A Confusion of Categories

2 November 2008

The Avoidance of Understanding in Human Affairs

Categories are the comfort blanket of human thought. Rather than segmenting information, as we imagine they do, they often create commonality where none should really exist. They allow us to believe what we’ve wanted to believe all along, and give us ‘proof’ that we are, of course, correct. Consider the following sequence, variations of which I’ve discussed before: Hispanic, Black, Asian. It’s a curious list, and is most often aligned with ethnic profiling or discussions of racism. This week I encountered it in an academic paper. For some people it simply describes three types of other people – a ‘natural’ categorisation of ethnic or racial groups.

But that matter-of-fact acceptance should be an indication that something is amiss. Reading Robert Shiller’s superb explanation of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the United States, I was recently struck by the fact that he easily tossed out the comment that home ownership rates had recently increased for “Hispanics and blacks”. These categories, where, or course, meant merely to indicate two minority groups in the United States, and carried no untoward racial overtones. Add ‘Asians’ to the list and you would merely have three easily recognised categories. Who, I wonder, stops to think that these lazy categories simply don’t belong together?

Let’s look at the categorisation from a slightly different angle. What do the three designations describe? Well, people, but how are those people shaped into distinct groups? They all seem to be in mutually reinforcing categories. But they’re not. The ‘Hispanic’ grouping is based on language use, the ‘Black’ grouping on skin colour and the ‘Asian’ grouping on geography. Not all Hispanics have the same skin colour or culture, and neither do they all speak Spanish in the same way. From an historical perspective, some of the early Filipino settlers in Hawaii would have been Spanish speakers, but we would hardly consider them Hispanic today.

Asians, too, are anything but homogenous – they differ in skin colour, culture, language and much else besides. Asia covers an enormous distance and encapsulates a multitude of peoples.  ‘Black’ is also a curious category, which may or may not refer to African Americans, or Africans living in America or darker skinned people from somewhere else altogether. Taken as a whole, the three categories simply fail to develop a coherent system of ethnic description.

The usage might not be exactly the same in your country, but it will probably be similar. Add to it ‘White’ or ‘Western’ where appropriate and you have another category that singularly fails to describe anything of value. So why do we feel compelled to use these distinctions that distinguish very little? The simple answer is not very satisfying but resonates with the sort of brutish practicality at which humans excel. We use the categories precisely because they’re ambiguous, because they tell us very little on closer inspection.

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

7 April 2008

Throwing Poo at Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur

Three Wise Monkeys, by Leo Reynolds, with Creative Commons licenceThe world needs a stirrer, someone willing to dislodge existing patterns of thought. Think Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein or Marie Curie. They all worked carefully against the orthodoxies of their times. Andrew Keen tries to ape that sort of iconoclasm in his Cult of the Amateur, but just makes a monkey of himself.

Or does he? Monkeys are far more clever than he seems to think.

First, let’s consider what Keen has to say. He takes issue with Web 2.0, the participatory culture of social networking sites like Facebook, the carnivale of YouTube, the black economy of file sharing and the gabble of blogs. He argues that amateurs are ruining the Internet by dumbing it down, like the infinite monkeys who might – given enough time and typewriters – tap out a masterpiece. In the meantime they’ll just type rubbish and abuse copyright, encouraged by a cabal of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, particularly Tim O’Reilly.

Guard Statue, by Jennoit, with Creative Commons licenceThe result, Keen claims, is hard times for the newspaper and music industries, clearly without any understanding of the creative destruction that helps industries grow through innovation. He also frets at the loss of control by “gatekeepers” – editors, journalists, authors and the like, those traditional arbiters of information content. Or you might think of them as bereft zoo keepers now that the monkeys have escaped the enclosure.

Keen initially reserves his monkey comment for bloggers, who he thinks never read – at least books like his to go by comments reported in the Guardian. So I imagine empty shelves around me and – behold! – I feel a tail growing. I want to take Keen on his word, and see how a monkey could suggest that today’s Internet is actually improving the world.

Now where’s my banana.

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Of Numbers and Knowing

4 April 2008

Social Group Size and Knowledge Management Concerns

Spiekermann House Numbers, by stewf, with creative commons licenceNumbers have a curious way of popping up in the most unlikely places. Think of social groups and their optimal dynamics and you’re likely to imagine somewhat fuzzy amounts. Large groups might be difficult to manage, but that shouldn’t be the case for small groups. This has been important for me lately as I’ve argued against the need for knowledge management in self-organising systems. But one number I’ve missed might well make a difference, and it’s rather precise.

Debating me on a range of issues under the broad rubric of knowledge management today, Patrick Lambe mentioned what is often described as Dunbar’s number: 150. It seems dubiously even, but it’s rounded up from 148 and is only then the upper limit of individuals with whom you’re likely to maintain close personal relations.

Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist who studies the size of the neocortex in primates – that part of the brain governing consciousness, sensory perceptions and language – and relates it to optimal group size. It turns out that our brains might be hardwired to work best in smaller organisations.

