Thursday, September 29, 2005

The New Is

Thanks to Collin Brooke for pointing to David Weinberger's "The New Is," which is a short piece on the value of social tagging. Collin summed up the piece by quoting Weinberger's three guiding principles:
Links, not containers: A page is what it points to.

Multiple tags, not single meanings: A thing gains more meaning by having multiple local meanings.

Messiness, not clean order: The best definitions are ambiguous.

As Collin notes, Weinberger takes a historical approach to this topic, as can be seen from this passage:

From Aristotle's way of thinking came a history of thought and politics that made certain assumptions: Because knowledge and being are fused, just as there is only one reality, there is only one structure of knowledge. The best people to put this structure together are experts. Because of the economics of parchment and paper, experts filter what we need to know. They become gatekeepers, priests of knowledge.

The digital age undoes all of these assumptions, changing the nature of knowledge and even of meaning itself. We are entering the age where to understand something is to see how it isn't what it is.

Until now, the structure of knowledge has mirrored the way we've structured the physical world: We take a pile – think of your laundry – and split it into lumps, and then split those lumps into further lumps, until we have piles that are not worth splitting any more. So, we create a library classification system such as the Dewey Decimal System, or a Periodic Table of the Elements, a Tree of Life, or a business organizational chart. But when we're dividing up our laundry, we have to put our socks into one pile or another, but not both (the Law of Identity). Why should the same restriction hold when we're dealing with ideas? Why can't ideas go in many piles? Why can't a single intellectual leaf hang from many branches?

This is precisely what happens in the digital age. If you are trying to decide where to put a digital camera in your physical store, you're going to have to pick one or two areas. If you're listing it on your Web site, you'll put it in as many categories as you can because you want people to be able to find it. Is the digital camera photography equipment, a vacation accessory, a sports item, a featured sale item? The answer is: Yes. And if you can think of other categories in which to list it, you have an economic motive to do so.

This makes a mess of your site's organization. But that's a good thing. In the digital age, messiness is not a sign of disorder. It is a sign of a successful order. Messiness is a virtue.

It's clear, to me at least, that social tagging is a digital mnemonic practice. In a sense, it is the smart mobs version of personal mnemonic systems (both simple word associations and large scale place and image systems), which often work by idiosyncratic association. As Weinberger notes, individuals may tag idiosyncratically: A photo of London may never be tagged as "London" but instead may be tagged with "my vacation" or "Underground" or "Big Ben" or "winter in the park" or any combination of these, and more. For those searching for London, they won't find this photo unless a second person adds to it the London tag. I don't want to stretch this comparison too far, however. While idiosyncratic, personal mnemonic systems are essentially closed systems (or at least fall on the closed end of the scale), and while social tagging, as both a social and a digital practice, is an open system, I don't think its all so clear cut that we can just assign closed an open labels to these practices and leave it at that.

Nevertheless, for pre-digital mnemonic technologies, the more associations/meanings you attach to a word or to an image, the less mnemonic function it has. Technologically, therefore, the system does favor closure rather than openness. And, on the other hand, because it's as easy to add one tag to digital information as it is to add 100 tags, and because good search programs aren't bothered by multiple associations, digital mnemonic technologies do favor openness, multiplicity, or what Weinberger calls "messiness" (more on messiness below). Along these lines, while comparing orality, textuality, and electracy, John Miles Foley labels these opened and closed practices as filing and tagging.

While I want to agree -- do agree -- with them, I'm struck by the slipperiness of it all. Take, for instance, the print index. An index is a closed system, but is it really an example of clear-cut filing? Is there no tagging going on? I've found that the most useful indexies have overlapping categories and make use of cross-referencing. While it does not have the openness of social tagging, it's not the one-to-one classification system Aristotle posits in his Law of Identity. I'm also thinking here of Walter Ong's index card files with all their cross referencing, what I've referred to as Ong's index card database. Even while a printed index, an ordered index card file, or even the Library of Congress classification system are examples of filling, of discrete categorization, they can and do engage in and make use of tagging, of multiple and overlapping categorization. The externalization of writing -- the ability to store, access, and share information outside of ourselves -- helps mitigate the disorder that comes with multiple associations. While the logic of writing and print favors filing, discrete categorization, the practice of writing is more fluid, more open, than its logic would suggest.

A paradox? I don't think so. Orality, as Ong has long argued and as Foley argues throughout his Oral Tradition and the Internet, is an open system. And yet, at the same time, orality's openness is limited. While meaning and categorization are fluid in oral traditions, without recourse to external, more permanent, more fixed, storage, there is a real limit upon the number of associations one can work with. As I've already noted, whether one is working with a memory palace, a proverb, a story, or rhyming poem, each additional association attached to the mnemonic device dilutes its overall mnemonic power. To put it another way, while oral tradition is more closely connected to the human lifeworld, it's not so good at keeping in mind multiple realities -- the past is what is remembered and what is remembered tends to reflect what is.

Lessons from all this? Not sure, really, as this is really thoughts on the fly. But it seems clear, to me at least, that while contrasting writing with the oral and/or the digital, we need to make sure we're not overly simplifying writing. We need to keep in mind the complex medium dynamics of writing while we're figuring out the complex medium dynamics of oral tradition and of digital technologies, and I note this as much a remembrance for myself as a warning for anyone else.

Oh, as a side note, I like Weinberger claim that messiness is a virtue, not because I want to embrace messiness, but because, as I've explained earlier, in medieval memory theory it was not forgetting but information disorder that was considered a sin against the virtue of Prudence. As Weinberger points out, messiness (complexity) is not the same as disorder, and that too is worth bearing in mind.

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