Destroy the hierarchy!

Hello. I’ve been interested recently in the ways that hierarchy and power are transmitted through the control of information and how new structures of information on the Internet are challenging that hierarchy.

This is obviously not a new thought, but I think it’s applicable certain kinds of thinking that are going on right now concerning the web and the ways that information can be made available in democratic ways divorced from social hierarchies.

Clay Shirky recently wrote a great piece about ontology and the ways that knowledge is classified. He write about a lot of stuff, and you should probably go and read what he has to say, but one thing I found interesting was his celebration of the messiness of the web — the way that information exists all over the place and there are no editors to actually pull it all together except for the users of the web themselves:

What I think is coming instead are much more organic ways of organizing information than our current categorization schemes allow, based on two units — the link, which can point to anything, and the tag, which is a way of attaching labels to links. The strategy of tagging — free-form labeling, without regard to categorical constraints — seems like a recipe for disaster, but as the Web has shown us, you can extract a surprising amount of value from big messy data sets.

What he’s talking about — and he uses the word “organic,” which is one of my favorite adjectives — is the change that is taking place regarding how information is classified and who is doing the classifying. Rather than “experts” at the Library of Congress classifying information based on the books in which it can be found, which is an act of hierarchizing, the users of the web simply tag the urls they find interesting, and other users can react to or ignore those tags. So rather than a top-down taxonomy, you have leveled-off classification system in which a limited number of categories are created and urls are then stuffed into where they might fit, but in which thousands of tags are applied to urls that more accurately and messily describe the information.

I like the example of Wikipedia. I’ve been talking with students lately about using it, and they tell me that their teachers tell them to avoid it. I think that’s nonsense. You should never quote from it, I tell them, but use it as a starting-off point. I think people are critical of Wikipedia because they’re used to more “authoritative” sources of information, but what exactly does that mean? I found old copies of Encyclopedia Britannica from the 1950s on the street recently, and I was amazed to read descriptions of those delightful and simple Africans that employed the most racist imagery possible. The only people who can change those books are the editors who are working for large publishers. With Wikipedia, we can change that sort of thing in an instant if we come across it. Information is democratized; the hierarchy comes down.

The same thing happens with tagging. Shirky gives another startling example:

Here’s the Library of Congress’ categorization of History. These are all the top-level categories — all of these things are presented as being co-equal.

D: History (general)DA: Great Britain
DB: Austria
DC: France
DD: Germany
DE: Mediterranean
DF: Greece
DG: Italy
DH: Low Countries
DJ: Netherlands

DK: Former Soviet Union
DL: Scandinavia
DP: Iberian Peninsula
DQ: Switzerland
DR: Balkan Peninsula
DS: Asia
DT: Africa
DU: Oceania
DX: Gypsies

I’d like to call your attention to the ones in bold: The BalkanPeninsula. Asia. Africa.

In this classification scheme, the Balkan Peninsula is equate with Asia and Africa. This surely reflect Eurocentric attitudes and ignorance, but because this comes from the Library of Congress, it is assumed to have a certain level of authority.

But on the decentralized web, there is no authority. When we tag a url, the extreme subjectivity of the act rids classification of this hierarchy and instead a democratic system of social classification emerges.

Anyway, read the article. Shirky talks about a lot more than that.

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