Jeffrey Fisher on Fri, 13 Jul 2001 05:41:20 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> internetontology[ Cyc and D. Lenat ]

josh said . . .
> Hi Brian!
> Are you familiar with the Cyc project lead by Doug
> Lenat?  It is essentially an attempt to construct an
> ontology for the ENTIRE WORLD.  They have actually
> managed to encode quite a bit of data.  A small subset
> of it is available as open source.

sounds to me like a classic quixotic quest for a universal language, which
can possibly be "discovered," but more likely has to be created or
constructed (yes, i chose both words deliberately). umberto eco has a nice
book on this topic. and of course, sgml, html, xml, etc. were already
steps in this direction. in a way, you could see the w3c or rosettanet as
the governing body/ies of the universal language dreams of the information
age. not to be sweeping or anything . . .

> I think that there is something drastically flawed
> with the ideas behind projects such as these.  To
> assume that knowledge is empirical or fixed would
> result in a sort of tyranny of thought, where only one
> particlar system of signification dominates( the one
> that is cheapest to purchase? ), and its
> interpretation would be the monopoly of those who have
> access to the physical device.

well, leaving aside the fact that "empirical" and fixed" are different, a
universal language simply doesn't work if you restrict access to it. i'm
not convinced that a monopoly on knowledge or the communication of
knowledge is the issue. your point about the fixedness (or lack thereof)
of knowledge is relevant, but the trick, of course, is to build a system
that easily absorbs extensions of knowledge. your universal language has
to be scalable. but that's different from *evolving*, where the rules of
communication themselves can change. universal languages have to be beyond
that to be universal.

> Many would say that
> this flaw would eventually make itself evident in
> operational shortcomings, but Im afraid this may not
> be the case.  Should enough people have thier vested
> interests in such a technology or thought paradigm,
> then it will be FORCED on people, much the same way an
> inferior technology like MS-DOS is popular simply due
> to commercial reasons.  And when people become
> immersed in it, they mistake it for the truth.

this is also an interesting point. i'm probably on the operational
shortcomings side. the fact is that language *does* change. the problems,
i'm guessing, would arise when the unchanging understanding of the
computers we use fails to synch up with our daily or even fairly technical
uses of language and attitudes towards the things we talk about in

> Lenat also expressed an interesting concern.  The
> owners of Cyc released a part of it as open source
> with the hopes that developers would independently
> develop new ontologies using thier(proprietary)
> encoding syntax.  What Doug Lenat was concerned about
> was that there would be conflicting ontologies, or
> possibly even a informational schism resulting in many
> cyc databases of knowledge.  What Lenat hopes to do is
> to have the company consolidate the data as it sees
> fit.  Will Doug Lenat be the final say on "life, the
> universe, and everthing?".

oh my god! it's a tower of babel, just when we were so close to paradise!
in the end, this is a totally workable and much more realistic approach to
the situation, anyway, i would imagine. find ways to hook up different
databases and different rule-structures, rather than trying to build The
Dictionary (TM) and The Grammar (TM).

> Right now, the project seems fairly harmless.  I
> actually applied for employment there recently.  But
> could we, in the future, have a centralized hierachial
> database of real world knowledge that cannot be
> challenged simply because "thats what it says"( if the
> computer says so it must be true! )?  Sounds like the
> catholic church of the middle ages.  Hello dark age
> part II.

funny you should put it that way. i see what you mean about the catholic
monopoly threat thing, but, again, i see it more as a throwback in the
sense that we now think that current technologies can build us a universal
language, universal dictionary or encyclopedia (tricky topic, that),
rather than that it would become the province of some CompSci elite, Latin
vs. XML. Medieval thinkers were already working hard on stuff very like
this, the most obvious example being Isidore of Seville,
patron-saint-apparent of the internet, in his _Etymologies_ (Etymologiae).
you'd also have to go back and take a look at porphyry's (in/famous) tree,
which itself grew largely out of aristotle's _categories_.

there is nothing new under the sun.


jeff fisher 
dilettant -- er, that's 'intellectual nomad' 

"I've come to the conclusion that revolutions aren't profitable."
- Kevin Kelly

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