Content-aware search

Content-aware search.

At InfoWorld's 2002 CTO Forum, Google co-founder Sergey Brin threw cold water on the idea of instrumenting content for intelligent search. “I'd rather make progress by having computers understand what humans write,” he said, “than by forcing humans to write in ways that computers can understand.” Brin's pragmatic stance sharply opposes the idealistic view of the Web's inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, who continues to evangelize his vision of a Semantic Web full of carefully encoded content that we can precisely search and fluidly recombine. My own humble contribution to this debate is a prototype search engine, now running on my Weblog, that tries to steer a middle course between the Scylla of simple fulltext search and the Charybdis of unwieldy tagging schemes and brittle ontologies. [Full story at]

I keep trying out phrases to capture what I'm aiming for. One is 'dynamic categories,' another is 'interoperable content.' Probably neither will stick, because these only describe how to do something, not why. The why, of course, is productivity.

The NY Times has an article today by Steve Lohr, entitled Technology and Worker Efficiency, in which John Seely Brown makes the case for productivity very well. Here's a quote that sums up nicely what I also think is happening, and why I am optimistic:

John Seely Brown, former director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, says he believes that recent changes in software technology could allow big gains in productivity and innovation. The opportunity, he says, is to move beyond the limitations of centralized systems for automating business operations, like enterprise resource systems. “Those systems are prisons,” said Mr. Brown, who is scheduled to speak at today's conference.

The software plumbing of computing, Mr. Brown explains, is evolving, and so is Internet-based software for individual workers. Software systems built on Web standards, he said, can be used as pick-and-place building blocks, instead of the more formal hierarchical systems of the past.

Mr. Brown also points to the rapid development of what he calls “social software” like instant messaging, Weblogs, wikis (multi-user Weblogs) and peer-to-peer tools – all of which make it easier for workers to communicate and collaborate online, almost instantaneously.

The combined result, Mr. Brown said, is information technology that can amplify social interaction and enhance workers' understanding of what is happening around them. The benefit, he added, could be to increase their ability to “collectively improvise and innovate.”

That is a key to productivity and peak performance, according to Mr. Brown. Business, he said, is a lot like soccer. In soccer, there are some set plays, but the best teams also display a wealth of effective improvisation based on the players' deep knowledge of one another. “It's the same in the best corporations or start-ups,” he said. [New York Times: Technology and Worker Efficiency, by Steve Lohr

Kevin Werbach got the original sound bite on this: “Web services, Weblogs and WiFi are the new WWW.” It was becoming clear in 2002, and is clearer now, that this is a recipe for the kinds of productivity gains that move the needle on the economic dial. However, it's frustratingly hard to be concrete about that squishy intersection between knowledge and collaboration.  [Jon's Radio]

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