[joho] JOHO - September 20, 2005

  • From: David Weinberger <self@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: joho@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 19 Sep 2005 23:35:48 -0400

Journal of the
Hyperlinked Organization
September 20, 2005
Editor: David Weinberger (self@xxxxxxxxxxx)
To unsubscribe, see instructions at the end
For the fully glorious illustrated and
hyperlink-saturated online version of JOHO, please
To view this issue correctly, please use a
monospaced font such as Courier and stretch your
window until it all makes sense.

+---------------------------------------------+ | CONTENTS | | | | 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! | +---------------------------------------------+


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

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 [1] 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

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

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

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

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

[1] http://www.hyperorg.com/backissues/joho-jun15-04.html#pacifist


Last week -- or was it two weeks ago? -- I went to
Ars Electronica [1] in Linz, Austria, an eclectic
festival of electronic arts with an url that,
unfortunately, I keep mentally parsing as
www.ArseLectronica.com. 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 the
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

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.


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

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,


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 photos and
negatives -- are organized into cabinets. In the
front room, 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

|                                             |
| 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. 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 objects, 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 eally amazing to me."         |
|                                             |
| 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." 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."                            |
|                                             |
| 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...]        |
|                                             |
| ------------------------------------------- |
|[See Web version for footnotes]              |


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

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

|                                             |
| Dewey was infatuated with decimals. When    |
| he was 16, he wrote a school essay on the   |
| metric system. When he was 25, he           |
| founded the American Metric Bureau to       |
| lobby for the metric system. As an adult,   |
| he even arranged his travel so that he      |
| would arrive on the tenth, twentieth or     |
| thirtieth day of the month. 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.                         |
|                                             |
| ------------------------------------------- |
|[See Web version for footnotes]              |

PS: I just re-read Chapter 1 and I don't like it.
I'm preparing for some might unwriting. Sigh.

+---------------------------------------------+ | 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. http://tinyurl.com/7rmhd | | | +---------------------------------------------+ | 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. | +---------------------------------------------+


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: http://www.sethf.com/gore/ )

"The Net interprets censorship as damage and _______[does what?]." - 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.


JOHO is a free, independent newsletter written and
produced by David Weinberger. If you write him with
corrections or criticisms, it will probably turn out
to have been your fault.

To unsubscribe, send an email to


with "unsubscribe" in the subject line. If you have
more than one email address, you must send the
unsubscribe request from the email address you want
unsubscribed. There's more information about
subscribing, changing your address, etc., at
http://www.hyperorg.com/forms/adminhome.html. In
case of confusion, you can always send mail to me at
self@xxxxxxxxxxxx There is no need for harshness or
recriminations. Sometimes things just don't work out
between people.

The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization is a
publication of Evident Marketing, Inc. "Hyperlinked
Organization" is a trademark of Open Text. For
information about trademarks owned by Evident
Marketing, Inc., please see our Preemptive
Trademarks™™ page at

This issue of JOHO is licensed under a creative
commons license:

Other related posts:

  • » [joho] JOHO - September 20, 2005