Archive for November 11th, 2012

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Posted at 3:13 pm in Uncategorized

Last post I talked about how it was possible to understand the web as a cognitively constructed object which in some ways abided by the laws of celestial mechanics. Further to this I now want to expand on the observational approach which is adopted in astrophysics and combine this with the idea of an information spectrum.

To start with, a simple comparison between the astronomer’s telescope and the web user’s device (computer, tablet, phone – whatever it may be) will elaborate on the theme of observing a phenomenon or ‘thing’. At first this comparison might seem arbitrary but upon closer inspection we can see important similarities between the two observational apparatus. Seaborn (1998) points out that “nearly all of the information astronomers have received about the universe beyond our solar system has come from the careful study of the light emitted b stars, galaxies and interstellar clouds of gas and dust” (Seaborn 1998). The telescope is the astronomers most valuable tool to understand the physical world and “our modern understanding of the universe has been made possible by the quantitative measurement of the intensity and polarization of light in every part of the electromagnetic spectrum”.  (

As I mentioned in the last post, astrophysics/physics is a holistic approach which emphasises the objective perspective as opposed to the subjective. “Although observational astronomy now covers the entire range of the electromagnetic spectrum, along with many areas of particle physics, the most familiar part of the field remains in the optical regime of the human eye” (Seaborn 1998). As humans we better understand the phenomena which we can see. Once astronomers were able to identify light and its properties, they were then able to understand more obscure concepts which were harder to detect. It was then the subjective approach adopted by humans and their understanding of the world around them which lead them to the objective study of the universe. That is the subject was removed.

Just as light is the most easily recognised feature of the electromagnetic spectrum, the most identifiable feature in the web is arguably words. Web users observe the web by using computers and other such devices to access web pages. On one level the web consists of language and protocols which humans can consume and understand. Websites are made of varying markup languages. Words then are the most familiar part of the field in what I term the information spectrum. Breaking down the idea of language, we recede along the spectrum and go towards code, metadata and finally binary code. Just as “a wave is a disturbance that travels through a medium”, information is a series of disturbances (ultimately 1s and 0s) which travel through the air and are picked up by our devices. In information spectrum, code is the unit with the smallest wavelength.

Now then, using psychology which is the science that seeks to understand behavoir and mental processes, we can build an information spectrum that incorporates cognitive mechanisms. The result is a profound objective spectrum in the holistic sense, which also incorporates the subject (that is humans) into it. Words are the basis of ideas and as ideas are internalised by humans we grow towards collective thinking. On the internet we can observe communities who share ideas and on the information spectrum, these collectives would occupy the other extreme. This social psychological approach, where the “primary emphasis is on discovering and explaining the causes of behaviour” (Carlson et al. 2007) allows us to explain how behavior is driven by ideas. For example the Arab Springs is an example which emphasises the role of the web, and particularly social media, in communicating information. Ideas were circulated and disseminated by users and “social cognition involves our perception ad interpretation of information about our social environment and our behaviour in response to that environment” (Carlson et al. 2007). Information is the central phenomena which is internalised by individuals at one level, and communities at a higher level. When people share the same idea, we tend towards the psychological concept known as groupthink. The idea that “the people want to bring down the regime” was the abstract thought which was internalised by the Arab Spring protestors.

We can see then that people are attracted to information in a similar way to how masses are gravitationally attracted to each other in the universe. Can we then compare galaxies to the relationship between people and ideas? The idea or collective thought is like the sun, the largest object in our galaxy that everything else is attracted to. People or groups are closer to the idea depending on how much they agree with the idea. Could two polarised beliefs about and idea be representative of two different galaxies which exist in the same system? After all “a galaxy is a massive, gravitationally bound system consisting of stars, stellar remnants and interstellar medium of gas and dust, and an important but poorly understood component called dark matter”.

Is the web then, a massive, information bound system consisting of individual thinkers and collectives who have internalised ideas – and an important but poorly understood component called the deep web? Some complications to this idea are the physical concepts of time and space – two concepts which are increasingly complicated when applied to the web. Significantly the web is an object with no dimensions and is decentralized. Does the web have any shape? Also while astronomers were able to observe the universe from within – that is from vantage point of earth they were able to determine what was around us – the way in which we observe the web is more complicated. When we use an observational device such as a laptop, are we observing the web from the inside or outside? Or even more profound, is there one web? Or is it a multi web? Our view of the web becomes increasingly multifarious as personalisation takes effect on the web – what one users observes is different from another. Again this tends towards the dichotomy of subjective and objective approaches adopted by psychology and astrophysics respectively.

Is it possible to create an information spectrum which incorporates ideas and how we perceive them? Human interpretability becomes an important issue in such a conceptual spectrum and the perplexing idea of incorporating a subjective approach in and objective view prevails.

Written by Lawrence Green on November 11th, 2012