Oxford and the Internet
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David Weinberger at the OII

Back in July, 2004, I came across David Weinberger's post about Three Orders of Organisation, and then I read about his idea of Trees vs Leaves. You can read him on the former here and the latter here. The material behind and in these two postings formed much of the substance of David's seminar at the OII on Wednesday morning. In addition, I've come across a third posting, The end of data?, which also fed in to what he said this week in Oxford. There's a book on the way, Everything Is Miscellaneous — overview here — and there's a summary of an earlier version of yesterday's talk here. Finally, the OII has a webcast of the talk.

The seminar was a whistle stop tour of some "high" points in the development of taxonomies — Aristotle on nesting, Porphyry's tree, Dewey and library classification (David has blogged about Dewey a number of times, eg here and here): 'all of these systems assume there's a top down view of knowledge' and seek to banish ambiguity and present a clear picture of reality/knowledge. Everything in its right place …

But in the bottom-up world of social tagging an item can be in many categories simultaneously (I don't think 'tags' are the same as 'categories', but I'm running here with the general tenor of David's argument), and users are contributors both to the stock of tagged items and to their ordering. In this world, trees will never go away, but we need to stop looking for The Tree. Instead, we should build a big pile of data (leaves), attach as much metadata as possible and filter on the way out not on the way in. Users will do the filtering, and the moment of "taxonomizing" should be postponed until the users need to do it. There is now nothing that is not metadata — data is metadata — and we can no longer predict what users want. Messiness is a virtue.

David sees this bottom-up approach to tagging as a reaction to the semantic web. There is no end to the way the deck of digitalised knowledge in this world can be cut and sliced. (Wikipedia, as Jimmy Wales says, is not paper: for one thing, David said, where the Encyclopedia Britannica restricts itself to 32 printed volumes and 65,000 topics, Wikipedia has no such restrictions and is currently running at some 800,000 entires — including ones on the Deep-fried Mars Bar and, famously, the Heavy Metal Umlaut.) In the world of multi-subjectivity, knowledge is never going to be "perfect". Instead, we must think in terms of 'good enough'. We are living through a revolution, a fundamental change to the way we understand knowledge and our pursuit of it. The global conversation that is the net changes the roles of filters and, therefore, our understanding of what a filter is.

In the questions at the end of his talk, it seemed to me that in fact David is prepared to admit much more nuance and to accept that top-down taxonomies are not going to go away. And, yes, he agreed that the web is both a distributed library as well as being something that is about and for connectivity. It was put to him that the top-down, authoritarian conception of the semantic web is only one model, and that there are other models where the semantic web is bottom up. I share the view developed by him and his questioner at this point, that the net can provide for many different ways of organising knowledge. And I'm sure he's right when he says that soon we will see people making a living through devising new classificatory systems.

There's a problem of scale, too: as David put it, too many taggers can make for an unhelpful, confusing tag-soup, counterable, perhaps, through cluster-analyses intended to disambiguate (eg, Flickr's Capri clusters). But in David's view, if 'good enough' is good enough then scaling should not prove a problem.

So is "good enough" good enough? Tom Chance probed whether it's sufficient in matters more important than the examples David used (eg, beer): when it comes to deciding about nuclear power, 'good enough' is surely short of the mark. My colleague, Ian, linked this point to one about the role of institutions in this new world. They're highly unlikely to go away (!), but the morning's seminar left me in no doubt that trust, and the verification of trust, in institutions is altered by the rise of online, do-it-yourself mass publishing. Yet, as Jonathan Zittrain said in his summing up, the desire for the canonical article on a topic continues.

At the start of his talk David remarked, 'This could be the bright, shiny period of the internet, of openness'. The net gives us many reasons to be happy, but there are many forces at work which may make history of David's visionary presentation. More about this soon.