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Light blogging: organising life May 25, 2007

Posted by Johan in Links, Off Topic, Self-Management.

Wired has a few interesting articles about taxonomies. In Order is in the Eye of the Tagger, David Weinberger starts in today’s web 2.0 tagging systems, and traces its roots back to the original taxonomies proposed by Linnaeus. The central thesis is that older taxonomies such as that by Linnaeus were limited by the very fact that they were written on paper, which only allowed structure through hierarchies, going from high to low (human to worm, in Linnaeus’ system).

Modern tagging systems, such as those used by blogs, Flickr and del.icio.us, rely on a horizontal structure instead, where categories can be made up on the spot, by mixing and matching different tags to produce a list of the content you want to see. The flexibility of tagging is that items can exist in multiple categories, a solution that quickly results in chaos in traditional hierarchical tree structures.

A related article describes an attempt to impose this kind of tagging structure on Linnaeus’ taxonomy. The business-backed Encyclopedia of Life project seeks to do just that, as this article outlines. This is not the first attempt at this, but unlike previous projects it has enough financial backing to make it borderline-feasible. To get an idea of what they’re trying to do, watch this promo video from youtube:

Note the none-too-subtle similarities with this video. I guess plagiarism isn’t quite as much frowned upon in marketing as it is in academia.

While all this is pretty cool, especially for librarians and web designers, it’s easy to get carried away with what essentially is a filing system. On the page for the Encyclopedia of Life promo video, one commenter announced that this project is the biggest thing in biology since Watson and Crick, which is frankly delusional. Sure, structured information makes research faster and easier, but in itself, a perfectly organised book shelf has no value. It’s what you make of it that matters.

It is interesting, however, to try to apply tagging to your own files. Unfortunately, no current operating system really supports filing by tag rather than by directory (although some try to reverse-engineer this feature anyway). I can’t wait for these technologies to move from the web to your hard drive – my own article filing system is already falling apart (4 folder levels deep and counting…), and I’m not even postgrad yet.


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