While findability comes first, we must also remember that categories are about more than retrieval. Classification helps our users to understand.
Through splitting, lumping and labeling, we reveal choices and invite questions.
Of course, all taxonomies are imperfect, as is the language they’re built on… like maps and myths, taxonomies hide more than they reveal. They bury complexity to tell a story, and they always miss someone out. Some things, like luggage, get lost by accident, while others – people, places, ideas – are buried by design.
Either way, each glitch in the matrix subtly changes understanding and behaviour, which is why this work has moral weight. Classification has consequences, as Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star argue in Sorting Things Out:
“Each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing – indeed, it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous – not bad, but dangerous.”Peter Morville – Intertwingled (Amazon link here)
Niall Ferguson was speaking at the Long Now Foundation, responding to a question from Stewart Brand about how ads and the profit-motive influenced the nature of search and the internet echo-chamber.
Google and Facebook in particular are platforms driven by user-engagement and time-on-platform (the source of their ad revenue) and as a result tend to give us more of what we like or agree with already, filtering out sources that might challenge our views.
If you look back on the way the printing press developed, there was a for profit wing that ultimately did finance itself by selling ads, and it evolved into newspapers and magazines.
But that was only a fraction of all the printed content that was out there. Most printed content was accessible free through things called libraries, and libraries were non profit.
Public libraries gradually began to spread in the protestant realms because remember, Protestantism insisted on literacy. A country like mine, Scotland, went from very low literacy to very high literacy because of the reformation. Schools had libraries. Books were regarded as a public good. And this meant that most printed content was not provided by profit making institutions. It was essentially free, and crucially, catalogued in increasingly effective and – I’ll call them objective – ways.
Anybody who’s spent time in one of the great libraries of the world, say the Cambridge University Library, knows that the books are sorted in such a way that you find the book that you’re after, and next to it are books on similar topics. This is an incredibly valuable thing if you’re doing serious research.
Google is not like that. You may think that Google is like that, but you’re wrong, because that is not how search works…Niall Ferguson – The Long Now Foundation – Networks and Power
… producing books with ease on Gutenberg’s press did not fully unleash text. Real literacy also required a long list of innovations and techniques that permitted ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that made it useful. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. We don’t have a parallel notation in film yet, but we need one.
Once you have a large text document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them in the 13th century. Where is the equivalent in video?
Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film.
Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. And that would be useful in video as well.
And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations. These days, of courses we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorise using a selected word or phrase for later viewing.
All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, remix ideas, quote experts, and sample bits of beloved artists.
These tools, more than reading, are the foundations of literacy.
Here’s a first try on the importance of fundamentals in learning.
Imagine you are holding a long stick – better yet, a sword or lightsaber – representing your ability to make a difference in the world.
The far end of the stick is the part that you’ll make the greatest impact with. It moves fastest, reaches furthest, hits hardest.
But it’s useless if you don’t know who or what you’re fighting for (and/or against).
And everything the end of the sword does depends on what happens at the handle. You need a good grip, and the part closest to the handle needs to be – I think – the strongest part of the sword (armourers?).
A small change in the person holding the sword, a small movement of the hilt, makes a huge difference to what happens at the pointy end.
The rest of the sword is just an amplifier.
We know him for Spiderman, the X-men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther… for being the driving force behind Marvel Comics, now a multi-billion dollar, multi-media juggernaut.
It’s less well known that he started in the comics industry in 1939, aged seventeen, as a general dogsbody, lunch-fetcher and inkwell filler at Timely Comics (which would eventually become Marvel).
Lee must have had something about him – he became editor at 19 – but here’s the thing: he slogged it out writing comics – westerns, crime stories, horror and superhero work – for twenty two years without really hitting the big time. They say he chose Stan Lee as a pen name because he was worried he’d be embarrassed by his work in comics if he ever wrote the Great American Novel.
By the early 60s Lee was fed up, and ready to quit. The Fantastic Four was a last throw of the dice on his wife’s suggestion that he try writing the comics he wanted to write. There was nothing to lose.
He was forty-one years old.
The rest is history.
What if Stan Lee had never written the fantastic four?
Just a bit of procedural knowledge from my post on deep literacy earlier that might be helpful to someone.
- Go to your relevant Amazon website (usually .co.uk for me)
- Search a with a dash followed by a random strong of characters, like this: -nfjdkslanfdjskalnfjdsklanfjsdkal (mine always seem to have lots of Ns and Ds
- You’ll get a result saying something like “1-16 of over 80,000,000 results.” Yes – 80 million results.
- You can refine your search by clicking the drop-down menu by the search bar and searching in say, books (“1-16 of more than 90,000”)
- When you’re in a category an option appears for ‘advanced search’ – click there to get to this:
6. Then you can search to your heart’s content by age category, subject etc and the nonsense string from earlier (-fbdjskabfjhajkfdsa) and see what the “more than 40,000 books…” bit says.
This doesn’t seem entirely accurate – I’m sure that there are far more than 90,000 books, for example. But it seemed to work pretty well once you get into subcategories:
- 40,000 books in baby/pre-school
- 80,000 books for kids 4-8
- 70,000 books for kids 9-12
- 60,000 Young Adult books
It’s the best I’ve been able to do for now, at any rate – if you know how to get better data on this please drop me a comment because I’d love to know.
