[joho] JOHO - July 25, 2004

  • From: "David Weinberger" <self@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <joho@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 26 Jul 2004 00:31:28 -0400

Journal of the
Hyperlinked Organization
July 25, 2004
Editor: David Weinberger (self@xxxxxxxxxxx)
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  | CONTENTS                                    |
  |                                             |
  | 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 30 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 the subject of nuclear attack sometime   |
  | next week. It would destroy the US economy  |
  | (insurance companies fail, the housing      |
  | market craters), help ensure George "The    |
  | Recruiter" Bush's re-election, and punish   |
  | us with a weapon we've used against         |
  | others. Sweet, if you're an evil-doer.      |
  |                                             |
  | See you on the other side!                  |


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

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

THIRD ORDER: You create electronic metadata so you
can organize it in ways that simply weren't feasible

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

* In the first order, the store owner has to make a
decision about whether to hang a particular shirt in
the men"s or lady"s section, in the sportswear or
formal wear departments, filed by color or size or
price. In the third order, she can digitally hang
the shirt on as many different racks as she'd like.

* If you as a customer decide you"d like to
physically cluster (first order) all the shirts by
size rather than by color, before you have a chance
to move the plaid flannel XLs next to the cranberry 
short-sleeved XLs, security will have ejected you 
from the real-world store. The store owns the 
classification scheme as surely as it owns the 
shirts. But, in third order made possible by 
digitizing the information, users  can sort and 
order as they please.

* Because of the care with which it"s been laid out,
the physical store is neat. In fact, the employees
have to stay an hour after closing to tidy up the
damage done by customers who shuffled the order. But
in the third order, the organizational scheme
becomes more valuable as more ad hoc links are drawn
among the objects.

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:

* The first two orders assume each object hangs on a
single branch; cross-references and dotted lines are 
exceptions. The third order is happy to have objects 
hang on as many branches as necessary.

* The first two orders assume that the owner of the
information also owns the organization of that
information. The third gives ownership of the
organization to the user.

* The first two orders value the stability of the
order. The third gets more valuable the more dynamic
it is.

* The first two value neatness. The third values

* Keepers of the first two orders carefully build 
organizational schemes and taxonomies. Practitioners 
of the third carefully create metadata so that users 
can create their own schemes and taxonomies.

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!


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 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) as separable from
their existence (the table as a thing). That path
leads to the triviliazation 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 animals that are rational). 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

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

| 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.      |
| Unfortunately, I want the ten-minute breaks |
| to be twelve minutes apart.                 |
|                                             |
| 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 to beat this game.          |
|                                             |
|  http://www.popcap.com/                     |
|  http://www.painkillergame.com              |

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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  • » [joho] JOHO - July 25, 2004