September 3, 2004

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Why Dewey's Decimal System is prejudiced: The DDC's aging value system shows the pernicious influence of reality.
In defense of small talk: The virtues of being trivial.
Cool Tool : PowerDesk beats Windows Explorer. And Mozilla Thunderbird beats Outlook. What a surprise!
What I'm playing: That damn Zuma. But Doom 3 is here.
Internetcetera: Hotels go wifi.
Links: Miscellaneous leads.
Email: Your response to last issue's proposal


It's a JOHO World After All

Halley Suitt interviews me over at IT Conversations. So if you want 50 minutes of me mumbling into a phone, that's where you should go.

I blogged the Democratic Convention for The Boston Globe. I lacked the moral and intestinal fortitude to try to get invited to the RNC.


More about classification

Yup, I seem to be thinking and writing about the principles of organization again. Don't worry, I'll have it out of my system in a year or two.



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Why Dewey's Decimal System is prejudiced

There seems to be a disturbing message hidden in the Dewey Decimal Classification system, the organizational scheme first published in 1876 and now used in 95% of US schools: Of the hundred numbers set aside for topics concerning religion, 88 — numbers 201-287 — are reserved for Christianity. Jews and Moslems get just one each. But those single-digit religions are still doing better than Buddhists (294.3) who share a decimal point with the Sikhs (294.6) and Jains (294.4), looking up enviously at Christian "Parish government & administration" which gets its own whole number (254).

Why is the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system so embarrassingly behind the times? After all, its owners are fully modern, reasonable people, many with advanced library degrees, who report to work in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. How can they let their classification scheme get it so wrong? After all, if the US Census can finally, in 2000, acknowledge that many people don’t fit into a single racial bucket, surely the academics and intellectuals managing the nation’s standard library classification system can end its 130 years of religious bias.

It's not that easy. But it's not because Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) was a racist or that the Online Computer Center Library consists of extreme right-wing Fundamentalists. The OCLC is a dedicated bunch of professionals and Melvil Dewey himself was a progressive on social issues. For example, he hired seven women at the Columbia University library —a radical idea —and even set up a library school that admitted women.

No, the DDC is skewed toward Christianity because Dewey intended it to be universal. It has stayed skewed because the DDC is aimed at classifying real books in the real world.

Dewey was a believer in the power of reason. This is reflected in his use of numbers to arrange books and his interest in spelling simplification: He started out as Melville Dewey and for a while went by Melvil Dui. But, most of all, his rationalism is reflected in his belief that the structure of libraries ought to reflect the structure of knowledge. Your local library's geography should be a microcosm of knowledge's own geography.

What does knowledge look like? Francis Bacon said it divides into history, philosophy and literature: What's actually happened, what explains what's happened, and how we reflect on it. Dewey was influenced by William Torrey Harris who took Hegel's suggestion and put philosophy first. (Hegel believed history is how philosophy unfolds in time, or something like that.) So, after putting some miscellaneous stuff into the 000's, Dewey's system begins with Philosophy, then Religion, Social Science, Language, Natural Science and Mathematics, Applied Sciences, Arts, Literature, and finally Geography and History.

Within the categories, Wayne A. Wiegand has argued that Dewey — who created the DDC when he was in his early 20s — was strongly influenced by his undergraduate education. For example, the nine divisions of the natural science Dewey proposed mirror the nine chapters of the text book he’d used as a student. And, his apportionment of the ten categories of Religion reflects his small orthodox college's assumption that Western civilization culminates in Christianity.

In the modern world, we no longer make that assumption. Or, if we do, we know that not everyone else does. So, why hasn't the DDC been updated?

In fact, it is updated, just about every week. But a large-scale, two-digit change would presumably wreak havoc. The change would require massive amounts of physical work: scraping off existing numbers, painting in new ones, updating millions of library cards. In the interim, the library system wouldn't be a system at all. And, then you'd have all the arguments over how to re-do it. Do Scientologists deserve their own left-of-decimal spot? Where do you put Jews for Jesus? How about Wicca? It'd be an ugly can of worms to open.

