Dead KM Walking

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Estimated reading time 2–3 minutes

This fascinating video (with transcript and follow-up post) on Patrick Lambe’s excellent blog (Green Chameleon) has turned out to be something of a hit, generating quite a discussion.

There’s far more in it than I can do justice to here, but I was struck by two core questions – what is the future for “knowledge management” as a field or practice in itself and what is the future for the phrase “knowledge management”?

I think that “knowledge management” as a practice has always been important and always will be, but the name may well change again and again (I’m sure the basic idea has been referred to as all sorts of things in the past). The lifespan of names is getting shorter and shorter these days, driven by the need to appear innovative and cutting edge all the time. There is also a tension – as people become specialised – to distinguish themselves from each other. This happens in every discipline – biologist, zoologist, ornithologist, herpetologist, virologist, etc. What I am not so sure about is whether “information professional” is accepted and well enough understood as a catch-all, so that “knowledge managers”, “records managers”, “librarians”, “information architects”, “enterprise content managers” etc are all seen as cousins in the same family. I’m also not sure if what is going on at the moment with “knowledge management” is is a kind of vying for dominance of the different terms, so at one point it looked like “knowledge management” would be the one and only catch-all term (rather than “information professional”, “information scientist” etc) and that other terms are now rising to prominence. What I am convinced of, however, is that everybody needs to talk to each other as much as possible and not let names turn into silos. Just as in a taxonomy – the labels are supposed to be signposts, not barriers.

Cultural design misunderstandings

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< 1 minute

A really interesting discussion about the differences between Chinese and American website design on Live From Beijing (via 290s). I particularly liked the comment “Let’s avoid the trap of explaining things with culture instead of explicit motivations.” It’s so hard to disentangle the multiple motivations and influences on user behaviour, but financial gain does seem to have a tendency to trump everything else!

SKOS event

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Estimated reading time 2–2 minutes

The ISKO UK event Sharing vocabularies on the web via simple knowledge organisaton system (SKOS) was another roaring success, with great speakers and a very high calibre audience. If you’ve been reading up on knowledge organisation and want your books signed by the authors, an ISKO meeting is the place to go! The SKOS event, on Monday 21st July, was very detailed and technical, but understandable enough for novices to the subject to appreciate, and a great way of getting a handle on some of the key concepts. The first speaker was Alistair Miles from the University of Oxford who is using SKOS to get biological research (specifically into fruit flies) onto the semantic web. His colleague Antoine Isaac talked about transforming exisiting knowledge organisation systems into a semantic web format. Stella Dextre Clarke, Leonard Will, and Nicolas Cochard talked about the new British Standard (BS8723) for thesaurus creation that they have been compiling. It is in the process of being turned into an ISO standard. They also explained its relationship to SKOS. Ceri Binding and Douglas Tudhope from the University of Glamorgan then described their STAR project for managing archaeological information using SKOS. Finally Bernard Vatant from Mondeca explained that you don’t have to choose between SKOS and OWL – you can use both.

The event ended with a panel session for questions and answers and then networking over wine and nibbles.

Procedure in Taxonomy

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Procedure in Taxonomy by Edward T. Schenk and John H. McMasters is a gem of a book, first published in 1936. I read the third edition (published in 1956 and only borrowed 22 times from the library since then – 4 of which were in 1957!). It is a set of instructions and style guides for zoological nomenclature, with additional guides, such as how to select a repository for the storage of type specimens. Its phenomenal precision and attention to detail are a testament to the level of scholarship involved in scientific taxonomy and a reminder of the hours of painstaking effort that went into creating the information-rich world we so easily take for granted today.

Truth and Interpretation

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Estimated reading time 1–2 minutes

Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation by Donald Davidson contains a series of philosophical essays on linguistic topics. I am interested in the way that different people respond differently to the language used in taxonomies and so delved into this to try to get a handle on recent linguistic theory. Most of the essays are very technical but I found the essays on Conceptual Schemes and Communication and Convention quite useful. Davidson argues that it makes no sense to talk of completely mutually unintelligible conceptual schemes. We can only talk about schemes as being different because there are some areas of mutual intelligibility and it is this common ground that enables us to highlight local differences.

