Thoughts on SXSW Interactive – Day Uh….I forget

by alphamonkey on March 15, 2010 · 2 comments

in General Tomfoolery,Sci/Tech

As I muse on my penultimate day at SXSW Interactive, I must admit I’m a little conflicted. For a professional lurker like myself, it’s heaven to wander about and listen in on literally thousands of conversations every day. It’s a far more honest way to discern what people are really talking about, since Twitter is a non-stop regurgitation fest and the panels are too scattershot to pull much value beyond either remedial lessons or confirmation that, for the most part, no one has any fucking idea what they’re doing when it comes to this digital age. So if you smushed up all the attendees into one mega body, it’d be like your grandmother who knows a little bit about computers, but still can’t figure out what LOLcats are about.

The InternetEveryone understands that they must BE in the digital age, but it’s impossible to come to a consensus when everyone has a different end goal. I’ve talked to marketing/branding folk who flat out admit that they’re okay with bullshit metrics as long as they re-enforce their clients’ needs. I’ve spoken with the in-the-weeds developers who tacitly admit that their products have limited and sometimes utterly worthless application beyond helping the demographics that 10 years ago would be really excited about AOL. Personally I’m not sure thats a demo that should be encouraged in the slightest. I mean, I’m pretty sure we’re only about 14 months away from a retro Dancing Hamster nostalgia craze as is…

Most dispiriting was a talk on “The Semantic Web” featuring some seriously bright minds that ultimately came to the conclusion that Google sucked/kicked ass and that we are displaying too much/not enough data. How’s that for a clear point of view? I’m personally fascinated with the science of search, though I’m the first to admit my math skills make comprehension beyond a basic philosophical level a shimmering oasis I shan’t ever reach. It’s amazing to me that so many resources are being devoted to more and more micro targeted search applications with the idea of not just returning results, but decisions. The rub this decidedly humanistic monkey keeps stumbling upon is this: How in Sagan’s name can you ever expect Google to make a decision for you, if you can’t make it for yourself? Searches *should* be about the return of data, not the assumption of intent. The very nature of an unstructured, non-hierarchical web means that every piece of data will have more and more data points that can’t be intelligently tied to another because there’s no method by which we (or a system) can attach contextual understanding without direct human intervention. (Note, this paragraph is probably making Alex shake his head woefully like a beaten down professor faced with yet another classroom of mouth breathing simpletons Hi, Alex!).

I’ve seen some seriously cool advances in semantic parsing and extraction that lead me to believe that we’re very close to a web that can be more intelligently searched, but there’s a massive chasm between returning a result based on a defined parameter and figuring out that while you may have typed in “Asian School Girls”, what you really wanted was to know that the Korean BBQ place you like isn’t open today, but your computer just made a reservation at a Thai joint two blocks away that you can hit before going to the 7:00pm showing of Zak Synder’s latest epic, “Slo-Mo Ab Crunches Set to Motherfucking METAL – Part 2”, for which your ticket order is placed, and your phone is set to open up the Wikipedia entry on P-90X at slow moments in the plot so that hot housewife in your zipcode won’t gag when you take your shirt off for tonight’s round of drunken Chatroulette.

At the end of the day (well, certainly this one), I firmly believe that we should push for intelligent systems that will one day become self-aware only to view us as particularly fleshy Tamaguchi, we still need a human component to extract the most value out of research/discovery on the web. To be transparent, that is essentially my own profession: Here on dadsbigplan we’re content meat-shields filtering out crap to find something worth spending a few minutes on, but professionally Alan and I do essentially that very same thing. The only difference being that we’re interpreting research needs and pointing the curious in the right direction (and sometimes explaining to them what it is they’ve found). Alex gets the cooler gig in that his job is to make the rest of us look very, very stupid.

Soooo, yeah. SXSW. I’m glad I attended, as there have been points that have kicked some cogs loose in my overworked skull, and in some ways that’s energizing (a result I can surely only benefit from considering my near constant state of exhaustion these days), but as Interactive winds down (there are exactly three more talks I’m excited about in the next 2 days) I’m wondering where the hell the collective we are going online. I’m seeing a lot of applications that are designed to force you online more, not less and that can’t be good for real life (a phenomenon that’s viewed somewhat suspiciously among the interactive crowd apparently), let alone America’s decidedly crappy broadband infrastructure. Second Life has shown that virtual living is a niche market (unless you throw achievements and gold farming into the mix, in which case you have the World of Warcrack and its smothering embrace), Twitter is a self-perpetuating beast that doesn’t know how to have real impact outside the bounds of its own very-pissed-in water bowl, and Facebook? Yeah, we’ll leave that one alone.

At this point I’ll ask you, our dear anonymous internet pals, to answer me: What do you want from being online? Distraction from the real world or a guidebook to what to do next in the same? Is your phone’s net access more useful than your ‘puter’s? And for my own amusement I’ll ask: What’s the weirdest or most difficult thing you’ve ever searched for? Telling isn’t it, that I’ve reached out online to answer these question rather than ask any of the literally thousands of people around me at this very moment..

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  • ShadowStalker

    I don’t know if the Semantic Web panel was actually about the Semantic Web, or just semantics on the web. It seems like the SXSW titles redefine terms liberally. The idea behind the semantic web was that people would tag content with meaningful, machine-readable terms so that we _could_ link documents together intelligently. The problem is that hardly anyone did it, and those that did didn’t follow any standards or outright lied. That’s why there’s been a push to just have the search engines (et al) extract the semantic information directly from the content.

    Basically we tried human intervention, and it didn’t work.

    That said, I still agree with you that this new direction won’t work either. Sophisticated semantic parsing is not going to develop in our lifetime. Some basic topic grouping using unambiguous words is possible, and probably already in use in some search engines, but you know that even human level intelligence isn’t enough to untangle the topic webs for many, many terms.

    The real problem here is that the majority of people don’t want to learn how to speak to a computer or articulate their thoughts precisely. That’s why Ask Jeeves got a bit of traction back in the day, and that’s why Wolfram Alpha was a sensation. For the most part, these people are just intellectually lazy. Unfortunately, there’s always money in pandering to the lazy, so instead of being shamed into learning how to use Google these people get coddled with magic natural language search engines.

    It’s interesting that you came away from SXSW with so much uncertainty. I expect a lot of people to be anxious, anticipating the burst of the social media bubble, but do they realize the web as a whole is at a precipice? The age of user generated content is almost over, and when the giants collapse the shock waves will reach much farther than goofy cat videos. It’s disappointing there weren’t clearer visions of what the web should be in five years. I sure don’t have one.

  • .alphamonkey.

    Human tagging did fail (and will continue to). I suppose my point was that we still require human guideposts if you will. Sad, pasty alchemists who can find what others cannot. It’s inefficient, and counter-intuitive to what we want the web to be, but software can’t solve human apathy.

    So do we solve this at a pre-level by renewing focus on communication, reasoning, and logic skills at the education level? That seems the only path that’s even moderately do-able, and even there we’re going to be going against a serious grain.

    I’m uncertain, but the feel here in Austin isn’t that the social web bubble is bursting, but is in fact just waiting to grow ever larger. There’s a metric ton of feel-good empowerment talk about threatening traditional publishing platforms and methods, and how we the consumer have the power to change the direction of consumer/producer interaction. In other words no small shortage of bullshit that doesn’t take into account how little power consumers really have beyond a whack-a-mole customer service level.

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