Re: Commentary on Eco: "Authors and Authority"

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Wed, 13 Mar 2002 15:40:26 +0000

Babble vs. Scribble: Divide and Filter

[Comment on Origgi on Eco on "Authors and Authority" in ]

Stevan Harnad

In making the implicit analogy between the entire contents of the Web
and the contents of a library or encyclopedia we are conflating things
that should be distinguished, and thereby inventing hybrid problems
that could be much more sensibly solved by simply partitioning the
online corpus a priori with tags that are no more "authoritative" than
simply indicating the pre-web provenance of the item, if it has one
(e.g., journal-name).

(That is what I meant to imply with my hypothetical example of what
we would do if everyone's every spoken and unspoken thought suddenly
materialized as a competing URL on the web, indexed by google.
The point of the thought experiment was to remind us how and why this
is a non-problem in the analog world of written and spoken discourse
and mentation, simply because "babble" is "tagged" babble by its
medium, and thereby "filtered" from "scribble." The "authoritativeness"
of scribble is partly ex officio, because the Gutenberg costs of
disseminating one's every verbal and mental rumination in print were
prohibitive. On the web they are not, but does that mean we must now
treat all effusions and diffusions on a par simply because they are

> G. Origgi: "I agree... that the open access of the whole corpus of peer
> reviewed literature will be one of the most important improvements of
> the Web as a cultural tool... Still... Most people, even scientists, do
> not know how to orientate themselves within domains that are outside
> their professional competences. These days, I am looking for a online
> course for learning how to design dynamic webpages with Dreamweaver

First, how did people orient themselves outside their professional
competences in the Gutenberg age, when confronted by the contents
of libraries and bookstores, of books, journals, magazines, newspapers
and pamphlets? For the "authoritative" material, there were always their
"authoritative" sources, "tagging" them. Outside one's professional
competence one could still make do with those signposts.

So, to a first approximation, the authoritative corpus need merely be
made airborne, along with its signposts. This not only restores our
terrestrial navigation guides for the airborne incarnation of the scribble,
but it immediately sectors the scribble from the babble (dictascript?)
that is already up there.

Now, on to Dreamweaver software: I ask, timidly, whether, for example,
consumer questions should be conflated with scholarly ones, any more
than babble with scribble? Does it help to baptize as one generic
"problem" the problem of finding scholarly sources for "holoenzyme...
gracilis..." or educational sources for "holy grail" or gastronomic
sources for recipes for hominy grits?

To a first approximation, sectoring the web (with provenance-tags)
according to whether items are or are not refereed-journal items
already reduces the noise/signal ratio. The big task is of course
getting all 20,000 refereed journals airborne. But am I simply obsessed
with refereed journals, or are there not similar a priori
provenance-tagging solutions for other sectors of the web, short of
having to have heroic scouts pick through it all for us to sort out the
reliable bits, or, worse, having to follow the depth of the virtual
trails left by everyone making their way randomly through all of it?

I am not declaring the problem of navigating the current web, tel quel,
for all purposes, "solved" by these a priori considerations! I am simply
suggesting that we may be conceptualizing the problem in the wrong way,
and that importing more of the terrestrial corpus, and sectoring the
web, and hence the problem, may be a more promising path to the
solution(s) than continuing to treat generic navigation of the
current web as the prototype of the problem.

> G. Origgi: "Filtration and education are not two distinct problems:
> education IS a system of filtering information, as Umberto Eco rightly
> points out in our interview. But people cannot be educated in [every]
> domain"

I'm afraid I find the PROVISION of ("authoritative") information to be
the primary "informatic" function, its tagging/certification as
reliable (peer review) the secondary one -- both of these are done by
qualified specialists -- and then its imparting to the uninformed
(education) the tertiary one. One would hope that the information's
(quaternary) use would then be guided by the user's education.

Yes there is an element of selecting ("filtering") the relevant sources
in providing an education, but let us not forget that that filtration
was performed on relatively refined candidates (published terrestrial
scribble) rather than on every piece of babble that automatically
became a candidate merely for having uttered a pertinent keyword!

> G. Origgi: "The Web give[s] us the new possibility to access
> information in domains for which we do not have any criteria of
> evaluation. This is really new: to access the same information before
> the Web you should already possess a lot of meta-knowledge about how to
> reach this information and to classify it. Now you can just type
> Astrophysics with Google and see what you find as a result."

And once the full peer-reviewed astrophysical corpus is online, freely
accessible, and reliably tagged as such, the user will be in at least
as good a position as when consulting the collection of the best
terrestrial library on the subject -- except that even then merely the
keyword "astrophysics" would not have served him too well. (An
encyclopedia might, after all, be the better choice for that.)

Stevan Harnad
Received on Wed Mar 13 2002 - 15:43:01 GMT

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