On Tags and Ontologies [en]

Quote from Clay Shirky on the suckiness of ontologies, and how tags-labels are better for classifying ideas.

[fr] Le problème avec les ontologies ou les systèmes de classement hiérarchiques est qu'ils doivent être conçus de façon à  accommoder tout élément à  classer pouvant surgir dans le futur. Les tags-étiquettes créent une structure multi-dimentionelle élastique, qui s'adapte à  mesure à  ce qu'on y classe.

This last point is key — the number one fucked up thing about ontology (don’t get me started, the suckiness of ontology is going to be my ETech talk this year…), but, as I say, the number one thing, out of a rich list of such things, is the need to declare today what contains what as a prediction about the future. Let’s say I have a bunch of books on art and creativity, and no other books on creativity. Books about creativity are, for the moment, a subset of art books, which are a subset of all books.

Then I get a book about creativity in engineering. Ruh roh. I either break my ontology, or I have to separate the books on creativity, because when I did the earlier nesting, I didn’t know there would be books on creativity in engineering. A system that requires you to predict the future up front is guaranteed to get worse over time.

And the reason ontology has been even a moderately good idea for the last few hundred years is that the physical fact of books forces you to predict the future. You have to put a book somewhere when you get it, and as you get more books, you can neither reshelve constantly, nor buy enough copies of any given book to file it on all dimensions you might want to search for it on later.

Ontology is a good way to organize objects, in other words, but it is a terrible way to organize ideas, and in the period between the invention of the printing press and the invention of the symlink, we were forced to optimize for the storage and retrieval of objects, not ideas. Now, though, we can scrap of the stupid hack of modeling our worldview on the dictates of shelf space. One day the concept of creativity can be a subset of a larger category, and the next day it can become a slice that cuts across several categories. In hierarchy land, this is a crisis; in tag land, it’s an operation so simple it hardly merits comment.

Clay Shirky, Many-to-Many


4 thoughts on “On Tags and Ontologies [en]

  1. Yea, but the real question is:
    Where do I store that self-referential catalogue to my whole library?

  2. Oui, mais moi je veux quand même un moyen de faire la différence entre Paris en France, Paris au Texas, la nombreuse famille de Mr et Mme Paris, …

    Y a-t-il une convention simple ?


  3. J’y ai repensé, on peut pas continuer avec un système flat où le mec qui cherche des infos sur l’Indochine va tomber sur des centaines de liens sur le groupe, idem pour celui qui cherche Frantz Ferdinand, où la personne qui cherche des photos de Chirac, la petite ville de Lozère, pas le président Français.

    Un truc simple comme band:Indochine, country:Indochine, band:Frantz_Ferdinand, person:Frantz_Ferdinand, city:Chirac, person:Chirac semblerait un minimum, d’autant plus qu’après, il devient beaucoup facile d’extraire une liste de groupes :


    ou de personnes :

    d’un tel système.

    Un système un tout petit peu plus sémantique que les tags flats doit être facile à  implémenter, et serait à  terme bien plus puissant.


  4. Pingback: Rogers Blog - Tags

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