Truth and classification

Libraries are no fun

Like Antony, I’m waiting for Royal Mail (or rather Amazon) to deliver my copy of Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger. From reading around the book, it seems it will be a fascinating look at the role for taxonomy in the new world order of infinite capacity.

The traditional taxonomies of mass storage systems (that’s a euphemism for the fusty libraries of my youth) were necessary to make it possible to find stuff. Because physical items (books) must have a physical location, we need some way to map and understand that, hence we need some sort of filing systems, and we end up with taxonomies that put everything in its precise place: Non fiction > Travel > Humour > B > Bill Bryson > Neither here nor there. But we all know the limitations of that approach. What do we do when Bryson writes a book on copy editing, or the English language, or an autobiography about growing up in small town America (all of these things have happened). Now it looks more like a useful taxonomy is Authors > American > Slightly overweight > and funny > Bill Bryson.

And, of course, we get into the bizzare circumstance where the tail starts wagging the dog and it becomes a skill to navigate the taxonomies. It becomes  something you learn in school, even though it is not a natural way of thinking. The brain is much more able to build rich adaptive non-hierachical maps of how things fit together (the packed cupboards of the Advertised mind).

In this interview, Weinberger points to the underlying belief (which he describes as Aristotlean) that there is a perfect classification of things. Of course Aristotle was never faced with some of the quandaries we have today like the Jaffa Cake problem (is it a biscuit or cake). And indeed many brand marketers are now employed specifically in order to challenge and break taxonomies.

But the bigger problem is an even older debate, and it is the most fundamental taxonomy decision: true or false. I might be able to say something is green and yellow. I might be able to describe something as old-fashioned and trendy at the same time. I can describe something as  a tool, an advert, and an event at the same time. But can I describe something as true and false simultaneously?

The question becomes more obtuse when we look at socially owned knowledge like Wikipedia. Can a post in Jimmy Wales’ encyclopedia ever be truly correct?

Again, we can thank the ancients here. And this time it’s Plato, and in particular some interpretations of Plato which place knowledge as an unchangeable mirror of underlying forms and essences. This has led many to expect certainty in knowledge which in our day-to-day experience is simply not there. If all our knowledge had to stand up to that level of inspection, we’d never get out of bed.

How many of our views could not be reversed without damaging our overall framework? What if – for example – it turned out that the world wasn’t round. I don’t mean flat, or polo shaped but, lets say it’s actually shaped like an egg. I’d carry on my life with little disturbance. So which of our truths aren’t like that. Could George Bush be a quiet genius with a dastardly plan to fool the world? Perhaps that’s taking things a little too far.

I was lucky enough to study under Michael Welbourne many years ago (and millions of brain cells ago) at Bristol University. One of his central beliefs and areas of study was about the role of testimony (telling) in knowledge transfer. In fact, having been told something by a source we trust is the source of much of what we regard as knowledge. So what has changed recently isn’t perhaps the nature of knowledge but the nature of testimony. Historically we may have had to have been told something directly to believe it (and incorporate it into our ‘knowledge’). Now we can co-opt whole knowledge frameworks, and whole authority frameworks straight off the web.

3 thoughts on “Truth and classification”

  1. A fantastic post, lightly articulating and expanding on things I have been thinking about in a much woollier kind of way.

    You ask, “How many of our views could not be reversed without damaging our overall framework?” and go on to give two ‘hard’ examples.

    This made me wonder whether the majority of views and ‘truths’ and received wisdom about the world around us could be reversed without too much trauma – (like the examples you give).

    Whereas perhaps one cannot as easily reverse the majority of the things one takes as truths about oneself – identity, social categorisation, purpose in life, the importance of work, whether one’s actions are ‘worthwhile’, ‘good’, or ‘intelligent’ etc. – all built from a lifetime of very selectively received testimony and assumed as hard fact.

  2. Tom – that’s an amazing post: all goes to reinforce the sense of real, undeniable, irreversible revolution that the web represents. Going to sit down now – you’ve got me head spinning. 🙂

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