A folk Taxonomy showing the hierarchy of animals, mammals, cats, and Tabby. by Alex Wright

Exploring Taxonomy: A Thought-Provoking Talk by Alex Wright

Understanding the Universality of Taxonomies in Human Cultures

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Animal Folksonomy : an image by Alex Wright

I recently heard Alex Wright speak at the Long Now Foundation via their podcast.

Here is the transcript for the talk.

Stuart Brand: As usual, incest is bad in biology but probably good in intellectual affairs. I didn’t really realize this. Alex Wright, who’s speaking tonight, has already been a part of the Long Now operation. Jim Mason found him a couple of years ago when we were just starting the Rosetta Project to get all the languages in the world online. Alex came out and was the information architect for the original Rosetta site, wire-framed it up, and got it in the direction it is now advancing rapidly. I was just asking him beforehand, now that you’re the information architect for the New York Times, what exactly does that mean? And I realized it was going to be a long answer, so if he doesn’t explain it during the talk, ask him about it afterward. The thing that is common with most of the talks in this series is we look at phenomena that are usually looked at in terms of their scope, breadth, and impact but not so often in terms of their time depth. The time depth gives you this other perspective on all sorts of things. Something that is obsessing us more and more from week to week and day to day—cell phones and whatnot—is managing information. They say this is the biological century; it’s also still an accelerating information century. So the long-term perspective on dealing with that is what we’ve got tonight from Alex Wright.

Alex Wright: Thank you, Stuart, and thank you, Xander and Danielle, for setting this up tonight. Thanks to all of you for coming out. I’m really thrilled to be here. I’ve been a longtime fan of the Long Now Foundation, and as Stuart mentioned, I’ve done some work with them in the past. I’m a member, and I hope you all are too. Especially as a first-time and relatively unknown author, it’s a great opportunity. I’m really pleased to have a chance to talk about some of the ideas in my book. My book just came out a few weeks ago, and I’ve been doing a little bit of publicity around it and a couple of interviews. A few weeks ago, I did a quick little email interview with some folks at Powell’s Books up in Portland, Oregon. I don’t know if people have heard of them—great little, great big independent bookstore up there, right? Yeah, definitely buy your books online from them. Anyway, so this little Q&A, and one of the questions they asked was, “What was your favorite book as a child?” I had to think about that for a little while. I didn’t really have a single favorite book, but the ones that came to mind at different times might have been like “The Phantom Tollbooth” or “A Wrinkle in Time.” I wasn’t going to say “Lord of the Rings,” although that was probably true. But the book that I ended up mentioning, and this is going to sound like I’m playing to the crowd here, but this is honestly what I said, was “The Whole Earth Catalog.” When I was about 10 years old, my parents had these friends in Cambridge, Mass., kind of these hippie friends—well, actually, he was a physics professor, but they were philosophical hippies. They started sending me “The Whole Earth Catalog” every time it came out. I don’t think it was every year, but whenever it came out, they would send me a copy of it. I didn’t really know what to make of it at first. I would just sort of flip through it and think it was a bunch of interesting, strange stuff in there like stories about how to build your own yurt or how to go kayaking. It was just a real mishmash of stuff. I think they had a page about the Kama Sutra, which I found particularly fascinating. But it also had, as I recall, this whole section on whole systems and this idea that was interesting to me. Over time, I started to sort of understand it a little bit. It took this sort of broad view and had this approach to tying together a lot of seemingly disconnected information and presenting it in a new sort of context. It was very different from most books. You couldn’t really read it from front to back; it was really just a lot of little chunks of information that were pulled together in interesting ways. A lot of people have since argued that it sort of anticipated the web, which I think is true. I can’t say that as a 12-year-old I had a great vision of that. I think I was more into the Kama Sutra. But it did have a sort of point of view, which was this notion that things were connected and that we could look at the artifacts of human culture in a larger context, in an ecological context, and understand that we could look at the systems we create as part of larger systems or how systems work in nature. That’s an interesting point of view that I think has had legs. Especially as the web has taken shape, a lot of people have started to think about it in those terms, possibly as a kind of ecosystem or maybe even having some kind of evolutionary significance. This gets me into what I want to talk about tonight, which is this notion of deep history. The term “deep history” isn’t a clearly defined term. Different people use it in different ways. The way I’m using it tonight is to look at human culture on an evolutionary timeline. As opposed to the traditional narrative of Western culture, which usually starts about two or three thousand years ago with the Greeks, the idea is to take a longer view and explore whether there are patterns we can recognize in recent human history that might be part of a longer-term trajectory we could explore in terms of evolution.

