"'Meta-Utopia'"? Who Said That?

Google Alert just dumped a link in my lap that I’m a bit conflicted about: it’s called "Metacrap" and it’s an angry and obnoxious attempt by Cory Doctorow to make what should be an excellent point. Namely, that not all meta-data is reliable and the level to which it is unreliable necessarily degrades its utility for everyone, including (especially?) libraries.

I’ll just say now that I have no idea who Doctorow is or why he’s so unhappy with the idea of meta-data–he seems really annoyed by the fact that the stuff is routinely misused by everybody from porn site designers to slick web marketers and novices who don’t know a thing about HTML getting involved.  But he concludes by saying that meta-data are actually quite useful:

"Certain kinds of implicit meta-data is awfully useful, in
fact. Google exploits meta-data about the structure of the World Wide
Web: by examining the number of links pointing at a page (and the
number of links pointing at each linker), Google can derive statistics
about the number of Web-authors who believe that that page is important
enough to link to, and hence make extremely reliable guesses about how
reputable the information on that page is.

This sort of observational meta-data is far more reliable
than the stuff that human beings create for the purposes of having
their documents found. It cuts through the marketing bullshit, the
self-delusion, and the vocabulary collisions.

Taken more broadly, this kind of meta-data can be thought of
as a pedigree: who thinks that this document is valuable? How closely
correlated have this person’s value judgments been with mine in times
gone by? This kind of implicit endorsement of information is a far
better candidate for an information-retrieval panacea than all the
world’s schema combined."

To him, I say only: Dude, calm down.

I think he’s making a few errors of his own here: a popular web site may be a better source of disinformation than fact, for example, no matter how many Google links point to it or how many hits have been logged over time–what about a completely factual site that nobody chooses to give credence to, for that matter? (Good info, no coverage. He also ignores Roy Tennant’s analysis of Google’s limitations). He’s right that as more and more pages spring up from more and more sources that nobody has first-hand knowledge of, the general quality of the information disseminated goes down, but that’s just common sense , or it should be.  People have all manner of bias and those biases invariably find their ways into the work they create.  No argument there.

Second, and perhaps more importantly: has anyone actually written anything on how the increasing use of meta-data will somehow solve all  information seekers’ problems? Has anyone actually put that idea forth? Or is "meta-utopia" something Doctrow just came up with because it sounded cool?  (I suspect the latter, but what do I know?)

Yes, meta-data are misused, sometimes badly abused, to the detriment of many. Of course there are problems.  Show me anything created by the human race without the potential for misuse or problems. If you can’t–and we both know you can’t–stop your whining and help those of us who believe in meta-data’s value as an information locating aid to fix the problems that you’ve found.   Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

This concludes the sermon. As I said, his general point has value; he’s just burying it beneath a few tons of cranky hyperbole. I’ve included the link above so you can go read what he says and judge for yourself.

About Jon Frater

A gaming industry stalwart dating back to the 1980s, Jonathan Frater is the co-author of roleplaying game books Robotech: Return of the Masters, and Robotech Adventures: Lancer's Rockers, both for Palladium Books. Jonathan also wrote a column on writing and game design called The Tome in Gateways magazine. He's currently a librarian at Metropolitan College of New York. Article 9, the first in his ambitious Blockade Trilogy, is Jonathan's first full-length novel.

0 Responses to "'Meta-Utopia'"? Who Said That?

  1. While I agree the Cory is worth knowing about, he’s pretty wrongheaded about a lot of things lately, and some of his good points tend to get lost in massive amounts of vitriol. I often have trouble reading his posts at Boing Boing for this very reason.
    Metadata is abused, I agree, but I also feel that any tool that goes into wide use on the web is abused – metadata is no different from anything else in this regard. What we need is discussion of how we might prevent this abuse from being as widespread, and I don’t think he’s particularly helpful in that regard.
    Of course, I’ve been annoyed by Cory Doctorow since he effusively praised Flickr albums of digitized historical documents as being the wave of the future.

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