September 20 , 2005

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Relativism and the Net: Moral and cultural relativism used to be a lot easier.
Liking PoMo: Try as I might, I can't get past the high BS quotient of so many Postmodern essays.
My book: Progress report (Or: How I spent my summer "vacation"): I'm working away on Everything is Miscellaneous. Here's what I'm up to.
Walking the Walk: The Beebster is doing some good stuff with knowledge management
What I'm playing: Brothers in Arms is overhyped. Painkiller is underhyped.
Bogus Contest: Net MadLibs


It's a JOHO world after all

An idea from Everything is Miscellaneous, the book I'm working on, is going to show up in the December issue of Harvard Business Review. It's about my visit to the Staples store simulator and what I learned about how the rules of physics silently affect the organization of information in the real world...especially if you're determined to make your store as "unsticky" as you can.

Also, the Harvard Berkman Center renewed my fellowship for a year. Yay!



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Relativism and the Net

The communications revolution of the past century has thrown into our face the fact that people have very different ways of understanding the world and different sets of values. We know this because magazines show us pictures of them, and on TV they're busy either behaving in their quaint ways or yelling at us. This new awareness of the diversity of our world has helped exacerbate our culture's depressing relativism.

Y'all know the relativist argument: Other people have views they hold as strongly as you hold yours. Those views are incompatible with yours. Thus, a sense of certainty is insufficient to guarantee truth. Therefore, we can't trust certainty. Therefore, we have no way to decide whose views are right.

Good things come from this relativism, including a willingness to listen to others and maybe even a little humility. (That was, at least, until the Bush Doctrine declared humility to be unpatriotic.) But relativism contradicts a tenet of knowledge: To believe something is to believe that it's true. Relativism wants to keep sneaking in a qualifier — "Of course, I might be dead wrong" — that seems to destroy the possibility of knowledge.

Worse, relativism can sap action: Since all sincerely held beliefs are equally valid, why go to any pains to defend yours?

There's just something wrong with relativism.

When I was a college-age lad and all was tinted rosy (or, more accurately, was swirling slightly if you looked at it carefully), I tried to dodge the relativism two-step by going beneath it: All the different values held in the world are only held because the holders are alive. Life is therefore an ultimate value underneath the pitter-patter of relative values. Thus, I became a pacifist.

But there was something wrong with my reasoning. For one thing, it means there's nothing worth dying for, which seems implausible. For another, just because life is a condition of having values doesn't mean that life is itself a value. This line of thought contributed to my ditching pacifism in favor of a less-principled preference for life over death, loving over killing, veggie burgers over bloody cow muscles. I mean, call me crazy, but that's what I believe.

And the problem of relativism remains. Its premises seem true. Its conclusion seems true and salutary. But it literally goes against everything we believe by telling us that we have no right to believe any of it. There's something wrong with the setup.

I think the Internet is showing us what's wrong with relativism.

Relativism works by pointing to the most extreme differences: "On the Isle of Kerflooey, natives worship pickpockets and think that nipples are the seat of intelligence." There is an assumption — not a logical part of the argument but part of its appeal — that cultures live apart from one another, developing wildly different ideas and values. Further, the metaphysical picture relativism paints depicts knowledge as an internal state: The Civilized Person and the Untutored Native look at the same scene but have different images in their heads (or nipples). Neither has privileged access to the truth, or at least neither can reliably know that they have privileged access. So we're all stuck in our silos of knowledge.

That picture explains why relativism is not just frustrating but depressing. It's an isolationist's view of the world.

But now we have a world that's snapping itself together through talk and writing and conversation. In this world, relativism is much less important and appealing. You don't have to sit alone and try to undercut your every belief in the name of a humble relativism. Instead, you can put your knowledge out into the world where it can talk with others who hold contrary views. Rather than being silos, we are conversations that — as conversations do — continuously and eternally negotiate agreement while iterating on difference.

Relativism flourishes when we're each sitting in our corners, imagining contrary positions that would make us look foolish. Relativism is irrelevant when we are actually talking with others who disagree with us. But, when all you have to do is click on a few links to actually engage with those other people with their contrary views, relativism looks masturbatory. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Relativism simplifies the world. It renders all views equal. The Internet complicates the world. All the world's beliefs are in play as conversation engages us in the mutual quest of trying to find what's right and wrong, what's better and worse, what we can agree about and what we'd better leave alone.