Another way of putting it might be—so the question I want to ask tonight is really, can we say that information systems evolve, and if so, what does that tell us about the experience we’re all going through today? I think we all can look around and see that we’re living in a pretty interesting time. There’s a huge volume of information being produced right now in all kinds of new ways, and we’re seeing all kinds of social change, cultural change, political change. We’re going through a period of a lot of disruption. There have been people who’ve suggested that this is some sort of evolutionary leap forward. I think we have to be a little bit careful about that, but I want to give you a couple of examples of people who’ve tried to make this case. One is Ray Kurzweil, who gave a talk at the Long Now Foundation, I think a year or two ago. He makes the case that the emergence of networked computers is basically an evolutionary event, that we’re effectively seeing the emergence of a new kind of global intelligence that is on par with the creation of a new species. It’s a pretty—and he’s a brilliant guy, he’s out there—but this is certainly a point of view that has some credibility. This was also a similar line as Danny Hillis, another Long Now person. This is from an article in Wired a few years ago. He made a similar case that we are living through a period where we could look at this as sort of an evolutionary leap forward. I think we have to be a little careful with words like “evolution.” Before we start completely buying into this notion that information systems literally evolve, I think we have to recognize that there are some pretty strong and legitimate objections to using the word “evolution” in that context. I think the late Stephen Jay Gould probably voiced this as well as anybody, where he suggested that using the term as a descriptor for the way human cultural systems move forward is a little misleading. He made the case that one common fallacy is this notion that evolution equals progress. His point of view was that if you really look at the evolutionary history of the planet, the most successful species on earth are and have always been bacteria. They’ve been around for two billion years, they haven’t really changed much, and yet they are the dominant, by any objective measure, life form on earth. So, they’re an evolutionary success story that really hasn’t had to do much. When we start to give ourselves too much credit in evolutionary terms, it’s worth keeping in mind that our own experience is pretty limited and that we should really define our terms carefully before we start talking about evolution. This is a phrase that’s often used by so-called cultural relativists who object to talking about human culture in biological terms. It means all culture comes from culture. The argument is that human culture is such a complex phenomenon that it can’t be reduced to simple biological evolution. Not that evolution is simple, but that it’s a complex phenomenon that cultural phenomena come out of culture and that it’s not predictable. We have to be careful about trying to boil it down to a simplistic argument. I think it’s worth acknowledging those objections before I get into this because I’m going to talk a bit about the ways in which I think evolutionary theory does apply to the progression of information systems. But I want to at least acknowledge the objections and talk about how far we can take that case.

