Saturday, April 09, 2005

From a binary to a probabilistic paradigm

Heard a nice phrase in a speech by Clay shirky: We’re moving from a binary to a probabilistic way of doing things.
Indeed! As I see it, this is one of the main charateristics of the paradigm shift I’ve been trying to describe for years.

Clay Shirky used it to describe how our way of classifying information is changing as we move from physical to digital libraries. We no longer have to stick rigorously to official categories. Neither do have to make sure that each subject only belongs to one higher level category. In stead we can tag information in any number of ways, and let anyone participate in creating the tags. In fact the variance in how people classify a given document may only add to our understanding of it.

But moving from a binary to a probabilistic worldview applies much broader. It’s a general way of understanding reality that we have to learn.
We’ve been used to thinking that answers were certain, that truths were absolute, that conclusions were clear, that categories and facts were solid and objective.
But the new paradigm suggests that this is actually the exception. Most of the answers these days are not binary – a clear yes or no. Is it a good idea to invade Iraq, Is nuclear power bad, are we making progress? For the majority of questions you can only answer with a certain probability, and given certain contexts. One result of the spread of information is that we realize, that there are many truths and noone really knows very much for certain.

If I got really philosophical I would point out how this world view is represented even in basic physics – for instance, that you cannot know exactly where an electron is. You can only tell with a certain probability that it is at a particular location.

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