The Identity of Objects March 14, 2008Posted by Andre Vellino in Digital Identity, Epistemology, Semantics.
I was listening to my colleague Richard Ackerman give a preview of his upcoming keynote address at the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) forum when Brian Cantwell Smith’s book On The Origin of Objects popped into mind (I wrote a short review of that book many moons ago and I’m a big fan of the book.) Brian is now Dean of the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto and those of us who have enjoyed The Origin have been patiently waiting for the publication of “The Age of Significance“, a 7-volume series that fleshes out some details.
Brian’s book came to mind because of the point Richard makes in his presentation that computers love unique identifiers for objects – books, articles, authors – and that we don’t really have good standards for identifying things. Even if you take into account efforts like Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) the task providing unique references to persistent digital objects presents significant hurdles, such as dealing with versions.
What is the proper identity of a digital object? Is it “the instance” or “the work”? Richard’s example is “The Philosopher’s Stone” and “The Sorcerer’s Stone”, books whose full-text are almost (but not quite) identical yet have the “same author” and are, in some sense “the same work”. But even if the plot is the same and most of the text is the same, might it not be useful, in some contexts, to describe one of them as “the British book” and the other as “the U.S. book?”
Suppose I wanted to search for all the speeches that the present Queen of Canada had given, I wouldn’t want to search for all of Queen Elizabeth the second’s speeches or even all the speeches by “the present Queen of England”. Does this sound familiar? (see Bertrand Russell’s “On Denoting“)
I think the fundamental problem with the identity of digital objects isn’t our lack of standards or a lack of willingness to define them: it is intrinsic to the problem of naming and reference. My view (I expect Brian Smith might agree) is that it is futile to seek identity in objects. Names change, references change, objects change and what constitutes an “immutable”, identifiable object depend on the context and on the point of view. To that degree, I subscribe to David Weinberger’s thesis in Everything is Miscellaneous. A file on a file-system can be an atomic element – from the user’s point of view – or, from the operating system’s point of view, it could be the i-node. The atom of identity could be the physical book in a bricks and mortar library or it could be “the work” – that which is protected by intellectual property rights, for example.
So I go back to Peter Turney’s early blog post on Attributes and Relations in which he argues that relations are primary and attributes are secondary. Perhaps what is important for managing / searching / finding digital objects isn’t so much a way of providing definite descriptors or names for objects, but some flexible way of expressing relations between them (versions / variants / semantic relations with other objects.)
It might be right to provide a unique identifier (e.g. a DOI) to an on-line article today, but it could be that a few years from now, the appropriate unit of reference is the paragraph or the sentence. Who remembers the speech in which JFK said “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country” – it is the sentence that persists.