Posts filed under ‘Sorting things out’

The only good classification is a living classification

More comments from Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences by Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star.

p.230 A category can be non-existent until and unless it is socially created – given a name [names are power].

p.254 Classification schemes always have the central task of providing access to the past.

p.257 Total recall, in individuals or organizations is neither desirable nor possible.  Rediscovery might be easier than remembering or changing and organization’s identity = forgetting we’ve always done it that way.  Two types of organizational forgetting: clearance – a barrier in the past so no info can leak to the present; erasure – the ongoing destruction of selective traces in the present.

p.260 New classification schemes effectively invalidate much previous knowledge by creating new sets of categories.  Yet they seek to draw on the authority of the out-dated knowledge while simultaneously supplanting it.  The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish.  When fish are caught the trap is forgotten….  The purpose of words is to convey ideas.  When the idea is grasped the words are forgotten.  Seek those who have forgotten the words.

p.268 The kind of memory that is encoded in an organizations files for the purpose of a possible future reconstruction could be called potential memory.

p.281 Information (Bateson definition) is about differences that make a difference.  If it moves, count it.  If you can’t see it moving, forget it.

p.290 One of the interesting features of communication is that…to be perceived, information must reside in more than one context.  We know what something is by contrast with what it is not.  Silence makes musical notes perceivable. [reminded of discussion from the CPU blog and ‘spaces’ and discussion in Levy’s Scrolling Forward with regard to the lack of spaces between words in early books, and even the space around letters!]

p.294 Communities of practice or social worlds is a unit of analysis that cuts across formal organizational institutions like family and church, and other forms of associations such as social movements: a set of relations among people doing things together.  We are all members of social worlds or communities of practice.

p.295 Membership in a community of practice can…be described as the experience of encountering objects and increasingly being in a naturalized relationship with them.  From the point of view of learning-as-membership and participation…the illegitimate stranger is a source of learning [this same concept is stressed in The Wisdom of Crowds: when a crowd loses its diversity it becomes biased and not wise].

p.297 Boundary objects are those objects that *both inhabit several communities of practice and satisfy the information requirements of each of them.  Boundary objects are thus both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites.  That are weakly structured in common use and become strongly structured in individual site use.  These objects may be abstract or concrete.

p.299 Objects become naturalized over a period of time.  The more natural an object becomes the more invisible it is. It sinks into routinely forgotten memory.

p.301 Cyborg Handbook, Gray, 1995?

p.321 It is important in the development and implementation of classifications that we [avoid] trying to emulate a distant perfection that on closer analysis turns out to be just as messy as our own efforts.

p.326 The only good classification is a living classification.


September 29, 2006 at 1:10 pm Leave a comment

Annotated Sorting

More comments from Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences by Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star.

p.150 Residual categories (“other”) [in a classification system] tend to fix the maximum level of granularity that is possible.  The advantage is that they can signal uncertainty at the level of data collection.  The disadvantage is the temptation to overuse them if lazy or rushed.

p.152 “boundary objects” do not claim to represent universal, transcendental truth; they are pragmatic constructions that do the job required.

p.159 In the face of incompatible information or data structures among users or among those specifying the system, attempts to create unitary knowledge categories are futile – parallel or multiple representational forms are required. 

Too few categories will result in information that is not useful – too many categories will result in increased bias or randomness on the part of those filling out forms.  Five million categories may be more ideally scientifically accurate, but not usable. 

At the level of encoding, tools need to be sensitive to the working conditions of those encoding the data.  Imposed standards will produce work-arounds…because they cannot account for every local contingency, users will tailor standardized forms, etc., to fit their needs. 

Identify granularity and encode it where appropriate.

Match the structure of the information system mediating among diverse participants with information needs taking mismatches and world views into account.

p.192,3 Textures of Technical Networks, Crystallization Processes Lynch 1995?

September 28, 2006 at 1:02 pm Leave a comment

Even more from Sorting Things Out

More comments from Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences by Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star.

p.107 Science is a systematized and classified knowledge of facts.

Barriers to complete knowledge systems:

  • Data entry as work is never easy, and there are never enough trained people to do it. This is reminiscent of comments from The Meaning of Everything : “a group of 147 volunteer readers were first organized. Unfortunately after a time only 89 were still working – the rest had lost their enthusiasm. Of the 89, 30 were first-rate, 15 were inferior, and 44 hadn’t done enough to judge”
  • Convergence between the medium and the message – the information that is stored is at best what can be stored using the currently available technology.
  • Infrastructure compatibility – no knowledge system exists in a vacuum and must be compatible with other systems.

p.109 “Information work” has become the dominant mode of work in industrial economies

p.117 The infinite possible ontologies of objects is limited by the pragmatics of data collection and by the inescapable inertia of categories already in use.

p.131 To classify is human and all cultures at all time have produced classification systems…. There is no such thing as a universal classification system. Classifications that appear natural eloquent, and homogeneous within a given human context appear forced and heterogeneous outside of that context.

p.137 List making has frequently been seen as one of the foundational activities of advanced human society. The first written records are lists (of kings and equipment)….What gets written down first are things that cannot be retained in the head….The early feats of memorization by Welsh poets were of lists within epic poems…The production of lists revolutionized science in the 19th century and led to modern science.

