Taxonomy in a Digital World

Amazon delivered me a copy of David Weinberger's Everything Is Miscellaneous at the weekend. 

I love the dedication in the front of the book "To the Librarians" which I sense is written with some irony.  To his credit Weinberger manages to make a book about metadata and taxonomy interesting.  I am only getting started but already there are some nice little snippets and stories I'll be able to make use of when explaining some of the fundamental ideas in this book to customers.  Here are my notes so far.

Prologue - Information In Space

Introduces the concept discussed in the book - that organizing information in the digital world is fundamentally different from organizing it in a physical world:

  • In physical space, some things are nearer than others.
  • Physical objects can be in only one spot at any time - so you have to figure out which is their 'primary' location.
  • Physical space is shared - so there can only be one layout even though each person has individual needs.
  • Human physical abilities constrain the way than information is presented.
  • Organization of the information needs to be orderly and neat to enable it to be found. Ie. Physical organisation needs to reflect the logical organisation.

Chapter 1 - The New Order of Order

We have been raised as experts in keeping our physical world in order, but in the digital world they are beginning to break. E.g. Organization of digital photos on family computer.

The Three orders of order:

  • 1st order is the way things are laid out in physical world
  • 2nd order is an index, catalogue card or taxonomy for classification to enable us to locate information
  • 3rd order is digital order - that removes constraints of the physical world (in 2nd order)

Chapter 2 - Alphabetization and Its Discontents

This chapter discusses the flaws of cataloguing systems and argues that cataloguing systems are frequently arbitrary. It shows examples of systems that are prevalent for historical or cultural reasons of due to constraints of the physical world.

  • Some systems don't convey any useful information (the alphabet).
  • Some systems convey information based on interpretation rather that real measurable facts (e.g what makes a planet a planet. Largely it's just a cultural term).
  • Some systems convey information based on measurable quantifiable attributes (Periodic Table). Even here however there are multiple classification systems that are appropriate for different purposes and people with different world views.

"...because of the limits of second-order media such as paper, we've had to pick some orderings over others, a limit the third order of order removes. Now we know that not everything has its place. Everything has it places..."

Taxonomy in a Digital World Part 2

Skip to main content