July 25, 2004

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The Three Orders of Order: The third order is new, and it's ripping up the rules for how we manage, navigate and understand our world.

Aristotle Thirty Years Later : He's gotten a lot smarter since the last time I read him.


Blogging the Convention

I'm one of the 35 (or so) bloggers who got credentialed by the Democrats, so I'm attending the Convention. I'll be blogging it for the Boston Globe at www.boston.com/news/blogs/dnc, as well as on my regular blog site.

I'm also slotted to do a commentary for NPR's "All Things Considered" sometime during the week.

I have no idea what to expect, which is why I'm looking forward to it.


Dying at the Convention

The Democratic Convention seems like a juicy target for Al Qaeda. Since there are moderately credible rumors coming from DC that there are already some suitcase nukes in the US, it seems to me totally within the realm of possibility that Boston will be nuked this week. It would destroy the US economy (insurance companies fail, the housing market craters), help ensure the re-electoin of George "The Recruiter" Bush and punish us with a weapon we've used against others. Sweet, if you're an evil-doer.

See you on the other side!


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The Three Orders of Organization

I thought I'd run an idea by you so you can tell me that it's old, obvious and wrong. I think it may be one of the organizing ideas of the book I've been endlessly trying to figure out how to write, and I'd rather be embarrassed in front of you early than in front of a bunch of strangers later.

If you recall, we were all supposed to be lifeless at the bottom of an ocean of information by now. Why have we survived the information tsunami so confidently predicted in the late '80s and early '90s? Those predictions assumed that the principles of organization wouldn't evolve. But they have. Rapidly and profoundly.

In fact, suppose I were to suggest that there are three orders of organization? Why? Because "There are three orders of order" is just too confusing.

First Order: You arrange physical objects: You shelve books, you file papers, you put away your silverware.

Second Order: You arrange separate, smaller objects that contain metadata about the first order objects: You create a card catalog. You make entries in a ledger. You index a book. You now have a second organizational scheme (e.g., the books are shelved by subject but the cards are arranged alphabetically), and it's physically easier to navigate

Third Order: You create electronic metadata so you can organize it in ways that simply weren't feasible before.

For example, consider the difference between a physical clothing store and the version of it we see once its information has been digitized.

The second order improves upon the first, but the third order undoes many of the assumptions of the first two orders — assumptions we've made for thousands of years. For example:

So, at the moment, the book is about the three orders of organization and how the third is changing the way we manage, navigate and understand our world. I'm telling you all this so you can steer me right. As always. So, get started already!

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Reading Aristotle

It's been about 30 years since I read Aristotle. At the time, I remember him as a nit-picker and concept-slicer whose way was determined by the problems his predecessors had run into. I admired him for undoing some of the weirdisms of Plato and returning thought to a path that accorded better with the basics of our experience, but, overall, he was a philosopher to be gotten through on the way to other projects.

Foolish youth.

I've been re-reading Aristotle recently because I want to know how we came to see knowledge as shaped like a tree, and Aristotle is the guy who first articulated that. (Actually, Porphyry seems to have been the first to portray the nesting as a tree, but who's counting?) So, I've been reading his Metaphysics and then will work backwards to his Categories. The Metaphysics, usually considered one of his drier works, reads to me, even in translation, the way Bach sounds: Every note unpredictably perfect, finding the beauty in order and in the leaps order takes. With Aristotle we have the thrill of watching someone get to define the most basic of concepts: What does "unity" mean? What does "quality" mean? You can see Aristotle laying the most basic foundation of our thought. He's not inventing terms; he's "merely" defining them and systematizing them so thought can come out of its everyday-ness and achieve its initial clarity.

In The Metaphysics, Aristotle wants to know what it means for something to be. Oh yeah, just a simple little question. In The Categories he's come up with the ten basic ways of asking about a thing: What's it made of, what's it for, etc. So, if those are the ten parameters, which of them really makes something into an existing thing? That is, now we know what makes a table into a table, but what do we say about what lets it be a thing at all?

Aristotle's answer is that those aren't separate questions. If you're going to exist, you have to exist as something — a table, a human, a piping hot souvlaki. That turns philosophy back from a bad course that it had embarked on, and to which it would return as the influence of Aristotle wore off after the Middle Ages: Thinking that the meaning of things (the table as a table) is separable from their existence (the table as a thing). That path leads to the trivialization of meaning. But not for Aristotle. For him, if you want to know what makes Socrates real, you have to see how Socrates is a human...which means understanding him within a category (animals) with differentiated sub-categories (the rational animals as opposed to the non-rational ones). Thus, taxonomy and existence are fused: To be is to be in a taxonomy of meaning.

Indeed, you can see in The Metaphysics Aristotle's struggle to unearth the difficult nature of nested categories, whch we all take for granted. "Animals" contains humans and giraffes, but we're not led to think that there is an eternal Giant Animal apart from the humans, giraffes, etc. Plato did make that mistake; he thought animal-ness existed as an eternal essence apart from all individual animals. Aristotle criticizes Plato because there's no good way to explain how animal-ness and particular animals unite. With nested containers, they are never really separate. By my skewed reading, that's the notion Aristotle is heading toward. And it rescues us from thinking that the world of experience is merely a shadow of real essences we don't directly experience.

Aristotle is trying to hold existence and meaning together: to be means to be a this-thing or that-thing. We moderns want to object. We assume that first the world exists and then we divide it into categories. Further, we think that the particularities of the taxonomy depend on accidents of culture and history. So, here's a question that arises from reading the Metaphysics: Is it possible that we and Aristotle simply understand differently what it means to live in a world?

After all, the music of Aristotle's thought comes from his assumption that the principles of knowledge are the same as the principles of the universe. The categories are not "mere" categories of thought for him. They are also the way the cosmos is arranged. If the order of knowledge and the order of the world are not the same, reasoned Aristotle, then knowledge isn't possible. There can only be knowledge if the universe is ordered in know-able ways.

Now, we live in a world that's inescapably more diverse than Aristotle's, and we no longer assume that there is a single order of the universe. We certainly discover that when we start to build taxonomies of our own corporate knowledge or when we think we'll just hook up all the taxonomies and have ourselves a Semantic Web. Taxonomies nowadays are built to reflect how users search, not some abstract ideal of how the universe is. In fact, we're building metadata-rich collections so every user can create her own taxonomy on the fly. And yet...

...Aristotle's sense of the world strikes me as more accurate than the one that typically undergirds our modern outlook. We think there's a real world that our taxonomies lie on top of. Aristotle — if he could understand the modern distinction we draw as if it were obvious — would tell us that a world apart from the categories of understanding would be by definition unknowable. Knowledge is the way the world shows itself to us in all its beauty and order.

[Note: A version of this will run as my monthly column in KMWorld.]

Middle World Resources

What I'm playing

Zuma is a surprisingly addictive game that tells badly. See, you're a spinning frog that spits balls at a long line of balls that are twisting their way towards the Bad Place. If your ball hits two others, all three go puff. If not, the ball you shot lengthens the line and brings you one closer to losing. Sounds dumb. It is dumb. But it's great for a ten-minute break. The problem is, I want to take those ten minute breaks every twelve minutes. (There's a free ActiveX version here which I have not tried.)

Painkiller, on the other hand, is a mega first person shooter. Astounding graphics, excellent game play, and great level design. For example, you climb a snowy bridge, fighting baddies all the way, and then skid 100 feet down a cable to fight more baddies on a slippery road between two mountains. Doom III is going to have to be very good indeed to beat this game.

So, what better way to end this issue of Joho than with a reference to Doom? See you all soon, one place or another.


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