James Governor's Monkchips

Read Joho on Taxonomy: The Scales Will Fall From Your Eyes. Beyond Shirky

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Joho the Blog has been on my aggregator for a long time but for some reason i never read him properly before. Today, in the context of a post, ostensibly about some ancienne collecteur called Linnaeus, David Weinberger just opened my eyes very wide.Glad i kept subscribing. Tim – why do tags matter? Because they advance the state of the art.

This moment, as close as I’ll ever get to seeing Linnaeus at work, makes clear how the requirements of the physical world silently persuade us to shape our understanding: Linnaeus’ classification resulted from the nature of paper. Because you only have one card for each species, your order will give each species one and only one place. You will organize them by putting cards near cards like them, naturally producing an ordered series or a set of clusters. As you lay out your cards, like next to like, you are drawing a map of knowledge. That’s why Systema Naturae is oversized: a map makes the most sense when you can see it all at once.

This is such a brilliant example of showing rather than telling that i had to flag it. Clay Shirky is super smart and a touchstone on the subject of tagging and its value, but this Joho post is canonical for me.

Formal taxonomy in this view is a function of scarcity: not of the resources being classified, but of the resources to classify them. What is tagsonomy? A natural consequence of the Long Tail of classification, where resources are no longer scarce.

The notion only one classification or taxonomy is relevant is like saying there should only ever be one dictionary. I say Oxford, you say American Heritage, but let’s read Webster’s too.

Thanks David – I love Encyclopaedias and dictionaries, but we need to understand limitations.

Constraints lead to great design. But that great design shouldn’t be an end point, rather a beginning. I know Ontology is Overrated but now I better understand where it came from.


One comment

  1. For a good read on how humans tend to classify things in practice (as opposed to the classical methods of classification), you’d enjoy “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things” by George Lakoff. On the topic of classification, Grady Booch also recommends “The Order of Things” by Barbara Kipfer and “Pattern Classification (2nd Edition)” by Duda, et. al.

    PS – Is there any way embed hyperlinks in comments? I’d very much like to link to the Amazon entries for the books above and the blog post where Grady mentioned the latter books, but your blog software strips the “a href” hyperlinks.

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