Actually, I should have known that. Malcolm Gladwell mentions Dunbar’s number in Tipping Point, which I read a few months ago, and I remembered the subsequent discussion about W.L. Gore and Associates (of Gore-Tex fame). Gore has broken itself into small units of what it calls “multidisciplinary teams” with largely horizontal staff structures to counteract organisational inefficiency. When I raised this issue today, Patrick recognised it as a “good example of organising to meet cognitive constraints”.

In that light it might also be an alternative to knowledge management, disaggregating a large organisation that’s cutting too many links between its members. Patrick thinksUnique Group! by Thiru Murugan, with Creative Commons licence “even those optimal size tea[m]s need to coordinate with each other if the organisation is to operate as a coherent whole”. Yes certainly, and it will be interesting to find out exactly what form of coordination would be needed, given that employees would be neurologically more capable of doing the inter-group organising for themselves.

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Knowledge Management Revisited

3 April 2008

In Reply to Patrick Lambe

I got trouble, by ndemi, with Creative Commons licenceIt seems I caused a stir with my comments on knowledge management a few days ago. Patrick Lambe, who featured on the second YouTube video in my post, took exception to my position in general and use of ‘snake-oil’ to describe his field in particular. Patrick’s response is over at Green Chameleon, and raises a number of issues beyond the scope of my initial concern, but equally valid.

I’m republishing my counter-comments here largely verbatim, with a few links added, so the debate can be taken to as wide an audience as possible.

Still questions to answer

Patrick, let me begin by saying that I very much appreciate you taking the time to respond in detail to my post on your own blog. But before I reply in kind I just want to clarify one small matter there was no ire to be raised in my post. Not everyone needs an agenda to be critical.

In framing my initial comments on knowledge management under the snake-oil rubric I merely meant to challenge what I see as a poorly defined field, to highlight one important challenge to it, and to say something about photocopier salesmen posing as anything but just that. I notice that you barely touch upon this final point, although I am glad to see that you acknowledge the charlatans on the edges of your field. Given my comments to come, you’ll have to forgive me for continuing to think that they are in the public eye far more than you might imagine.

In any case, therein lies the reasoning that you failed to detect in my post: knowledge management is not a field that shouldn’t have questions asked of it by outsiders.

2008 #50 Getting Clarity, by Jeroen Latour, with Creative Commons licenceInterestingly enough, your response passes over the variety of knowledge management definitions Ray Sims mentioned without giving any proof that they are “not as varied as the sheer number” suggests. Why not? How many definitions would you support?

I acknowledge that your field could well be grappling with problems of classification many are but failing to recognise a lack of clarity as a significant problem seems to me short sighted.

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Snake-Oil for the New Millennium

30 March 2008

The Knowledge Management Scam

Red Shoes & Walking Bags, by moriza, with Creative Commons licenceIt’s been a busy week for the information overlords. No, I don’t mean Bill Gates or whoever it is keeping the Internet’s main servers chugging along, although they’ve probably been busy too. Who I actually mean are the snake-oil salesmen of the Cyber Age – those who utter the term ‘knowledge management’ with illogical conviction.

Here in Hong Kong we’ve just had the local Knowledge Management Society’s forum, desperately attempting to ride in the ill-defined wake of Web 2.0. And one of the local newspapers ‘featured’ a thinly disguised advertisement for associated services this week. Not a good start, but let’s broaden our consideration for a while. One question is just begging to be asked: what the heck is knowledge management?

Over the last 20 years we’ve had tortured managerialisms like 360-degree assessment, Six-Sigma (though still with many defenders), business process re-engineering (from the ashes of methods and procedures analysis) and downsizing – that earnest attempt to re-focus business that became a vicious excuse to sack people. Downsizing is still alive and well, with major banks like HSBC excelling at it even though they’re earning record profits, despite claims of hard times after the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. The other methods are faltering, and will eventually fall behind newer fads, one of which is already fading. That’s knowledge management. But it’s not going down without a fight.

If You’re Not Confused, by B Tal, with Creative Commons LicenceSo much for the background – what does ‘knowledge management’ actually mean? Ray Sims recently posted an answer in cyberspace. Well, many possible answers really. Fifty-three all told. These aren’t similar, hairsplitting overviews, but “substantially different. There are only five attributes that are seen in 30% or more of the definitions”. At the Information Research blog, Tom Wilson commented that “in spite of all this he still calls ‘knowledge management’ a discipline!” Indeed.

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Information + Knowledge = Joy

25 February 2008

Comments on a New Blog

Information shapes knowledge, gives it a form we can understand. Further to my post yesterday on the importance of reworked ideas, I just want to point to a new blog that focuses on information, its location and its uses.

Mother of All Libraries 4Named Information Fluency, the blog is part of a course underway at Gustavus Adolphus College in the US. If nothing else, the use of detail from this marvelous photo of a private library by Underpuppy is worth mentioning. Sometimes blog banners say it all.

Posts alternate between student writing and lecturer observations, covering everything from the lack of non-academic philosophy sites on the Web to unusual Library of Congress categories, the value of libraries themselves and the possibility of sensual experiences in gathering knowledge online.

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