Weinberger on Orders of Organization

More insight from Weinberger. A while back one of my former Diamond colleagues, Lynne Whitehorn-Umphres made the observation that over the last twenty years, the rato of metadata to data has gone from 1 in 100 to 100 to 1. I didn’t really appreciate where she was going with that point, but Weinberger helps me understand.

Database design was a problem of getting the answer right the first time and ahead of use. It was driven by the cost and complexity of storage and of development. That strategy worked adequately for transaction systems, but fails for management information and knowledge work needs. What Weinberger makes clear is that the solution is twofold. One is to use metadata profligately. But the other, and more interesting, part is to not try to get the right answer once and for all or in advance. Rather, it is to postpone the answer until some particular user has a particular question they need to answer.

I used to think that the request for “flexible” information systems reflected laziness on the part of users. I was young and na ve. Weinberger points out what that request is actually seeking, why, and how to go about addressing it.

The Three Orders of Organization.

David Weinberger on the different orders of classification: “If you recall, we were all supposed to be lifeless at the bottom of an ocean of information by now. Why have we survived the information tsunami so confidently predicted in the late ’80s and early ’90s? Those predictions assumed that the principles of organization wouldn’t evolve. But they have. Rapidly and profoundly.”

He goes to explain by his three orders of organization:

  1. First Order: You arrange physical objects: You shelve books, you file papers, you put away your silverware.
  2. Second Order: You arrange separate, smaller objects that contain metadata about the first order objects: You create a card catalog. You make entries in a ledger. You index a book. You now have a second organizational scheme (e.g., the books are shelved by subject but the cards are arranged alphabetically), and it’s physically easier to navigate.
  3. Third Order: You create electronic metadata so you can organize it in ways that simply weren’t feasible before.

He gives emphasis on this third order, which is like a faceted classification scheme, as it gives more power to the users: “Keepers of the first two orders carefully build organizational schemes and taxonomies. Practitioners of the third carefully create metadata so that users can create their own schemes and taxonomies.”