At one point in David Weinberger’s delightful after dinner speech he’s working thru some thoughts on ontologies and tagging by describing how odd the 200’s are in the Dewey Decimal system. “The Buddhists, their to the right of the decimal point.”
He then asks why hasn’t this been fixed. The short answer is “immovable installed base,” but Dave has much more fun with it by asking his listeners to visualize librarians slowly scrapping the white paint off the back of millions of volumes as they convert to the upgraded version.
Two things came to mind when I read that. First is the way that a finite field of integers creates scarcity, so if there are only N digits in the product bar code you must establish a central registry and that in turn creates a hub, which in turn creates a point of power. The fixed sized fields for IP numbers are another example. Even if you design for unlimited abundance, as for example the domain name system strived to do, you still get forces that lead to scarcity. It’s nice to have a short domain name. It’s nice to own .com.
The second thing that came to mind was how the immovable installed base is on the one hand the object of desire. What the capitalist is seeks to own. Since immovable installed base is but another name for loyal users. While on the other hand it is what the many fear. The careful designer of an ontology lives in fear his legacy will not be the next Dewey Decimal system but rather that he shunted the 360 Million Buddhists to the right of the decimal point. This gives him pause, it slows him down.
The puzzles, not to be lightly tossed aside, are thus. Does the internet’s culture of abundance sufficiently lowers this risk that our designer can to set this particular fear? How do we preclude the key ontologies from being privately owned in the way that Westlaw owns the pointers into all case law.
In our library they recently changed filing systems, both the numbers and the physical shelves the books were on. It took over a year during which some of the books were filed in some places and others filed in other places and some books simply unfindable. Generally speaking though, navigating a library requires a good librarian anyway, so in the end most people were just as clueless as when the process started.
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