So just to go all the way back, if we look at the very earliest emergence of life on earth, at least complex life, for a long time the conventional wisdom among biologists was that life forms evolved as individual units and that you had simple life forms that progressively, through adaptation, became more complex and more specialized and eventually resulted in very complex organisms like ourselves. Well, a couple of decades ago, a biologist named Lynn Margulis challenged that conventional wisdom, and she suggested that we could look at the origin of life in a different way. Her theory was that the very earliest complex life forms actually emerged as social collectives. Her theory is that the earliest multicellular life took shape as individual single-celled organisms started to collaborate and work together, effectively exchanging data with each other. Over time, those social collectives coalesced into larger organisms that eventually started to cohere. To make a long and oversimplified story short, over time those larger life forms then also started to aggregate into social organizations. The reason this is interesting is that it raises the question of what the boundary is between an individual life form and a social organization. Can it be said that a social organization evolves? If you take this point of view, it suggests that yes, there is a sense in which social units actually do evolve in the same way that individual life forms evolve. How does that work? There are a couple of patterns at work there. One is networks. At the simplest level, at all sorts of levels of the biological hierarchy, there is this pattern of networks of entities that coalesce into self-organizing groups. These groups are flat; there isn’t really a top, but they tend to come together or drift apart in a self-organizing way. The other pattern at work is hierarchies. What you see in the history of complex life forms is that as networks take shape, they tend to give rise to hierarchies that emerge out of those networks. In the case of organic life, you had networks of individual organisms coming together, and over time new hierarchies, like complex life forms, emerged. As those complex organisms started to come together, they also formed social networks. Over time, new kinds of social hierarchies emerged out of that. This is a pattern of networks giving rise to hierarchies, which in turn coalesce into networks, which in turn give rise to new hierarchies. This is a theme that I try to work with in the book. How far does that pattern really go, and what can that tell us about the way that people and other animals interact with each other? Is there something we can learn from that in terms of thinking about information systems?

We can look at these sorts of patterns throughout the animal kingdom. I’m not going to go too deep into this, but in the book, I do spend some time looking at, for instance, the study of insect colonies. This is a great example of how social organisms take shape, where you have units of fairly simple individual life forms coming together, and a higher intelligence emerges out of their interaction. There are all kinds of stories about ant colonies and beehives and how they function as information processing machines with certain characteristics that aren’t predicted by the individual intelligence of the organisms. If we go further up the chain into more complex life forms, we can also see these patterns in other animals. This notion of a superorganism—an entity made up of individual life forms where the social group takes on its own characteristics and functions almost as a higher brain function for the group with distributed intelligence—has often been used as a metaphor for the web. We see this very distributed intelligence where we have a network that’s flat, yet we see certain clusters or organs or ad-hoc organizations emerge out of an otherwise flat network. A lot of computer scientists have looked at these sorts of biological models of computing as frameworks for thinking about how computers work. Kevin Kelly wrote about this eloquently in “Out of Control,” and quite a few other folks have explored this theme. There is a case to be made that information systems exist in the natural world and that these patterns exist. If we can say that other animals traffic in information and have something like a system or at least a strategy for exchanging information, we can start to ask how that phenomenon happens. We can’t necessarily explain it purely in terms of genetic evolution. If we just look at the DNA level, there’s only so much it will tell us about these social interactions.

There is a compelling theory that explains how this works. E.O. Wilson, a famous biologist at Harvard who coined the term sociobiology, has a theory of epigenetic rules. He defines epigenetic rules as a concept, not an actual biological thing you can point to. The idea is that it’s a framework for explaining how certain cognitive processes or mental capacities evolve that enable a social organization to create a culture. In other words, it explains how individual organisms over time develop certain characteristics through genetic inheritance that enable cultural behaviors to be transmitted from generation to generation. His argument is that through epigenetic rules, certain cultural patterns emerge that are passed on through culture from generation to generation and are reinforced in the genetic code. This is a complex idea, but I hope it’s making some sense. He gives a few examples of epigenetic rules. He distinguishes between primary and secondary rules. A primary epigenetic rule would be that we all perceive the same range of the color spectrum. We’re all equipped to see things in the same way. Similarly, a lot of our senses seem to be governed by this claim. There’s some value to humanity in us all seeing the same color spectrum or hearing the same range of sound. He then takes the argument further, and this is where it gets controversial. He suggests that you can also use this framework to explain why, in every known human culture, people are afraid of snakes. There’s no gene that tells us to be afraid of snakes. There’s no gene you can point to, as far as we know. I think with all the genetic sequencing they’re doing, they haven’t found the fear of snakes gene. Yet, all cultures have some sort of serpent mythology or some reason to be afraid of snakes. The way he would explain that is that it’s a combination of genes. Over a long period of time, the people who were afraid of snakes were more likely to pass on their genes than those who weren’t. He takes it further, and this gets into contentious territory. He suggests that you can use this to explain why there are so many similar narrative archetypes in human cultures, such as the hero’s descent or the presence of trickster gods in mythologies. He goes so far as to suggest that these archetypes have an evolutionary role in helping the group to survive and reproduce. These cultural archetypes create a stable cultural system that benefits the larger group. The last one on this list is particularly interesting. He suggests, with a lot of data to back it up, that our propensity for categorizing information also has to do with an epigenetic rule. Let me give you an example of what that means.

