the uses of locality

Were all maps in this world destroyed and vanished under the direction of some malevolent hand, each man would be blind again, each landmark become a meaningless signpost to nothing.
Beryl Markham, West with the Night

The web together with ever cheaper computers has brought us a world of electronic information glut, and in such a world information about information is more valuable than information. The popularity of web search engines proves that. As the volume of electronic information continues to leapfrog ahead, however, the ability of even the most powerful search engines to keep us aware of what's where will continue to fall behind. All too often, web searches produce either no pages or millions. What the web needs is the same mechanism we use to manage search in the real world: locality.

Let's say you're looking for food. There should to be a Shops Neighborhood, in which there is a Food Neighborhood, in which there is a Chinese Food Neighborhood. Of course, the Chinese Food Neighborhood should link to the Chinese Cooking Utensils Neighborhood, which links to the Chinese Culture Neighborhood, which links to the Chinese History Neighborhood, which links to the Ming Dynasty History Neighborhood, which links to the Antiques Neighborhood, and so on forever. The main links out of the Chinese Food Neighborhood, however, should be to other food neighborhoods, say the Italian Food Neighborhood, the French Food Neighborhood, and so on, because, as is evident from its name, food is the chosen way of organizing this particular neighborhood.

The point is that if food is your dominant interest at present then you don't want to get sidetracked into the intricacies of antiques. Such information is, at present, only cluttering up your mental workspace and should be hidden from you. Further, if you find some appropriate pages but then decide that Chinese food isn't what you really want after all, you are probably still interested in food. So pages featuring Italian food should be near at hand.

Consequently, the Chinese Food Neighborhood should be closer to the Italian Food Neighborhood than it is to the Antiques Neighborhood. A notion of nearness and farness imposes locality, and that in turn imposes neighborhoods. Users should be assured that when interested in a particular topic, service, or artifact that one big jump to a specific virtual location coupled with a number of small hops around that location is sufficient to find it or its nearest relatives. Today this is not the case.

Even if this were possible, however, one person's fascination is another person's trivia. Arranging things by their relation to food is only useful if you're mainly interested in food. What though if you're more interested in furniture? Or books? Or antiques? To be truly useful, the hypothetical map sketched above has to be personalized to the interests of each user, and, since each user's interests can change, the map should also be dynamic.

Someone searching for a house should be able to go to the Realtors Neighborhood (which might include companies scattered across the globe) but then narrow the view presented only to realtors in Portland. Failing to find a suitable realtor in Portland, the user should be able to ask the system to find realtors nearby. In this case, "nearby" means in the traditional geographic sense, but there are many ways to slice the same salami of data.

Locality in the arts, for example, might be geographical (give me all British novelists), temporal (give me all novelist born in the same decade), cultural (give me all English-speaking novelists), physical (give me all female novelists), and so on. So besides separating the Arts District, say, into novels, drama, criticism, and so on, it could also be divided by century, by country of birth of the artists, by subject of the artistic piece. So, depending on whether the user happens to be interested in Spain, Pablo Picasso's Guernica could be right next to George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, even though one's a painting and the other is a book.

Given the web's size, it's infeasible to hire enough people to do all of this mapping. Further, the web changes far too fast to make any but a cursory stab at mapping possible. So it's unlikely that a human-only solution to mapping is possible (Yahoo! and The Mining Company are two attempts to do this). On the other hand, such a map needs human supervision since choosing the right linkages is often semantic and not simple to deduce automatically. Finally, it is unlikely that we can create global linkage maps of all pages with sufficient discrimination to satisfy all users. There are serious issues of deciding where each topic should go if the resulting ordering must seem natural to everyone. We have too many different interests, and they change too often.

All these problems are engendered by focusing on commercial search engines trying to please everyone by producing a generic map of the entire web. This is the wrong approach. We can sidestep almost all of the problems by having each user's computer produce a small, private map of pages likely to interest that user only. What we need is a personalized mapping utility.

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