Saturday, March 3, 2007

What is your mental model of the Internet?

This kind of mental-model thing is a big part of my epistemology, so this post is an illustrative example. It's also an example of trying to get the reader to think about the problem more deeply, hopefully to increase interest and create a deeper understanding of the proposed 'solution', a mental model in this case.

What is the Internet?

Quite a hairy and complicated problem, eh? Probably it fits under 'big ideas'. So any smaller idea of where to start? Let's try to refine it a bit more.

Is there an optical instrument like the Internet?

Optical instruments include things like telescope, microscopes, binoculars, eyeglasses, and even optical images produced by quasi-optical or hyper-optical instruments like electron microscopes and radio telescopes. Do any of these (or some other optical instruments) make you think of the Internet? Nothing yet? If you have some ideas already, great. Maybe you should jot down some notes to see if your ideas are affected by the rest of this... However, I want to narrow the approach some more:

Does the Internet remind you of any animal optical system?

Any ideas? How about the compound eye of an ant? Not just simple views for a small piece of a fuzzy view of a 15-cm hemisphere, but more like an array of telescopes that can be independently targeted on various aspects of a problem or topic of study. If it's a big problem there are lots of places to stare at it. Of course, it's much more flexible than that. You could turn them around, and convert them into microscopes to try to study the problem from many possible angles. Since it's a virtual instrument, they can be imagined as a full sphere rather than a hemisphere. You might imagine all of them active at once in separate windows--but you'd also have to imagine a really big screen to do it properly. However, you can also imagine it running asynchronously, with a small group of telescopes panning through certain regions at a time.

Using that mental model, the URLs are like settings for your finder scope on a telescope (or a microscope with the microscopic equivalent). The pushing technologies like RSS feeds are sort of like tracking telescopes that are locked onto a particular target. The URLs stacked up in your history are also the support for the asynchronous approach, and also form a kind of tracking history of the movements of the instrument over time... They don't really tell you what was actually read, and certainly very little about what was actually understood and what sort of mental models were built as a result, but interesting evidence of intentions, at least.

This particular mental model was actually a negative reaction to a discussion with someone who was trying to use the Internet to supply evidence for his prejudices--but the only thing he accomplished was to make me wonder why he seemed to be looking through the wrong end of the telescope. He would cite URLs that pointed to very trivial incidents and decontextualized trivia, where I was quite aware of much larger contexts around his ideas, but those larger contexts make his arguments seem wrong or even ridiculous. Apparently his alternative usage of the Internet is to imagine it as a way to find some fact, however trivial or obscure, that somehow supports what he wants to believe--but he can also find it repeated ad infinitum by other people who want to believe the same thing...

So imagine the Internet as a compound eye built of super-mobile hyper-adaptable telescopes? Not a practical or useful idea (AKA mental model) in any way I can imagine just now, but perhaps an interesting one. Or maybe you can see some way to apply it?