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.