You in the Dewey Decimal System

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Estimated reading time 1–2 minutes Dewey Decimal System Meme. Some seasonal silliness!

via Impressions Scholarcast.

Here’s mine:

Fran’s Dewey Decimal Section:
002 The book

000 Computer Science, Information & General Works

Encyclopedias, magazines, journals and books with quotations.

What it says about you:
You are very informative and up to date. You’re working on living in the here and now, not the past. You go through a lot of changes. When you make a decision you can be very sure of yourself, maybe even stubborn, but your friends appreciate your honesty and resolve.

Find your Dewey Decimal Section at

Knowledge angels

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< 1 minute

Knowledge angels are not Christmas decorations 2.0 but are “those people in information industries who are the most expert, understand innovations in their sector and add the most value to a company” according to an article on Alphagalileo. The phrase is based on “business angels” and one of the researchers who coined it stated: “Other possible names, such as, for instance, ‘consulting wizards’, ‘services magicians’, ‘knowledge-intensive demons’ or any further hybrid creatures resulting from the crossing of a management handbook and a magic trading cards, would sound less attractive.”

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the phrase to start appearing on CVs!

National Centre for Text Mining

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< 1 minute

The National Centre for Text Mining is “the first publicly-funded text mining centre in the world”. It is an initiative of Manchester and Liverpool universities, working with the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Tokyo. They appear to be working mainly on biology texts at the moment, but I enjoyed the explanations of their techniques and processes, despite the technicality. There are links to events and seminars that are aimed at the scientific community but some would probably be of interest to more general semantic web enthusiasts.

The Social Life of Information

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Estimated reading time 3–5 minutes

The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid is an info classic. It’s one of those delightful books that manages to be very erudite, cover a huge range of theory, but reads effortlessly and even had me laughing out loud from time to time. (My favourite anecdote was that BT’s answer to homeworkers’ sense of isolation was to pipe a soundtrack of canned background noise and chatter into their offices!)

Essentially, the book argues that information and information technology cannot be separated from its social context and ignoring the human factors in technology adoption and use leads to fundamental misunderstandings of what it can and does do. This may mean overestimating the potential of information technology to change pre-existing institutions and practices, on both a personal and collective scale, and underestimating the ability of people to adapt technology to suit their ends rather than those envisaged by the technologists.

The authors argue that many “infoenthusiasts” miss subtleties of communication, such as the implicit social negotiations that take place in face-to-face conversations or the social meanings conveyed by a document printed on high quality paper or a book with expensive leather binding. Such nuances are easily lost when the words from such communications are removed from their original context and placed in a new environment – such as an electronic database.

Similarly, although personalisation is often touted as a great advance – you can have your own uniquley customised version of a website or a newspaper – such personalisation diminishes the power of the information source to act as a binding-point for a community. If we all have different versions of the newspaper, then we can’t assume we share common knowledge of the same stories. We then have to put additional work into reconnecting and recreating our knowledge communities, so the benefits of personalisation do not come without costs.

The importance of negotiation, collaboration, and improvisation is argued to be highly significant but extremely hard to build into automated systems. The social nature of language and the complexities of learning how to be a member of a community of practice, including knowing when to break or bend rules, are also essential to how human beings operate but extremely difficult to replicate in technological systems.

The theme of balance runs throughout the book – for example between the need to control processes while allowing freedom for innovation in companies or between the need for communication amongst companies and the need to protect intellectual property (knowledge in companies was often either seen as too “sticky” – hard to transfer and use – or too “leaky” – flowing too easily to competitors). At an institutional level, balance is needed between the importance of stability for building trust and openness to evolution (the perception of the value of a degree is bound up with the established reputation of an educational institution).

I found this very interesting, as my brother has been trying to persuade me that Daoism with its emphasis on things moving gradually from one state to another is a more productive way at looking at complex systems than the Aristotelian view that something can be in one category, or its opposite, but never both at once. (Here is a sisterly plug for an article he has written on the application of Daoist ideas to environmentalism). It also fits in with the idea of balancing the stability of an ordered taxonomy with the fast-flowing nature of folksonomies and of finding a way of using social media to support rather than compete with more formalised knowledge management practice. Brown and Duguid say: “For all the advantages of fluidity, we should not forget that fixity still has its charms. Most of us prefer the checks we receive and the contracts we write to remain stable”, which seems particularly apt given the global credit crisis!


The Fractal Nature of Knowledge « Not Otherwise Categorized…

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Estimated reading time 1–2 minutes

The Fractal Nature of Knowledge « Not Otherwise Categorized… is Seth Earley’s response to a question about whether we “need more categories” as knowledge becomes more specialised. He points out that “categories are only meaningful given a specific scale” and that the level of abstraction you need depends on the context.

The metaphor of the fractal nature of knowledge strikes me as quite a good one in this respect – a knowledge organisation system should allow you to pan out or zoom in to get different views, but obviously there are practical limits (Borges’s map of the empire that is the same size as the empire itself) so you have to make a selection – in both breadth and depth. Seth Earley notes that “Communities of Practice can coalesce around extremely arcane branches of knowledge” and they could well need a very “fine grain” that no-one else in their organisation would ever use.

He adds that “there is no ‘standard’ way of organizing knowledge even for a specific process in a specific industry” and describes the way different organisations (businesses, libraries, universities) have different “knowledge consumers” and therefore different classification needs. He also argues that for businesses to gain maiximum value from their knowledge, they should find the “sweet spot” between chaos and control – allowing people to “self-organise” while contributing to the overall goals of the business.