This highlights two ways our taxonomies are changing now that we're shaking off the physical and moving to the electronic. First, the physical world is so hard to change that a taxonomy that's offensive in its inherent values — and all taxonomies have values baked into them — may be worth maintaining simply because no taxonomy is worse than an offensive taxonomy. Second, the most important job of the new generation of librarians is to build into information objects sufficient metadata that any organization can create its own taxonomy. Taxonomies are tools, so there's no such thing as the One Right Taxonomy, just as can-openers aren't more right than asphalt spreaders. By building in sufficient metadata — no easy task — diverse groups now and forever can build taxonomies that suit their needs.

It means giving up the dream of Universal Reason. But we woke from that dream a long time ago.

I'm just at the beginning of researching this. I haven't yet read the books or talked with the OCLC, so the above could be wrong and, more important, if you have information or ideas about this, please let me know.

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In defense of small talk

1. I made a new friend recently. We'd been reading each other's writings for a year or so and, when we met in person discovered not only that we are mutual admirers but that we actually like each other. But then we hit a little bump, nothing we won't get over: In an email exchange, I suggested that she tell a little white lie in response to a particular awkward question, on the order of getting out of a social invitation by claiming you're busy, without pointing out that you're busy ironing. She doesn't believe in lying, no matter what the color.

2. I have another friend who means a lot to me although she's very angry at me. This is quite painful. We've tried to repair the damage by having long talks about the relationship, but the talks just instantiate the differences that caused the rift. So, I've suggested that we try to rebuild by engaging in simple, civil small talk. Maybe we can talk about the new movie we both liked instead of why our personalities seem to be getting in the way of our love.

3. In 1969, I read Heidegger's Being and Time, in a course taught by Joseph Fell. Heidegger's approach broke me out of a common adolescent personal crisis that was fueled by a tradition of thought that kept digging up the ground as I was trying to put down roots. I didn't need every jot and tittle of Being and Time to be true to enable me to get me out of my hole. For example, something always struck me as wrong about B&T's idea that our "fallenness" into "idle chatter" is one of our inevitable characteristics. I agree that we can't escape it, but Heidegger is such an elitist about it. (Note: I haven't read B&T in 20 years, and I still find philosophy so dispiriting that cracking open that volume would be too much like, well, like remembering my past.)

So, I've come to be a fan of small talk and white lies. Here's why.

First, especially when you're meeting someone new, small talk is a sign of respect. Consider the alternative:

"Hi. I'm Betty. Pleased to meet you. Beautiful weather, don't you think?"

"What do you think about the recent developments in taxonomy? I have a theory about latent semantic indexing..."

Small talk lets you and your interlocutor take little steps until you find ground you share.

Second, art expresses something big in something small. (If it expresses something small in something big, you leave during the intermission.) Likewise, in small talk, we express ourselves in the details of what we talk about, the words we use, the ones we don't, how far we lean forward, how tentatively or aggressively we probe for shared ground. Because all of this is implicitly presented, it tends to give a more accurate picture of who we are and what we care about than big, explicit conversations.

Third, because small talk pokes here and there as it looks for ground, you can de-commit to it without hurting anyone's feelings. Walking out on a heavy talk about God's presence is history because you "think you heard your cat" is rude. Excusing yourself during a chit chat about whether Brittany Murphy is a Spring or a Winter is not nearly so.

Fourth, I guess I'm more of a constructivist than an archaeologist when it comes to social relationships. My aim isn't to expose my buried self to you. It's to build a conversation and then a relationship that eventually is so deep that we can't disentangle the roots. For that, we need lots and lots of ambiguity. The only people who feel like they can adequately describe us are the ones who don't know us.

And that's why I'm ok with many white lies. We can't get along with one another in the desert of sunlight. I need you not to know everything I'm doing and everything I feel. So, sorry, I'm busy that night.

I am not ok with banter, however. It's no coincidence that I stopped bantering when I left academics. I couldn't take the constant pressure to prove myself smarter or funnier than the person who just spoke, especially since I wasn't.

As for gossip: Bring it on, baby! So long as it's not about me. About you would be fine, so long as it's juicy. (Ok, and not hurtful. Why can't anything be fun any more?)

Middle World Resources

Cool Tool
For the Hyperlinked Organization

Microsoft Windows Explorer really does suck. There's no excuse for some of the features it's missing, starting with allowing us to split the window to get two instances running in the same frame.

