January 8, 2010 | Leave a Comment

Category: Society, Web

Google is nothing like a seamless citation system though it has lately improved its ability to find academic papers when certain searches are conducted.  I’m wondering what the effect upon academia would be of a search engine that intuitively displayed the sources of concepts cited in academic and nonacademic works.

No doubt Chomsky would reveal his influence in even more papers than he does now, Chomsky being the most oft-cited of living academics.  What I’m trying to get a feel for is how academia would change if the lineage of influence evident in the citations that accompany a paper were generated by an algorithm instead of the author.  What would emerge would be similar to what we observe now on the web, with a proliferation of very specific, nonrandom links connoting respect and influence.

I look at things evolutionarily.  I seek connections over time that suggest influence directions, and I seek to find out how interconnection propels the behavior of individuals.  An academic, when creating citations in a work and seeking respect among peers, is creating a lineage tree, or evolution history, by describing the precursors to his or her idea.

There is that delightful diagram of the relationship of many rock ‘n’ roll artists that appears in the movie School of Rock.  It is an evolutionary chart, like Darwin’s branching tree, that reveals the chain of influence leading to the present day.

What if a search engine could automatically generate such a diagram for an academic for the various concepts explored within a paper?

Several things are coming to my mind.  First, those potentially useful former models and current subdisciplines that get made invisible by new paradigms might find their way back into contemporary theorizing if such an algorithm kept noting how they are connected.

Second, because whom one cites is important in establishing and maintaining relationships to get ideas accepted, what if those citations were not solely within the author’s control?  Perhaps the authors could be more daring or creative in what they write.  Maybe writers would take more chances if they were not haunted by the need to behave respectfully.

Third, academics now have little incentive to cite theorists and researchers outside their discipline who are exploring similar or the same processes or patterns.  They do not normally cross boundaries into one another’s journals, conferences or department management issues.  If unique algorithms could be designed that specialize in bridge concepts among disciplines, the citation lineage could be observed to break down discipline barriers, opening ideas to the light of new discipline audiences.

Consider the act of writing a paper just to observe the lineage trees generated by the algorithm.  For those fascinated by unique patterns, concepts could be strewn together just to watch them propagate their origins.  I can see paradigm-busting concepts emerging from observing the particular ways that ideas are observed to be related, particularly if discipline lines are crossed and old paradigms are shown to be still relevant.

Google and the other search engines specialize in revealing the results of connection by displaying those words and phrases that receive the most attention from other websites relevant to the word or phrase.  There is a lineage tree, with no sense of time.  It’s a snapshot of an evolutionary process, with no past.  The resources now exist to trace not just connection, but evolution, providing the opportunity to understand how ideas are born, influenced and transform over time.

Evolution is a process that happens over time and in the present.  Perhaps an algorithm that enhances our ability to view connection over time will at the same time impact our understanding of evolution.  Soon our best metaphor for evolution will not be a computer program describing genetic heritage, but the Internet itself.  What it may take to arrive at that more useful metaphor is an ability for users to view connection, not just in the present, but over time.


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