Taxonomy Won’t Save Us

By | 2015/06/24

One of the great hopes of content management is that taxonomy will save us. Developing a consistent and rigorous taxonomy, it is hoped, will remove inconsistencies from how describe and label things, enabling us to find and reuse content much more easily. It is a lovely vision, and it is doomed to failure.

The underlying assumption of this confidence in taxonomy is that differences in terminology are accidental and that if we simply assign clear and well defined meanings to the terms we use, we can all use the same vocabulary and communicate more clearly and with less ambiguity.

The problem is, words don’t actually work like that. Take taxonomy, for instance. It a taxonomy simply a list of words, or is it a formal naming scheme with rules about how to add new names. It is concerned only with assigning names to objects (such as plants or animals) or does it cover all parts of speech? How is it different from a dictionary, a glossary, or a lexicon? (And how are those things different from each other?) Is it flat or hierarchical?

All these possible qualifications of the word cluster around the same underlying idea — words mean stuff — but the differences in implication, the details of what is required to qualify or function as a taxonomy, varies depending on what you want to use it for. And each of us hears the word slightly differently based on our prior experience. We will sometimes object strenuously if the word is used of something that does not have some particular characteristic that it always has in our world.

No taxonomy is going to iron out all of these variations of meaning. There are too many subtle variations, and even if we could sort them all out and assign distinct terms to all of them, no one is going to learn and use those distinct terms when “taxonomy” is entirely adequate to their communication needs most of the time.

The average person knows a lot of words. 50,000 by some estimates, though we probably don’t use all the ones we know. So isn’t there room for a few more so that we can be clear about all the various ways there are of associating words and meanings? Maybe, but what about all the other words with similarly diverse shades of meaning. Are we going to sort out all those as well, create new words for them all, and remember and correctly use all those new words?

Not likely.

Words are rather like phyllo pastry. They are made up of hundreds of layers of meaning, but most of the time, we see them as one thing and eat them whole. Things get awkward and sticky when we start trying to pull the layers apart because they don’t separate easily, and by the time you are done you are left with an unrecognizable mess.

Take the word “DITA” for instance. I, and others in tech comm, occasional say things critical of DITA. We are very often scolded by DITA stalwarts who say, “that’s not DITA”. Whatever the criticism is, they will frequently respond that what we are criticizing is not in the spec, or is only a default, or it is not required by the architecture, or is just the way people have chosen to use it.

Is this response fair? Yes and no. Assuming that their response is factually correct, it demonstrates that the criticism is not correct for one of the thousand layers that make up the phyllo pastry of the word “DITA”. That does not mean it is not true of several hundred of those layers, often ones added by the wider community of DITA users who do not sit on the standards committee or contribute to the open toolkit. DITA to each of them means what they have been taught and experiences of the DITA system they have used as well as all of the ideas around topic typing and reuse that have been preached in the name of DITA.

Pull all those layers of pastry apart and you will find all kinds of disagreements and inconsistencies, and certainly many things that are not required by the spec or the architecture. But at the same time, they are part of what DITA means to the wider world.

One of the harsh lessons of both technology and language is that just because you invent something does not mean you own how it used and understood. As a whole pastry — all the layers together — the word “DITA” means something quite different from what it means to the individual members of the DITA committee.

And I would be willing to bet that each of those individual committee members have a few different layers of pastry in their own definitions.

Most of the time, these subtleties in how we understand words go unnoticed. As long as we all feel that we are broadly in agreement about a subject, we don’t notice subtle difference in what we mean by the words. It is only when we disagree — or when we find that the proposition we thought we all agreed on has led someone to act in a way we disagree with — that we start to notice that we really don’t all mean exactly the same thing.

In this sense, of course, when I criticise DITA, I am criticizing my own particular philo pastry definition of the word, and in that sense my interlocutor is right to say that my criticism is invalid in respect to their phyllo pastry definition of the same word. The broader question is whether my criticism is fair of the shared set of pastry layers in the definitions of the broader audience I am talking to.

And this is why why argue, and why arguing productively is difficult and frustrating and leads so often to heated words and raised voices; because we are so often talking slightly past each other, and having a very hard time bridging the gap.

