ז׳ באב ה׳תשע״ד (August 3, 2014)
By Yonatan Gordon
It’s one of the most important topics today, but it is also one of the most overlooked. Technically, we can call the subject of our discussion the “decentralized topography of networks.” But if there was ever a revolutionary subject hidden behind dry and technical-sounding words, it would probably either be this or net neutrality.
Since the implications are so far-reaching, let’s first explain what we not talking about. We are not talking about what is called the “long tail” of business because that model has a center, a bell curve with the most popular products or brands in the middle. The term “long tail” was made popular by a 2008 book by that title and the model works well for the world of consumerism where people appreciate the leading products, but also like to see what else is out there. Not everyone is satisfied with Nike shoes or Coca Cola. So now thanks to the internet a consumer can find virtually anything that matches their super niche interest… hence a “long tail” filled with millions of interesting product choices.
The difference though in a decentralized topography is that in an ideal world, everyone would be on equal footing. Sites would be measured solely on the worth of the content they provide instead of SEO and other marketing tactics. And highly visited sites likewould be on equal footing with your friendly neighborhood blogger. While this is not currently the situation, still it is a stretch to say that the internet follows along a bell curve with the main sites at the center, and the millions of “long tail” niche options at the extremes. Let’s give a few more examples to explain why this is.
Amazon.com sells millions of products. Now imagine that a self-published author–who didn’t publish with a major publishing house, and doesn’t have the popularity of other known authors–all of a sudden made the bestseller charts. What would we assume? Either that he bought thousands of copies on his own or was featured on some major media outlet.
But once you transition from the world of products to the virtual space of social media and the internet, there are two variables that change dramatically. The first is that word-of-mouth becomes much more central to the success of an internet start-up. This is the main reason given for how Facebook “took off,” and the main reason given for nearly every successful internet-based start-up (even those that had a sizeable marketing budget for display ads, billboards, etc…). The second factor that makes services and sites on the internet so very different from any of the millions of physical products sold on Amazon.com is that because they are more virtual, there is also a greater willingness to switch from one site or app to the next.
Whereas the long tail model fosters thousands of niche products, and super niche products, a decentralized topography means exactly that. Although it is uncommon to find a self-published first-time author top the Amazon.com bestseller list, this is something we observe all the time on the internet. How many stories have we read in recent years of companies that began in basements and garages that are now the “talk of the town”? A decentralized topography doesn’t mean that the popular brands–such as Nike and Coca Cola–will remain popular, while thousands of other niche products join the mix. It means that while your homepage may be set to Yahoo! or Google today, fully expect that tomorrow it may be something entirely different.
Imagine if tomorrow a new car manufacturer came on the scene or a sneaker maker? If they are well managed and have proper funding, we may expect them to take a small percentage of sales in those respective industries. But one would be hard-pressed to find an industry analyst that would expect these start-ups to become industry leaders within the next five years.
But this is exactly what we see–time and time again–for internet-based companies. Recently there was an article that showed the smartphone homescreens of 11 well-known tech personalities. While it was interesting to see these 11 screens, the nature of communication technology is that tomorrow’s homescreen may very well look entirely different than how it looks today.
To appreciate what it means to have a decentralized network, I encourage you to watch Aaron Swartz’s short interview on the subject from 2007 (see below). But without explaining everything that Aaron said, let’s use one of his examples. Hopefully an example that we will now build upon.
He suggested for everyone, every morning, to use Wikipedia’s “random article” feature so as to be surprised with something that you might otherwise never know about. Being as Wikipedia currently has over 4.5 million articles, as Aaron said at that time, this allows for some unique results. Now imagine for a moment that all of the internet worked this way. That there were no portal sites that dominated over another, only an even playing field where any page could be the next site you visit?
In his interview, Aaron reconciled himself with emphasizing tools to enable discovery. That at the very least we should be able to find out about content (no matter how “obscure” it may be) that may interest us. But what I’d like to suggest is that instead of viewing the internet as a place filled with megalithic content gatekeepers that then lead us to search and discover other content, what if our searches began with no center at all? What if there was only Big Data, as they call it. Billions and billions of pages filled with content. Instead of viewing the internet as another manifestation of the bell curve and long tail–with a core group of popular sites, and millions of others somewhere along the extremes–what if we viewed all these sites as equally flat. What then?
Then the concern would be not one of knowing which sites to go to first, but of which page among the billions of available pages, has the piece of information you are looking for. Search engines began this process, but the problem is that all these sites, all this content, is still viewed primary in a vacuum. One site is for golf enthusiasts and another sells screws. Instead of search queries based on what the person is asking for, the suggestion in this essay to begin arranging the internet based on the concepts. Allow me to explain.
When it comes to products, we know that Ford is a direct competitor of Honda and that motorcycle companies like Harley Davidson are still a competitor, although an indirect one, because they sell another mechanical means of transportation. We know how to traverse through product segments because we know what industries and subsegments of those industries they belong to. For instance while we wouldn’t view Schwinn Bicycles as direct competitors of automotive companies, they are still there somewhere on the competitive analysis chart.