In every known human culture, people categorize information about plants and animals. This is the primordial information system. If you’re living in a tribal community 80,000 years ago, it’s essential to have a shared understanding of the natural world. You need to know which snakes are poisonous and which plants you can eat. That kind of information is built up over time through trial and error. A lot of people ate the wrong plants or mushrooms, and that information is preserved in a cultural framework that gets passed on and embedded in the language. Over time, these classifications become more complex. People start to create categories, noticing that there are categories of things that fly or something like mammals and insects. These categories become more granular over time. These are called folk taxonomies, not to be confused with folksonomies, which you might have heard of as last year’s buzzword. Folk taxonomies are systems for categorizing information about plants and animals present in every human culture ever studied. From Papua New Guinea to the Australian outback to Native American tribes, every culture has a system like this. What’s particularly interesting is that these systems bear an incredible degree of resemblance to each other. They have certain characteristics that are almost identical, even in cultures that evolved on separate continents over tens of thousands of years. This is surprising, considering how different these cultures are in other ways. They almost invariably have a concept of the highest order of life forms, like plants and animals. They have a concept of genus and species, subspecies, and what’s interesting about that is that this hierarchy is invariable in every culture ever studied. There’s an anthropologist named Brent Berlin who spent his whole life studying this. Every tribal society documented has a taxonomy of the natural world that is invariably five levels deep. The actual contents may vary slightly, but generally, they are pretty similar. This suggests that this might be an example of an epigenetic rule. Anthropologists and sociobiologists haven’t quite come to terms on this yet, but it seems to suggest a deep biological disposition to categorize the world in hierarchical terms.

A folk taxonomy does not look like this. This is an example of a folksonomy, which you see a lot on the web these days. Fast-forwarding a little bit, a lot of people think hierarchies are falling apart, and everything is networked and loosey-goosey. But it seems that we have a deep-seated disposition towards categorizing the world hierarchically. This goes into more detail than we want to get into, but Berlin has developed a model for what these folk taxonomies typically look like. What’s interesting is why they are so similar and where that structure comes from, this five- or six-level taxonomy. There was an anthropologist named Emile Durkheim who wrote around the turn of the century and also studied folk taxonomies. He believed there was a relationship between folk taxonomies and family trees. He believed that in cultures without any alphabetic writing technology, they used these folk taxonomies to project their understanding of family relationships. It’s common in folk taxonomies for people to describe a particular animal as belonging to a parent category or having family relationships. We do this all the time; we talk about our cousins, the chimpanzees, for instance. The way people use family terms is somehow bound up with our understanding of the natural world. Here’s another example of a family tree, Charles Darwin’s family tree. Here’s another family tree, a genealogy of the Greek gods. What’s interesting here is that there is a relationship between this kind of mythology and taxonomy. If you look at most mythologies in world cultures, there are ways of explaining the natural world in addition to being collections of stories. They also have codes. Every god often has animals or natural elements they’re associated with. Zeus is the god of thunder, or this one goddess turns into a deer. In various cultures, there are these connections between taxonomies and mythologies. This relationship goes deep. There’s a great book called “Information Ages” by Hobart and Schiffman. They talk about how genealogy is an ideal way for people to classify the world, especially in preliterate societies. It gives people a framework for capturing what they know about the world around them and encoding it in these mythological stories. This can be preserved through generations by having a genealogical structure around it. In many cultures, the mythology is a way of categorizing information and containing a lot of information that is cross-referenced in interesting ways. These systems of taxonomy often play a direct role in shaping the way people live together and the social structure that grows up around it.