Taxonomy cannot fix any of this. Taxonomy cannot reduce the phyllo pastry of associations around each word and resolve them into a single cohesive layer. It can’t because every one of those phyllo layers represents some small or large variation in experience and understanding between individuals, a variation that is founded not only in the individual word but in all its associations to other words and experiences that exist uniquely in each individual’s brain. You can’t iron words flat unless you are also willing to iron brains flat.

But if we cannot agree on the precise meaning of individual words, how do we do reached shared meaning at all? Here it is necessary to point out the difference between computer languages and human languages. We are adopting many idea from computer science in the service of content, and we are absolutely right to do so. But a computer program is written for a specific computer architecture, one that is replicated millions of times over in different computers. There are no phyllo pastry definitions of either instructions or data across all those instances of the architecture. They are all exactly the same. (Well, ish, but that’s another story.)

If we could bring that same uniformity of understanding to content, we would be able to do some fantastic things in structured writing and content management. But we don’t write for the flawless silicone of a computer chip. We write for the flakey pastry of individual human brains.

This does not mean that we can’t achieve greater precision that the varied flakey pastry associations each person has with a work like “DITA” or “taxonomy”. But we don’t do it the way computers do it, by defining terms. We do it the way humans do it, by telling stories.

Consider the flakey pastry of associations attached to the word “store”. Is it even a noun or a verb?  And if it is either one, there is still a vast array of meanings, a vast set of possible images that might jump into your head.

But then suppose I tell you a story:

Dave went to the store.

That narrows down the associations a bit, there there are still many possible associations. So we expand on the story:

Dave went to the store to buy milk because the baby was hungry.

Now you probably have a picture in your head. Dave has a face. You see the baby, you see the store, the shelves, the fridge, the milk, the cashier, the other shoppers. You might be picturing a corner store, a supermarket, or a gas station. It might be noon or midnight. Dave might be in a suit or in an overcoat pulled over pajamas. You have filled all of that in from your experience to make the picture more concrete.

Your picture is still going to be different from mine, of course. It would need a much longer story to eliminate all the differences. But that is not how we use language. We are more economical than that. We tell enough of a story to get the other person to the point where they will have the reaction we want — the point where further details are not going to change how they react in any way that matters.

Of course, this is not easy. Communication is hard. Storytelling is hard. We can’t always tell if we have told too much story or not enough. And if we tell too much we can introduce details that actually distract the reader from the point we wished them to focus on. Communication is a fundamentally uncertain business that often requires conversation, correction, imagination, and apology.

Taxonomy can’t fix that. Nor can taxonomy classify stories so that the right story is always retrieved and delivered to the exact right person at the exact right time. Why not? Because the way we express what stories we want to hear is by telling stories. Stories are not endpoints, they are the fabric of communication. Telling stories is the only way to increase precision in general communication between human beings. We cannot precisely express the story we need except with another story.

In other words, Wikipedia is not Netflix. Treating stories as endpoints works when you are peddling movies and TV shows that designed for passive consumption, and operate with an internal logic that tries as hard as possible to avoid requiring any external information. But it does not work when you are creating an environment for active research where there is another story behind every assertion that every other story makes.

One of the things that makes social media such a dominant force in the modern marketplace is that is consists of an exchange of stories.

And this is also the essence of what hypertext is: a set of relationships between stories that follow the lines of the story itself and the ways in which it intersects with other stories. Stories connected to stories not as a librarian would catalog them, but as a storyteller would relate them. The connections, in other words, are intrinsic to the stories themselves.

This does not mean that we can’t usefully manipulate content with machines, or that taxonomies have no value in the process. We can, and we do, and we should. But we do need to recognize that these things are not a panacea, and that they do not scale to the complex expression of meaning between people and across domains.


19 thoughts on “Taxonomy Won’t Save Us

  1. Larry Kunz

    Fortunately, I’m not tasked with trying to organize the entire Internet. Just my own little corner of it. I find that taxonomies are handy – if not indispensable – tools for doing that.

