The Longest Now


Shirky ontologized
Thursday February 28th 2008, 5:12 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I revisited Clay Shirky‘s oft-cited “ontology is overrated” today, noting again with pleasure that the essay is insightful enough to be wrong in a many places. The essay hasn’t grown on me, however, and the conversations about organizing knowledge do not seem to have advanced (even as collectives of editors have grown in practice). Most discussions on the subject are incidental and disorganized — more reminiscent of the ancient debates about whether the world is composed of four or five elements than of any serious effort to choose axioms and assess their logical conclusions.

So my pleasure with Shirky’s writing was immediately followed by a pang of fear that I don’t know anyone insightful enough to be right and prolific enough to write about it openly for the benefit of all.

I am not a fearful person, but I have the sense that we don’t have a great deal of time to sort and share our bounty of knowledge before our window of costless global collaboration is interrupted by something mundane and unavoidable.

One of these days I hope to see active discussions of the origins of ‘expertise’ and skill, and schools of knowledge-organization that offer apprenticeships to teach their subtleties to all comers.

Since people still link to the old essay, and it hasn’t been updated, I’ll list a few of its imprecise statements without commentary in lieu of writing a surrogate.

A library catalog, for example, assumes that for any new book, its logical place already exists within the system,

the periodic table is as close to making assertions about essence as it is physically possible to get.

Now noble gas is an odd category… Lacking the right measurements, they assumed that gaseousness was an essential aspect — literally, part of the essence — of those elements. [implication: it was not]

And this in turn means that a book has to be declared to be about some main thing. [implication: that this is only true for physical books]

Yahoo is saying “We understand better than you how the world is organized, because we are trained professionals.”

When people were offered search and categorization side-by-side, fewer and fewer people were using categorization to find things.

the URL gives us a way to create a globally unique ID for anything we need to point to.

With a multiplicity of points of view the question isn’t “Is everyone tagging any given link ‘correctly'”, but rather “Is anyone tagging it the way I do?”

Does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world?

We’re early in the use of tags, so we don’t yet have large, long-lived data sets to look at,

You need a card catalog if you are managing a physical library. You need a hierarchy to manage a file system.


2 Comments so far
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“And this in turn means that a book has to be declared to be about some main thing.”

Comment by phoebe 02.29.08 @ 1:41 pm

my comment, it got eaten.
I was going to say, re the statement above, historical library cataloging (last 100 years or so) has only dealt with physical books (not articles, objects etc) so this statement makes some sense in context.

There are many current explorations of notions of ‘aboutness’ and how to convey that. Notions of ‘authority’, and how to convey a level of expertise in metadata (sometimes expressed as ‘trustworthiness’) I think will be one of the next big challenges. There are some extremely difficult and interesting problems here.

Comment by phoebe 02.29.08 @ 1:44 pm



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