Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Re-Organizing the World

According to David Wienberger the old ways of organizing things don't apply in cyberspace as they do in the real material world. But more on Weinberger and his book Everything is Miscellaneous, later.

Progress seems to be based on our ability to move to increasing levels of abstraction.
The process of abstraction is at the root of progress itself. Let me try to explain.

From bare hands to tools and instruments, we constantly organize and reorganize our ability to do things better. A spear is an abstract projection (pardon the pun) of that which came before it - hurling a rock to bring down wild game. Before that, we probably needed to form in groups of collectives to chase down and corner wild game then with bare hands and objects, kill the beast for food and, at times, even lodging .

Beating the animal senseless with a rock was good but throwing a projectile was even better. The discovery of abstract concepts like projecting a rock (with bare hand, sling, or arrow) was simply a refinement over killing the beast with bare hand. Our minds, probably through accident, learned to create abstract extensions - extension of our selves out into what we recognized as reality.

We create and re-create at increased levels of abstraction our recipe for survival through progress and advancement.

For example, numbers are a form of abstraction. I can count the number of fingers on my hand by showing them to you one at a time or I can abstractly illustrate that number by having 10 pebbles represent that number. The pebbles are not that number, they are an abstract representation of that number. In a sense, the pebbles are data about the data - otherwise referred to as metadata.

Money is another example of abstraction. Exchanging 12 bushels of grain for a goat worked well. but what happened if I needed a goat but was not carrying any grain? Would you accept from me a promissory note as a symbolic abstraction of my commitment to pay you later... or better yet how if I gave you some tokens or coins of equal value to the goat? These are all abstract representations. When we take things to increasing levels of abstraction we stand a chance of advancement. But how to we do this, how does this work.

The nice thing about moving to increasing levels of abstraction is that material or physical limits get transcended. For example how could I use the number of fingers on my hand to represent the number 20? I know this sounds silly but look what happens once pebbles are used to abstractly represent fingers. Now I can easily gather 20 stones to abstractly represent or symbolize the number of digits on the hands of 2 people.

If we went to move to yet higher levels of abstraction, we'd probably end up inventing numbers as we know them today. Abstraction allows us to symbolically represent things in a non-material fashion and this is good because it is much easier to manipulate the symbols than it is the physical objects they represent.

We are really good at organizing the physical world at increasing levels of abstration. As a matter of fact, we call most important institutions ORGANIZATIONS.

Look, for example, at the way we have combine some simple rules to organize to create, for example, a library system. First a guy named Melvin Dewey came up with an abstract, rather arbitrary, library classification system. Next a rule was created that said a book needed to be classified and placed in a location that corresponded with its classification. The next rule specified that a book could be found in only one location in the library.

What we have in the example above is an abstract classification or codification system which when combined with simple rules forms a knowledge management system which revolutionized information access through the public library system. It even goes further than this. If we take each book and create an abstract representation of the library according to author on a 3 by 5 inch card, we can go to the card index and see a list of all the books or articles in that library written by a particular author. As many of us remember, a similar card index was organized by subject.

The interesting thing is that to make the system work, the consumer didn't need to know anything about the classification system or the associated business rules to make the library work for us. The same holds true of whenever we perform a web-search. We don't need to know how the internet is organized or the search algorithms (rules) used to locate content. By creating increasing levels of abstraction, our ability to locate information that is seemingly disorganized is actually increased. Most libraries are are organized around the Dewey Decimal System of categorization. By comparison the internet organizes or indexes almost every word on every web page. Next, companies look at which web pages get the most usage.

Think of the internet as a vast global library of information that is attaining new levels of virtualization or abstraction never thought possible before. Truly a remarkable feat. . . and all this is being done without a tidy decimal-based classification system like that developed by Dewey. By comparison the internet is an organizational mess but because it is organized at a higher level of abstraction it works very well. On the internet there is no need to know where, for example, a document is physically located or what it is physically called. When you think of it, this is a breakthrough.

Here are some video references you might find interesting. . . or better yet, go to the library and get Weinberger's book - Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the new Digital Disorder.

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