I've long been interested in issues of trust and meaning, particularly in regard to scientific information. The importance of context, the "who, when, where, why" of any piece of information, is critical in determining first whether we even learn of that information, and second the degree to which we accept it as part of our base of knowledge about the world.
Historian and philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote a book on the subject (titled Trust). Ironically, while I felt some interest in it, I haven't read it because of my reaction to an earlier book of his (The End of History) - which I also didn't read. But anybody who could write a book with that title and the apparent thesis that all the interesting debates and conflicts regarding forms of government were somehow in the past was, I decided, not really worth my time. Thanks to just that cue, my level of trust in his ideas fell essentially to zero, and I haven't read what might otherwise have been very interesting to me. Or perhaps not if my judgment was justified.
Trust is fragile, hard to gain and easily lost. Which was why I found a recent post on science and journalism by Scientific American blogger Bora Zivkovic (who I've followed for a long time as @BoraZ on twitter) a little annoying.
I have been thinking about issues of meaning (semantics), context, human understanding and the like for some time now, and particularly on the role the internet plays and could play in the future in human communication and thought. The Pew Internet and American Life Project has a new report The Fate of the Semantic Web in which they sought opinions from hundreds of internet luminaries and long-time experts on prospects for the "semantic web". I find the results illuminating and reassuringly in line with some of my thinking on the subject. I'd been preparing to write an article here on the semantic web (and what's wrong with it) for a few months now, so the release of this report seemed an opportune time to put at least some of what I've been gathering out for public comment.
Everyone agrees that the internet, and particularly the world wide web that began about 20 years ago with Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the URL, HTML, the http protocol and the first web browser, has brought a deluge of information to billions of people, something almost beyond the imagination of earlier generations. But making intelligent use of all that information is difficult. Tools like Google's search engine greatly help in sifting out the best stuff on any given topic. But there is very little to help us make sense of it all. Other than the links themselves, our computers have no understanding of the meaning of what various websites provide us, they can't correlate information from multiple sources to provide a coherent story. We want our computers to give us not just "information", but "meaningful information", "knowledge", perhaps "understanding".