This is a photo of a Zuni Pueblo. The Zuni people live in what is today mostly New Mexico. When the Spanish conquistadors first encountered the Zuni, they noticed something unusual about the way they set up their villages. Each Pueblo was divided into quadrants, and each quadrant had a particular family, kind of a clan within the larger tribe. Each Pueblo had the exact same structure: north, south, east, west, and a group in the middle. Each group had a particular name and set of relationships with the natural world. The people in the north had an association with bears, a certain kind of snake, a certain kind of bird, and certain elements of the weather. They might be associated with rain, wind, or fire. They also had particular social responsibilities divided among these groups. The people in the middle were the priest class, and the people on one side of town were responsible for keeping the peace, while the people in another quadrant were responsible for making war. You had a division of social responsibility tied up in this taxonomy and understanding of the natural world. Another example is in the Australian outback, where tribes had a similar division of clans within the larger tribal group. They had dietary restrictions, like one clan only eating kangaroo and another only eating emus. They were also charged with having expertise in particular animals and natural elements. In preliterate societies, there’s a deep relationship between taxonomy and social organization. This pattern continues to play out as we see the relationship between information systems and social organization goes far back, with a direct relationship between the way people organize information and the way they organize themselves.

Today, we still organize things into hierarchies. This is a sitemap from a website, and many of these sitemaps echo this kind of hierarchical structure. Pages on a website often have a parent-child relationship, which is an echo of a folk taxonomy. We have a deep propensity for organizing information in a certain way. Folk taxonomies were a basic way of organizing information for most of our species’ history. They are not studied often, but they should be because they were dominant for at least eighty to ninety thousand years. They were transmitted orally through culture. Fast-forwarding to about thirty thousand years ago, for most of our species’ history, people didn’t have symbolic artifacts or communicate using external symbols. Around thirty thousand years ago, during the last great European Ice Age, temperatures plunged, small game dried up, and vegetation disappeared. People had to band together to survive, living in caves. They started hunting big game like woolly mammoths and prehistoric cows, realizing they needed to collaborate and form larger settlements. Around this time, people started creating beads and cave paintings, responding to changing environmental conditions. They needed to communicate status and negotiate relationships in larger groups. Early symbolism facilitated what is called a release from social proximity. People could use symbolic objects to communicate status without direct personal knowledge of everyone. This created opportunities for new social hierarchies to emerge, leading to the first tribal chiefdoms.

This relationship between new information technology and social change is interesting. Today, we still see this release from proximity in examples like eBay seller ratings, where symbolic totems help us negotiate relationships with people we’ve never met. Fast-forwarding to about five thousand years ago, the first alphabets emerged as people started living in larger agricultural settlements. With more commerce and transactions, they needed to keep track of them. Early forms of writing were counting tokens. Over time, these tokens became more sophisticated, leading to the creation of lists and eventually alphabetic writing for record-keeping. The first government bureaucracies emerged to manage this growing body of information. The modern institution, as we recognize it, took shape around the technology of writing. A literate class emerged, creating a division between those who could read and the vast majority who lived in an oral culture. This relationship between literate and oral cultures is relevant to some of the conflicts we see today.

Walter J. Ong, a linguist, wrote about oral culture and suggested that electronic media, like computers and television, represent the resurgence of oral culture. He believed oral cultures are additive, aggregative, and participatory, creating an understanding through the pooled experiences of many people. In contrast, literate culture is more individualistic, analytic, and abstract. These different modes of thought coexist but often come into conflict. It’s interesting to think about oral culture in the context of the web, where we see a very conversational tone in email, instant messaging, and blogging. An example is Amazon reviews, where reader reviews build up over time and are aggregated, while editorial reviews stand alone as more authoritative. This coexistence of oral and literate cultures continues.

