Ontology is Overrated

Ontology is Overrated is a PodCast I recommend you listen to if you are interested in finding out more about organizing information. Clay Shirky gave this speech at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, held in San Diego, California, March 14-17, 2005. Clay talks about why conventional ways of organizing information via. categories and hierarchical trees is flawed and discusses alternatives, such as search. This is in line with my thoughts, some of which are here and comments from Surfulater users our Forums.

There are many ways to organize data: labels, lists, categories, taxonomies, ontologies. Of these, ontology — assertions about essence and relations among a group of items — seems to be the highest-order method of organization. Indeed, the predicted value of the Semantic Web assumes that ontological successes such as the Library of Congress’s classification scheme are easily replicable.

Those successes are not easily replicable. Ontology, far from being an ideal high-order tool, is a 300-year-old hack, now nearing the end of its useful life. The problem ontology solves is not how to organize ideas but how to organize things — the Library of Congress’s classification scheme exists not because concepts require consistent hierarchical placement, but because books do.

Clay has some interesting insights about Social bookmarking systems such as del.icio.us and the problems faced where people classify the same information in very different ways. All in all a very good listen with lots of interesting content. I’ll look forward to hearing more from Clay in the future.

One Reply to “Ontology is Overrated”

  1. Thanks for the post. I have to agree that this is one of the most interesting presentations and lectures I have listened to on tagging and the storing and saving of links. Clay is clearly a great thought leader in this space and there is a ton we can learn from him. Another interesting site that is trying to enhance the organization of data (in this case bookmarks) is blinklist. It tries to find the right balance between pure lists, tags, and categories.

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