In Communication and Convention, he argues that repetition and rules-based language conventions are helpful and usual practice in communication, but not necessary. We do not need to agree in advance a theory of interpretation before we start speaking to someone new, because we can develop this through the process of communication itself. However, it saves an awful lot of time if we just assume they understand language in the same way we do and most of the time they do. If they don’t we can modify our theory and try to establish a means of communication as we go along.

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things

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Estimated reading time 3–4 minutes

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: what categories reveal about the mind by George Lakoff is a hefty tome and a core text in cognitive science. It is 587 pages long, so there are a lot of ideas in there and I am not going to do it justice in this little blog post! Basically, Lakoff starts by bringing together aspects of the work of philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin, anthropologists, and psychologists – primarily Eleanor Rosch to show how the notion of meaning being rooted in context rather than in some external objective ideal has risen to prominence since the middle of the last century.

Most important for taxonomists is the work of Rosch, whose experiments in the way people form and understand categories shows that categories do not always conform to the “classical” or “folk theory” of categorisation. Since Aristotle, people have assumed that categories are made by noticing “real” properties of things and grouping things by matching those properties. Rosch showed that people actually form categories in various ways, sometimes by grouping matching properties, but sometimes by taking a “central example” and matching similar things that may not actually share any particular properties (e.g. a desk chair is a more typical kind of chair than a bean bag chair, and the two things don’t really have much in common except that we can see they are both sorts of chair). Other ways to form categories include metaphorical association (e.g. communication as liquid in channels) or by metonymy, where a part of something is taken to represent the whole thing (e.g. hands meaning workers).

The categories we choose are also rooted in our nature as physical beings – our colour categories are dependent on the structure of the eye, for example. We also tend to operate most naturally at an “intermediate” level of specificity – the level of the ordinary everyday objects we interact with – books, chairs, dogs, cats, etc – rather than the more abstract level – furniture, animals, etc – or the more specific – paperback novels, deckchairs, Dalmatians, Felix the cat. Children seem to learn these mid-level terms first, and my instinct is that as taxonomists it is typically the middle levels of granularity that are the most troublesome.

Lakoff uses such experimental evidence to argue against objectivism and in favour of “experiential realism” (or “experientialism”) – that our conceptual systems, including the way we form categories – come from our physical bodies and the social and physical environment we find ourselves experiencing. Truth, categories, knowledge, are not “out there” for us to perceive, but are generated from within our subjective experience. (This means that there is no “right” taxonomy for anything – there are only taxonomies that work in particular contexts.)

There’s more detail in this summary and in Donna Mauer’s presentation on the book.

It also has its detractors – this is one critique that I am still working my way through.

Folksonomies and pace layering in information architecture

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Estimated reading time 1–2 minutes

Pace layering in ia is a paper by D. Grant Campbell and Karl V. Fast from the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario. They bring pace layering theories from ecology and environmental science into information architecture, viewing ia as an “ecology”. Basically, ecologists have noted that events occurring over different timescales interact to affect an environment – something like the lowering of the water table would be a slow event, but a flash flood would be a fast event. Only by looking at the ways these differently “paced layers” interact, can you predict how the local environment will respond. They propose that the underlying ia of website, with taxonomies and embedded nvigation structures etc., is a slow layer but that folksonomies bubble away as a fast layer of the site, changing rapidly and responding quickly. They suggest that the most stable structure will be one that can accommodate both fast-moving and slow-moving layers and that the slow layer must be robust and flexible enough to adjust itself to pressures from the fast layer.

I don’t think I have grasped all the implications of this, but my first impression is that it fits well with the “best of both worlds” approach – encouraging social tagging but not relying on it for critical information management, while using the folksonomic tags as feedback for updating and reviewing taxonomies.

Digital Information Culture

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Digital Information Culture: The Individual and Society in the Digital Age was well worth a read (the link is to a serious review). I found it a bit hard going to start with (but I’d always rather be challenged than patronised) probably because it began with a scholarly overview of concepts of culture. I enjoyed the interesting juxtapositions, such as the way the concept of text as artefact has changed since medieval times and how the idea of text as a performance is returning in the online arena. With chapters looking at the effect of the cyber revolution on notions of knowledge, authority, power, memory, and identity, it posed lots of challenging questions and highlighted some new ways of examining the cultural, political and psychological effects of the digital age.