Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What's in a Word?

Google's latest European legal battle, as reported this morning on the BBC NEWS Web site, deserves some consideration:

Lawyers for Google are to appear in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in a row over its use of trademarks.

LVMH, the company behind Louis Vuitton luggage and other brands, has accused Google of selling search words such as "vuitton" to the highest bidder.

Web users searching for its products will see adverts for rivals or firms selling counterfeit goods, LVMH argues.

Without getting into the question of whether Internet search can/should/must draw upon "semantic" support, it strikes me that there is a fair amount of naïveté out there over just what keywords are and what they do (or fail to do). While I would not presume to instruct anyone at Google on the virtues of reading Ludwig Wittgenstein, I figure I can be so presumptuous on my own blog; and I would say that Wittgenstein's "Blue Book" is about as good a source as any to get a sense of what is really going on beneath the surface of keyword search.

For those new to this source, the very first sentence of "The Blue Book" is:

What is the meaning of a word?

This question immediately spawns a host of other questions; but the ones Wittgenstein pursues have to do with the "meaning" part of the question. When the lectures that provided the source material for this "book" were first given, The Meaning of Meaning, by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards had been in print for about a decade; but neither they nor their book surface in the lectures, since, as Ray Monk noted in his Wittgenstein biography, Wittgenstein dismissed the book "as an irrelevance." On the basis of those lectures, there is an initial danger that he would also dismiss any questions about the nature of "word" as irrelevant; but he has no trouble regarding words as a special case of the symbolic constructs of Gottlob Frege's Begriffsschrift (the "concept notation" that is one of the pioneering works of mathematical logic). Here is how Wittgenstein invoked Frege:

Frege ridiculed the formalist conception of mathematics by saying that the formalists confused the unimportant thing, the sign, with the important, the meaning. Surely, one wishes to say, mathematics does not treat of dashes on a bit of paper. Frege's idea could be expressed thus: the propositions of mathematics, if they were just complexes of dashes, would be dead and utterly uninteresting, whereas they obviously have a kind of life. And the same, of course, could be said of any proposition: Without a sense, or without the thought, a proposition would be an utterly dead and trivial thing. And further it seems clear that no adding of inorganic signs can make the proposition live. And the conclusion which one draws from this is that what must be added to the dead signs in order to make a live proposition is something immaterial, with properties different from all mere signs.

This builds up to the punch line of the one sentence for which I shall remember Wittgenstein above all other sentences documented in his name:

But if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use.

There we have the crux of Google's legal woes in Europe. In the vast complex of the software machinery that has made Google what it is, the sign (to use Wittgenstein's terminology, rather than the BBC's "search words" phrase) "vuitton" (uncapitalized to emphasize how it is processed by that software machinery) is "an utterly dead and trivial thing." In other words it is an object with no inherent meaning (whether you follow the work of Ogden and Richards or the rejection of that work by Wittgenstein). However, if "vuitton" has no meaning; Google has endowed it with value, because anyone can bid in an auction for the right to have it associated with a Web-based advertisement.

LVMH, on the other hand, has taken this sign and brought it to life by endowing it with a very specific (and, it goes without saying, very commercial) use (applying the same emphasis that Rush Rhees invoked in his transcription of Wittgenstein's lecture). From this point of view, the legal case is not over whether Google has violated a trademark, no matter how strong a case Google makes that it respects such trademarks. The case is over whether or not Google can run their business by processing "dead signs" when those signs are "alive" to just about anyone who types anything into a Google search window.

I should go on record in declaring that I knowingly use at least one "dead sign" in my Google searches. There are many Web pages out there with my own content where I am identified at "StephenWS." As a matter of fact, this is now my "Display Name" for my new "presence" on the Telegraph Web site. If I am looking for my own stuff, I often include this "dead sign" to filter my search results.

From this point of view, it will be very interesting to see how the ECJ rules. A ruling that basically denies Google the right to traffic in "dead signs" (almost in Nikolai Gogol's sense of that phrase) could disrupt their entire business plan (at least in Europe but probably anywhere else as well). Furthermore, it is unlikely that any advances in Semantic Web technology are likely to rescue that business plan; since, as my recent review of the work of Arthur F. Bentley demonstrated, Semantic Web technology involves nothing more than "adding of inorganic signs." Now I am not suggesting that it is time to don sackcloth and wander the parking lot of the Googleplex with a sign reading:

The End of Google is Near

However, I seem to have taken an interest in countering the "Ten things Google has found to be true" with my own list of things Google seems to have overlooked, particularly the ones that may have significant consequences. Perhaps someone should be instructing them on the virtues of reading Ludwig Wittgenstein!

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