The Copenhagen Interpretation

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The IIiX conference series (the latest installment of which took place recently at Rutgers University) arose from IRiX (Information Retrieval In conteXt) workshops (2004, 2005) held in conjunction with SIGIR 2004 and 2005. The workshops were organized by what I think of as the Scandinavian contingent of the IR community — the likes of Peter Ingwersen, Kalervo Järvelin, Pia Borlund, Birger Larsen and others — who collectively represented a more user-centered (as opposed to system-centered) approach to studying information retrieval. Yes, others were involved, but it still seems that the Scandinavians somehow inspired and led the movement. Given the success of the workshops, they organized the IIiX conference series to create a more formal venue for these topics.

One of the highlights of the 2010 conference was a debate between the system camp and the user camp about the value of simulating users. (See Saturday August 21 in the program.) This was a reprise of the theme of a workshop held at this year’s SIGIR conference, this time on the other side’s turf.

Leif Azzopardi, simulator

Ian Ruthven, denier

I cannot possibly do justice to the rhetorical prowess that was displayed in this debate, and I am not going to take sides, either. In truth, both sides made good points and silly points, and the audience’s vote toward the user-centered approach more likely revealed their a priori biases rather than the cogency of arguments from either side.

On the other hand, one point that the anti-simulation side made abundantly clear was the unpredictable variability of people’s behaviors when engaged in information seeking. This variability led me to associate their perspective with that of Niels Bohr, who argued for lack of determinism in the physics of subatomic particles. That contentious (at the time) position became known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. While the analogy isn’t perfect, I tend to think of the IIiX crowd as representing the Copenhagen Interpretation of Information Retrieval.

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