Page last updated at 10:56 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Tech Lab: Aleks Krotoski

Open All Hours, BBC
Much more needs to be done to make the web cater for local needs

Aleks Krotoski's research into online communities has left her wondering if the web is fulfilling its claim to be world wide.

I live a life saturated in technology. I research it, write about it and broadcast with it. I consume information from the internet on the train, in the coffee shop and even, thanks to my laptop and a wi-fi connection, in bed.

Until recently, I thought this was a common experience, that the 12.6 million people in the UK with broadband access grabbed the web when they needed to find out where they'd seen that guy from Lost before, or used Wikipedia to solve a domestic argument.

The rest, I imagined, were technophobes or luddites who remained so by fiercely protesting the entry of cold, mechanical machines into their lives. It had never occurred to me it might be technology's fault.

Language barrier

But recently, I was uncharacteristically surrounded by people who had never used computer technology. When I explained what I did - that I studied the online social networks of friends who'd never met in the flesh before - they looked at me with what I took to be a little bit of pity.

Why bring Microsoft Windows to the field when people there don't do desktops?
Aleks Krotoski
Expecting the standard, "what's wrong with reality?" quip, I hastily explained that I was also a well-rounded individual with many interests outside the internet, but that I found it supported my offline activities in a life-changing way. In particular, I was able to answer questions outside my frame of reference instantly, and with the click of a button.

They suddenly looked befuddled. How did I control this savage beast called the internet? How did I extract what I needed in fewer than three attempts?

It turns out that they didn't go online because it didn't understand them; a so-called simple search on Google produced nothing but 30 minutes of fruitless frustration.

The web spoke a different language of fact-finding than they did, and they didn't have the time or the inclination to learn it. They didn't know the first place to start.

This experience and others in similar company reminded me that the technologies I use have been built by people like me: Western, middle class, urban.

For all our apparent differences, the international information-searching norm has converged form the experience of a population of technophiles.

Mynci Gorky, Aleks Krotoski
Ms Krotoski studies online communities such as Second Life
My experiences with Google are likely reflected in the search patterns of people in countries I've never been to, by people I've never met, but who share similar philosophical approaches to work, life and knowledge based on our desktop culture, our the way we structure our knowledge and even our architecture.

We know that these differences exist by looking at the adoption patterns of different technologies around the world. For example Baidu's home advantage has taken the search engine to the top of the pile in China; Yandex is the dominant search engine in Russia.

These market leaders in their countries suggest that these technologies do better at adapting to the needs of the local citizens than the Western-developed applications.

We Googlites are probably the people least-served by the real power of the Web.

Currently, under the tutelage of Western technologists on-site from organizations like Geek Corps and VSO, people in rural villages are building communication infrastructures that will support radio because that is the primary information source of the people who live there.

Why bring Microsoft Windows to the field when people there don't do desktops?

Local heroics

What if there was a search facility that had not only been developed with the local philosophy in mind, but adapted into its own unique tool that best served the people who used it? A semantic search facility would learn from a user's unique approach to information so that the user wouldn't have to change his or her behaviour.

University graduates, BBC
The web betrays its origins in who it serves best
There are many companies and movements that believe they hold the answer. For example, Sir Tim Berners-Lee's W3C Semantic Web project uses a design infrastructure that aims to automate human social linguistic processes so you'll have the answer before you've even thought to ask it.

True Knowledge, a search facility based in Cambridge, relies upon a team of researchers to populate a database that learns and assesses the information it delivers. Rather than using indexes and returning results in sentence form, it has a Wikipedia-style belief in the intelligence of the masses.

Yet even these approaches are hopelessly dogged by Western mentality; the people who will contribute will understand the paradigms with which information needs to be designed or uploaded into databases, and won't naturally recognize the shortcomings simply because the other isn't within their frame of reference.

When we have the means to create an intelligent search system that is able to adapt to local paradigms of information organization, we will have opened up the web to millions of people who can truly benefit from the lessons hidden in its inscrutable depths.

Only then will we be rid of the ghost in the machine, and only then will we have achieved the potential of what the World Wide Web can offer.


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