Doc Weinberger Part IV: Metadata and the Web

“So now let’s talk about metadata. Here’s an example. Put a label on a gas pump to draw attention to the right button, and users push on the label instead. We go wrong with metadata when we try to make it explicit. We rob it of context. It’s like pulling up a tangled mess of roots. It’s a violent act.

“Look at social networking. The idea here is you recreate your friendships on the web. You can’t do that. [Long Friendster example here: when you just have friend and not friend, how does that capture old friends vs. acquaintances vs. not wanting to add someone as a friend but not wanting to offend them?] You need a slider, or categorization, or something. But even that fails. Because this is not solveable. No amount of metadata can solve it. Ambiguity is the core of relationships. The extent to which you know more about a group than you can state explicitly is the extent to which the group is real.

“This is what art is: speaking the unspoken and letting it sink back into unspoken again.

“So now let’s talk about the miracle we need on the Web. We need it from Microsoft corporately, and you individually. We are at a point where the web is so big that we are being tempted to a Faustian bargain, one where we give up our individuality, our voice, our soul, in exchange for the illusion of power. We are so big as amarket that it will take a miracle for corporations not to try to take control and turn it into a broadcast medium. That will kill the Internet.

“We have publishing—sending messages, advertising—and publishing—making public. Or making the public. There is a possibility that we can advance as humanity not by seeking perfection, seeking control, but by embracing imperfection. We need one more miracle to ensure that that happens.”

Afterwards, during the Q&A, a few interesting points came up. Dr. Weinberger expanded on his point about not taking control by talking about DRM. His conclusion is substantially the same as Cory Doctorow’s, but he appeals to our shared cultural heritage by saying that the act of experiencing a work of art—a song, a book—is the act of appropriating it, of making it part of our lives. Of reacting to it, sharing it, drawing the wrong conclusions from it. He argues that by tightening down on these secondary uses, we kill the mechanism by which culture is created.

He also made an interesting point about personalization, in the context of corporate web sites, e.g. Amazon. He said: the best thing that Microsoft could do for personalization is to help me find other customers. Get out of the center, and let me talk to the other people who use your products.