As literate cultures emerged, so did the first institutional libraries, typically temple libraries or government archives. Over time, they grew larger, like the famous Library of Alexandria. These institutional hierarchies took custody of the growing body of recorded knowledge. There were ups and downs, with periods of instability followed by new libraries and archival institutions. This back-and-forth led to changes in the technology of writing, from stone tablets and papyrus scrolls to books. The codex book, with pages you can flip through, emerged in Europe during the Dark Ages and the medieval era. During this period, interesting innovations in the content of books took shape, like the Canon table, a hypertext-like view of the Bible, and medieval bestiaries, which combined oral and literate cultures.

The bestiary was popular in medieval Europe, based on an old Greek text but added to over time with allegorical significance. Stories about animals were layered with religious meaning, resonating with people’s interest in animals and the natural world. Parish churches often had only two books: the Bible and a bestiary. Villagers loved hearing stories from the bestiary, which connected folk tradition with religious meaning. Churches often had images from the bestiary on their walls.

Around the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, medieval monasteries developed the art of memory, a technique that enabled monks to memorize vast amounts of information. Masters of this technique could memorize up to two hundred thousand pages of information. They created memory palaces, visualizing rooms with objects that had particular meanings, which they memorized and strung together into words and text. This invoked a kind of spatial memory, different from memorizing rows of text. Some scholars suggest this is an early form of hypertext.

A man named Camillo built a physical facsimile of the art of memory called the Theatre of Memory. It was popular in Venice in the 16th century, where people could walk in, open windows with information, and cross-reference it to other windows. He claimed anyone who entered would come out as smart as Cicero. He raised money from the king but eventually went bankrupt.

Fast-forwarding to the effects of industrialization on information systems, changing environmental conditions have historically given rise to new technologies, changing how people exchange information and resulting in social change. This happened again at the beginning of the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, with an explosion of published information. The printing press was invented in the 15th century, but the real boom in printing didn’t happen until the 19th century. Industrial technology made it cheaper to produce books in mass quantities, and a growing urban population was increasingly literate, creating a demand for books. This led to the emergence of modern libraries, like the British Library and the Library of Congress, and public libraries. Libraries started to use catalogs with subject headings and hierarchies to keep track of books. The modern library catalog is an industrial artifact, increasingly anachronistic in a post-industrial world. There’s pressure on libraries to rethink how they organize information.

Charles Cutter, a rival of Melville Dewey, created an alternative library catalog system used by the Library of Congress. He wrote an essay in 1883 called “The Buffalo Public Library of 1983,” envisioning desks with keyboards and screens displaying book information. H.G. Wells wrote an essay called “World Brain,” envisioning a network of computers for information exchange. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit, wrote about electronic communications technology giving rise to new ways of organizing information and a revolutionary change. The Catholic Church considered his ideas heretical, but he influenced Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the global village.

Paul Otlet, a Belgian librarian, wrote important books about information theory in the early 20th century. He believed librarians were too fixated on books and should focus on the information inside them. He developed a classification system and envisioned users creating networks of meaning through documents. He built the Mundaneum in the 1930s, a successful information organization system with people phoning in research requests. The Nazis tore it down, and Otlet died in obscurity. His work was resurrected by scholars like Boyd Rayward and Michael Buckland. The Mundaneum was rebuilt in Belgium as a tourist attraction.

Vannevar Bush, often credited as the forefather of the web, wrote an essay called “As We May Think” in 1945, proposing the Memex, a tool for scholars to sift through documents on microfilm and annotate them. The Memex relied on users to create associations between documents, with two-way links and visible pathways. Eugene Garfield invented the algorithm that became Google’s PageRank. Doug Engelbart built the first working hypertext system in the 1960s. Xerox PARC was influential in developing the vision of the personal computer. Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, was a visionary but an outsider. He wrote about computers as tools for individual creativity and collaboration. He spent his career trying to build Project Xanadu, which never came to fruition. Nelson’s work includes concepts like transclusion, the idea that documents could include parts of other documents in real time.

The web, while dominant, is limited compared to the visions of early pioneers. Looking back at earlier systems can provide ideas for the future. This brings us to the present day. Here’s a screenshot of one of the first images of the web on Tim Berners-Lee’s machine, where he invented the World Wide Web.

