Miscellany

If you want something to think about, listen to David Weinman’s 1-hour presentation on how we classify things, a sort of engaging A/V subset of his book Everything Is Miscellaneous (2006).

Basically, the idea is that the organisation of the physical world* (its taxonomy – how something is either a fruit or a meat, it’s either red or blue, etc.) isn’t sufficient to organise the world of ideas — and the online world liberates us in some ways from having to organise ideas in an either/or way. Think metadata, like tags, hyperlinks, mashups.

He covers a lot of overlapping ideas and themes, so I really recommend listening to the presentation if this kind of thing appeals to you.

Just a few excerpts that got my attention, and my responses to them; each green box is a different(ish) idea:

“It used to be that the people who owned the stuff also owned the organisation of it.  Now, we do. We own the organisation of it. And so obviously one of the most fertile fields around is developing the tools by which we the user get to organise other people’s stuff.”

In other words, we get to make our own taxonomy trees, based on what interests us. His example is a university library using a feceted system, where the user can search for books based on century published, then country of birth of author, then gender of author; or the user can browse first by gender, then by language, and so on.

“We’re changing the basic idea which used to be, you want to exclude all of the crap, because who has time, and so we have experts who filter and show us what we need to see and they organise it into categories for us, which is takes experts to do. … Now the best strategy in most instances is include everything. It costs more to delete stuff than it does to save it, which you know from looking in your digial camera folders. … You don’t even know what’s in there. In order to go through and delete that, you gotta look at the pictures and make decisions., It’s just easier to preserve than delete. So capture everything.”

I feel caught between worlds. I love tags and being able to place ideas in multiple categories at once. I hate trying to categorise my print photos in binary categories because of the millions of stupid questions I have to answer for most of the photos: Are photos of our dog “Family” or “Animals,” or should I make a new category called “Dogs”? What if the photo is of the dog with the Christmas tree? Does it go in “Xmas” or “Dog”? Do photos of my garden go in “Gardens” or “House”? and so on. My photos are still languishing in cardboard boxes, uncategorised, though I spent about a month last winter working on their taxonomy.)

BUT, having all these photos on my hard drive, taking up space (even if it’s space I don’t need), leaves me feeling irrationally anxious.  Likewise, almost all my bookmarks are in categories, with only a few “miscellaneous” ones, and not having them in categories makes me nervous. Yet I like del.icio.us mainly because a bookmark can belong to not just one category but many categories. (My anxiety surfaces there when I start to generate tag synonyms and realise they’re almost infinite.) Likewise again, gmail’s non-folder way of handling mail also makes me nervous, even though I can quickly search by someone’s name or a topic and actually find the email I’m looking for more easily than with a traditional email file system.

It all feels like so much distracting clutter — the photos on the hard drive, the multiple bookmarks in multiple categories, the ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of emails free-floating in my virtual ‘all mail’ box at gmail. Somehow, “including it all,” as Weinman suggests we do, feels the same to me as physically saving every magazine, newspaper, paper photo of any quality, news clipping, recipe, decorating idea photo, etc., that I’ve ever come across and thought “Oh, that’s interesting! I might want that some time”  — it feels the same as saving all those things in big piles throughout my house. I know it’s not quite the same — for one thing, online tools like tags provide enhanced search capability that’s absent when one is keeping 8-foot piles of paper in the house — but to me, it feels roughly the same in terms of mental and perhaps emotional clutter.

Weinman talks a lot throughout the presentation about authority and expertise.  A little after the 43-minute mark, he says: “Bugs get driven out of ideas through discussion, through the public negotiation of conversation — that’s where knowledge is.”

Mailing lists are the example he gives: “It’s very clear that the mailing list itself knows more than any of the experts on it do. …  One of the consequences of this is that we end up having to let infallibility into our notion of knowledge, which has been driven out until now, well, pretty much.”  He cites Wikipedia here, as a source that he says “becomes more credible because they’re willing to admit their lack of credibility, their lack of authority. It’s not trying to convince us that it’s the world’s greatest authority; it’s trying to help us know. And the fallibility metadata [Wikipedia’s many notices about how an article may have gone wrong — not neutral, contains weasel words, reads like an ad, etc.] is crucial to that. The question is why you will never see this here” — as he points to the front page of the New York Times. “And it’s because these sources have a vested interest in appearing authoratative.”

The reason I pulled this out is because I think it has resonance not only in media but in every sphere of life (religion comes to mind) and in every moment of life (stupid arguments with my spouse come to mind) where the individual or corporate ego has a vested interest in appearing expert, in being right, or even in appearing infallible. It reminds me of the Buddhist notion I am trying very fallibly to live: “Nothing to defend.” (I find that keeping in touch with my curious nature helps me to relax those defenses.)

Sidenote: In the Q&A, someone references Jorge Luis Borges’ Classification of Animals, which is hilarious.

* Looking to organise your immediate physical world?

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