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Mar 05, 2004



Frankly, I don't think that a massive "Database of Intentions" would be overwhelmingly useful, especially in a role of telling us "things about who we are and what we want as a culture."

At present, Google has over 80% of the search browser market share, and, if you look in its 2003 end-year keyword analysis brief, the top 10 queries for the whole world were:


1. britney spears
2. harry potter
3. matrix
4. shakira
5. david beckham
6. 50 cent
7. iraq
8. lord of the rings
9. kobe bryant
10. tour de france


What does this tell about the world's culture? Not much. If there's a way to properly analyze the potential DBoI (perhaps isolating queries from .edu domains), we may have a better idea on the driving impetus of our culture, but as it stands, Batelle's idea of keyword aggregation seems to be rather simplistic.


Nice hammer. Now where exactly is the nail we want to drive?


Ok, here's my take. Although I think that J. Battelle has a very interesting idea, I disagree with him on his point that:

"This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture."

While the web can definately be used to assess the relative popularity of subject X to subject Y (i.e. david beckham vs. harry potter, in the google list above), I think that it's inconcievable to suggest that the web can be used to assess the desires of our world as a whole.

Remember when there was a national presidential on ivote.com and Dean was picked as the winner? The Internet (at present) is skewed primarily to a particular demographic, and it's unfair (not to mention statistically flawed) to suggest that this small population can represent the larger universe.

Within reason, I think that the web can be used to assess the desires of certain specific demographics (i.e. google queries from .edu domains can be used to assess the desires of the student community, since most, if not all students use the Internet), but I think that it's far-fetched proposition to suggest that this can be applied to determine the desires of the world.


I wouldn't want to put worlds in the mouth of Battelle, but here's a shorthand version of why I think the idea might be interesting from the perspective of VWs:

1. I have a sense that all the empirical work to date on VWs is, in one sense, trying to get to this. Take Ted's hedonic pricing article. Short conclusion: this demographic assigns a value to masculinity, all else being equal. Or Nick's stuff on psychology & gender. Or TL's sociology of these worlds. Etc etc. They are all talking to who we actually are, when we shed the skin of this world and adopt different personas (or reflect our own in that new world). And yes, yes, I know about how it's only a game, that we're rpging, etc etc. But on one (to me) profound level, the data coming out of VWs can tell us who were are.

2. No-one has done this yet (though a number of us want to), but if one could change the VW to test certain hypotheses--limited government occurs initially to protect property interests and accretes power after that, etc etc-- then we would have datasets that actually described our higher-order intentions/desires since we can reset VW conditions in ways that RW actors can't.

My interest in Battelle's idea was, then, to see what use he could make out of the attenuated data coming out of search engines. And than what examples of data and uses-of-this-data could we make of data coming out of VWs.


> This artifact can tell us extraordinary things
> about who we are and what we want as a culture.

Turns out it's mostly Sex and Violence.


I have a few things to say about Mr. Battelle's proposal. My first comment is an echo of David Maduram's: such a database is, indeed, extraordinarily skewed demographically. First of all, as an index of human desires, it presumes that all of humanity tends toward the same basic desires (this would not be temporally or culturally qualified, I suppose; i.e., a desire for Britney Spears is simply a desire for music or entertainment?). While one could argue this case, I'm not sure that we gain much insight into "what it is to be human" by flattening human specificities into an agglomeration of unmanaged data sets, however sorted. This says nothing about the fact, of course, that only certain populations have access to the Internet, by and large affluent, first-world whites, and that the Internet, whatever we say to the contrary, is not the medium for all possible human activities. It does seem well disposed as a conduit for capitalist enterprises of various kinds and, alternatively (but still marginally), what could be called "social experiments" (chatting, webrings, blogs, MMRPGs, whatever) among that part of the human population that has actually made a phone call (forgive the overtones--this isn't meant to be a Marxist rant or anything).

This is just a roundabout way of saying that different people, and only certain people, use the Internet for different things, and not all things. Consumerism is probably very high on the list (not exactly a universal cultural norm), and this sort of database would ignorantly privilege majority usages (and users!) without reflecting very well the genuinely pluralistic community that does exist in cyberspace. That community and the Internet also change enough (maybe now it is beginning to stabilize?) that such a database would ignore demographic particularities. I think I read once that, before 1995ish (or whenever Mosaic introduced the world to the graphical World Wide Web), 99% of the Internet population was male, probably of the "young adult" category, and rather geeky in their inclinations (myself included; alas for those heady days of IRC Magic: The Gathering!).

My last point is brief and is more of a question. What nefarious purposes does Mr. Battelle imagine for his database that the far more robust field of marketing has not already accomplished?

Maybe, some day not far from now, the government will find a way to track us all using numbers! Maybe, not too long after that, *corporations* will get their hands on those numbers, too! And sort us into consumer categories, monitor our purchasing patterns, study our behavior, interview us, and, and, try to sell us stuff!

Oh wait...


"This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture"

Just the one culture?

Dan Hunter>what should we make of a putative "Virtual World Database of Intentions"?

I'm no so interested in what they intend as why they intend it.



A point I made in a brief comment on John's site (which I too late noticed was sadly past its freshness date) is that for my own useage at least, Google searches represent what I am actually less interested in. I use Google every single day but my searches are more indicative of my ignorance than my interests.


As far as using VWs for DBoI: Yes, it would reveal that most peoples intentions focus on sex and violence. But I think its important to realize that this tendency is skewed by the limitations of the interface. It may be that many of these people actually have a burning desire to make jewelry, but the VW has a lousy jewelry-making interface, so they go out and kill things.

Of course, this bias in game development is largely the result of market research that shows that sex and violence are what sells games....

As far as using search engines: Yes, the demographic would be highly skewed to affluent, geeky North Americans. However, that is only important if you take the word "culture" to mean "world culture". The internet itself has developed into a new kind of culture that is not bound by space. The members of this culture would be fairly represented.


Casey> Of course, this bias in game development is largely the result of market research that shows that sex and violence are what sells games....

Sex and violence sell everything.

Honestly, I think the main problem is that we're ashamed of ourselves and we wish we were something other than what we are. So now we're looking for some sort of tool that will tell us we're somethiing other than what we already know...

In the US, anyway.

So we try to make games (and everything else) as sexy and as violent as possible without making it obvious that's what we're doing.

"Oh this teaches a moral lesson about the futility of war - especially in this part where you napalm the villagers - look at that flaming kid run! - oh, and also boobies."

And we're not fooling anyone. We're a sexually repressed war culture, we're as entertained by violence and sex as we are outraged by it.

I personally don't feel the need to change it unless someone can come with a better plan than "Pretend it aint so, and it won't be." Maybe I'm being irresponsible.


That said, I'd like to make a Barbie MMORPG. Where you go on quests for carrots because your pony is sad and trade hair-ribbons and outfits with your friends. But there wouldn't be any sex and violence in that sort of thing.

Well, 'til the players logged in (and then OH GOD).


Jeff> We're a sexually repressed war culture, we're as entertained by violence and sex as we are outraged by it.

My favorite observation on this came in the wake of the Janet Jackson Nipplegate debacle. One commentator (Frank Rich, I think) noted that there was a big brouhaha when the NFL agreed in the 70s to broadcast cheerleaders during halftime. One of the NFL honchos is said to have defended it by saying "We think that the NFL-watchers deserve a little sex with their violence."

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