V-Com's Powerdesk Pro 6 is, if anything, over-featured. In addition to the expected file management functionality it also includes a good file sync-er, integrated ftp that actually works, a zipper, and a directory size reporter. At $50, it's $10 overpriced, in my opinion, but I bought it anyway, so I guess they actually hit my number.

And, hey, PowerDesk, how about putting in tabs so we can go from one set of directories to another? Haven't you heard? Tabs are in!

While talking about replacing Microsoft products: I've been using Mozilla Thunderbird instead of Outlook for the past few months and it is a solid, delightful, free, open source product. The big drawbacks for me: I can't get the TB calendar extension to work and X1 doesn't index it yet. But both problems are being resolved...

What I'm playing

I'm still playing g-ddamn Zuma. Aaarrrggghh. And I've watched my son and my nephew zoom past me to the final level while I've been stuck on the penultimate one for a couple of months. It's a great, addictive game.

My kids pre-ordered me a copy of Doom 3 for my birthday almost a year ago, and it finally shipped. I've tried it just to see if it's as astounding as it's supposed to be. Quick answer: It is. More later. Now ... must .... defeat .... Zuma....


Hotels are at long last figuring out that broadband in the bedroom is a must-have, according to a report by In-Stat/MDR reported by The Center for Media Research. "Total properties deployed will grow from 5,207 in 2003 to 26,828 in 2008." Apparently, this comes after a three year slump which I assume was due to the hotel industry's assumption that wifi was just a fad and that Real Men Pull Cable.


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A handful of links, all previously in my blog:

Bev Harris reports on a truly scary security hole —and the embezzler who created it —in the Diebold electronic voting system. Must-read and must-do-something-about.

Toogle does something cool, but I don't want to ruin the surprise by telling you what.

John Battelle has had a really interesting idea: Sell side advertising. I blogged about it here.

Tom Matrullo is such a damn fine, and funny, writer, it's enjoyable watching him ride his rant about FEMA like a buckin' bronco, even while knowing how hard Hurricane Charley hit him.

AKMA has written an amazing piece about how the police stopped him from using the library's free wifi because he was sitting outside the library.

Here's a very slick wiki. You should give it a try, particularly if you've used wikis before.

Spinsanity is doing its best to tell the truth.

The world's worst site? Not hardly! No registration required, no page transitions, no frames (except for Tripod/Angelfire inserting itself as an IE search companion, apparently not as part of the joke), no popups, no pornography, no spyware (as far as I can tell), no size=1 font, no redirect of the back button. The music and animated gifs are real annoying, though.

Thanks to a recommendation by danah boyd, I've created an i-neighborhood for Brookline. The i-neighborhood site is an experiment in adding a virtual layer to existing real world neighborhoods. (There's an interesting discussion of the nature of neighborhoods over at danah's site.)

As of now, I am the only member of the Brookline i-neighborhood, and thus am, at last, lord and sovereign.

I just heard Shimon Rura give a highly informal talk about frassle, an open source project he's working on. Fascinating. It's a blogging platform, but also an aggregator, community blogger, and publishing system. It's able to pull together blogthreads across multiple feeds, and lets you build blogs out of queries across feeds. Very cool. (It's in alpha and "built out of duct tape and drinking straws," as one of its tag lines says, so don't bang on it too hard.)

Optical illusions? You won't believe your eyes.

This is a plug for Dan Gillmor's We the Media because it is a damn good book that's going to turn out to be more right than a lot of us expect.

I ran a photo essay of my encounter with the Red-Footed Falcon on Martha's Vineyard. I thought it was amusing, but apparently I was wrong. (Other photos here. I got a new camera —a Canon S60 —and I've been playing.)

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Email, Arbitrary Insults, and Suspicious Hacking Coughs

I got a bunch of mail about the piece in the previous issue about the three orders of order, an idea I'm trying out for the book I'm pre-writing.

Timothy Slager, who knows about this stuff, finds my distinctions confusing:

I'm not sure I understand the difference between your levels 2 and 3...

Aren't organization and messiness mutually exclusive? I mean there's the mechanic in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who knows exactly where each tool is lying, scattered across the floor. But one's memory, while it may depend on a mnemonic quirk of one's own, doesn't quite qualify as organization.