    Yes, the bigger my “corner” gets – as it grows to encompass Tech Comm, Marketing, Support, etc. – the harder it is to make the taxonomy scale. Within the boundaries of an organization, it becomes a management challenge – somewhat akin to herding cats, but still doable. Beyond the boundaries, maybe that’s another story. But even on the scale I’m talking about, taxonomies go a long way toward placing the right information in the hands of the people who need it.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Larry.

      Scale is definitely an issue, but mere numbers are not the heart of the problem. Similarity of background and experience are the real issue, and that can exist in some organizations and not at all in others.

      We also need to be careful of the idea that organization is the goal. Retrieval is the goal. Organization can often enable retrieval only by those who did the organizing. Enabling retrieval by those who did not do the organizing is the real issue. Taxonomies can help if they formalize the vocabulary those doing the retrieving already use; they become opaque or confusing when they don’t.

      With similarity of vocabulary and experience, that can scale to millions; without them, it can fail for dozens.

      But the other part of my point is that there is an alternative to taxonomy as a means of retrieval that is especially powerful where similarity of vocabulary and experience are missing, and that is stories connected by hypertext.

      Taxonomies are useful (including for generating hypertext links) but they are not a panacea, and we should not overlook other tools at our disposal.

  2. David Reid

    hmmm. a very thought provoking article. Extrapolating it a bit into another area – Simplified Technical English – by association, this , according to Mark, will also never work.
    I’ve been against STE for a long time, but before I couldn’t quite explain WHY I was so against it. If I couple it on Mark’s Taxonomy story, Now it becomes much clearer. Thank you Mark.

    However, when you use taxonomy in a closed environment – for instance while describing software – windows, widgets, pull-down menus, select, click etc, Taxonomy can and does provide a clearer story to the reader. I’ve worked in teams of writers, and without a common taxonomy of what to call a window, – is it a window or a screen or a pane or something else…the reader would be totally distracted from the main story by thinking “Oh, they mean a screen, but it was earlier called a window”. This is not good for the overal consistency.
    Within DITA, of course you are dealing with a LOT of smaller EPiPO documents which at some point will be MERGED into the documentation that the reader will look at. Inconsistencies – like those I mentioned above, can be really irritating for the reader, and at worst the message of the story is lost.
    If there is just one Author writing all the DITA documents, then it is more likely that the consistency of terminology is better – but give it to 10-20 authors to split the work and you get terminology chaos…
    So I propose that a LIMITED taxonomy is probably necessary – if even only for the sake of consistency across the documentation.
    In the military documentation world certain words have certain meanings – and should only be used in certain situations.
    Without this sort of control you could write:
    “If there is a fire in the unit, you should put it out with a fire extinguisher.”

    and the word -should- is implied that you must do it – but in the mil world – should is a completely optional world – so the reader doesn’t actually have to do anything.
    (not the recommended situation).
    To make it absolutely clear it is better written as:
    “If there is a fire in the unit, use a fire extinguisher to put the fire out.”

    no ambiguity there…
    It is clear what the reader MUST do.

    So, back to Mark’s story… if Taxonomy is not the ‘silver bullet’ – what is?

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, David.

      I think STE works within the niche for which it was designed. It will fail outside of that niche because it lacks the range to cope with what needs to be said outside that range.

      That’s fine. English (or any other major tongue) is not one language but a group of many overlapping languages with a common core vocabulary. Many of those languages are naturally occurring, but quite a few are artificially constructed, such as the language of doctors or air traffic controllers.

      Those artificially constructed languages are all based on strict taxonomies of strict application, and all take considerable effort to learn ans use correctly.

      But while we can certainly use approved word lists to eliminate unnecessary variation in the more natural niche languages that we use for most subjects, we can back-form them into formal artificial niche languages by imposing strict taxonomies on them. Not only will readers not do the necessary study required to understand them, such strict taxonomy simply won’t work for most common language applications where the meaning of a word (like “store”) is not established by is definition but by its place in a story that brings an image to the reader’s mind.

      So, yes, limited taxonomies are certainly necessary in some fields. And corporate vocabularies (which are really much lesser things than taxonomies) are appropriate for a certain range of vocabulary. But the thing that scale, that crosses professions and cultures, is story.