I’ve covered a lot of ground, and my book delves into different periods in the history of information systems. I’ve tried to find recurring themes that might help us understand the challenges we face today. I want to close by reading the conclusion of my book, which I hope will make some sense of this.

“For most of our species’ history, human beings have interacted in small, tightly woven communities: families, villages, guilds, and other social groups whose members were bound by ties of direct kinship or close personal affiliation. Only in the past few thousand years have people allowed themselves to be governed by institutional bodies. On the scale of evolutionary history, institutions remain a short-lived hypothesis. Yet for tens of thousands of years, human beings have interacted as social animals, following unwritten norms strengthened by kinship, reinforced by the limbic responses that strengthen our personal relationships, and transmitted through the spoken word. Today, we’re seeing those instincts return to the fore as people adapt new technologies to invoke the ancient emotional circuitry they carried through the age before symbols. The future of memory may lie not in our heads but in our hearts.”

Stuart Brand: You’re not just a writer; you’re a designer, an information architect. What’s the by-play between this body of material and your design work? I assume you were a designer before you were a researcher in this area.

Alex Wright: It’s hard to say.

Stuart Brand: As you bring your own design sensibility into looking at all these various systems, what lit up for you because of that?

Alex Wright: One thing was this whole question of hierarchy and whether that’s something to be abandoned or not. As a designer, especially working with the web, you’re always up against this question of how much you structure things and how much you try to keep it flat and loose and let it self-organize. It was interesting to me to look at that heritage of hierarchical systems and see if there’s some utility in hierarchies beyond institutional hierarchies.

Stuart Brand: How about in the other direction? As a designer, what do you take from all this to the New York Times when you’re being an information architect there?

Alex Wright: One thing that comes up a lot at the Times is the role of the reader or user and how, in a world where people are increasingly annotating things, responding to things, and expecting to talk back, an institution like the New York Times maintains its editorial standards and credibility while still trying to open up a bit. That’s an interesting tension we’re constantly working with there.

Stuart Brand: Is the five levels deep thing one of those things like 7 plus or minus 2, the number of items you can keep in your mind? Do you never design a website with more than five levels?

Alex Wright: I want to be careful about making any rules, but I’ve been involved in projects where we tested how far people could go before getting lost in a website. We had a big corporate website with millions of pages, and it was pretty clear that after about six levels into the hierarchy, people had no idea where they were. They couldn’t orient themselves. But within those four to six levels, people could understand that they were above this level and below that level. Beyond that, their brains couldn’t quite process it.

Audience Question (Laura Wilturn): The argument that the web has strong characteristics of orality over literacy is compelling. With the growing prevalence of video online, like YouTube, do you think it’s becoming more so? Is it a better medium for the expression of oral cultures?

Alex Wright: This is a real throwback situation, getting preliterate. Going back to storytelling as a unit of culture and opening that back up, where instead of stories being filtered through institutional gateways, anyone can tell a story. That’s a lot of the appeal of YouTube, the feeling of a direct personal connection. Walter J. Ong coined the term “secondary orality,” meaning it’s not exactly oral culture; it’s mediated, but it has characteristics of oral culture.

Audience Question (Mike Phillips): Do you use hierarchies or networks to organize information?

Alex Wright: Businesses are structured to process information. Ad agencies are horizontal; oil companies are pyramids.

Kevin Kelly’s Question: What about the idea that web technology overthrows the need for any kind of categorization, and everything is miscellaneous? You only need one category: miscellaneous.

Alex Wright: I’ve heard that theory. There is some truth to the idea that the web opens up possibilities for anyone to categorize anything in their own way. At the same time, even at an individual level, people seem to have an impulse to categorize things, even if it’s just organizing their bookmarks or putting emails into folders. We seem to have a deep-seated impulse to make categories. The web introduces a challenge to the possibility of having stable, authoritative categories. But we still seem to want to categorize things.

Audience Question (Gareth Spoor): Any speculation on what libraries will look like a hundred years from today?

