Monday, January 03, 2011

The Geography of Thought and the Web

During the last Christmas break, I finished a book titled The Geography of Thought. The subtitle of the book says "How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why," which well describes its theme. The book is interesting and informative despite the author often repeats the same thought here or there in book. One Amazon book reviewer called it "Interesting, but could have been so much better" and I am very much leaning towards the comment. The idea presented by the book is deserved to be thought again and again hundreds of times.

The book itself is worth of being recommended. But my interest of this post is on how the thought difference caused by the geography may have affected the construction of the Web and how it may continue to impact the Web evolution.

A phrase in the book that caught me is "Is the World Made Up of Nouns or Verbs?" In the eye of a computer scientist, this is neither a philosophical nor a linguistic question but a concrete question of engineering. To see it, allow me substitute only one word in the former question---Is the Web Made Up of Nouns or Verbs? The Web is an image of our world, isn't it?

In the book, Richard Nisbett (author) argued that the westerners tend to think of the world based on the distinction of objects. One object is certainly not another object. Wood is certainly not table. Airplane is certainly not iron. The world is made up by objects and it is a network of objects. Isn't the thought natural to us? Surely it is, especially to most of the Thinking Space readers I believe (since most of you are westerners).

On the other hand, Nisbett argued that the easterners actually think of the world differently. According to the easterners, the world is a tangled place of substances. One cannot even really name an object until he has comprehensively recognized all the substances that not only compose the object but also compose the context of the object, such as its position and the interaction with the adjacent substances. One cannot immediately judge a wood being not a table without context. This is somehow odd to the western style of thinking because westerners can hardly image a situation where a name indeed means nothing until the context of the name must have been well established. In the other words, it is a world that extent suppresses intent.

Unlike the westerners who generally believe objects (in its sense of abstraction) being the fundamental building blocks of the world, for long time the easterners perceive relations being the true construction blocks of the world. The westerners think a noun holding its uniqueness regardless of the application, while the easterners think of a noun indeed with few uniqueness until we recognize its application environment. The easterners think verbs being unique since they describe the ways of tangling while nouns are the things happen to be tangled.

I was born and grown up in China where I was very deeply influenced by the classic eastern philosophies. Then I came to United States continuing my graduate study and work. Till now I have lived in the western society continuously for more than 12 years. Hence I feel myself be eligible to say that Nisbett truly has done a very good job on recognizing a key difference between the eastern and western societies.

From my childhood I am very much interested in and eventually become very familiar to the eastern style of thinking. Later it becomes both a blessing and a curse on me. My classic eastern style thinking allows me to untangle very complicated events that few others can do. On the other hand it often pulls me to situations over-complicated. This contradiction has annoyed me for long time. The book helps understand my own problem better and leads me to some potential solutions as well.

Now let's turn to World Wide Web. As we all know, the Web is designed by and primarily developed in the western society. Therefore, without surprising the Web today is a product of the western style of thinking. Due to this type of thinking the Web today is composed of nouns/objects, no matter whether we view it as a Net, a Web, or a Graph. World Wide Web is a network of objects. Nevertheless, the Semantic Web community, a primary W3C achievement, claims the future of the Web to be more and more a web of data. It means a network of more fine-grained nouns.

Despite of the success of the Web so far, a question is, however, that whether the western style of thinking is the only way that may lead the Web forward. Or, more importantly, will the Web continuously evolve only in the track of this style of thinking? Will it eventually be a bottleneck if we do not start to think of another route for Web evolution?

A problem already starts to emerge. The Semantic Web as a web of data (or a web of objects) is progressed slower than expected, especially when we compare it to the other industry-lead movements such as Web 2.0. The Web seems reluctantly deeper into the realm as a network of nouns. At the same time, the Web becomes more and more active when "services" spread.

Compared to data, a service is closer to be a verb on the Web. Phrases such as "google the term", "amazon the price", "ebay the item" point out that the verbs we created on the Web are very well received by the public. Unlike what Semantic Web perceiving the future of the Web to be a network of more fine-grained nouns, the Web 2.0 movement demonstrates that the Web demands more verbs than nouns in growing. Don't the verbs tell us anything?

We may need to take the eastern style of thinking to think of the Web. But, how? I will continue this topic in the next post in which I discuss how we may learn from the way Apple thinks of the Web.


shiftctrlesc said...

Really enjoying your meditation on the geography of thought and the web Yihong.

Our language acts as a kind of lens or perceptual organ through which we make sense of the world … and english certainly distorts and defies the logic of hyperconnectivity. We’re trained unconsciously to see processes as things, and to pluck objects out of their vital web of relationship and interdependence.

But the dominant metaphors that we use to describe the web are shifting: pages are giving way to streams and flows, and over time this is going to shift our common understanding of what the internet is. A network is nothing but relationship.

“In the logic of the net, there is a shift from nouns to verbs” - kevin kelly

In the meantime, we fumble to make sense of living at the speed of light with a language that’s out of tune with our electronic environment. We are searching for a language of ecology, a language that encourages us to re-cognize the objects around us as patterns of relationship.

And yet ironically, the Western world continues to export it’s 19th century perceptual lens to asian and native cultures whose languages are much better equipped to probe and make sense of 21st century connectivity. Doubly ironic, since westerners have been exploring eastern religion and arts for decades in an effort to realign their sensibilities with electric technology; yet we haven’t been able to assimilate these new modes of awareness into our language. Yet

Yihong Ding said...

thank you, Mark. The Web is evolving and the degree of connectivity is increasing. Have we oversimplified the product we created? Many times I feel we have. It is like that we often underestimate our kids during their growing-up until one day we are surprising---"WOW! You have been a big kid now!"

We need to update our way of thinking!

Anonymous said...

Wow, suprized you had anything at all good to say about Westerners. Typical chinese outlook, sick and tired of this garbage. Dude, ask a japanese person what they think of you, or even if any of this garbage non sense was true. Really... Put you in your chinese place. People, don't beleive this garbage...

Glad I caught this one...

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Charles Edward Frith said...

Great post. As a Westerner living in Asia for a long time this article has illuminated a little of the subtle unspoken differences that are hard to put the finger on. I still need to reconcile the propensity for ostentatious consumerism I observe around Asia but I think the general view here is accurate. Thank you.