Any good level two index gives you the option of hanging clothes on the multiple clothes racks you mention. You organize the same clothes by size, color, material, gender "orientation," weather-appropriateness...Then you have a polyhierarchical taxonomy. But each approach requires its own organization. If I'm going to use any system to help people find stuff, it has to include some order. (Of course, your warehouse will also need a good level-one organization if you plan to fill orders.) Else everyone paws through the bargain table applying sticky notes of various colors, which only serve to confuse everyone else (bookmarks are inherently personal).

I wrote back that second order order organizes physical representations of the metadata about stuff sorted into piles (first order). E.g., books on a shelf are first order, and the card catalog is second order. In a third order order —enabled by digitization —you don't create taxonomies so much as create richer metadata so that others can create the taxonomies they need.

Here's and excerpt from Timothy's reply:

But there is a problem with messy metadata. Similar objects are not equally tagged. ...You need the categories (taxonomy) to ask the same questions for organizing similar objects. Otherwise the user cannot find all the options with the characteristics they are looking for. How can a practitioner carefully create metadata without set categories?

I've also seen vendors who want to associate unrelated metadata with their product. (Extreme example: include the keyword Pamela Anderson; it will bring us more customers...) That gets plenty messy.

Tim is finding second order order sneaking into my third order order: In order to create the enriched metadata that allows users to organize information the way they want, the librarian has to rely on some set of established categories. So, overall, yes, librarians carry some set of categories with them when they do 3rd order metatagging. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the differences between second and third order orders are significant enough to warrant differentiating the orders: In one case, I'm tagging in order to populate a tree that I am publishing. In the other, I'm tagging in order to allow users to create their own trees and other organizational structures.

By the way, in the course of the first message, Timothy tells the following anecdote, which I enjoyed:

...working on a monster organization scheme for construction products, we used a childhood joke to remind us of good (bad?) taxonomy. The joke was, "Do you walk to school, or carry your lunch" which is funny because of the incongruity of the two options. ...Incredibly, many hierarchies include such misorganizations.

The canonical example of this is Borges' Chinese Encyclopedia entry, which only gets better as you re-read it. (And here's a brief memoir well worth reading, especially the contribution by Andrew Young.)

Jeffrey Mann of the — appropriately enough — META group writes:

Perhaps I am focusing on exceptions, but I see plenty of holes in your argument that users own the 3rd order. Restrictions on deep linking, for example. Copyright, for another. Squeamishness about infomarketers that cross link databases to give maps of wealthy people, or Republicans. Operational restrictions are also placed in many cases. For example, I would think it is perfectly permissible for me to go to government web site to find out about the gas station that has applied for permission to install an underground petrol tank in my neighbourhood. But I would hope that the government site would restrict anyone trying to find a list with locations of all underground petrol tanks in my region. They should even get a friendly visit from a polite person in uniform to ask why they want that info

Some good examples, but I'm not saying that all classification schemes will become 3rd order. Also, it's not obvious to me that my building a list of copyrighted pages violates anyone's copyright. If it does, my bookmark list is in trouble and is a huge violator.

Melody Vargas likes the distinctions except for where I say the 3rd order values messiness.

I'd argue that the third values creativity or reinvention over neatness. It isn't necessarily messy to pull those shirts off the shelves to compare, it's a way to be creative and explore possibilities. After all the store owner does this in a minor way when she pulls shirts, pants and accessories together from various areas of the store to create displays to show you how the products can be used in unique ways. We've been using the third order for some time, but technology makes it easier.

Some humans value exploration and creativity, while some humans value stability and proper procedure. They all have merit and a place in our lives.

I use "messiness" because it sounds negative whereas I mean it as a positive in much the way Melody talks about creativity. But, a 3rd order mess is different than the mess you get when too many shoppers fail to re-shelve the stuff they've looked at. Rather, in a 3rd order mess, objects are heavily linked and for multiple purposes. There are no racks set up ahead of time (except in Timothy Slater's sense). People sort the stuff dynamically without making decisions for anyone else.

Kevin Dutcher

Your orders don't sound right.

First is OK.

Second, is really organized by a hierarchy about information on the original objects.

Third Order is realizing that there are many hierarchies, and it's really a web. Sortable and hierarchical in many numerous ways. Credit for this thought goes to Jack Ring, at least that's who I heard it from.

