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Definitions Define and the Defined They Love

Posted Date: December 23, 2007

Not really having a favorite dictionary site,  I went to google the definition of a word.  I accidentally typed in only “definition” without a keyword, and noticed that the wikipedia article “definition of terrorist” was ranked second.  Weird.

No denying “terrorist” as an extremely hard word to define.

I was mulling that very thing over while watching “Charlie Wilson’s War”, depicting American officials lauding the Afghani “freedom fighters”, equipping them with SAMs, and geving them special training on how to fight in a “guerrila” war.  The irony is hard to stomach, knowing these skills have been turned against us in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

I like what Wikipedia has to say on it:
“Among these definitions, not all recognize the possibility of the legitimate use of violence by civilians against an invader in an occupied country, and would thus label all resistance movements as terrorist groups. Others make a distinction between lawful and unlawful use of violence. Ultimately, the distinction is a political judgment.”

I would add, by current US definition, our founding fathers were “insurgents“.  At the time they were certainly considered “religious extremists“.  Just like many of those fighting in Iraq.  Wikipedia is right, differentiation is political; like “one group is religious extremists advocating secular government and the other is religious extremists advocating a theocracy.” One advocates the equality of all white men, the other the equality of all true believers.

Complicated stuff.  The very question of “definitions” has fallen to crowdsourcing tools like wikis.  It seems self-evident NOW, but just five years ago the big question was whether blogs would overtake mainstream news as primary sources of information.  Instead it seems that Blogs are going mainstream, and mainstream news portals are citing blogs every day.  And even more unexpectedly, the winner is now “non of the above” Wikipedia!  Search google for “Global Warming”, “Iraq War”, “peak oil”, “Christianity”, and wikipedia will be at the top, ranked number one.

Search for anything interesting, and if Wikipedia isn’t in the top ranked links…then, well…it probably isn’t at interesting as you think it is.

To understand why isn’t actually that hard.  (“run away, run away!”) Imagine that you are on your blog, and you want to include a hyperlink; say…to the wikipedia article on “Cats”.  There is actually a lot of data in that link, and can be extracted.  The major parts are the sight being linked FROM, the site being linked TO, metadata like “wikipedia article on Cats”, and the words close by the link on the page, like these ones.

Analyse millions of these and they start to reinforce each other, with the metadata in tow.  If lots of people link to my site, then my sight is ranked high for that metadata.  And at the next level…if lots of people link to me, then the people that I LINK TO also get ranked higher.  And the people THEY link to.

Each new link changes these ranks…like a recursive whuffie hug of network cognition.  AI blinking in its sleep, stirring after a long dream.

It’s like the ghostly way a picture forms when gravestone rubbing.  Combine/Aggregate something less than a google of these links in a simple and logical way, and you get a rough picture of the multidimensional dataset that is “the web”.  It’s like following a trajectory around a strange attractor; the system first develops in a seemingly random way, but eventually a high amount structure becomes evident.

What new structures will we see when we have more datapoints?

Because thousands of people like me linked to the wikipedia article with the word “cat” in or around that link, the system now “knows” that the link “wikipedia.org/wiki/cats” is authoritative on the subject.  One might question what sort of authority this is, and one could answer that it is the only natural kind.  To be blunt, your brain probably works like a search engine spider, using some form of the process just described.

We should be very thankful for this; that definitions can be formed by crowds and algorithms instead of cabals.  I understand the lure of certainty, lulled by credentials and expertice.  And no denying we should listen to the trusted few!  Many time they know better than the crowds do. But many times they don’t, or they disagree, and so alone they cannot be in charge of what words mean.

(Languages form through our shared reality, like software loaded onto our brains hardware.)

So, let’s face it, the more points of view represented the better…

PS:  See “The Host”, it monster movie rocks.  This is THE breakout Korean movie, the world is finally starting to notice their filmmakers.


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