In a connected world, relativism is just a way of giving up.

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Liking PoMo

Last week — or was it two weeks ago? — I went to Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, an eclectic festival of electronic arts with an url that, unfortunately, I keep mentally parsing as Quite a fascinating set of people, and much more artsy than the usual set of literal-minded bitheads I spend time with.

But, about half of the presentations set me onto a psychological merry-go-round ride during which most of me screams, "This is total bullcrap!" while a little voice tries to calm me down, insisting that these are very, very smart people so there has to be a brass ring here somewhere.

The screaming bullcrap part of me listens to academic, Postmodern theory and thinks I'm hearing a little bit of truth wrapped in a whole lot of BS. And the truth tends to be something pretty obvious, such as: We are not isolated individuals who connect to the world by processing information. But this gets expressed in heaping gobs of purposefully self-contradictory references to the self transgressively othering the other. Not to mention the breathless regard for neologisms — my favorite was the gushing over "hybridentity" — that retard thought rather than advance it.

But then I think: Not only are these smart people, they're serious, and off the lectern they're totally delightful. So maybe I think there's only a bit of shopworn truth in what they say because that's all that I can understand. What strikes me as unintelligible may contain huge dollops of truth. (Note to PostModernists: I understand that I'm reifying truth and, yes, my conflation of truth with the edible transgressively morphizes the corporeal and ethereal in a way that exerts colonial power over the eidetic isomorphically with Israel's power over Palestinian women.) So, I'm only hearing in the PoMo stream that which I already know, leading me to think there's nothing new in it.

Despite all this, I actually consider myself quite sympathetic to Postmodernism when it's practiced well. I think PoMo does wonders in getting us past our assumption that there are regions of life — science and faith, to name just two — that we can rely upon as if they were fully independent of our engagement with them. Nah, the world is human all the way through. (Nevertheless: Science counts. So does faith.) And PoMo deserves great credit for making us aware of our tendency to "totalize," that is, to think that truth has to live in a system that covers all people and all beliefs. And once you see that knowledge lives in a human world, the connection of knowledge and power also becomes crucial. Thanks, PoMo!

Nevertheless, although I firmly believe that on Web we have to forgive one another for our bad poetry, I find I am not nearly as inclined to forgive bad Postmodernism. Maybe that's because posting your poetry means exposing yourself while bad Postmodernism is a type of low-risk oneupsmanship.

And quite possibly, my bad psychological reaction is keeping me from hearing some truth.

For Ars Electronica I had to write up an essay version of what I planned on talking about. I've posted it here. It's about what the digitizing of the world is doing to our sense of what it means to be...proof that you don't have to be PoMo to be full of sh_t.

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My book: Progress report (Or: How I spent my summer "vacation")

I've been working all summer on Everything Is Miscellaneous. It's due into the publisher in July '06, making next summer seem like right around the corner. My how time flies when you have a deadline.

I did a heck of a lot of research these past few months, some of it entailing entering a physical library. Yes, there are still some around, and yes, the good parts still smell of dried leaves and mold. I also did a whole bunch of writing and just slightly less un-writing. (Some refer to this as "rewriting," but it feels more Penelope-esque to me than that.)

Here's where the book stands at the moment, and please remember that any and all of it is likely to be unwritten tomorrow:


Rather than doing the usual merchandising thing of using the limitations of the physical world to make its stores "sticky" (in the Web sense) — e.g., putting the most popular items in the back — Staples tries to organize its stores to emulate the Web's virtue of being frictionless. Staples actually wants customers to find what they need as quickly as possible. But the nature of space and atoms gets in the way, as we learn on a tour through Staples' store simulator, a full-size store closed to the public.

Those limitations are removed on line. What happens to the traditional principles of organization when the limitations of space and atoms are removed? Why don't we just read this book and find out, eh?...