  3. John O'Gorman

    I’ve used a universal taxonomy for years now. The trick is to know its limitations. (BTW, Mark, I’ve also been in trouble – several times – with members of the DITA technical committee, most recently over a difference in interpretation of the word ‘semantics’. Ironic, no?)

    Q6 (the name of my universal taxonomy) is based on the premise that strings (acronyms, abbreviations, names, phrases, terms and values) come in a fixed number of classes, or taxa in this context. The second premise is, given multiple interpretations of almost every member of any class, each string needs its own identity based on its meaning. Keep in mind that each of these premises are independent of context. This is important, because when it comes to adding new members, I want to make sure that there is no collision with existing strings. A dictionary serves very well to settle these kinds of things.

    Next, there is a mechanism in Q6, called ‘equivalence’ that supports mapping between one unique string – like an acronym – to its equivalent string. This complements the identity premise for things like the aforementioned acronym, abbreviation, translation, etc.

    Finally, there is an intersecting mechanism in Q6 for ranking enterprise usefulness of strings, otherwise known as governance. If a string has universal interpretation it ranks at the top; if only two people use it in a conversation, it sits at the bottom.
    If an interpretation of term in a specific organization, like the military, must be used it sits in the middle. The boundaries are not solid, but it is better than no boundaries at all.

    These four premises form the foundation of a terminology-driven organzation, from master data out to slang and from individual words to topics. Like I said at the top, the trick is knowing its limitations. For example, having a good foundation doesn’t always mean the engineers aren’t going to trash the house. It does, however, support a multi-dimensional space for the rest of us to play in.

    In closing, here is my approach to delivering such a model:

    “God, grant me the serenity to accept the opinions and language I can’t control; the strength to organize the concepts I can; and. the wisdom to know the difference.”

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, John,

      I agree that knowing the limits is essential. I wonder if we would agree on where they are. 🙂

      One of the most fundamental problems is that out own perspective tends to make us believe that vocabulary is far more universal than it really is. It is in stories (and in arguments, that we discover the subtleties of our differences.

      But what we need to avoid overreach is another mechanism to handle the parts of the job that taxonomy is not well suited for. Without that, taxonomy will inevitably be used beyond its limits.

      What I am suggesting, of course, is that stories linked by hypertext provide such a mechanism. But we will need to develop them if we are to prevent the application of taxonomy in places it does not belong.

      1. John O'Gorman

        Hi Mark;

        Agree that there are limits and that you might be surprised that we also agree on where they are. My taxonomy is only three levels deep and is entirely based on the strings we use as referents.

        It does indeed have functional limits as well and employs (outside of the classification process) several techniques to manage identity, translation and association. Beyond that, all forms of narrative (topics, stories, tables, file stores, applications and schema) can take advantage of the fact that the first step in all of the them is declaration: what is what. After that, association; then narrative.

        Hypertext is one such mechanism of assication, but users want mulit-dimensional connections to their stories – preferably with graphics in the form of graphs and illustrations – to set context and visually guide their learnings.

  4. Jonatan Lundin

    What you’re saying makes me a little confused, even though I totally agree that there no single term on earth (and will never be) that means the same thing – in the sense of connotation, association – to every human being.

    I believe already Aristoteles came to this conclusion. The field of semiotics has continued to discuss the relation between a sign, what it signifies and what is interpreted when a human reads the sign.

    My interpretation of what you are saying, is that you say that one purpose of a taxonomy is to “describe and label things”. I’d say that that is the purpose of a lexicon – and a dictionary that lists lexicons in alphabetical order.

    My understanding is that the primary purpose of a taxonomy is to declare which things belong together. The label assigned to groups of things (taxons) reveal the common denominator, used to group the things. To disambiguate the label assigned to a group of things, you define a lexicon.

    So the purpose of a taxonomy is to introduce a classification scheme rather than removing inconsistencies from how we describe and label things.

    So an alternative title for this post would be “Lexicons won’t’ save us”. But, our different viewpoints is a perfect example of how terms can be given a different meaning.

    1. John O'Gorman


      I liked your post very much as you have summarized the problem very well. When we focus on ‘enterprise’ lexicons (and eliminate the wildly more ambiguous web) it is possible to manage a lexicon – and its universal taxonomy – in a way that is much more effective than how it is being done now.

