Quick note on taxonomic transparency
Notice that I am not using the word “ontology.” I’ll get into why later, but if you’ve read any Heidegger you can guess…
Hope Olson, Sandy Berman, and many others who have done work based on theirs, have shown how classification systems tend not to represent all users well. Hope Olson has described the problem in terms of its philosophic roots by deconstructing classification systems using methods that come from Derrida. I think it is clear and very interesting the way classification systems reflect positivistic assumptions about reality that lead to a presumed “view from nowhere” that reflects the dominant culture. I’m glad that there is a lot of work being done in this area right now, and especially the way people are tying these ideas to new topics like folksonomies and contemporary identity issues.
However, I can’t help thinking that an unjust “official” classification system is not a big problem as long as it is transparent to the user. Let’s say I’m deviant in some way, and I want to find information that is relevant to me using institutions that are connected to the Library of Congress through its standards. Am I really going to expect the Library of Congress to be hip to my understanding of things? No, I am not going to expect that. I am going to do what I am accustomed to doing as a deviant person, which is my choice anyway: I am going to translate the official language, in which I am fluent, into my own deviant street language. That kind of translation skill is part of daily life for anyone who negotiates between formal and informal contexts, streets and offices, subcultures and dominant cultures. The official classification system may reinforce a sense of alienation, but as long as it is transparent to the user, I would not agree that it presents a barrier to access. The cognitive skills involved in making use of an imperfect classification system are very interesting to me (whether we’re talking about reference librarians or end users).
The next plateau of information technology, which we are beginning to reach, is, as I see it, presenting a new problem concerning these issues. Simplified interfaces with artificial intelligence under the hood are “freeing” the user from having to understand either the mechanism of the search or the underlying organizational system, but one thing that this means is a loss of transparency. The user is expected to trust the virtual helper to understand his or her information needs, and it is likely that this virtual helper is going to make assumptions about the user and the context that stem from the assumptions that are embedded into the official classification structure. Without access to the official vocabulary or the mechanism of the search, the user is less able to adapt the tool to his or her needs. Without access to the original text, the user doesn’t have the opportunity to do a translation…
4 comments on “Quick note on taxonomic transparency”
Yep. Yep yep yep. Language changes too fast and is too context-sensitive to ever get ‘right.’ That’s why I think local cataloging makes the most sense and language revision less than that. I could go on and on about this. The other thing that scares me about the future of near-total reliance on electronic systems is the privatization of the algorithms etc. that determine search results. It’s not just that a narrower and narrower set of people are capable of looking ‘under the hood,’ but also that in many cases, the hood is locked shut by the corporation that owns the car.
Revision after I slept on it:
You write, “Am I really going to expect the Library of Congress to be hip to my understanding of things? No, I am not going to expect that. I am going to do what I am accustomed to doing as a deviant person, which is my choice anyway: I am going to translate the official language, in which I am fluent, into my own deviant street language.” And I guess I’m a little uncomfortable with that–I mean, we work to strange structures that block certain kinds of people all the time. I’m thinking of curb cuts for people in wheelchairs, or laws that prohibit employment discrimination. It’s like it’s “okay, whatever” when systems aren’t navigable by certain kinds of people. It’s also not always or even usually a ‘choice’ that leads some people to be ‘deviant.’ So, while I think language revision is ultimately a limited political strategy, I don’t think I’d want to throw it out as irrelevant, either. Making systems more usable by more kinds of people matters too.
Point well taken. I guess my response is that maybe we should stop considering official structures as a simple category and recognize the differences between types of structures and the different ways that people interact with them. You’re right that structures can be barriers when they are based on assumptions about users, at times. At the same time, however, I think there are also times – and it would be good to get at what is behind these differences – when people might be a little freaked out, or amused or bemused, when a structure that they normally interact with in a fluent way tries to start talking to them like a homey. I see that I was making an oversight there, but I guess I want things to be given the complexity that is their due.
I’ve bookmarked this for our search and discovery committee in the perhaps vain hope that it will get us to think about preserving access to the stuff under the hood.
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