Chapter 1

The digital world is enabling a third order of organization. You can see the first two at the Bettmann Archive of historic photos: In the back room, the physical objects - the prints and negatives - are organized into cabinets. In the front room, they the metadata about the objects are organized into card catalogs. You can see the third order at Corbis where the images are digital and the basic assumptions are different.

Corbis organizes its contents for the convenience of its managers and users. Is that all that's at stake? Do the changes in the principles of organization merely help us come up with better arbitrary classifications? Or do they affect the nature of knowledge itself? [SPOILER ALERT: They affect knowledge! Surprise!]

We look first at the most common arbitrary organizational scheme: Alphabetical order. Its virtue is that it doesn't tell us anything about the relationships among the parts. Yet alphabetization has a long, difficult history, in part precisely because of its arbitrariness. To the medievals, alphabetization looked like a demeaning of God's order. To Mortimer J. Adler, the philosopher and public intellectual, it was a threat to the public's well-being. Yet Adler's own anti-alphabetization projects — he was the editor of the Great Books of the Western World, for example — now look hopelessly out of date.

We then look at the opposite of alphabetization: The idea that there's a natural order. After briefly introducing the Harmony of the Spheres and the Great Chain of Being, we look at what seem to be two of the most natural of orders: The order of the planets and the periodic table of the elements. In both cases we find histories that reflect the Harmony of the Spheres. They both turn out to be orders that have their own elements of arbitrariness: We find them because of the way we're looking. Change how we're looking — the principles of organization — and you change the nature of knowledge.

More is at stake than how we organize our office supplies.

A Snippet from Chapter 1 [DRAFT!]

I'm really not sure why I picked this little piece of it. No grand theories or conclusions.

Ultimately, the fate of Xena [the newly discovered possible planet] is up to the vote of the International Astronomical Union, which since 1999 has had a working group hard at the task of coming up with a formal definition of a planet.1 Alan Stern, planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and a member of the working group, says there are three major proposals on the table. He first presents the one he prefers: Define planets by the type of object they are: objects of a certain size that orbit a star. Another group thinks planets should be defined by where they are. If they're not the biggest object around, if they're part of a swarm of ojects, then they're not planets. That would rule out Ceres [previously discussed] . Third, “There's a group that thinks it's a cultural term that has no business in science,” Stern says. “That's really amazing to me.”2

Stern prefers the first definition because it's based on real properties. “We want a planet to orbit a star, because if it orbits another planet, it's a moon. And we want it to be the right size. That's where the controversy is.” How to decide what is the right size? Some have suggested simply adopting an arbitrary standard, say, that it has to be at least the the size of Mercury (4,000 kilometers in diameter). But Stern wants to use physics. “It shouldn't be so big that it ignites in nuclear fusion like a star,” he says. That's easy. Stern wants to use a different effect of physics to settle the much more controversial minimal size. “A small object will retain whatever shape you give it because of the chemical bonds,” he says. “But if you keep adding mass, something wonderful happens: It knows that it's big. Gravity rounds it. It's an inexorable process.” So, Stern suggests that the right minimum size for a planet be the size at which the object becomes round. “The lower limit seems to be set by nature,” he concludes.

In other words, Stern has found a joint in nature. Gravity's rounding effect is not something we arbitrarily assign. Stern's preferred definition of a planet is based in the hard reality of physics. "As a result, I tell school kids that…their kids are likely to hear a number closer to nine hundred than nine.”3 Of course that's too many to memorize. He counters, “School kids can't name all the mountains, but no one thinks mountains aren't a real classification.”4

Stern's main argument against the proponents of the third definition – those who say planets aren't worth defining – has a lot to do with the social effects of giving up the term. “Every man on the street who's seen Star Trek can tell what a planet is,” he says. “If the IAU were to announce that there's no such thing as a planet, that it's just a cultural thing, I think my colleagues in other fields and the public would just break out laughing.”

[The chapter goes on to argue that the third definition is the best one...]