Put aside AI and machine learning for a minute, and ask instead:
“What does it take to equip a human to be self-teaching?”
As a starting point – how many lines of code does it take to make a child who can read with fluency and ease and with critical understanding, and who loves reading, and is motivated to read and learn more?
We just tidied my kids’ bookcase, and I took a moment – okay, more than a moment – to count the books.
There are 519 books on this book case (including those on the floor and nearby that should be on it).
There are picture books, stories, touch-and-feel books, comics, small novels, catalogues, phonics books, kids bibles, magazines, science books, poetry, stories and non-fiction books about other cultures, lots of books about cars, even a couple of hand-written and coloured books by his great aunt, and a couple of notebooks with short and often unfinished stories that he’s written himself.
He’s had them read and re-read to him by a range of people, had pictures pointed out, words explained, sounds and meanings spelled out, questions asked.
He’s listened, looked, laughed, frowned, cried on occasion, got fed up, desperately begged to have them read to him, been indifferent.
And he’s read them repeatedly by himself: browsed their pages, poured over the pictures, flicked through them, gone back to favourite bits again and again, skipped the endings or skipped to the endings, tried out the words, phrases and attitudes, in the real world come to us with questions, absorbed our answers, disagreed with our interpretations, shared with us bits that he’s loved, come to us with things that have scared him, made up stories just like them, and new stories of his own.
Did I mention the 250 leveled reading books – the books specifically designed to help kids learn to read – that live upstairs? Here’s a selection:
Or the books we’ve borrowed from friends or read at their houses, the books read at or borrowed from libraries?
Or the ebooks?
He’s probably read about a thousand books.*
190,000 and the less-than-one-percent
But it’s not just about numbers – which books he’s read is as important as how many. Most of these books are a custom selection, just for him, made by someone with his current tastes and future growth in mind (my wife is something of a book-picking phenomenon) from the roughly 190,000 books aimed at children under 12 that are available to him in our culture.**
So the selection on these shelves represents the tip of a huge pyramid – roughly the best, most engaging and most appropriate 0.5% of books written for people like him.
Don’t forget the wrapper
That – the books themselves and the wrapper of love, support, enthusiasm, the culture of curiosity and valuing education, the relative affluence, and living in an economy that makes books like these cheaper than ever before if you bide your time and look out for deals – is what it takes to produce a solid reader at age seven or eight.
*I’ll try to estimate how many words this represents another time
**My point of reference for this was the number of books available on Amazon.co.uk – see this post for more information.
Full disclosure: here’s the bookcase pre-cleanup:
Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 2)
In a nutshell, Seth says that if someone isn’t eager to pay, they’re not your client. You get to pick. So work for people eager to pay.
Eager to pay and scaling the non-profit
This is where the bootstrapping mindset comes into its own in the world of non-profits and social programs. If you can find clients who are not only eager to “pay” time, attention and effort to user your product or service, but to actually pay money… you know you not only have a product that they think is valuable, but one that can cover some of its own costs – or better, cover all of its own costs. Or better, cover its own costs, with a little left over.
We’ve pretty much reached this point at the literacy non-profit I work for in Indonesia, and the potential is huge. Instead of looking at our bank balance and asking how many groups we can help, we’re looking at ourselves and asking how we can get better at what we do so that we can serve more groups – because the growth is paying for itself.
Our program is far from polished and perfect, but it seems to be working. In the old days we had a list of people waiting for our program – waiting for us to find the money to be able to train them. Now the people on the waiting list are finding their own money – and the wait is a lot shorter.
In fact, doing it this way has allowed us to serve more groups as a gift – not ‘for free’ but ‘at our expense, as a gift, because we love what you do’ – than we did back in the day when it was free.
Finding the clients who are eager to pay might well help you get your product or service to more of the people who are eager, but can’t.
Unlike “the three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic which are woven within the K-12 curriculum, information literacy falls through the cracks. It doesn’t fit into any one subject area, and teachers fail to include in class. And it’s an big problem, because the internet makes literacy more important, not less.
When I was a kid, I had a mom, a dad, and a single volume of the encyclopedia, and I trusted them to answer my questions. Now Google offers us billions of answers, but the difficult question is trust…
Evaluating accuracy, objectivity, currency and authority is easier said than done.Peter Morville, Intertwingled
This is good, and true, and important – and I recommend the book.
But it also misses a trick: what Peter Morville describes so well in Intertwingled mostly falls within the scope of a good definition of literacy.
There is no literacy that doesn’t involve managing information. I’ve described literacy as:
… being able to read with fluency and with critical understanding, and to write both to communicate and to think.
That’s concise, but these information skills – understanding structures and relationships within and between pieces of information, and deconstructing or assembling them in a way that suits your purpose – are key components of critical understanding, and of communicating.
We might need to extend the concepts of reading and writing to cover new skills, and the relative importance of organising information might have grown – but we should be teaching these skills wherever we’re teaching people to read and write.
And we always should have been, because they’ve always been vital.