I was listening to this podcast during my hard interval workout today, and I didn't even feel that I was working out, but I was reaching the usual high intensity levels. I kept smiling and saying "yes!" to myself. Weinberger made much better some of the points I have been making here against hierarchical organizations of information in natural-language processing, the "semantic web," and other contemporary attempts to squeeze networked digital information into a traditional hierarchical organization. One of Weinberger's best observations in the show is how traditional forms or organization derive from physical space: everything has a place, and a place cannot contain two things simultaneously. Two points that Weinberger did not make -- they may be in his book, which I'll be getting:
- It is plausible that our cognitive organization is evolutionarily tuned to those properties of physical space, and thus categorization and hierarchy appear natural and inevitable to us;
- these physical constraints affect also how information can be organized on paper.
The show discussed scientific information just briefly, mainly around the upheavals in biological classification as a result of evolution and genomics. The show did not discuss the fact that hierarchical classification through ontology development is the dominant paradigm in extremely expensive international efforts to organize digitally biomedical information. As an observer of several of those efforts, I can't avoid the feeling that these efforts are misguided, in that biological knowledge advances much faster than those systematization efforts, and new discoveries constantly cross-cut existing categories. Just as one example, until recently "gene" referred to a portion of DNA that codes for a protein, but now the study of "miRNA genes", which do not code for proteins, is all the rage.
The alternative of developing search and distributed sharing of tags and other user-constructed metadata seems much more scaleable, and also more likely to allow for approximate matches and ranked answers that may reveal unexpected associations that would just be forbidden by a fixed categorization scheme.
The show mentioned PennTags a couple of times. It's nice to hear the home team being recognized!