      The key is not to let lexicon values languish in a one-dimension space but to leverage the dimensionality (classification space) of the taxonomy to, for example, improve search by triangulation.

      1. Mark Baker Post author


        It seems that you and I see the poor performance of enterprise lexicons as symptoms of very different problems. You see ineffective implementation or inappropriate construction. I see lack of fitness of task.

        It seems we all agree that in the broader scope, ideas and associations are too complex for an systems that assigns single meanings to individual words — as I have expressed it, that stories are the containers of meaning.

        And I think we all agree too that there are certain applications where we can and must define a single meaning for individual words — medicine and air traffic control being my go-to examples.

        The question is, can the successes of taxonomy in those fields be extended to other fields, and, in particular, to a set of enterprise content management tasks.

        The crux of the matter here is whether the number of things to be signified is sufficiently small and sufficiently agreed upon by all actors that manageable set of common terms can be assigned, learned, and used.

        The promoters of taxonomy based content management clearly seem to believe that these conditions can easily and commonly be met. I believe they are actually rare, and difficult to meet.

        Unfortunately, it is often easy to achieve the illusion of having met them — to send a committee off to meet and create a taxonomy which looks very plausible on the surface. But these taxonomies often paper over or ignore huge differences in significance and interest, producing a language in which it is not possible to do business in the real world.

        I believe that stories, not taxonomy, are what we need to create a language in which it is possible to do business in the real world, and that content managment would be better served to look at ways of using hypertext to improve the navigability of the connections between stories.

        1. John O'Gorman

          Mark –

          I think you are taking too narrow a view of what a taxonomy is used for or how it is ‘shaped’. Or maybe you are thinking in too much a traditional way. I agree that most taxonomies severely restrict multiple meanings or the opposite case: more than one string to mean the same thing, but that is what this new model is designed to address.

          Appendix, bicep, tricep and cervical are four medical terms I can think of with more than one meaning. The opposite case – multiple words for a single concept – are also in evidence. The issue is not about controlling (limiting) the words in a vocabulary but in writing and implementing the rules that can effectively deal with ambiguity.

          The undeniable failure of most clinical systems to interoperate is due almost exclusively to this oversight. Databases and hypertext are hard-wired and brittle; they are not designed to handle uncertainty.

          The reason stories work is because of redundancy. A single word carries high ambiguity; a single word followed by another word carries less. A single concept in a medical dictionary has none. Stories are effective (if longish) way to make meanings clearer. But if you already know there is a chance of being misunderstood, why not declare the identity of terms – and their classification – up front?

          That being said, if we were to make the single word (let’s use ‘cervical’) and its definitions equivalent:

          adjective, Anatomy
          1. of or relating to the cervix
          2. of or relating to the neck

          By itself ‘cervical’ is ambiguous

          The phrase ‘cervical vertebrae’ is not. When managed correctly, in my lexicon it is necessary to have both (cervical-1 and cervical-2), each with their own identity and definition. Then you can use them confidently to tell any relevant story you want.

          1. Mark Baker Post author


            You are correct that you can, in a mechanical sense, handle the ambiguity of words as you describe, though only for a limited audience for a limited purpose (doctors and air traffic controllers do not use their specialized vocabulary to chat about their kids, talk about the game last night, or haggle with a car salesman).

            The problem is, that is not how language actually works. It is not how ordinary people convey meaning to each other most of the time. Most of the time they convey meaning to each other by telling stories.

            You say, “But if you already know there is a chance of being misunderstood, why not declare the identity of terms – and their classification – up front?” But how are you going to do that? There is only one way: by telling stories. A shared taxonomy is, in fact, a shared set of stories. But that is also what a shared language is: a shared set of stories.

            Ordinary language becomes more effective between two people the more stories they have in common. Stories work by reference and allusion to other stories, and the more stories we have in common the clearer those references become.

            Between people who do not have all the same stories, common understanding is established by an exchange of stories — by a conversation. I tell you a story, but there is something in my story — a reference to another story — that you do not recognize. You ask me a question — sometimes by telling me a story — and I tell you another story in return. We continue to exchange stories until we reach a shared understanding of what the other is saying — or lose interest or patience in the process. This is exactly the process we are engage in at this moment in this conversation.