1 Britt, Rob Roy. “Defining 'planet': Newfound world forces action: Scientists at odds of what to call newly discovered stellar body“ MSNBC, August 2, 2005 [link] See also Jeff Hecht “Tenth planet discovered in outer solar system” 30 July 2005 news service [link]

2 Alan Stern. Phone interview, September 15, 2005

3 Stern, S. Alan. “Gravity Rules” SpaceDaily, March 22, 2004. [link]

4 interview


Chapter Two

The briefest overview is: The Dewey Decimal System, an innovative system when it was published, now represents the limitations of the traditional way of organizing. About two-thirds of the chapter are devoted to putting Melvil Dewey into the historical context of library management and explaining his three Big Ideas. Each of those ideas was influenced not only by his time but by the limitations of atoms: His system organizes physical books and uses physical cards to organize their metadata. Conclusion: The shape of knowledge in Dewey's system (which is typical of how we've thought about it) was determined to a large degree by the limitations of paper.

We then look at Amazon to see one way books get organized when information is freed from the tyranny of atoms.

A Snippet from Chapter 2 [DRAFT!]

Dewey was infatuated with decimals. When he was 16, he wrote a school essay on the metric system .1 When he was 25, he founded the American Metric Bureau to lobby for the metric system.2 As an adult, he even arranged his travel so that he would arrive on the tenth, twentieth or thirtieth day of the month3. This is where rationalism crosses over into superstition.

Decimals have the advantage of enabling a system to add an infinite number of subdivisions by moving to the right of the decimal point. But they have some serious disadvantages as well. Imagine that you are unpacking your kitchen after you move into a new house and you decide – because you are the sort of person who plans your trips around decimal arrival dates – that you'll divide it into ten categories, each with ten items. At the top level, you decide you'll have places for spices, breads, cold foods, cans, beverages, implements, etc. Let's say you get an even ten top-level kitchen categories, one of which is “Spices.” What are the chances that you're going to have ten and exactly ten spices to go into your spice rack? Suppose you only have seven. Would you classify taco sauce as a spice? Might you decide that you should count your bottle of Three-Spice Chinese flavoring as three? When you're finished with your spice rack, you'll now have the same challenge as you confront your silverware drawer, and the other eight kitchen categories you've devised. When you've finally unpacked, you will find that your organizational plan has turned a melon-baller into a bona fide piece of silverware, on a par with forks and spoons, and that you have your colander hanging with your pots because you really needed a tenth item.

That's the position Dewey put himself in: Dewey had to hack and hew knowledge into 1,000 top-level categories not because that's how knowledge shaped itself or how books sorted themselves, but because Dewey loved decimals. It is an absurd undertaking, at which he succeeded only by, metaphorically speaking, counting pickles as a spice.

1 “The ‘Amherst Method': The Origins of the Dewey Decimal Classification Scheme,” Wayne A. Wiegand, Libraries & Culture, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 1998 (The University of Texas Press: Austin), p. 192, footnote 11. [link]

2 Wiegand, 40

3 Wiegand, 32


Middle World Resources

Walking the Walk  

My current column in the KMWorld is about about the BBC use of lightweight social software. They're doing some good stuff with simple tools.

What I'm playing

I played much of Brothers in Arms and maybe even all of it; I can't tell if it crashed or ended. I was a little disappointed. I had less control over my squad than in Ghost Recon, which BiA probably counts as a strength of the squad AI. But I liked the ability in GR to play as this squad member and then to switch to that.

So, now I'm playing Painkiller: Battle out of Hell, an add-on that captures much of the imagination and humor of the first one. Some of the fights are too hard for the likes of me, but that's why we have cheat codes.

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Bogus contest: Internet MadLibs

At the Emmy's, Jon Stewart apparently dubbed in network-acceptable words to passages they have found too hot (= interesting, real) to allow on air. This suggests a type of Internet MadLibs. Can you improve on the following famous Internet quotes?

Information just wants to _____ - John Perry Barlow

The network ___ the computer - Scott McNealy

The future is already here. It's just not ______ - William Gibson

...I took _____ in creating the Internet - Al Gore (See here for the actual quote in context.)

"The Net interprets censorship as damage and ________." John Gilmore

On the Internet no one ____ you're a ____ - Peter Steiner

As always, all entries will be routed around as if they were damage...unless we can ascertain that they came from a genuine dog..


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License with the exception of the excerpts from my book which Times Books probably owns.