Crude classifications and false generalizations

Those that belong to the emperor. UUIDs in Python. In defense of Fahrner Image Replacement. That famous quote from Jorge Luis Borges. New writing from Leslie, Michael, Michael, stavros, and JD. (589 words) [dive into mark]

A short catch-all post from Mark Pilgrim illustrates the wonderful serendipities of the blog world. In amongst his brief snippets is this quote from Borges:

These ambiguities, redundances, and deficiences recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
— Essay: “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” [Borges Quotations]

The challenges of knowledge work and knowledge management have been on my mind the past few days. Watching how people react to this particular quote offers interesting insights into their tacit assumptions about the nature of knowledge management.

I see this as the essence of good knowledge management; understanding and acknowledging that classification schemes are all arbitrary and should be judged in terms of their usefulness not their truth. I suspect there are at least two other relevant reactions to consider. First are those who are upset by the apparent flippancy of this scheme and expend energy in trying to find the right scheme. These are dangerous and unpleasant people to deal with. Second are those who don’t get the joke. Not dangerous, but boring, or perhaps simply na ve. Try to keep both well away from any serious roles in knowledge management initiatives.

Some resources worth taking a look at in this context would include Sorting Things Out : Classification and Its Consequences, Wurman’s Information Anxiety : What to Do When Information Doesn’t Tell You What You Need to Know, and Rosenfeld’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (2nd Edition).

Shaw summed it up well with this observation:

“Crude classifications and false generalizations are the curse of organized life.”