            Taxonomy is a formalization of a set of stories. Its limit, as a device for organizing and retrieving content, is that the world of stories is too large for everyone to learn a common set of stories a priori. In fact, it is a classic bootstrap problem. All the lengthiness and ambiguity of the story process is inherent in arriving at shared taxonomy.

            Conversation is the other part of the story about stories. Stories do not arrive at perfect disambiguation by adding words (as you suggest). Rather, they work by evoking experiences, which must then be refined by an exchange of further stories until we reach a sufficiently common understanding to agree on how to act.

            Even then, conversation and stories can’t always do the whole job. It is often the case that we don’t know for certain if we have a common understanding of how to act until we see each others actions. Shared understanding is only finally revealed by common action. When we discover that we are not acting in common, we tell more stories and then test our understanding by acting again.

            You say, “Databases and hypertext are hard-wired and brittle; they are not designed to handle uncertainty.” But that is true of taxonomy as well, not matter what mechanisms you install to qualify meaning. Without shared stories qualified by common action, you don’t know that uncertainty and ambiguity have been eliminated.

            Because this is how we communicate, using any information set is, in effect, like holding a conversation. As we discover that we don’t fully understand the story the system is telling us, we have to find ways to ask it for more stories. Taxonomies, databases, and hypertexts are all merely ways of providing navigability between stories. Of these, hypertext is the most natural and flexible in expressing how stories are connected, and taxonomies are the least natural and least flexible.

            None of them remove the need to exchange stories of to validate understanding through action. But we are putting too much emphasis, and residing far too much hope in taxonomy as an instrument for facilitating the exchange of stories, particularly at large scale and across cultures. The Web has conclusively and overwhelmingly demonstrated the superiority of hypertext for this purpose. To ignore this requires a kind of wilful blindness — one that seems pervasive across the content management industry.

          2. John O'Gorman

            The shortest story you can tell to convey meaning is in the form of a graph. That’s (partly) how I do it. The taxonomy applied to the lexicon is a means to an end.

          3. Mark Baker Post author

            Hmmmm. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” is one of the shortest stories ever told. How would you graph it? Like all stories, it depends on a wealth of experience with other stories. Indeed, it tells its real story only by implication. But in doing so, it evokes one of the small reminders of a larger tragedy which somehow seems to trigger the deeper emotion.

            But yes, a taxonomy applied to a lexicon is a means to an end. The question is, what ends can it be successfully applied to. My contention is not that taxonomies are not useful, but simply that they cannot be applied successfully to solving the “content management” problem in any general sense because they do not scale for the variabilities in culture, experience, and language between information seekers.

            I should also perhaps reiterate that I am not proposing hypertext as a general solution either. The only solution is the ancient solution, an exchange of stories through conversation tested in experience. Hypertext is simply a superior way of enabling navigation through stories, which is all content management can hope to achieve.

          4. John O'Gorman

            I posted before that the scope of this conversation (and the model I’m working with) should be limited to enterprise applications, not “the world at large” so unless we’re talking about a newspaper let’s leave baby shoes out of it.

            Here’s your contention: “…they (taxonomies) cannot be applied successfully to solving the “content management” problem in any general sense because they do not scale for the variabilities in culture, experience, and language between information seekers.”

            All any of the audiences (varying in culture, experience and language) need to begin to make sense of content in an enterprise is a connection to a name, term or symbol that they already know.

            As long as the content management space continues to see taxonomies as straight jackets, I agree with you: they have no business selling those services as a panacea.

            In my model, when you start with words and demonstrate conclusively that content acquisition, creation, translation, distribution and most importantly search can all realize huge benefits by putting a universal taxonomy in its proper place – and yes scales very easily inside the enterprise then you have something to sell.

            I have something that I have used to publish content to multiple platforms, multiple languages and multiple audiences with some success.

          5. Mark Baker Post author

            John, you said earlier, “I’ve used a universal taxonomy for years now.” So clearly there is a story behind what “universal” means in that sentence, if your system is limited to the enterprise.

