Saturday, June 11, 2011

Search and Spirituality

Today, I discovered an interesting segment of a video clip illustrating someone connecting search and spirituality. Search in a broader sense (beyond "information retrieval") does seem to have a lot to do with our belief systems and our relationship to a sense of higher purpose in life. Coming across a tangible example of the connection between finding information and someone's inner spiritual world stopped to make me reflect. I was struck by the implications for the design of user experience with search engines. What responsibilities do we have as scientists in designing our algorithms and our applications if these then get incorporated into the personal, internal process of individual human beings to find meaning in their own lives by connecting with universal truth?

t the moment I am doing the final spot check on the development set for the MediaEval 2011 Genre Tagging release. I was checking out a video with the genre label personal_or_auto-biographical, one of the 26 categories that we are using this year.

I started playing this video to get an idea of what it exactly was about and I was amazed to listen to this guy and watch him speaking. Perhaps the reaction dates me. There is just a striking immediacy to it that I was not expecting. Apparently, he's alone in his car, and talking only for himself and for the camera.

really not know who this is, or what happened to him later in 2009 when he stopped publishing episodes is a bit of a science-fiction feeling for me. Watching his video, I am caught up in the present moment of someone who I don't know, over two years after that moment actually occurred. This effect is quite contrary to what he himself is describing. He talks about remaining with himself (someone he nearly by definition must know well) in the present moment.

Or is my witnessing of this nameless present-moment occurring in the past actually simply a new kind of being present?

It certainly seems like it exists on some other plane. Although, I jump immediately to considering what it would take to track the guy down. Gerald Friedland gave a talk at our lab last week about Cybercasing,
using geo-tagged information available online to mount real-world attacks. It's fresh in my mind, the array of possibilities for finding someone by following the trail they leave uploading multimedia to the Internet. One video doesn't seem to hurt, but we quickly loose the intuitions for how our uploading behavior might scale -- allowing people to find us on the basis of who we are and in terms of how we are vulnerable.

On the other hand, this yearning to be present in the moment is so universal, so common to so many, that it really doesn't make this guy so special. He's special, perhaps, in that he can operate a camera and get his video online. Also, clearly he has the gift to generate a speech stream that other people then identify as reflecting their own inner processes. But he's specialness ends in a certain way right there. What he is saying in a way so intensely personal that it once again becomes universal -- it's simply what we look like on the inside -- like the pictures that they show us in grade school of the chambers of our hearts and the insides of our large intestines. This video was in that sense made to be lost in the multimedia avalanche of the Internet.

The guy mentions a name in his metadata, Eckhart Tolle, and I followed the trail and very quickly realizing, by clicking into an Eckhart Tolle YouTube video, that Eckhart Tolle is who my mystery guy is talking about rather than who he is himself. That brought a smile, since this distinction is one that we've previously observed as important for speech media [1].

I listened to Eckhart Tolle for a bit, pondering the metaphor involving the universal similarity of people's large intestines. All of a sudden
Eckhart Tolle is saying, "The mind even started to look at ads for flying back to England, fares, and then the impulse came..." He's sort of hesitating, so you wonder if he's also finding this a little strange, but for me it just seemed like a moment that search for information is playing a clearly in central role in what we would otherwise call our own internal states that make up part of our spirituality. It's the kind of search that we would do nowadays with a search engine.

Eckhart Tolle goes on to talk about "obedience to what came out of the present moment" guided his decision making process on where to be when. He goes on to say, "...don't do it on an impulse that is a restless impulse or comes out of any kind of negative emotion". If people listen to what he is saying, and a lot do, and if they combine their search for information with interaction with search engines, I land at the following conclusion: our individual spiritual development is not disconnected from our search engines and especially not from our experience of interacting with them.

In the end, the reason I blog about this might just be that I want to use the YouTube link to that Eckhart Tolle video that will take you right to the jump-in point that I am writing about Goodness knows how much time I've spent discussing video fragment linking and trying to get research money to work on it as a searching speech problem -- I really get a kick out of being able to link into the stream.

We are late releasing the data for the MediaEval 2011 Genre Tagging task. The initial delay was small, but then other things just got in the way compounding the situation. Today, I am trying to be very present in the moment, in order to ignore the stress that I feel about being so late and be very careful about getting the release right the first time around.

And today's experience reminds me of how careful we need to be in all our research. If our search engines are part of our spiritual worlds, we need to design our algorithms and applications with awareness of their potential impact on the trails that we following in our paths of personal development and on the collective, common digestive system of humanity.

[1] Besser, J., Larson, M., Hofmann, K., Podcast Search: User Goals and Retrieval Technologies, Online Information Review: The international journal of digital information research and use, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 395-419, 2010.