Sorting things out

September 6, 2006 at 1:00 pm Leave a comment

Some comments from Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences by Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star.  A pretty academic (yet extremely pragmatic) book about classification and its affect on people.  Fundamental reading for the topic.

ch1.p1. “To classify is human.”  “Not all classifications take formal shape or are standardized in commercial and bureaucratic products.  We all spend large parts of our days doing classification work, often tacitly, and we make up and use a range of ad hoc classifications to do so.” 

p.7 Every link in hypertext creates a category.  That is, it reflects some judgment about two or more objects: they are the same, or alike, or functionally linked, or linked as part of an unfolding series.  The rummage sale of information on the world wide web is overwhelming, and we all agree that finding information is much less of a problem than assessing its quality.

Whatever we write here about the latest electronic developments will be outdated by the time this book sees print, a medium that many would argue is itself anachronistic.

p.10 ‘classification: a classification is a spatial, temporal, or spatio-temporal segmentation of the world.  A “classification system” is a set of boxes (metaphorically of literally) into which things can be put to then do some kind of work – bureaucratic or knowledge production.’ Here, I am reminded of a discussion in The Lucifer Principle by Bloom where he describes how doctors strive to give name to a disease in order to assert control:

“p115…modern doctors sell the illusion of control.  p116 …The name alone – like a magic talisman – makes you feel you have a problem your doctor can control.”  Names as magical talismans, a concept reminiscent of Earthsea.

Properties of a classification system:

  1. There are consistent, unique classificatory principles in operation.  Date, use order, temporal, functional order, genealogy….
  2. The categories are mutually exclusive.
  3. The system is complete = total coverage of the world it describes.  No real world classifications system meets these “simple” requirements.  E.g. modified principles of classification, mutual exclusivity may be impossible in practice, completeness may be sacrificed for expense (or usability?).

For point 1, this reminds me of Wurman’s Information Anxiety 2 where he describes a complete set of organizing principles, or hat racks: LATCH = “…information…can only be organized by location, alphabet, time, category, or hierarchy.” 

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