The dilemma with information is that the relationships don’t always seem so clear. For instance, as Aaron suggested, if you take a random page on Wikipedia … while that page may very well be the first page you read that morning, a reader may be hard-pressed to view it as a portal page that then begins your subsequent explorations on the internet.
The current answer is to view the internet much like The Long Tail viewed products. Yes there are billions of pages on the internet, but because there are hubs and portals, there are the most popular ones that most people go to first, then there are the millions or billions or others. But unlike Amazon’s website filled with millions of products, as Aaron explains, the information presented on the internet lends itself to a more decentralized treatment.
To explain what we mean, let’s now take a random page from Wikipedia, using the “random article” feature as Aaron suggested, and see what we come up with. The article that was selected at random is about Arthur Walkin (30 July 1895 – 27 August 1972), an English footballer who played in the Football League for Stoke (for Americans reading this, this means he played soccer).
Even before reading about his life and accomplishments, we can include this page within the realm of sports, specifically soccer, and more specifically, English soccer. Now let’s go further.
The article then mentions World War I, a knee injury, some of his game habits, and what he did after his professional career.
Why are we mentioning this? Because at first we could view this entry as an entry about one person. But when we break up the story into concepts, then we begin to see the greater picture.
When marketing the SCiO molecular sensor a member of the team said she was excited about the product because from each scan made using the device, they would be able to begin creating the world’s first database of “stuff.” But why stop with molecules?
What if you wanted to know what percentage of professional soccer players became managers after they retired? What about those that had knee injuries, or those that played both before and after World War I? Although it may not seem like this at first, what is written on Arthur’s page is actually part of an essential database on content. And when analyzed in the right way, using Bayesian statistics and other tools, Arthur’s reactions to the circumstances of his time could provide deep insights into human personality and behavior for us today.
The problem is that currently there is no precise system for organizing the world’s information. Although we are just now beginning to learn how to navigate through the world of Big Data, the tools available to make sense of all this information are still in their infancy. Therefore we are asking the question: Now that we have this world wide world of content, how do we navigate through it?
Solar System of Content
The answer comes from first viewing concepts as part of a greater solar system (for more read here). While I may have landed on this page, this planet today, there are another 9 (if you still count Pluto as a planet, officially it became a dwarf planet in 2006) that now revolve around this one.
In Kabbalah the formation of a solar system of concepts is called a partzuf. This is something I explained in greater detail in relation to Quora, but for our topic–the decentralized topography of networks–and our question remain the same: Assuming that the internet has a decentralized, flat hierarchy, how do we move around?
Imagine if every page on the internet (aside from the immodest, etc… which should not be visited at all) became an article on Wikipedia. What then? The navigation would depend solely on what information you wanted to explore and the analytic tools you wanted to make use of. Say you wanted to explore whether the percentage of published authors writing non-fiction vs. fiction in California has increased or decreased in the past 50 years? The first step is to calculate the answer. But what then? That’s where Kabbalah comes into play.
From the analytic results–based on a scan of all California authors over the past 50 years–the researcher would then be directed to other related results, such as changes in weather, socio-economic lifestyle, or local politics (e.g., liberals vs. conservatives). But all these results only present a part of the puzzle. While this information can tell you what has happened over the past 50 years in California that may have led to a shift between fiction and nonfiction books being published from California authors, all these explorations still remain guesswork.
So while we know that the first step is to collect all this information from the internet and elsewhere, and input it into a giant database, what then? How do we come up with a definitive answer to our fiction vs. nonfiction writing question?
There is speculation now in collaboration between IBM’s Watson (artificial intelligence computing platform) and Apple’s Siri (voice recognition software). But whereas the combination of these two could tell you what you need to know with a voice command, the biggest issue is why. Why did all these changes in variables over the last 50 years in California lead to a change in the amount of fiction vs. nonfiction writing?
For this you need something absolute and not probabilistic. All a computer can tell you is the most likely result based on the given factors. But you don’t want to know the most probable reason. You want to know why this happened?
Once we have the results–through Watson-Siri or other means–then the task is to begin sourcing these concepts in the Torah. While the world of information technology and content is subject to change, this is not so with eternally true Torah concepts and teachings. The challenge then becomes, once we have the results from our searches and explorations, to determine why this occurred?
So we can learn “The Kabbalah of Novels, Plays, Cinema, and Comics” and see that non-fiction corresponds to the World of Emanation, and fiction to the World of Creation and below. We also discover that the World of Emanation corresponds to speech, thus indicating that perhaps the most essential variable to analyze is politics (which relates in Kabbalah to speech as well). Recently the governor of California went from acting in a fictional realm to leading in a non-fiction realm through politics. So this teaching from Kabbalah, as presented in that article, is a most essential one for analyzing the difference.
Whereas the scientific world stops with empiricism, the work of connecting analytic results to the Torah and Kabbalah has just begun. Instead of wandering from portals to billions of sites, the challenge now is to view each day as part of a process that transitions from probabilistic to absolute. Today you have a question and today you would like that question (and potentially others) to be answered.
I encourage you to watch Aaron Swartz’s video interview. But as mentioned at the beginning, this is such a fundamental and important topic, and so this is hopefully just the beginning.