P.138 List-making is foundational for coordinating activity distributed in time and space. Lists are in themselves a genre of representation. Genres are “typified communicative action performed by members of an organizational community in response to a recurrent situation…identified by both their socially recognized communicative purpose and by common characteristics of form.”

p.139 Valuable lessons to understanding the management and use of information technologies in very large organizations:

  • There is a permanent tension between attempts at universal standardization of lists and the local circumstances of those using them.
  • This tension should not, and cannot be resolved by imposed standardization because the problem is recursive.
  • From the point of view of coordination, ad hoc responses to standardized lists can themselves be mined for their rich information about local circumstance. In turn, information technology might be tailored to support those needs not subvert them.
  • This type of list is an example of the sort of object that must satisfy members of communities or organizations with conflicting requirements. In its creation and later in its use the complex list is a kind of knowledge representation particularly useful for coordinating distributed work that often contains requirements of this sort.

P.142 Speaking of Japan’s low rate of fatal heart attacks – Overworked brains, or strokes, are much more acceptable. Heart attacks are a very low status cause of death. So the reported low levels of heart attacks may not be e.g. low levels of fat in Japanese diets, etc.

September 22, 2006 at 7:20 pm Leave a comment

More from Sorting Things Out

More comments from Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences by Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star

P.32 Speaking of Information Infrastructure, a good usable system disappears almost by definition.  The easier they are to use the harder they are to see.

p.35 Definitions of infrastructure: embeddedness, transparency, reach or scope, learned on membership, linked with conventions of practice, embodiment of standards, built on installed base, visible on breakdown, fixed in modular increments.

p.54 people juggle vernacular (or folk) classifications together with the most formal category schemes.  They subvert the formal schemes with informal work-arounds. 

p.61 classifications system types, Aristotelian, and Prototype.  Aristotelian works according to a set of binary characteristics that the object being classified either presents or does not…can be monothetic if a single set of conditions…can be polythetic if a number of shared characteristics are used.  This is what’s used in traditional science, geology, biology…. The Prototype system is fuzzier, theory proposes we have a broad picture and we extend this picture by metaphor and analogy when trying to decide if an object fits.  We call up the best example and then see if there is a reasonable direct of metaphorical thread that takes us from the example to the object under consideration. 

Supervenient and subvenient are neat words I guess related to convenient.

p.68 “To communicate information in the aggregate, we must first classify….”

p.82 The sharing of information resources and tools is a dimension of any coherent community….on the other hand, any given social world itself generates many interlinked information artifacts: information artifacts undergird social worlds and social worlds undergird these same information resources.

p.86 The ICD [a medical classification system] carries with it its own context.  This is a common feature of classification systems.

p.87 To tell stories of the sort we are most familiar with one needs objects in the world that can be cut up spatially and temporally into recognizable units….p.98 partly because that’s the way the world is and partly because that is the only way that science as we know it can work.

p.103 Precision always beats no precision…and (John King?) “Some numbers beat no numbers every time”

September 20, 2006 at 1:03 pm Leave a comment

More Sorting

More comments from from Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences by Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star

p.13 Anything consistently called a classification system and treated as such can be included in the term.  [I interpreted this as ‘even if it’s not complete, act like it is, or people won’t trust it enough to use it.’  This should be ‘”Someone’s” First law.’  Someone’s Second Law might be, ‘It’s easier to edit then create.’  Get the hard work done so we at least have *something* then we can edit and tweak to our heart’s content]


  1. A set of agreed upon rules for production of textual and material objects.
  2. Astandard spans more than one community of practice (or site of activity).  It has temporal reach – it persists over time.
  3. Standards are deployed in making things work together over distance and heterogeneous metrics.
  4. Legal bodies often enforce standards
  5. There is no natural law that the best standard shall win
  6. Standards can have significant inertia and can be very difficult and expensive to change. [this might argue against Someone’s Second Law….]

p.15 [The control of standards] …is key to knowledge production as well….far more economic resources are spent creating and maintaining standards than in producing “pure” science. [searching google books is pretty cool.  You can find quotes like this if you can’t read your notes.]

Classification and standards are related in another sense, which concerns the use of a classification by more than one social world or community of practice – classifications as objects for cooperation across social worlds or as boundary objects = those objects that both inhabit several communities of practice and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them….objects that are able both to travel across borders and maintain some sort of constant identity.  They can be tailored to meet the needs of any one community (they are plastic in this sense, or customizable).  At the same time, they have common identities across settings.  This is achieved by allowing the objects to be weakly structured in common use, imposing stronger structures in the individual tailored use.  They are both ambiguous and constant; they may be abstract or concrete.

p.24 Making all knowledge retrievable and thus redebatable is an appealing solution in a sense from a purely information scientific point of view.  From a practical organizational viewpoint, however, this approach fails.

As we know from studies of work of all sorts, people do not do the ideal job, but the doable job.  When faced with too many alternatives and too much information, they saticfice.

p.25 [with the] use of hyperlinked digital libraries we…can customize our own library spaces…but this is also so much more work that we fall into a lowest level convenience classification that a high level semantic one.

p.32 “My guess is that we have a folk theory of categorization itself.  It says that things come in well-defined kinds, that the kinds are characterized by shared properties, and that there is one right taxonomy of the kinds. It is easier to show what is wrong with a scientific theory than with a folk theory.  A folk theory defines common sense itself….” – Lakoff

September 8, 2006 at 1:02 pm Leave a comment

Sorting things out

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.” 

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

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