Joho the Blog » [eim][misc] Too big to categorize

[eim][misc] Too big to categorize

Amanda Filipacchi has a great post at the New York Times about the problem with classifying American female novelists as American female novelists. That’s been going on at Wikipedia, with the result that the category American novelist was becoming filled predominantly with male novelists.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to the dumb sexism that thinks that “normal” novelists are men, and thus women novelists need to be called out. And even if the category male novelist starts being used, it still assumes that gender is a primary way of dividing up novelists, once you’ve segregated them by nation. Amanda makes both points.

From my point of view, the problem is inherent in hierarchical taxonomies. They require making decisions not only about the useful ways of slicing up the world, but also about which slices come first. These cuts reflect cultural and political values and have cultural and political consequences. They also get in the way of people who are searching with a different way of organizing the topic in mind. In a case like this, it’d be far better to attach tags to Wikipedia articles so that people can search using whatever parameters they need. That way we get better searchability, and Wikipedia hasn’t put itself in the impossible position of coming up with a taxonomy that is neutral to all points of view.

Wikipedia’s categories have been broken for a long time. We know this in the Library Innovation Lab because a couple of years ago we tried to find every article in Wikipedia that is about a book. In theory, you can just click on the “Book” category. In practice, the membership is not comprehensive. The categories are inconsistent and incomplete. It’s just a mess.

It may be that a massive crowd cannot develop a coherent taxonomy because of the differences in how people think about things. Maybe the crowd isn’t massive enough. Or maybe the process just needs far more guidance and regulation. But even if the crowd can bring order to the taxonomy, I don’t believe it can bring neutrality, because taxonomies are inherently political.

There are problems with letting people tag Wikipedia articles. Spam, for example. And without constraints, people can lard up an object with tags that are meaningful only to them, offensive, or wrong. But there are also social mechanisms for dealing with that. And we’ve been trained by the Web to lower our expectations about the precision and recall afforded by tags, whereas our expectations are high for taxonomies.

Go tags.

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8 Responses to “[eim][misc] Too big to categorize”

  1. Thanks for breaking out the inherent problems wrought once we start to categorize. I would note that Wikipedia’s problem is worse than you state. They actually called the new category “American Woman Novelists.” Which means the parallel would be “American Man Novelists.” Somehow placing a noun as the descriptor exposes the depth of our entrenched views on the “proper” place for a woman.

  2. Tom, thanks. You’ve put better the problem I alluded to in my first two paragraphs.

    (BTW, my book Everything Is Miscellaneous is pretty much entirely on the problems with traditional categorization, and the opportunities digital organization opens up.)

  3. Thank you, Mr. Weinberger! As Marshall McLuhan said, “First we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.” I believe that the digital tools that are now universally available have indeed shaped us and have put us in a position to develop more powerful shared organizing principles. It seems clear that computer users are capable of accessing and manipulating mental models that are far more complex than previously thought practiceable. Further, this shared scaffolding is prerequisite to shaping communities so that they can harness big data to dramatically expand collective intelligence. (The linear/matrixed models are clearly overmatched given the torrents of information rushing past.) I would submit that a conceptualization based on the sphere and the platonic solids is perfectly suited to bringing order and accessibility to the multiverse of information that would otherwise overwhelm us. Everything is indeed miscellaneous, but we can link the efforts of the couple billion people now (or soon to be) on-line to contextualize and make sense of it all.

  4. [...] Joho the Blog » [eim][misc] Too big to categorize [...]

  5. I am the editor of the newsletter of the Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem.

    Every month we publish “the scientist of the month”.

    I rely on lists such as this to find the next scientist of the month

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portal:History_of_science/Selected_anniversaries/May

    Such lists are created manually. The last time this list got edited was in 2006.

    +1 for tags and automated lists.

  6. I just saw this article from 1945 describing associative indexing and thought you might find it interesting! http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/

  7. David -

    Go tags. I note here that not every wiki based system has hierarchical categories; the Localwiki software uses a nice big flat tag space rather than a jointed (or disjointed) hierarchical category system to group articles together.

    http://vielmetti.typepad.com/vacuum/2013/04/categorization-and-its-discontents.html

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