Man with all his noble qualities still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.
Charles Darwin, Descent of Man
Today I pondered a weighty issue posed by Richard Dawkins:
Is the toaster a sex toy?
Dawkins, the eminent cultural biologist of today, suggests that our genes' desire to reproduce and survive has resulted in many new methods of increasing the likelihood of such an event. One of the major components of this likelihood is increasing our leisure time - less time spent eating, sleeping, and performing other basic functions means more time awake and available for sex.
Inventions like the toaster, the wireless network adapter, and the hairbrush all save us time and energy, vital ingredients in the sex dance of the modern man and woman. We need these things! They perform obvious functions (the toasting of bread, the transmission of information, the brushing of hair) but, really, Dawkins says they're just sex toys - little baubles we create to help us have more sex more often.
The new tagging folksonomy phenomenon has shaken up the Semantic Web's ability to organize and sort information. People can now tag their photos on Flickr for easy sorting and collaging; people can tag their bookmarks, giving them uniqueness, flexibility, and a life outside of themselves; and people can tag their blog entries, replacing the cumbersome "web rings" of old with something efficient, effective, and above all, real-time.
Perhaps one of the less vaunted features of the Semantic Web is its ability to filter information. One reason for this, of course, is that XML and the DTDs that help parse XML into viewable form are far from standardized, and even XSL transformation has been slow in developing anything beyond the simplest of language structures. (And XQuery looks like something out of a computer programmer's nightmares - applying complex search, loop, and clause functionality into a tag structure!) In short, reinventing the wheel is antithetical to Dawkins' gene theory.
Instead, with a bit of standardized ingenue, we see that simple semantic tags can provide all the filtering we need for any amount of content. We don't need to say "<artist>Bob Dylan</artist>"; we can just say "<tag>Bob Dylan</tag>" and let the end user do their own filtering. It harkens back to the old $25,000 Pyramid game show, where the person searching simply shouts out words it knows, and the computer responds with whatever information it has on file, a Pavlovian Abbott-and-Costello schtick.
This sort of reductive filtering offers obvious advantages to searching for written content - it's very easy to describe articles in terms of subject matter, positions taken, and in adjectives ("funny", "weird", "intelligent", "thought-provoking") - and, to a lesser extent, media content, such as songs, movies, and pictures. In fact, for almost all the content on the web, there is a sense of the codifiable and the filterable - a Hegelian sense of "not-ness" pervades through the Web. This picture of a unicorn is definitely NOT a picture of a radio. This article about Texas is definitely NOT an article about silkworms. Tagging things is easy.
What about tagging people?
Recently I stumbled across a new site on the web called ConsuMating (sic) (http://www.consumating.com). The premise of the site is that self-proclaimed "indie freaks and geeks" can mingle and hook up through the site. The catch with the site is that, unlike the "endless profile browse" of other matchmaking URLs, here the users describe themselves with the tags of the Semantic Web. The tags describe everything from location ("austin", "nyc") to physical appearance ("bearded", "skinnyish") to favorite films and music artists ("starwars", "marley") to absurdist tags ("yourmom", "sparkly"), presumably to attract like-minded individuals.
This is a beautifully weird and incalculable thing. Besides the Barnumesque self-promotion and the inevitable dash of oneupmanship that seems to pervade the site, there is this strange sense upon visiting the site that your tags are you and vice versa. Even the eccentrics who avoid obvious tags, shooting for wit over relevance, are in a sense defined by their eccentricity. From the Dawkins perspective, everything is revealing.
Beyond this self-organization and announcement, we return to the concept of filtering. Dawkins's dream is fully realized: what are you looking for in a mate? Now we begin to tag each other (as we've done in our minds for so long now) in storable and sortable ways. Can you imagine the tags for your ex-girlfriends and boyfriends? "Dependent", "self-absorbed", "needy", "flighty", "insincere", "passive-aggressive", "pedantic" - and of course, we won't even begin to discuss the tags they might attach to you ...
Search engines gave rise to ego surfing, the fine art of searching for yourself, which eventually evolved into searching for just about everyone else you knew. Of course it wouldn't be long before the Semantic Web would get back to the heart of it all: letting our genes get busy. Soon, RSS feeds of likely marriage candidates will spring up on blogs, Friday nights on your Upcoming.org calendar will be automatically filled in by Meetup.com, and the Universal Life Church will build the first e-chapel for those industrious pioneers of the New Matrimony, and Travelocity will be right there with the honeymoon tickets. (Insert your own "rise of the machines" double entendre here.)
As a dedicated fan of vinyl records, I came across an article that espoused my own personal conflict on the matter: vinyl has an ineffable cool to it, a sense of ownership and personal responsibility that is lost in an Ogg Vorbis rendition of "Misty Mountain Hop." Yet the sheer portability, accessibility, and uninhibited playability of a digital file gives the song real-life resonance - now I can sit on a misty mountain while I listen to it! It's this sense of the physical world connecting with the abstractness of millions of 1s and 0s on a large electromagnet that gives computer their power - the power of connection. And of all life's connections, the one we have with other people is the most permanent; to be able to codify it in a meaningful way is a wonderful thing, the very reason we invented computers. To connect, to discover, to share, to love, and yes, to reproduce.
Darwin would be proud of his species.
While most people ask themselves "WWJD" (What Would Jesus Do), I've decided to turn to the more appropriate "WTGML," which is an acronym for "Will This Get Me Laid."