[unrev-II] Poetry and Knowledge Management (was Jack's Use Case)

From: Paul Fernhout (pdfernhout@kurtz-fernhout.com)
Date: Fri Oct 27 2000 - 09:58:09 PDT

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    Paul Fernhout wrote:
    > However I still find links appealing in the sense of building up
    > knowledgebases. However, this issue of [metaphorically guided] search
    > vs. [explicit] link is a very interesting one. And just because I want a
    > system to use links internally to represent my changing knowledge base
    > does not mean it is the best way to communicate. Let me present a
    > challenge that makes the point: how do you hyperlink a poem for public
    > display? Yes, creating links may be easy for you to do for yourself and
    > your own interpretation, but how do you do it for others?

    On Poetry vs. Fine-grained Meaning in Knowledge Management

    The more I reflect on this, the more I think the issue of understanding
    the differences and similarities of Poetry and Knowledge Management is
    key to seeing the effective limits of hyperlinking and maybe working
    through that into ideas for better KM tools.

    I have been reviewing some of Rod Welch's site, especially pages related
    to Knowledge Management, especially the comments related to trying to
    define what KM means and who will use it or pay for it or change their
    daily practices to get its benefits (if any). Or, in other words, the
    OHS purpose and vision.

    I have also been thinking about the previous message I sent discussing
    the distinction between referencing text and referencing concepts and
    mentioning how one could not hyperlink poetry in a meaningful way
    (because to fix the meaning of words defeats much of what the poet
    attempts to convey with purposeful ambiguity). In this sense Poetry
    represents the Knowledge Management problem in a very bright light.
    Poems are often intentionally ambiguous, with interpretation expected
    oftentimes to depend on the reader. To an extent, poetry describes all
    communications, even though the intent may be to convey more precise

    When we talk about "unique IDs" and "global identifiers" we are very
    much talking about sharing meaning through communications. Linking is
    an attempt by the author to force (or make convenient the movement of)
    the reader to a certain metaphorical understanding of the linked item.
    Yet, the reader may prefer other links (either metaphorically or to
    other resources) depending on the reader's needs or intents or
    interests. Or the reader may interpret a reference, phrase, or link in a
    way other than as the author intended.

    On reflection, I would say pointers to knowledge or concepts cannot be
    called "fine grained", as opposed to the way that we might call pointers
    to lines within a web page more fine grained than a pointer to the web
    page itself.

    The "finest grained" thing we have is words, but they are usually
    defined in context. Example: we are lost in the woods and you point to a
    tree (making a signal somewhat equivalent to saying a word). That signal
    could mean any of:
      * climb the tree to look around,
      * eat fruit from the tree,
      * cut the tree down to burn to keep warm,
      * cut down the tree to build a shelter,
      * look at the pretty tree,
      * there is a trail marker on the tree.
    Which one does the signal mean? It may mean several, or none (think
    poetry). But it will be easier to understand if we know the context for
    the signal and something about the signaler's intent. If for example,
    there was just a discussion on trail markers, the signal would be more
    likely to mean "there is a trail marker". But if the discussion was just
    on how to survive the cold night and the need for a source of firewood,
    the signal might mean "cut down that tree".

    I explained the meaning of the signal "tree" in terms of words. But, as
    you think about those words, you will realize they too are just signals
    -- just pointers. And so, I haven't completely resolved the problem.
    What does it mean to "cut down the tree"? What does "cut down" mean?
    Pull off a branch? Chainsaw through the tree? Saw through it? Cut it
    into logs? Make it into boards? So again, vagueness. The desired outcome
    depends on the context -- the intent behind the signal. The intender
    might not even be sure of exactly which is desired -- focusing more on
    the end goal (burning wood vs. building shelter) than on the exact
    cutting pattern discovered by trial and error or limited by available

    If one considers communication and related knowledge that inspires it
    (especially verbal communication) as metaphorical, then we can't say
    knowledge is ever fine grained. Augment's numbers are locations of
    paragraphs, like Rod Welch's communication metrics numbers indicate
    lines on his web site pages. (Both are somewhat more than that because
    they are hierarchical, so fragments indicate larger textual units, and
    in Rod's case the date is also encoded.) I would say though that what is
    being pointed to in a "knowledge" sense is not so much a word or
    sentence or line or paragraph, as much as a pointer into an ongoing
    presentation of metaphors in a certain larger context. To understand the
    intended meaning of the word "tree" at a location on a web site, one
    must understand the context around it. (Infinite regress up to
    understanding the universe can be avoided by at some point us thinking
    we understand the context of the conversation as a conventional one we
    are used to workign with.)

