02 August 2007

Freebase revisited

I was very pleased to see that Robert Cook responded to my comments below, and felt that he was right on one point, that I needed to clarify my final point. I agree that I did finish off a bit abruptly.
It is not that I think that Freebase will fail. In fact, I think quite the opposite. Though, I do think that my point is germane not only to Freebase, but to such knowledge accumulations generally. The problem is that we think we know things by knowing how to name them -- and knowing what the name means. We are, in the West, constantly taught that this is how we know. We are bombarded with training manuals that classify the subject and explain to us this classification. We are constantly exposed to a media that is classifying and naming the events around us. We are constantly trying to understand what is going on around us by finding the appropriate names and the appropriate meanings for those names.
We are told that we are this sort of an employee; that we are that sort of a resident; that we are this class of a tax payer; that we are male or female or gay; that we have this type of body; or, hopefully not, this kind of disease with these characteristics. We are classified, ordered and named constantly. We are told that the advances of science and medicine and society are this or that sort of thing. We are told that the problems of the world are due to this type of person, or this type of belief or, worse, this type of religion.
We are also told that types of things have definitive characteristics. When these definitive characteristics are correct, the thing is right, when they are incorrect, the thing is wrong. We see this in the gay debate, or the debate about terrorism. It is not that different people have different characteristics, or that they interpret their characteristics differently -- or even that the social context of these interpretations is very complex -- but that there are bad characteristics, ones that do not fit the norm. But, of course, what is the norm, and how is it defined? I'm not going to go into that, as there is a huge literature on this subject. I would just point you to, if you are interested, the work of Michel Foucault and the hundreds of works about the social construction of the norm.
We could also ask the question, which is more pertinent to the Freebase discussion, What is a thing anyway? Is it a unique entity that simply has names and characteristics defined onto it, or is it something more fluid, dynamic and constructed? Now I'm not an idealist, I do not believe that everything in the world happens in my head, and that there is no reality outside of my mind. But there is a big difference between the physical object and what we say that physical object means.
Naming and classifying an object is certainly a kind of meaning, it would be absurd to say it wasn't. However, it is but a 'kind' of meaning, if I can use classification to explain classification. We use classifications because they are useful, very useful, but usefulness implies use. We use classifications, or whatever method, to understand things because the actions performed, social and practical, allow us, with others, to construct an account of the world that supports other meaningful actions. In this sense, we do not have understanding, as we have a car or a house, but understanding is something we do. It is a skilled activity.
We could say the same of things. We do not know things because they have innate characteristics, that we know more or less well, but because we are able to perform particular meaningful actions with them. Classification is one such meaningful activity that we do with things.
In this way, Freebase offers a very useful approach to the accumulation of accounts of things. Not because it is realistically or definitively defining the world of things, but because it will allow us all, through a dynamic classification, to define our many different domains of understanding. More importantly, Freebase offers to possibility to ensure that these different domains are communally defined and maintained. It should ensure that these various orders of the world, the various domains, are the emergent result of communities of knowledge, not single singular assertions of a single community.
In my next post, I plan to discuss why Freepress is a much better approach to this problem of knowledge order than the simple Wiki.

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