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Metadata vs. data

From Dwight Macdonald‘s 1952 review of Mortimer Adler’s Great Books series:

Thus the true reason for his set of Great Books becomes apparent. Its aim is hieratic rather than practical — not to make the books accessible to the public (which they mostly already were) but to fix the canon of the Sacred Texts by printing them in a special edition. Simply issuing a list would have been enough if practicality were the only consideration, but a list can easily be revised, and it lacks the totemistic force of a five-foot, hundredpound array of books.

…In its massiveness, its technological elaboration, its fetish of The Great, and its attempt to treat systematically and with scientific precision materials for which the method is inappropriate, Dr. Adler’s set of books is a typical expression of the religion of culture that appeals to the American academic mentality.

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2 Responses to “Metadata vs. data”

  1. McDonald here recognizes an important fact that we tend to have overlooked in recent years — information only exists inside a container or vehicle of some sort, and every container is culturally constructed to privilege some members of the community at the expense of others.

    We like to think that there’s a vast amorphous ocean of data and information out there in the ether, but in fact it’s all sitting on very tangible machines that cost real money and are not equally accessible to all. I recently led a workshop for curators of small museums and teachers from rural towns in the Upper Mississippi Valley. More than one said that although the school and library in their town had Web access (often a single workstation), they were the only person in their community that had a computer in their home or seemed to want one there.

    Just as the Five Foot Shelf of Books had an unspoken bias, so too does the Web. It privileges those who can easily read and write (and value those activities above others, such as square dancing, say) and it confers power on those who are well-educated, can write code, pay for high-speed connections, etc.

    It *does* permit more power to the marginalized and dispossessed than any preceding communication medium, but it isn’t a neutral technology any more than five feet of tastefully bound “classics,” or a massive, sloping lecture hall that puts a professor down front on stage and spreads supplicant listeners in rows ascending ever further from the center of the collective attention.

    Thanks, David, for continuing to bring such examples in front of us. Maybe we could use a latter-day McDonald (or Foucault? Neil Postman?) to help us better understand this behemoth we’re all making together.

  2. Mr. McDonald’s comments are apt even if he appeals to the disdain of many for the academic, even if deserved.
    However:
    All of the books are not readily available.
    The selections of the translators of the many
    competent others is helpful, even if
    not necessarily true.
    The cost is a serious question. The disadvantaged because of distance from a great
    library (mine is Cleveland) or merely lack of
    facilities to read in quiet or even comfort is
    not addressed.
    All in all Mr. Adler, in spite of his elitism
    is preferable to no easy access or competent
    “mentorship.”
    Thanks for publishing the comment on the web.
    Irv Green


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