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Holt Paperbacks

Everything is Miscellaneous


The digital world thereby allows us to transcend the most fundamental rule of ordering the real world: Instead of everything having its place, it’s better if things can get assigned multiple places simultaneously.


Dewey acknowledged a debt to Sir Francis Bacon, who in 1623 had divided knowledge into three parts — history, poesy and philosophy — which, according to Bacon, reflected the three capabilities of the mind: memory, imagination, and reason.


As Dewey wrote at this time “My heart is open to anything that’s either decimal or about libraries.”

He wrote a school essay on the metric system when he was sixteen. When he was twenty-five he founded the American Metric Bureau to lobby for the adoption of the metric system within the United States. He even arranged his travel so that he would arrive on the tenth, twentieth, or thirtieth day of the month… rationalism crossing over into superstition.


The Dewey Decimal Classification system can’t be fixed because knowledge itself is unfixed. Knowledge is diverse, changing, imbued with the cultural values of the moment. The world is too diverse for any single classification system to work for everyone in every culture at every time.


The tree of knowledge, the tree of species, the breakdown of the human body into major biological subsystems, the division of the earth into continents and countries — all are ways of understanding, not ways of looking up information.


All along, though, our knowledge of the world has assumed the shape of a tree because that knowledge has been shackled to the physical. Now that the digitizing of information is allowing us to go beyond the physical in ways Aristotle could not have dreamed, the shape of knowledge is changing.


He (S.R. Ranganathan) proposed five basic areas of categorization, or facets: personality, matter, energy, space and time.
Intuition introduces vagueness into his system; according to his son, “Even Ranganathan was apparently not very clear about what the ‘Personality’ facet really stood for.”


Faceted classification can be used either way because it captures something important about the organization of the real world that organizational trees do not: Reality is multifaceted. There are lots of ways to slice it. How we choose to slice it up depends on why we’re slicing it up.


When you publish knowledge in books, you put those ideas into a treelike structure of volumes, books, chapters, sections, paragraphs, and sentences. Imlicitly, paper shapes knowledge into trees.


Lumping and splitting physical objects requires us to make binary decisions about where things go. Ideas, information, and knowledge shouldn’t have to suffer from that limitation.


In the third order of order, knowledge doesn’t have a shape. There are just too many usefull, powerful, and beautiful ways to make sense of the world.


Classifications make strange bedfellows.


Over the course of the millennia, we’ve developed sophisticated methods and processes for developing, communicating, and preserving knowledge. We have major institutions — serious contributors to our culture and our economy — devoted to those tasks. We’re good at it. Now we have to invent new ways appropriate to the new shape of knowledge. We are doing so at a pace unparalleled in our history.


Hanging a leaf on multiple branches makes it more findable by customers. Unlike in the second order, this doesn’t make your e-store disorganized or messy. It makes it more usable… and more profitable.


In the miscellaneous order, the only distinction between metadata and data is that metadata is what you already know and data is what you’re trying to find out.


The power of the miscellaneous comes directly from the fact that in the third order, everything is connected and therefore everything is metadata.


In the second order, the bar code gets stamped well after the manufacturer has decided what constitutes a product and how it’ll be packaged. In the third order, stamping an ID on a leaf often is what turns it into a leaf in the first place.


“An article is neutral when people have stopped changing it.” This is a brilliant operational definition of neutrality, one that makes it a function of social interaction, not a quality of writing to be judged from on high.


It would seem that Wikipedia does everything in it’s power to avoid being an authority, yet that seems only to increase its authority — a paradox that indicates an important change in the nature of authority itself.


Now we can see for ourselves that knowledge isn’t in our heads: It is between us.


Orderliness is the way things are supposed to be. It is the Eleventh Commandment, the one that caused the other ten to arrange themselves in neat lines on two symmetric halves of the tablet.


Rosch realized that concepts can be clear without having clear definitions if they’re organized around undisputed examples, or prototypes, as she calls them. That’s as radical a thought within cognitive psychology as Wittgenstein’s family-resemblance theory within philosophy.


Rosch hypothesized that since “the task of the categorization systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort,” basic-level objects (chair, car) should have “as many properties as possible predictable from knowing any one property.”


Show us a clear-cut example — a prototype — of a cup or a bowl and we feel no ambiguity at all. Likewise, in our culture we agree that robin is a good example of a bird, but an ostrich, flamingo or penguin is not. A kitchen chair is a good example of a chair, but a beanbag is a terrible example of one. A car or a truck is a good example of a vehicle, but a skateboard is not, and skates aren’t vehicles at all, although it’s hard to explain why not. The prototypes — the good examples — do the job of organizing our world that Aristotle thought required essences and definitions.


Test on four hundred students in introductory psychology classes proved Rosch’s point. She found that the students were able to list more features for basic-level words than for superordinates; knowing that something is a bicycle brings more associated knowkedge with it than knowing that something is a vehicle.


The definitional view draws sharp lines. The prototype view works because things can be sort of, kind of in a category, the way a skateboard is sort of vehicle. Prototype theory relies on our implicit understanding and does not assume that we can even make that understanding explicit.

This means that a business that forces its products — or its employees — into a predefined set of categories is performing an unnatural act.


We inevitably make sense of what we experience. But the shape of sense is changing.


A topic is not a domain with edges. It is how passion focuses itself.