An End to Hierarchy

Ted Leath, The Intranet Ė the Future, March 1999

The Pocket Oxford Dictionary defines hierarchy as: System in which grades of status or authority rank one above another. The English word "hierarchy" seems to have been with us from about the 14th century, and was originally closely associated with angelic and religious administration (from Greek hieros meaning sacred and arkho meaning rule).

In titling this proposal "An End to Hierarchy", it is not proposed that hierarchy itself is inappropriate as an organisational or administrative system. What is being proposed is the following:

  1. Because of the scale of effort required, there is often not enough manpower available to adequately organise and maintain people, objects and information in a hierarchical structure with absolute currency.
  2. Hierarchy does not mirror the type of organisation that is used by the human brain. As far as can be determined, the human brain uses a nodal, associative system to organise information.
  3. Artificial intelligence and intelligent agents may provide an automated approach to large organisational and administrative tasks that provide currency.
  4. A variety of organisational views may be provided to meet differing requirements.
Vannevar Bush is often called the father of hypertext. He had been science advisor to US President Roosevelt. At the end of the last World War he wrote an article entitled "As We May Think" which was first published in The Atlantic Monthly, 1945. Portions from that article are reproduced below: "Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month's efforts could be produced on call. Mendel's concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential."

"The real heart of the matter of selection, however, goes deeper than a lag in the adoption of mechanisms by libraries, or a lack of development of devices for their use. Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than by indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage."

Service Proposal

Most contemporary Intranet search engines index only one server (for an example, see http://www.ulst.ac.uk ) using one protocol. Less frequently, some will index multiple servers using several protocols (for an example, see http://index.infm.ulst.ac.uk/compass). In each of these cases, much of an organisationís information is not indexed Ė that which resides within userís local and network storage.

A network of intelligent agents, or robots, could be established which constantly index userís local storage, userís network storage, workgroups, web servers, ftp servers, name servers, stored e-mail, local Usenet News group archives and directory servers. Simple and appropriate rules for permissions and exclusion could be set by each nodal agent/robot.


Ted Leath - last modified February 11th, 1999