OK magazine cover
The original title of this post was going to be “classification satisfaction”. It’s a follow up to a post about taxonomies and truth which was written on the back of this interview David Weinberger did. That original post generated a great discussion about essential properties which took the whole thing to a different and more significant level (slightly above my head), and one which really got me thinking.

(Now I’ve got a bit of an admission to make. David’s book arrived at my office practically the next day but I’ve still not managed to read it as it got veritably whisked away by a colleague who spotted it on my desk. So the following may be a footnote in Chapter 59 of “Everything is miscellaneous“. If so, please accept my apologies).

The thing which has had me thinking is the obvious satisfaction which clasifying or filing something has. Watch someone as they struggle with a new concept and as soon as it’s become an extention of their overall framework of understanding a visible relaxation can be seen. This is actually how we’re brought up. Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?

But it’s not limited to childhood. Do you remember the slightly odd feeling you got when someone explained Live 8 to you? The oddest thing, for me at least, was that Live 8 was not an example of something which had been done before. Live Aid may have been unprecedented in its scale, ambition etc. But it was fileable – classifiable. It was an example of fundraising – albeit with music and entertainment at the core. But Live 8? That was an exercise in hand waving and immediate mass participation. It was Athenian democracy reinvented, it was…, it was… something no one had done before.

Another example? When’s the first time you saw Twitter? I bet you thought – like me – ‘this is just nonsense, who’d want to do that?’. When was the first time you heard it classified as ‘micro blogging’, didn’t that make you think ‘I get it now’?

When we classify ‘X as Y’, or more often ‘X as a type of Y’ (a subset or superset of Y) we’re actually doing something pretty impressive, we’re saying that the properties of X now apply to Y – even though those properties remain fluid. Or more often, the mental models of X now apply to Y. That is why it is satisfying. That is why we like doing it. And that – I think – is how we’ve managed to leap to the idea of exclusive taxonomies (not animal and/or vegetable and/or mineral). Is this how our brains actially work? No they seem to be able to clasify without exclusion very well.

And here’s another one. “OK” is one of the most used words in the English language. Yet it’s not even a word, it’s an acronym without an abbreviation. A phrase which we all use everyday, but for which no one understands the etymology. Well dictionary scholars will debate that until they’re blue in the face, but isn’t it interesting that this most primevil of noises, is the one we make when we understand a classifcation or place one thing within an existing framework or model.

OK may mean ‘average or satisfactory’ but it also means ‘I undertand, I have mentally filed the information you have given me’. OK?