David Kalat: Nervous System: The Context of Keywords

Extract from David Kalat’s article “Nervous System: The Context of Keywords”

In November 1958, data scientists and engineers convened at an international conference to share their latest discoveries and inventions. One inventor stood out. While other computer scientists of the day prized their ability to create machines that could sift and sort numbers, Hans Peter Luhn created a machine with the seemingly magical ability to process human language. His machines efficiently sifted and sorted words.

Luhn’s Key Words In Context indexed not only individual words but also their surrounding words. This made it possible to not only find a given term, but to find it in a given context. Because Luhn’s inventions have become commonplace features of modern eDiscovery, to understand their revolutionary nature requires mentally stepping back into the mindset of attendees at that conference some sixty-five years ago.

The central concern of information science is the optimal organization of information to best facilitate its use. Historically, this meant finding the ideal organization of physical documents on shared premises, on the assumption that a user interested in a certain publication likely would be interested in something similar. The advent of the age of the computer and electronic storage of documents turned this concept on its head.

Luhn and his contemporaries were grappling with what it meant when electronic storage could allow for the aggregation of massive collections of data, for which the most important approach to organization was concerned less with specific physical location of any document than with its informational content. As it happened, however, this was the very question that most animated Luhn.

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