categories and meaning

In a technology and politics mailing list, there was some enthousiastic discussion about developing common taxonomy in order to build political agreement.
I think this view misunderstands the role of categories in shared understanding.
At fine-grained, concrete level, a shared schema for voter and constituent data is extremely powerful.
At the larger level, though, labels don’t get you that far toward shared understanding and shared effective action.
Meaning isn’t in the nouns. Meaning is in the stories we tell. Meaning is in the actions we take. Meaning is annealed out of conversation. Meaning is in a strategy and supporting tactics.
Folksonomy might make the software challenge easier — the disparate political blogs and websites could just pick their own categories, and aggregation tools like Technorati tags could reveal the implicit concensus about labels.
But folksonomy won’t get us that far toward shared meaning and action, either. Del.icio.us tells us that the most popular tags are blog, programming, web, music, software, design, news, and linux. The tag popularity metric shows what topics are popular, and lets the reader browse through the popular content under the tag.
It still requires an act of synthesis to describe what people really care about, when they bookmark “music”, “software”, and “design”.
It still requires acts of human organization and communication to build shared understanding, agreement, and effective action.

4 thoughts on “categories and meaning”

  1. I really agree with this post… It completely bears out what we’re finding in Mozambique as we try to knit together all the groups working to fight malaria; the meaning is deep, cultural, tribal, related to power and money and perceptions of scarcity and people’s and organizations’ belief in what will work, what won’t and why. The complexity is overwhelming at times, until a new, higher order pattern becomes clear with more information.

  2. I really agree with this post… It completely bears out what we’re finding in Mozambique as we try to knit together all the groups working to fight malaria; the meaning is deep, cultural, tribal, related to power and money and perceptions of scarcity and people’s and organizations’ belief in what will work, what won’t and why. The complexity is overwhelming at times, until a new, higher order pattern becomes clear with more information.

  3. I really agree with this post… It completely bears out what we’re finding in Mozambique as we try to knit together all the groups working to fight malaria; the meaning is deep, cultural, tribal, related to power and money and perceptions of scarcity and people’s and organizations’ belief in what will work, what won’t and why. The complexity is overwhelming at times, until a new, higher order pattern becomes clear with more information.

  4. I don’t know how closely this relates to your point, but one of my profs at UT, Miles Efron, has been doing work on automatic classification of blogs by political orientation. His initial findings were that traditional methods didn’t work well, because people used the same words whether they were pro or con on some issue (say the war in Iraq). He came up with some novel methods which do a better job. Here’s his paper:
    http://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~miles/research/papers/FS08-04Efron.pdf

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