Alex Wright: I think the future is largely unpredictable. As for the future of libraries, I’m actually optimistic about them in a hundred-year timeframe. Over the last ten years, as the Internet has exploded, public library attendance has skyrocketed. Libraries fulfill a deeper need for people to share physical space and come together. They are becoming more like social spaces rather than just data spaces.

Stuart Brand: Libraries will increasingly be designed as social spaces rather than data spaces.

Alex Wright: You see that more and more. In ancient Rome, libraries were also community centers, not just places to read books. Libraries today play a similar role.

Audience Question (Judith): One of the main differences between oral and written information is that the written word made information static. Literal truth was literate truth. The web is now giving us so many versions of truth that we don’t know how to sort it. What is the new definition or view of truth in this new system?

Alex Wright: Some people suggest we’re at risk of entering a phase of cultural amnesia because we’re creating a medium that’s constantly being rewritten or overwritten and may not be preserved. Projects I worked on two years ago or ten years ago have no trace left. The Internet Archive is doing some of that, but it’s not clear if we can create a stable record of what we’re creating now. We may be overwriting ourselves into oblivion. There’s a risk that even though we think we’re creating an accessible body of information, it may not be preserved.

Stuart Brand: Is the idea of a canon basically obsolete now? Or does it have more value in light of all this ephemerality?

Alex Wright: There’s a point of view that physical objects become more valuable. The physical book becomes more useful because it is static and has a record. In my previous life, I went to library school and had the opportunity to pick up a Gutenberg Bible, which is still in great shape. No dead links in it. Most books from eight or nine hundred years ago are in great shape. It’s actually the information from a hundred to two hundred years ago, printed on acid paper, that’s corroding. It’s hard to say what’s going to be permanent. I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in the stability of electronic information. We haven’t come up with a mechanism for that yet.

Stuart Brand: What do librarians say about that? Do they see light at the end of the preservation challenge, or is it a hopeless morass?

Alex Wright: They gave up on trying to archive the web a while ago because it doesn’t seem feasible. They’re doing what they can to archive the print record and digitize printed text, which is a step in the right direction. But there are concerns about whether we’re destroying books in a modern-day book burning by digitizing them. There’s no easy answer to that problem. It’s a fundamental technical flaw of the web: the lack of archiving capability.

Stuart Brand: So do hierarchical systems fail on that, or do network systems come to our rescue with preservation?

Alex Wright: There’s a trend where every time a new technology comes along, there’s a tension between hierarchies and networks. When old hierarchies collapse, there’s a period of chaos and network effects, and new hierarchies emerge. I think it’s impossible to predict, but we should keep in mind that this is a young technology. Compared to 20 years after the Gutenberg press, there were only a handful of people who had ever seen a book. Now, not even 20 years after the invention of the web, a billion people have used a web browser. There’s time.

Stuart Brand: Thank you very much, Alex

Alex left me with a couple ideas I want to look into further.

As a child we all use to play the 20 questions game, and we are all very familiar with the first 3 questions.  Is it an Animal?  It is an Mineral?  Is it a Plant?  Then we would proceed to ask 20 questions, each time trying to further narrow down the selection until we were able to say what the person was thinking of.  This categorization if formalized is a taxonomy. 

The first idea surrounds taxonomy.  It turns out that when sociologists and anthropologists look at different societies around the world they break their world into different taxonomies.  This isn’t all that weird.  The weird part is that universally these taxonomies are only 5 or sometimes 6 levels deep.  There really is no good answer as to why this is the case. 

There are several guesses.  One has to do with the depth of families; you, your children, Your parents, and your grandparents.  If you count up the generations, you get 5.   If you add you children’s children, then get 6.  The idea then goes that this is culturally conditioned into us and the way that we see the world.  Eventually those individuals who are predisposed genetically to accept this fact become more successful in reproducing and the “idea” is carried forward via genetics and culture.

That’s an interesting idea, but also controversial even among evolutionary biologists.  I think the idea above is interesting, but it is just as scientifically mythological as other anthropological mythologies.  As a religious person I would love to have seen Adam apply the first Taxonomy. 


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