Information Network

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Information Network

When we go beyond the technical definitions, protocols and layers, what is the Internet or any other computer network (television network, telephone network, etc)? What makes it important? Everyone knows that the world moves ever more to an "information age" where commerce, employment, entertainment, news, and every sort of human activity is becoming digital. Once information is digitized, it can be copied and transported via computer network.

So does it follow that a computer network is nothing more than a transportation facility for data? Actually, there are several types of such transportation:

  • bulk transport (email, media, databases) -- with little "real time" constraints
  • media broadcast or multicast (movies, video clips) -- delivered in a stream, fast enough to give reasonable quality viewing
  • interactive communication (telephone, video interviews)

OK, yes, it is important that computer networks transport digitized information, and people will pay considerably for this service.

However we, as a society, now think of networks providing more than just transport: we associate certain information services with the network. The network provides us maps, tells us what is the time in Newfoundland, the price of Toyota stock, and countless other bits of information. One way to look at this is to consider the collection of all such informative network services to be an immense database, or actually more than a database, since it includes real-time feeds of radar, camera views, etc.

The Web

The invention of the "web", or World Wide Web, is sometimes attributed to an obscure article by Vannevar Bush published in 1945. His ideas don't really describe what we now have as the web; instead, he offers a vision of how to formalize and connect all knowledge.

Important Point:  often, the first step to automating, generalizing,
and increasing productivity in any human enterprise is to formalize
it (that is, represent it digitally in some regular way that we can 
use as input for computation).  Implicitly, many modern businesses do
this to be competitive.

What is the difference then, between the web we have and what the original vision for a "knowledge network" would be? To answer that, we can look at what one of the founders of the current web, Tim Berners-Lee is doing these days.

Enter the Semantic Web

The Semantic web is the proposal of putting all knowledge (including things we don't often consider to be knowledge) into one logical network of facts, where the nodes in this logical network are items of knowledge, and the links between nodes are relationships between the items. Further, this network is supposed to be structured by Ontology (computer science), which is to say that knowledge is categorized into classifications, in some way like books in a library. It is controversial whether the idea of a semantic web makes sense: can all of knowledge be categorized, and how? Clay Shirky says no: his critique of ontology makes several good points, well worth reading; he says that the use of tags and metadata will be the winning idea, as used in Collaborative tagging systems. (Also, there is danger of cruft, misinformation, even the intrusion of propaganda or disinformation in the implementation of Ontology.) On the other side, Tim Berners-Lee recently co-wrote an article (in PDF, accessible from UIowa computers) claiming that the true potential of the web won't be realized until we implement ideas from the semantic web.

We're Caught in a Web!

Here's a crazy idea. Maybe this web, this soon-to-be semantic web, in which we all participate, adding factoids, following connections, reacting to each other, is in fact generating a new kind of life-form. Sounds totally crazy, but when you read Kevin Kelly's article in Wired, you find some tantalizing arguments about the web.

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