            And I suspect that there is a story behind what “enterprise” means as well. Does it mean:

            • For use by groups within the enterprise for specific functions.
            • For use by groups within the enterprise for all functions.
            • For use across the enterprise for specific functions.
            • For use across the enterprise for all functions.
            • For use between the enterprise and its external vendors and customers.

            Scope is very much the issue here, of course, and each of the above is a very different scope. Only the first has much hope of sustainable success in my view.

            But it is notable to me that the well known examples that clearly do work, like medicine and and air traffic control, have a different scope: for specific functions between enterprises.

            In any case, I don’t have any way of assessing if your system is better for certain functions than other systems. But I would argue that as long as it is a taxonomy, it only works for people who agree on the stories that the words and phrases of that taxonomy stand for.

            That seems to be the natural limit of taxonomies, regardless of their construction. A superior system for generating and managing taxonomies would certainly be welcome within the natural scope of what taxonomies can do, and might make the effective use of taxonomies within their natural scope more practical and less expensive. These would be very good things.

            But I don’t see in this any contradiction to the point of my post, which is that taxonomy, though useful for many purposes, will not save content management.

          6. John O'Gorman

            Mark – I don’t see (much) contradiction between your initial post and what I’m saying either, so we’ve got that going for us.

            Taxonomies are domain-specific arrangements of ‘things’ and you are exactly right: they are brittle in the same way applications, data models and file-stores are brittle and for the same reason. Medical taxonomies are a great example: there are more ways to slice and dice medical terminology than Bayer has pills.

            All I am suggesting is that we take another look at how we might use a common method for classifying language as an ‘upstream’ exercise in support more effective communication. What happens (which structures are used) ‘downstream’ then matter less and deliver more.

            If you have a collection of file names to send me I would be happy to demonstrate.


          7. John O'Gorman

            Mark – all of the combinations of scope you listed…

            For use by groups within the enterprise for specific functions.
            For use by groups within the enterprise for all functions.
            For use across the enterprise for specific functions.
            For use across the enterprise for all functions.
            For use between the enterprise and its external vendors and customers.

            …can be managed as I posted before:

            “Finally, there is an intersecting mechanism in Q6 for ranking enterprise usefulness of strings, otherwise known as governance. If a string has universal interpretation it ranks at the top; if only two people use it in a conversation, it sits at the bottom.
            If an interpretation of term in a specific organization, like the military, must be used it sits in the middle. The boundaries are not solid, but it is better than no boundaries at all.”

            The application of a universal taxonomy is as much about method as it is about separating terminologies. Your example of multiple enterprises in healthcare with overlapping vocabularies is an excellent illustration. Take a clinic, a hospital, a pharmacy and a school of medicine. The ‘usefulness ranking’ for say, terms relating to medical conditions would likely be the same; terms for processes inside each organization would likely be local to that facility and so on.

            The trick is to be prescriptive inside the taxonomy when we can but provide the mechanisms for local dialects as necessary.

    2. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Jonatan.

      That is certainly an astute distinction. There is certainly a tendency for common names to be simply signifiers while formal names seem to be based on classification schemes. The “Jump Up and Kiss Me” is a name for pansy seem totally arbitrary, whereas “Plantae Magnoliophyta Magnoliopsida Violales Violaceae Viola tricolor” is based on a set of ideas about what things belong together.

      But to me this shows very clearly why taxonomies won’t save us. They rely on the presumption that there is one way, and only one way, in which things belong together, which is very obvious nonsense. Things belong with all sorts of other things in all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons, and different groupings and arrangement of things are sensible and useful to different people at different times and for different reasons.

      Both databases and hypertexts do a better job of expressing this variety of arrangement that taxonomies do. But in the end, it is stories, and only stories, that can express the fullness of all the ways in which things may belong together.

      You are right that our different viewpoints on this reveal how terms can have different meanings, but I would suggest that they also reveal how different viewpoints reveal different views on what things belong together.

      Naming and association are two different things. In the world of stories, names are often references to other stories. In the world of taxonomy, they are an assertion of a single mandated association. But while there are fields where, in limited use, a single mandated association is vital — medicine and air traffic control spring to mind — most of life is simply too complex and varied for single mandated association to work. Names evoke stories, and stories connect ideas.


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