brain as computer took hold silencing previous behaviorist intuitions. The computer could be programmed. It could think. Some could think faster than others. Every year they became more efficient. The PC was the icon of the age. It was alone and did not communicate. It was the era of selfish competition: the 'me' generation. As Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of Britain at the time said: "There is no such thing as society".

In the 1990ies the internet entered public consciousness, and with it the realization of how the network was overtaking the PC in importance. Information moved from being mostly on a computer to being mostly in the network cloud. The network was slow, so the experience people had was primarily of being connected to information and commerce. The experience of globalization of commerce and information blended with a modernistic view of the future unity of humanity moving towards one end: the end of history.

Behind the growth of the web and the internet, hidden to many, lay the strength of community. Unix, Linux, Apache, Open Source software, that had been the cause of the huge growth of the Network became more apparent, and became visible to the majority in the form of the read/write web under the banner of blogging. The last 8 years have been the discovery of the web as a platform for each individual voice to be heard, of community and mostly protected social networks. The end of the 20th century was also the end of the read only society as Lawrence Lessig argues so well. Millions of different points of view came to express themselves on innumerable topics.

Where next? What will happen as we move from a human readable read/write web to a machine readable one? What happens when we manage to break through the autism of current tools? What happens when software becomes widely available that can ask you if you want to reason over data you believe, or if you'd rather look at what your parents believe, or what republicans tend to believe, or what your children believe? This is as I argued recently the fundamentally new thing the semantic web is making possible; something unlike anything that humanity has ever witnessed before. The first tools that can make the step out of autism.

Of course, we mostly all come to understand around the age of 4 that other people believe different things from us, and that different people may think incompatible things about the world. But what happens when this everyday intuition becomes mechanized, objectified in tools that each year become more efficient? Most people always knew that society was very important, but the growth of the PC in the 1980ies created a strong icon in public discourse around which concepts of the self could cluster. In a similar way the growth of software that can point out contradictions between different points of views expressed in a distributed way around the web, would by doing this place a huge emphasis on the notion of points of views. If it were to make exploring these views easy, easier than it is for a normal human being living a normal life nowadays, then we can imagine that people may start exploring points of views much more often, more easily, in more detail, without thinking too much of it. Just like people now may drive 35 miles to work because they can, we can imagine people thinking more about others because some of the hard work has now been automated for them. Discovering conflicts in belief before they lead to conflicting actions could remove a lot of problems before they occur. ( Hopefully it won't lead us into some crazy world such as that described in the movie Being John Malkovitch ).

So how does this fit in with Post Modernism? Well, post modernism is a fuzzy concept, possibly even fuzzier than Web 2.0 or for that matter Web 3.0. It arose out of the disillusionment with all deterministic explanations of the future given by many of the western schools of thought, from christian evangelism to Marxism, Futurism, Consumerism ... Weary of all totalitarian explanations of everything, baffled by their sheer number, thinkers came to look at the different theories not from the inside, but from the outside, Instead of looking for a theory in which to believe trying to find a theory that would subsume all others, postmodernism, as I understand it, accepted the multiplicity of viewpoints, and found it more interesting to understand their differences. By putting more emphasis on understanding than on Truth, it was possible to look at the multiplicity of different points of view in the world. The pygmy in his tribe was no longer someone in need of conversion to the Truth, but someone one should try to understand in his context. This was felt by many to lead to a dangerous relativism, where the notion of truth itself seemed like it was loosing its meaning. In fact truth has never been better and more precisely defined: It is at its core a disquotation mechanism. According to Tarski's definition of truth:

"Snow is white" is true, in English if and only if snow is white .
Or in N3
  @prefix log: <> .

  { { ?s ?r ?o } a log:Truth } <=> { ?s ?r ?o } .
or in SPARQL
PREFIX log: <>
CONSTRUCT { ?subject ?relation ?object }
   GRAPH ?g { ?subject ?relation ?object }
   ?g a log:Truth .

Ie, if you hear someone say something, and you believe what they said to be true then you believe what they said. That is so simple it is self evident. So what has it got us? Well believing something is not neutral. Because we infer things from what we believe, and because we act on what we believe, to believe something is also to act and to be predisposed to act. And that is where the contact with reality ends up being felt at some point or another. If someone shouts "Une voiture arrive a ta gauche" in French and you understand it then you might add the following to your database:

{ _:c a :Car; 
      :moving [ :closeProximityTo :you ] .
  _:c positionleftOf :you .
} saidBy :joe .

At that point you just believe that Joe believes this. It makes a big difference when you come to believe the same content, namely

[] a :Car;
   :moving [ :closeProximityTo :you ] .
  _:c positionleftOf :you .

The disquotation mechanism (In N3 the removing of the '{' '}' ) is therefore an essential part of communication. One should not believe everything one hears - one may after all have misunderstood what was said. To remember who said what, and when one heard it is essential to good thinking. And sometimes who is right is really not that important anyway. Sometimes understanding is more important still. And that means putting oneself into other person's shoes, trying to look at things from their point of view - in essence, realizing that there are many many minds (MMM). So again what will happen when all tools we use every day make it as easy for us to explore points of view as it is to look at a web page, or take the car to work?

And where does this leave the absolute conception of Truth? Metcalf's Law gives a good explanation of the value of such a conception. Remember that this law states that the value of a network grows exponentially with the size of the network. The search for the Truth was always the search for an explanation that could explain as many things as possible: i.e. to create the biggest possible network, to predict as much as possible, to englobe all points of view, to create a framework that could link all of them together.

But what if the largest possible network has to take into account points of views as basic constitutive elements of the network?


Henry, good post again. Like where you are going with this in last few posts. Shouldn't this just be categorized under something like "Theory of relativity applied to semantic web"?

Posted by rahul patil on November 11, 2008 at 11:55 AM CET #

Hi Rahul. Where am I going? Ah, I just think that it can help to look at the big picture sometimes as well as the technical details. Without the details one is in danger of getting lost in generalities, but without the big picture one can easily loose direction.

Also it's fun to be able to link postmodernism, relativity theory, logic, computing and the web together. :-)

Posted by Henry Story on November 11, 2008 at 12:21 PM CET #

Henry, this is great! Thank you for writing and publishing what think and what you study!

Posted by Andréa Naccache on November 13, 2008 at 07:44 PM CET #

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