November 26, 2003
Since Mr. Otlet can’t be here to defend himself, I suppose that task falls to me.
First, to suggest that the failure of the Mundaneum invalidates Otlet’s vision – that it somehow deserved to fail – is to overlook the historical facts. The failure of the Mundaneum had less to do with the merits of its vision than with the effects of politics and war, and with Nazi troops literally marching in and carting away its contents to make room for an exhibit of Third Reich art. Otlet’s own mercurial personality may also have led to a number of management missteps. But to imply that the Mundaneum’s failure and Otlet's subsequent descent to obscurity stemmed from a failure of vision seems a deeply unfair assessment.
I suspect that Mr. Shirky may be less concerned with the fate of the Mundaneum than with pressing poor Mr. Otlet into service as a straw man for his argument about the futility of universal classification systems. Which is a fair argument, but not a fair use of Otlet.
Shirky focuses on one passage from the article:
Otlet’s vision suggests an intellectual cosmos illuminated both by objective classification and by the direct influence of readers and writers: a system simultaneously ordered and self-organizing, and endlessly re-configurable by the individual reader or writer.
To which Shirky responds, in part:
Setting aside the fundamental misconception of the Semantic Web implied above (it is anything but a universal classification scheme; and it is all about supporting “alternate worldviews”), Shirky is quite right about the limitations of human-generated classification schemes. Yahoo!'s ontology efforts were a fool's errand that they wisely abandoned; and it's been a long time since I heard anyone seriously advocate a universal classification scheme for the Web.But to portray Otlet as a champion of authoritarian classification is to misconstrue his legacy. If you're looking to pick fights with deceased bibliographers, I would advise going after Dewey, Panizzi, or Cutter – the Victorian “true believers” in universal classification. Or, like Borges, you could even go back a few hundred years and mix it up with Roger Wilkens. But please let poor Mr. Otlet have his due.
Otlet was working in an environment where the possibility of billions of documents was probably well beyond his conception. He envisioned a large collection of documents - millions - populated by researchers and scholars, but probably nothing on the scale of the Web. Would he have revised his theories in light of today's Web? Who knows. Probably.
Otlet matters not because he believed in universal classification, but because he recognized the importance of associative trails and collaborative authorship, directly presaging the visions of Bush, Nelson et al. His belief in the possibility of marrying classification with social context is important not because he advocated classification, but because he foresaw the possibilities of self-organizing systems.But of course Otlet did develop and promote a "universal" classification scheme (the UDC - which is still widely used in libraries outside the U.S.). Would I advocate trying to apply the UDC to the Web? No. But surely classification schemes still have their place.
I, for one, am glad the Centers for Disease Control recently decided to invest in expanding and reworking its classification system to improve their ability to diagnose and respond to outbreaks of disease. And I’m glad they’re not so foolish as to rely on Google for that. I’m also glad working scientists can rely on tools like the Science Citation index, pioneered by Eugene Garfield - rather than relying on "brute force" clustering algorithms when they have such an elegantly designed tool as SCI at their disposal.Important work in these areas receives almost no public attention because it is wholly unsexy, mind-numbingly detailed work performed by relatively anonymous specialists. And of course buzzword technologies like social networking make for better copy than tracking changes to the MeSH subject headings.
But controlled vocabularies and classifications will continue to exist, and with good reason: they provide an essential foundation for research communities with shared interests. And, at least for the forseeable future, they will coexist with the chaotic self-organization of the current Web.
Striking the balance between externally imposed structures (like ontologies) and self-organizing systems may be a central question for our times; but, as Otlet realized, it is not necessarily a yes or no question. It may just be a matter of degree.
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