Weinberger is a demi-god

An occasional fantasy of mine for the past few years has been that one day I’ll write a ‘history of the index’ as a coffee table book. It’d probably be unreadable, given that one end would have to be Aristotle, and the other end would have to be some kind of bleeding-edge computer science.

So I’m really, really excited that David Weinberger looks set to do it instead. If you can survive the rough transcript, this talk, from the ‘webcred’ conference in Boston last night, is fascinating, although a lot of it is a rehash of a wonderful speech he gave to the Library of Congress in November.

Basically, David (an internet pundit/blogger with an academic philosophy background) thinks that we make too much use of systems of hierarchical classification (X is a kind of Y, and Y is a subclass of Z, ad infinitum), which he traces back to Aristotle. That can be useful because of the constraints of the physical world: you can only put a book on one shelf in a library. But it isn’t ideal: a non-expert won’t know whether to look for dolphins under ‘mammals’ or ‘aquatic animals’.

You can try to work around those constrains (in a library, for example, by building card catalogues with lots of cross-referencing). But it’s expensive and time-consuming, and won’t work well unless you have an army of expert librarians who also understand the subject matter and the minds of their readers. And that won’t happen often.

The buzzword of the week is ‘folksonomies’: ‘folk taxonomies’, created when people tag information with keywords on sites like del.icio.us or flickr. The general trend- that things can be catalogued multiple times by an assortment of non-expert users, with their descriptions being automatically combined – is a lot wider than the few sites that are self-consciously plugging themselves as folksonomies. And it is one way out of the problems of standard subject classifications.

Which is all incredibly exciting. But, as always, the bubble is getting out of control, and not many people seem to realise they’re reinventing the wheel. Or at least, that they’re putting into practice a lot of what academics have been fantasising about for decades (centuries?). When I’ve mentioned these things to a couple of (continental) philosopher types, they’ve excitedly pushed me at Deleuze, and Foucault, and ideas of classification as violence. And there are plenty more academics, in all kinds of disciplines, thinking along parallel lines. Which is all very well, as long as you don’t have to read all their books yourself.

And you won’t, if Weinberger gets his book deal. Because he’s got one foot in the academic camp, and the other in the techy/blogger camp, and if he gets his book deal he should be able to knock some heads together, and help us think about libraries and the internet together. Which is awesome.

The antidote to seriousness

And to make up for that last post, here’s a meme:

Scan my interest list and pick out the one that seems the most odd to you.

I’ll explain it.

Then you post this in your journal so other people can ask you about your interests

A word we all need


, v. To move a tall, flat bottomed object (such as a bookshelf) by swiveling it alternatively on its corners in a “walking” fashion.

I damaged the linoleum while aku-akuing the cabinet across the kitchen.

Now isn’t that the most useful word ever? It’s joining my list of favourites, along with ‘boustrophedonically’ (writing alternately left to right and right to left, ‘like an ox turning’), ‘apophenia (‘the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena’), and pretty much the entire contents of The Meaning of Liff.

I also have a soft spot for ‘incunabula’ (early printed books, generally those produced before 1500), for entirely the wrong reasons. When I first came across it, I thought it was pronounced ‘In-Kuna-Bula’, and in my mind it sounded as if it should be a kind of war-chant. So then I start imagining thousands of bespectacled librarians on a ridge, facing off against the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift…


I’m falling in love with the idea of Books we Like. If you see my list of recommendations growing too fast over the next few days, please tell me to get back to work. Found out about it from danah’s blog, which is excellent, and something you should all be reading. Especially if you’re interested in technology and social capital (*ahem*).

Some less wonderful things about it behind the cut. Not really worth reading, I just wanted somewhere to dump it all.

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