Poe in Cyberspace: Edgar Allan Poe Review, Fall 2007|
Machines, Humans, and Web 2.0
When Maelzel's chess-player toured American cities in the years around 1830, the device created a sensation among the machine-mad members of the public who would never have paid to see a human chess master. Created by von Kempelen in Austria in 1770, the "automaton" finally came to Richmond late in 1835, but Poe, perhaps alerted to the fact that the device was not quite as advertised, was skeptical. Called "The Turk" because of the figure of Turkish magician surmounting it, the machine was exposed by Poe as a hoax concealing a human chess player inside ("Maelzel's Chess-Player," SLM, April 1836). One clue was the inconstancy of Maezel's apparatus: sometimes it lost. Poe believed that the power of machines was absolute: "Were the machine a pure machine," Poe stated, "it would always win."
The question of the nature of machine intelligence versus human intelligence is at the center of our faith and our misgiving about computers in the present era of rapid change. Our remarkable age of personal computing began when IBM entered the field in 1982; soon Microsoft operating systems and programs came to dominate desktop computing. During the 1990s, the personal computers extended the range of the desktops to the entire globe thanks to the unprecedented success of the World Wide Web. In May 1997, Poe's faith in a pure chess-playing machine was justified when IBM's Deep Blue defeated the reigning World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov. As we entered the new millennium, universally standardized computer components seemed to establish unquestionable authority: enjoying PC hardware, Windows operating systems, Microsoft Office, and the Google search engine [see endnote on Web addresses] built on a common hypertext language, who could ask for anything more?
One dissenter from this top-down programming model was Amazon, the online bookseller. When you ordered a book - or even considered one - you quickly saw on the screen personal suggestions for additional titles that might be of interest. These suggestions were not random: at times they were surprisingly appropriate. How did they do this? Had their programmers cleverly analyzed every book in print? Actually, Amazon acknowledged the limits of machine intelligence: in truth, their programmers had no idea which books went with others, but they realized that book buyers knew things of value that no computer could deduce. Amazon hit upon the marketing notion of using the computer to record the buying experiences of past customers, then sharing it with prospective customers. In doing this, Amazon was developing personalized computing, a powerful form of bottom-up programming exploiting concrete information from the book-buying behavior of individuals or small communities. In doing so, Amazon realized that machine knowledge and human knowledge had different but complementary strengths, and that appropriate mixtures of the two could be applied to megadata, to solve problems that baffled computers working alone and remained beyond the unaided abilities of humans.
In 2005, Amazon launched a commercial service mixing machine knowledge and human knowledge, calling it the Mechanical Turk (New York Times, 25 March 2007) - the name surely owing something to Poe. Computers cannot readily manage pattern recognition, machine translation, tape transcription, or image identification, tasks that are relatively easy for humans. In time, Amazon's Mechanical Turk became a broker between computer clients and an estimated 100,000 human programmers. To examine satellite scans in hope of finding traces of famous persons such as Jim Gray and Steve Fossett who had disappeared, it recruited more than ten thousand participants. (Neither search succeeded.) As Poe would have understood, Amazon's Mechanical Turk, like Maezel's Turk, depended on human intervention and was not a pure machine - was not a true artificial intelligence. Rather, Amazon's Mechanical Turk was a computer-human hybrid - an artificial artificial intelligence, human at heart and emblematic of the recent rise of social factors as an unexpected dominating force computer networks.
No one knows the exact number of documents on the Web today, but most estimates are that there are at least 30 billion Web documents, comprising more pages than the total human population of earth. The most explosive growths in cyberspace are in Web forms that did not exist five years ago. At a Web conference in 2004, Tim O'Reilly regarded these new Web forms as constituting a new Internet, one he called Web 2.0. The implication was that the existing Internet was old-fashioned if not obsolete: monthly international conferences sprang to explore Web 2.0, appealing not only to computer developers and business users but also to academic librarians, researchers, and teachers.
Was Web 2.0 just another dot.com bubble or was it a meaningful advance? The dispute spilled into the pages of The Atlantic, Business Week, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harper's, The New York Times, PMLA, and Time, as well technical journals such as Wired. On August 9, 2007, Business Week reported that most members of a group of 13 to 17 year old high school students were already using new Web 2.0 techniques, such as instant messaging, social networking, and webcams, and that they fully expected to continue to use them in their work in the future. About a half had read blogs, and more than a third had already written their own blog. No wonder then that the major players in the Internet field - Amazon, Google, Microsoft, News Corporation, and Yahoo - were engaging in an acquisitions war over promising new Web 2.0 ventures, paying huge, sometimes multi-billion dollar prices to acquire or just invest in social ventures such as FaceBook, MySpace, and YouTube - all still unprofitable.
What was it in Web 2.0 that had created such a stir? Web 2.0 has been characterized as the interactive, read-write, community-based Web - the opposite of the traditional authoritarian, one-way, read only, top-down Web. The new Web 2.0 components - its social networks and its blogs, wikis, and mashups - were already accounting for the most rapidly expanding areas of Internet traffic. Although the words blog, wiki, and mashup may be unfamiliar to Poe scholars, Edgar Allan Poe and other 19th century American authors are significant presences on these new forms. Incidentally, a blog is a web log or forum; a wiki is a Web page that any reader can also write to or edit (as in the community-written encyclopedia Wikipedia); and a mashup is a Web page that meaningfully aggregates information from two or more separate Internet sources.
