Why do people like to classify and hierarchize

The politics of searching

Konrad Becker

To person

Author, artist and producer in the field of culture and information technology; heads the Institute for New Cultural Technologies / t0, initiator of the Cultural Intelligence Network World-Information.Org, co-founder of "Public Netbase" (1994–2006); numerous publications such as Strategic Reality Dictionary (2009), Tactical Reality Dictionary (2002) and Politik der Infosphere (2002); www.t0.or.at, world-information.org, global-security-alliance.com

Abysses of knowledge on the cliffs of order

In a freely associative essay, Konrad Becker deals with the role of classification systems as technologies of power and emphasizes: "Technologies of perception are an expression of political philosophy, masked as a neutral code."

In a time of information explosion, it is not enough for data to be useful; above all, it must be easy to find. - Demonstration of an auxiliary filing device in 1953 in Chicago. (& copy AP)
How are things related? What is the essence of one thing in relation to another? How are subjective meaning and generalized or objectified ascription of meaning interrelated? What does this mean for our self-perception - and how we relate to others? What is meaning and how is it created? People have always wondered about such questions. In the age of digital information, of human / machine interfaces and data robots that move independently in the vastness of the electronic data space, they are gaining in relevance. Proteus, an early sea deity in Greek mythology, can predict the future. But she only answers if she can be captured. And it always changes its shape to prevent that. In a time of information explosion, it is not enough for data to be useful; above all, it must be findable and accessible. While it can be very difficult to define the difference between similar and dissimilar objects, it is even more difficult for abstractions and ideas. At the same time, the search for information is not the opposite of losing it, but an active effort to develop relationships in systems of importance. Search is an act of imagination where results are inscribed into the future.

Dragons of Chaos and Social Fictions

Early cultures had the concept of an ocean of information and a sea serpent dwelling in the dark depths. In the "black winged night" of the "dragon of chaos", the "great and dark emptiness" of Tiamat, from whose dismembered body the cosmos was born and the world was formed. These demonic creatures reflect fears regarding the depths of chaotic and unstructured information, untouched by the logocentric rays of solar deities and the light of reason. Drifting on a vast ocean of knowledge, navigation has become the root of modern science. Cybernos, the helmsman of the seafaring ancient Greeks, maneuvered the nautical routes with the help of bright stars and gave cybernetics its name. This science of control and feedback, whose first applications were in the field of ballistic heading calculation, was the starting point for many of today's ICT applications. Often times, attempts to make intelligent maps of the world reveal more about the authors of those maps than about the area they describe. In mapping conceptual spaces of knowledge, classification is necessary. But transient social fictions are often confused with real and physically unchangeable conditions. This happens over and over again, especially with regard to race, gender and social institutions. But also in all other areas where there is a vested interest in creating realities.

Self-fulfilling voodoo categories

Names offer advantages to those who know them. They make it possible, for example, to call someone or to conjure something and exert influence through a name. There has always been an intimate relationship between knowledge and the exercise of power; the possibility of influencing lies in the authority to be able to name something. Problem solving involves a process of naming questions and objects that defines the framework for dealing with them. The arrangement of the designation classes and the hierarchies of the designations are not only a practical or structural-scientific, but above all a religious matter. Categorization is a kind of cognitive voodoo. The deeply rooted belief in a world enchanted by the spell of names, where the universe is influenced by naming and order. In a way, that should be true. Fortunately, creating conceptual ideological fields to produce shared worldviews is somewhat complex. Classical magicians trying to impose their will on the world can easily underestimate the powers in the minds of others. You become a victim of wishful thinking about the level of agreement that can be achieved. Fortunately, the world is initially not necessarily compatible with categorization Voodoo. In a world where research is a continuous process of changing definitions in a constant drift of understanding, rigid standardizations are rare. It is a fine-meshed reality of dynamic relationships and unexpected shifts in perspective with constantly changing influences and power relations. Approval of a standard requires an agreement that cannot exist where there is no agreement. Yet "scientific" classification is used by experts to set an agenda and create realities that are in themselves an effective means of a specific interpretation of reality. Cataloging systems are hardly discoveries of a real "natural order", but rather the result of authorship where a purpose is not given but chosen. Categorizing a field of knowledge does not necessarily document real conditions, but rather produces knowledge in a specific interpretation of perception. Classification systems are notoriously off track, but well suited to the game of self-fulfilling projection of ideological power.

All the print that fits, or not

The structuring and ordering of knowledge for the retrieval of information was not only elementary since the Library of Alexandria, the concept of sorting by author in alphabetical order is a much more recent trend. Library systems in use today preserve the worldview of a Mr. Dewey from the 19th century, along with his severely limited understanding of reality beyond a white, Protestant US middle class. The inventor of the decimal classification system for books was enthusiastic about the metaphor of an army to restore law and order in a chaotic mob of information and wanted to force ideas into the hierarchical structure of a military organization diagram. Melvyl Dewey's doubtful ideas about the nature of the world in 1876 come to light when, for example, he lumped all non-Christians into a single category, the very last one in all of the categories relating to religion. Authors of the Soviet library catalog system produced similarly strong ideological statements about the world, with the top category "Works by the Classical Authors of Marxism-Leninism". This shows the problem of connecting catalog systems with one another or adapting classification systems to one another - they all draw a different universe. The US Library of Congress had to apply a label "former" to its Soviet Union category and still has dwarf states like "Austria" or "Switzerland" on the same priority level as all of Africa or Asia. These distortion effects of reality and meaning are also rooted in the need to stack physical objects such as books or atlases on shelves. When the software of the classification concepts comes together with the hardware of the physically tangible, and the immaterial interacts with the material, this can lead to unexpected results. Traditional categorization systems cannot compete with intelligent automatic search and indexing technologies when searching in large digital resources. The attempt to process information and resources electronically can be very inadequate due to outdated habits and outdated strategies from previous approaches to structuring knowledge. Digital information does not need a shelf, and the question arises to what extent predefined categorization is a good idea at all. One of the main reasons for the success of Google was the lack of virtual shelves, of pre-constructed and always strange file structures. But with shelf surfaces, even if they strangely distort the space of knowledge, it is at least easy to see whether they are full or empty.