May 2, 2005

Introduction: Timo Hannay

Update (10/3/08): For up-to-date information about me, see my Nature Network profile page.

Hello. I work for Nature Publishing Group (NPG) as head of web publishing. I was once a neurophysiologist working on the cellular mechanisms of associative memory, but I switched from networks of neurons to networks of computers about 10 years ago when I discovered the web. They have more to do with each other than you might think, as Vannevar Bush hinted 50 whole years before my own epiphany:

Our ineptitude in getting at [a] record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.

Bush’s article is often interpreted (among other things) as anticipating the web. But reading it again now, it looks to me just as much like a prediction of tagging. (To see what I mean, just read Section 7.) Perhaps that’s because hyperlinking and tagging are so similar. Crudely speaking, hyperlinks allow me to associate something I’m creating with something that someone else has created, while tags allow me to associate two things that other people have created.

Or maybe it’s just because tagging is my latest obsession. Unlike other people contributing to this blog, I’ve written little on the subject except for co-authoring one or two recent papers about social bookmarking. But don’t let that mislead you: at NPG we’re into tagging big-time. We’ve created a tagging tool for scientists, released the code and have just begun experimenting with using it in our own editorial processes. I plan to write here about our experiences as we see how far tagging can take us in tackling the (formidable) information organisation needs of modern science. I’m sure it won’t be a panacea (for lots of reasons that I’ll probably write about too), but I’m equally sure it will be an essential part of the answer.

It’s hard to put my finger on, but I guess my faith in tagging arises for similar reasons that my faith in the web emerged a decade ago. It’s liberating, not restrictive; bottom-up, not imposed; relational, not hierarchical. It also cleverly harnesses selfish acts and directs them towards the common good. But most of all, it just seems to fit the way our brains work.

6 Comments

  1. My cognitive science professor told me recently that the Bush quote you use mistakenly conflates brain operations with network structures. I was arguing exactly that, based on Bush and Berners-Lee’s many remarks. His defense was that the associative nature of the brain is based on entire schemas that are in constant flux and cluster meaning in a much more complex way. Hmmmm, debateable details on an arguably strong case overall? Perhaps tags are bits of schema?

    Comment by goodness — May 2, 2005 @ 9:50 am

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  6. Neuroscience and Epistemology at ETech…

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