The adoption of Web 2.0 techniques by conservative printed publications, such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, is a strong endorsement. Each now regularly uses Web 2.0 devices such as blogs, videos, and online supplements. Clark Hoyt wrote in "The Public Editor" column in The New York Times on 4 November 2007: "As The New York Times transforms itself into a multimedia news and information platform - the printed newspaper plus the robust nytimes.com offering breaking news, blogs, interactive graphics, video, and more - it is struggling with a vexing problem. How does the august Times, which has long stood for dignified authority, come to terms with the fractious, democratic culture of the Internet . . ."
Among the first major Internet players to jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon were the established search engines Yahoo and Google. Traditionally, search results had been displayed in a fixed rank order, but now Web search results were being the displayed in a manner reflecting the individual person's searching history. When a colleague of mine tried to repeat a successful laptop Google on his desktop computer in order to print it out, he found to his bewilderment that the results were different even though the software and search request were identical. What he did not realize is that his search engine was able to respond to what his laptop computer had learned about his search patterns. Some experts have predicted that the rise of personalized search results will eventually lead to the demise of fixed search rank order.
Although Google is already the dominant search engine, nevertheless it is still making strenuous efforts to explore alternative methods. If you search for Edgar Allan Poe at Google's experimental search engine, Searchmash, the results will include the usual 2,970,000 sites - and also, upon request, 151,000 images, 8,353 blogs, 2,890 Wikipedia mentions, and a great many videos. Google has also become active in trying to make free network computer software replace commercial desktop computer software, offering software for writing web pages, predicting groups, and doing trend analysis for downloading without cost. Meanwhile, Yahoo has introduced Yahoo Pipes (pipes is a Unix term), a mashup to aggregate and manipulate information from multiple sources, using a novel work canvas on a movie-style visual editor. For its part, Microsoft's Live search engine is exploring a number of interesting visual previews of available links. Certainly the most innovative major search engine at the moment is Ask, which displays information in clusters both divided into subtopics and integrated into broader subject areas, adding several visual elements. Quiet human intervention- as in Maelzel's Turk and Amazon's Mechanical Turk - makes Ask seem more intelligent in responding to queries. Ask also maintains an experimental search engine interface at its Ask-X site.
Today cutting edge experimental search engines are using information clusters, graphically displaying information, or following user-determined rankings. Grokker combines "Edgar Allan Poe" data from Yahoo!, Wikipedia, and Amazon in order to present 250 topics in an outline view that can be collapsed or expanded graphically. Kartoo is metasearch engine that groups its results visually across the screen by subtopics. Sproose determines site rankings according to explicit user voting and tagging. Factbites grabs "wordbite" short sentences taken from two dozen Poe sites. Qwika gathers excerpts from other wikis to produce 1,194 matches for "Edgar Allan Poe". Mahalo, which claims to be the first human powered search engine, sets its objective as the writing of the top 20,000 search requests by hand. Type in "Edgar Allan Poe" and nine subcategories will appear; hit Enter and a directory of Poe sites will appear, all created by a real person, Jennifer Hudock, listing seven top seven sites and those nine subcategories.
Two interesting new Poe Web sites use a wide range of media techniques in order to appeal to intelligent students. Knowing Poe is a Baltimore-focused site from Maryland Public Television that won the 2005 Webby award. Its sections on Poe the writer, Poe the person, and the Poe library are divided into screen-sized chunks. Don't miss the video of members of the 2002-2003 Baltimore Ravens football team "interpreting" lines from "The Raven." The PoeStories site was created by Robert Giordano, a writer, photographer, and web designer, who writes: "During the summer of 2005, I decided to create a Poe web site that was informative, easy to navigate, and stylish." Beneath the elegant design there are useful summaries, quotes, and a valuable glossary of Poe's vocabulary that is suitable for student projects.
Wiki software makes it possible for anyone who can read a Web page to also write to it. The most successful example of Wiki software is the online Wikipedia encyclopedia, estimated to contain 8 million entries in 265 languages. In theory, permitting anyone who wishes to write or edit a Web page could be a recipe for disaster, but in practice sabotage has been rare and countervailing opinions often balance out each other. The articles are unsigned and community-produced (the buzz word for the process is crowdsourcing), therefore lacking inherent authority, nevertheless they can be comprehensive, useful, and current. The top ranked Edgar Allan Poe page according to several Web search engines is indeed his Wikipedia entry, which discusses his life, works, death, theories, influence, bibliography, references, and provides Web links. Wikipedia provides additional short pages for many of Poe's tales, poems, and other writings, including one for his essay, "Maelzel's Chess Player" and another for a history of the "The Turk." An unusual wiki was created for "The Gold Bug" by an undergraduate research workshop project at the University of California at Santa Barbara conducted by Alan Liu, creator of the Voice of the Shuttle: students considered literary works in the light of new digital media and technologies by regarding them as though they were games, simulations, experiments, or hypertexts. At Boston College wikis became a primary learning tool in one class (Computerworld, 15 August 2007), where they replace textbooks and support collaboration among students. To start your own wiki in less than a minute, even though you may have no special skills, go to http://pbwiki.com, which supports its claims to be "the easiest wiki" with the promise that "it's as easy as making a peanut butter sandwich."