Kevin raises a difficult issue. I thought about slicing the pie by the complexity of the order: lumps, lists, trees, webs. There's sense to this. But it doesn't get at some stuff I want to talk about, particularly the raw impact physicality has had on how we assume stuff has to be ordered. When I think about what's changed because of the digitization of information, the growth of webs seems like a secondary effect. The primary effects are that things don't have to be put in only one (or two or three) slots and that the owner of the information no longer has to own the organization of the information. Put those together and you get webs. And that's why I don't characterize the 3rd order the way Kevin does. It's not simply that there are many hierarchies. There many because ownership of them has been transferred to the user.

Robert Filipczak writes:

I'm sure you've considered this, but the first two levels of order are at least somewhat based on the scarcity of physical objects that doesn't exist when you get to the third level. My sister sets up new stores for Kohls. I'm sure if they had limitless goods and space, they might create many more organizational schemes (based on seasons, fabric, prices, etc) to organize their clothing. But the limits of good and space make them choose one. I’m not sure if that’s important or not.

It's central, in my opinion; see the previous message. For example, many years ago when I worked at Interleaf, we had Kohler (not Kohls) as a customer. They chose our publishing software because they could tag their various bathroom fixtures with metadata, allowing them or their customers to assemble a catalog particular to their needs.

I wonder if you could also include a chapter entitled “How Someone Organizes Information Tells You A lot About Them.

I've been reading the annoyingly brilliant George Lakoff's 1985 book, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Granted, this is about how categories reveal the mind, not anyone's particular mind, but it's an amazing book.

Frank Paynter, who should not be believed when he calls himself a dummy, writes:

As I read about the first order of organization, I was excited to think that the next two orders would be different. The first order you posit relates to organizing "stuff." But, the second order relates to a more detailed organization of stuff, and so perhaps could be thought to be simply a level of detail in the first order. If I pile up my comic books, that's first order. If I alphabetize them in their stack, that's still first order. If I make a list of the contents on paper I've abstracted a bit and so it's second order. The third order seems to be the electronification of the information about the stuff. While "three orders of order" doesn't have the same ring to it as "three orders of organization," I think you'll do well to underscore that you are writing about three orders of order so dummies like me don't gloss over the sentence and have to pick it up on the re-read, while we're trying to figure out why you didn't move on from organization of stuff to organization of people and —I dunno —organization of knowledge maybe, although that last one seems to dovetail nicely with your second and third orders.

Anyway, I think I get where you're going with this and as I look around in my office I want to suggest a zero state... a chaotic order of stuff, not the simple untidiness from which the organizing principle can be abstracted... that would apply to my desk at work. Rather, in my home office we have true chaos because I'm not the only one who stirs stuff around and occasionally adds or subtracts stuff from the mix. Beth helps me with this, often bringing things in and piling them on things that I'll never find again.

I see your messy desk and raise you The Completion of Entropy, as exhibited in the background of this video blog I did a few weeks ago...

Kevin Johansen talks about what order means:

...when my 13 y/o son plays cards he *does not* organize them by suite. This makes me nuts, but he doesn't see the need. Nor does he organize the chess pieces he's taken in any particular way while he plays. That *really* makes me nuts. I think this helps explain why. He's growing up (into?) in a '3rd Order' world and has different hard wiring than I do.

Put some spin on these quanta, make them into a deck of cards and you've a new Tarot.

Gary Kasparov also probably didn't arrange captured pieces by rank, but it has nothing to do with 3rd order thinking. It's just that Kasparov is waaay smarter than the rest of us when it comes to chess. You might want to get your kid tested for incipient brilliance. (Don't worry, the public schools will dim him down to normal.)

Sally Mahoney

Your three orders of organization idea is interesting. I can see an application of your schema to the September 11th commission report ( . In the executive summary, the recommendations on how to fix the government are mostly based on the boxes people are in. For example, create a national terrorism center; create a national intelligence director; restructure the congressional oversight committees. These are all examples of your first order organization (put the right people in the right boxes) and your second order organization (if the right people are in the right boxes everyone will know who to talk to and what to say).

However, scattered throughout the report is the idea that people should share data in new ways (e.g. CIA with FBI). The required new way of doing business really requires a third order organization, and moving boxes on the organization chart will not meet the requirements.

Thank you, Sally. That's what I've been trying to say: Agree with me about the Three Orders or the terrorists have won.

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