Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Google's Knols - Etymology - Knowledge, Knollen and Knolls


So, Google is introducing a new kind of thing, which they're calling a "knol" which they're referring to as "unit of knowledge."

The basic idea is that they will encourage people to author what they hope is a definitive version of information about some topic, and attach their name to it.

Google gives the example of an essay defining insomnia, and as a result, people have generally assumed that means this "knol" project will be like an encyclopedia of knowledge.

Everybody is comparing the idea to that of Wikipedia or

But that's not really what Google says about it.

I have two observations about Google "knols." One is short, the other is long.

Since brevity is the soul of wit:

I wonder if anyone at Google is aware of the Dutch word "knol," which means the meaty lump of a root vegetable, as in Rutabaga.

Given the similarity of meaning between the Dutch word and Google's idea for their Knols, it's hard to imagine they didn't know. But that's speculation. In addition to knol, there's also the English word "Knoll," which means "raised mound" _ and is no doubt linked etymologically to the Dutch knol. "Knowledge," as the spelling suggests, has a slightly different derivation...

Now for the longer thought:

The basic idea that Google is putting forth here is that of encouraging "archetype" or "paradigm" pages on individual concepts to emerge _ and of course to compete with other paradigms and let the strongest win out. 'In the free and open contest of ideas, the truth will prevail'*

It's all very Adam Smith / Thomas Kuhn-sian.

The funny thing is, this already happened long before the Internet existed, and happens now that it exists, with or without Google.

It's also odd that, rather than trying to 'organize the world's information', in this case Google is trying to play an active role in drawing the information into existence, or at least getting somebody else to pre-organize it for Google.

I wish I were expert enough in philosophy to name all the thinkers who described the knol phenomenon before, but basically, it's always true in many fields of human endeavor that one early, good expression of an idea _ love it or hate it _ tends to become the locus of debate and attention. Even if it's not perfectly iterated.

Examples are vital to understand what I mean, so think about the phrase "The Politics of Personal Destruction." After Clinton said those words, which describe the phenomenon reasonably well, no other competing phrase will ever occupy that particular thought-space in our minds.

Another example would be the Internet's "Long Tail" effect, described by Chris Anderson.

You could call this an idea, a paradigm (Kuhn, though he was thinking in scientific contexts), or a "meme" (Dawkins).

The establishment of the paradigm is due to some combination of near-primacy and the fact that the first people to think something through are often thinking very clearly.

And maybe because they are forced to coin words or phrases to express a new idea, these terms become irresistibly appealing to those that come after.
Often the paradigm-makers are already authoritative figures in some way when they craft the idea that shapes the debate from then on, but sometimes not.

But knowledge is cumulative, so early ideas _ say those supplied by Socrates _ will always have more gravity than those of Kuhn, just as Shakespeare is always going to be a more commonly referred to poet and playwright than Dylan and Stoppard combined. He just got there first.

They continue to shape the discussion more, by having provided the common nodes that we refer to. The nodes, or knols if you like, are a kind of shorthand summary of an idea that everyone agrees on, which both speeds up our ability to argue about what else we *really* want to talk about _ and traps us in one way of looking at things (Foucault's epistemes) at the same time. These are the technical 'standards' of thought.

What I don't understand is, how does Google hope to actively encourage knols to emerge? Winning ideas come from everywhere, and the rules for establishment are very shaky.

For instance, prominent writers like William Safire will pick up on and popularize many more linguistic trends than you or I _ but many more will be coming out of websites tied into popular discourse like Fark, GeenStijl, the best page in the universe, etc. etc.

How does Google actually expect to accelerate the process _ by favoring some authors in their search results?! Well, here's what they say:

"Google will not serve as an editor in any way, and will not bless any content...Competition of ideas is a good thing...participation in knols will be completely open, and we cannot expect that all of them will be of high quality."

"Our job in Search Quality will be to rank the knols appropriately when they appear in Google search results. We are quite experienced with ranking web pages, and we feel confident that we will be up to the challenge. We are very excited by the potential to substantially increase the dissemination of knowledge."

Note "dissemination" of knowledge, rather than "organization."

They are confident they will be up to the challenge of ranking the knols. Well, that's not entirely reassuring.

Using links as a measure of popularity (the essence of Page Rank) is kind of like using the number of scholarly citations an article receives to judge its importance. There's obviously some truth to that ... but if it were everything, what happens to the Gregor Mendels of the Internet?

If it's done on the seemingly innocent basis of an author's past credibility, it will end up an incredibly powerful way of reinforcing the status quo.

In fact, is any acceleration of the 'knol' forming process even desirable?

Things can also coalesce around bad ideas (fascism) or expressions (Okily-dokily, neighbor!) as well, and then we're stuck with them. At least until something forces a paradigm shift...

Maybe any encouraging or speeding the adoption of knols will only ultimately ensure they are of lower quality?

As Samuel Johnson once said:

"What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure."

I'm not as negative about all this as many of the people I've seen writing about it, because I agree with
a) the basic premise that there is so much information out there it can be very difficult to find what's worthwhile.
b) although anonymity has its place, the Internet and world generally would be a better place if people would be more willing to stand up for what they believe in and put their name behind it.

That's something I know as a journalist.

But I just wonder if Google has thought this all the way through, and considered the law of unintended consequences...I can think of many negative outcomes, some worse than mere failure.

karenwithak has created something of a knol about Rutabaga right here

*Actually, the original quote was "who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?" It's commonly attributed to John Milton, though I bet other people had said or thought the same before him. And was it John Stuart Mill who first set out the basic argument? Anyhow, "Nothing new under the sun," right (Ecclesiastes)?

But I think you'll find that particular thought-meme of a "free and open contest" has evolved and is far more widely quoted in other formulations, such as mine above. Good luck tracing its origins if you ever run into it on the street...

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