Poe's name pops up on the teaching blog of David Warlick in the speculation over musical taste, "Would Edgar Allan Poe like the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd? " One respondent turned the question to the subject of self-publishing, rare in the mid-19th century but common on Web 2.0: "I have to say Walt Whitman would be ecstatic about web 2.0." Within minutes another respondent punned, "So 'www' really means Walt Whitman Writing." On Robert Giordano's PoeStories site, when one visitor clicked on the gloss for porphyrogene in the text of "The Haunted Palace," learning that the word first appeared in that work, he raved on the site blog over its technology: "I like your web 2.0 style gizmos."
To learn more about blogs (or start your own), try blogger.com, purchased by Google in 2003. Alternately, look at bloglines.com, purchased by Ask in 2005. Or, to try a more academic blog, visit librarygarden.blogspot.com, which describes itself in this manner: "An ongoing conversation among librarians with differing perspectives (public, academic, school, consortial, youth) but one shared goal: ensuring the health and relevance of libraries."
Poe's writings appear in several Web 2.0 mashups that are aggregations of information from other online sources. One study of downloads on the previous day from the ibiblio.org site of Project Gutenberg revealed that among the top 100 literary requests "The Raven" was 25th, just ahead of Joyce's Ulysses, and that among all authors Poe stood in 12th place. In its analysis of search traffic Wordsfinder estimated that there were 199,487 U. S. Web searches a month for "Edgar Allan Poe," divided among Google (124,870), Yahoo (45,684), MSN (21,319), and Ask (7,614). In addition, the word patterns in Poe searches could be separated and ranked, the most common being poem, biography. Raven, poetry, short story, quote, house, works, black cat, tell tale heart, picture, life, annabel lee, cask of amontillado, and bells - and, at the other extreme, the most unusual being museum, era, lesson plan, el dorado, critic, novel, William Wilson, cuentos, tale, biografia, teaching, influence, photo, collection, literary criticism, Cambridge Companion, gold bug, and theme.
To get started in a beginner's tour of Web 2.0 sites, begin with the Wikipedia entries on Poe, Web 2.0's answer to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Use Ask as a search engine: there are currently 800,400 Poe hits, clustered divided into 30 subtopics, with seven expansion subjects, and related names, images, and videos. Browse MySpace, a social site for profiles, blogs, and music discussion: the site contains 39,200 mentions of Edgar Allan Poe - and you'll even find Nobel laureate Doris Lessing there. Facebook is another social utility for keeping up with friends by posting photos, notes, and videos. In you have a broadband connection, download from YouTube (owned by Google) any of the 930 Poe-related videos there. Visit the Answers site, not just for its reference information from 100 encyclopedias, dictionaries, glossaries and atlases, but also for its Wiki where you can ask or answer questions or just browse past WikiAnswers. For the utmost in bravery, re-invent yourself in imaginary 3D digital form at Secondlife..
To delve deeper into Poe's presence on Web 2.0, look into Technorati, a directory of the blogosphere with 915 mentions of Poe. The social site for sharing bookmarks is Del.icio.us, where the entries include 705 postings of Poe items, ranked by user popularity. Browse Flickr (owned by Yahoo), a photo sharing site where thousands of photographs are posted each minute, which contains 1,505 postings of Edgar Allan Poe images. To see some existing wikis pertaining to Poe, explore the 733 mentions you get when you search for Edgar Allan Poe and PBWiki
It will take a while for the excitement over Web 2.0 to settle out and its durable contribution to be known. Meanwhile, developments come to light each day as digital convergence brings together the Internet, personal computers, television, motion pictures, DVDs, cell phones, and personal music players. The Internet has even entered American national politics, first through fund-raising sites and targeted emails, later through blogs reflecting every possible shade of political opinion, and finally through uploaded amateur videos that can capture politicos and hopefuls in unguarded moments. In the televised presidential primary debates in 2007 a milestone was reached by Web 2.0 when for the first time members of the audience were invited to submit questions- in the form of videos uploaded to YouTube. To what extent, the new digital media and social technologies will alter the traditional processes of politics - and of research - will be seen very soon.
Heyward Ehrlich, Rutgers University at Newark
Note: Web addresses appearing above in italics are implied (e.g. Amazon signifies http://www.amazon.com ). The full text of this article is available at <http://eapoe.info>. Here are web addresses for other pages mentioned above.
Doris Lessing: <http://www.myspace.com/dorislessing>
Gold-Bug :< http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/wiki2/index.php/Goldbug_Team>
Knowing Poe: <http://knowingpoe.thinkport.org/>
Poe on Wikipedia: <http://en.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Allan_Poe> - parodied at Uncyclopedia: <http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Allan_Poe>)
The Turk: <http://en.Wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turk>