    My point for going on at length is to say that I am realizing (or
    re-realizing or remembering?) that there is to an extent no way to do
    "fine grained" knowledge representation. You can point at a word, but
    since the word loses its meaning by itself, you are pointing at a
    paragraph or essay -- which is a context. It is true that pointing in
    one place in an essay may conjure up a different meaning than pointing
    to another part. Anyway, my point is that while it may be easy to think
    about pointing to textual artifacts (messages, documents) it is hard to
    point to specific "meanings". At best we can say, I think that section
    of text is intended to mean "X" where "X" is another set of signs. So,
    to reiterate, even when we point to the words, we are not pointing to
    the meanings. The sign is not the signified. The words are not the
    wisdom. This is common knowledge in sociology, communications studies,
    and a bunch of other fields -- I'm just hammering on this point in this
    context of designing knowledge management tools.

    People's minds consist of words and images (and impressions, thoughts
    and memories, etc.) in action. That is, people process information and
    have motivations, have perceptions, and take actions. The "knowledge" or
    "wisdom" of a person (inside a person?) consist of information in that
    *active* context, and alongside other information also in that context.
    That processing is quite complex -- involving multiple simultaneous ways
    of representation (e.g. Marvin Minsky's latest work) and very complex
    perceptions related to combinations of visualization, verbalization, and
    other sense impressions acting in a sort of mental world simulator full
    of various thinking tools (i.e. simplified ways of predicting the future
    or the past or making a choice). This is one reason that conversational
    AI-type systems that just process textual symbols fail to do a very good
    job of duplicating human thought; they can't for example handle simple
    3D geometry problems like imagining using an umbrella to knock down a
    banana which any chimpanzee could easily solve. So -- thought is more
    than language, although language is used in much human thought.

    You can't easily point to a bit of knowledge in a document, any more
    than you can point to one dot in a painting by Georges Seurat (a painter
    who created Pointilism) and say that is a picture by itself.

    So, we must distinguish between creating memory aids and document
    management systems, and creating artificial intelligences. Obviously, to
    the extent people are using memory aids, they are "augmenting"
    themselves into being a sort of artificial intelligence. This is not an
    argument against AI; it is just to distinguish "AI" from "Knowledge

    Anyway, I am trying to get at the issue that our understanding of a
    knowledge management system has to rise above the notion that the
    "knowledge" or "wisdom" being managed is in the computer system. It is
    in the intelligences (typically based around people) of which the
    knowledge management system may form a part (an aid for memory,
    communication, and calculation). The designs for Knowledge Management
    tools must soar above the mundanity (but necessity) of managing chunks
    of texts, images, sounds and so on. This is in line some with Doug's
    point about how the user (or user community) must co-evolve with the
    tool and information in it. In effect, the knwoledge is distributed
    throughout the entire system. But the system itself must still reflect
    the special needs of doing KM which may require interfaces and processes
    different from more conventional tools. What these interfaces and
    architectures should be is a subject of debate -- obviously Augment or
    Memex or Xanadu set the stage as archetypes.

    So, what I am saying is knowledge is in the system including the people.
    When we talk about knowledge management systems we are talking about
    systems that help people or communities to manage their knowledge --
    that help people organize knowledge, communicate it, revise it, and so
    forth. But that does not to mean we ever have to say the "knowledge" is
    in the system, any more than we need to say that "knowledge" is in a

    A book may have words, and page numbers, and may inspire you, and tell
    you things you didn't know -- but the knowledge in the book resides more
    in the system of author and reader sharing certain metaphorical
    backgrounds and thus being able to understand a certain communication
    made in print.

    And one must admit, since the author and reader may never share exactly
    the identical metaphorical background, the meaning of any communication
    to the reader may not be what the author intended. Perhaps one can call
    this meaning shift "concept drift?" Most non-routine communications
    probably contain some element of "concept drift", as I'm sure does this

    But with enough communciations, generally I would think the parties
    begin to understand the other's metaphorical system, even if they may
    decide not to share it in the sense of relate values or assignment of
    "truth". Thus, they may come to better understand the intent of the
    communications by the sender, even as they may still also interpret the
    communication as poetry using their own metaphorical system.

    However, there must be some commonality in metaphor, otherwise the
    reader could get little out of a book or message at all. Think about the
    StarTrek:TNG episode "Darmok" where the aliens talked in terms of
    mythological figures and storylines which the Enterprise crew has no
    knowledge of. The words were spoken and understood -- but there was no
    meaningful communication.

    The bottom line: We'll never be able to point to the "Knowledge" in a
    "Knowledge Management" system. But, that doesn't mean pointers into text
    aren't useful, or that one can't construct tools to help manage
    knowledge as it is communicated by text, images, sounds, and so on. Or
    in other words, think of an Augment-ish library as communications system
    (as opposed to an AI). Which brings us back to email as a good

    -Paul Fernhout
    Kurtz-Fernhout Software
    Developers of custom software and educational simulations
    Creators of the Garden with Insight(TM) garden simulator

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