Everything is political economy, stupid!

Shirky, C. (2005). Ontology is overrated: Categories, links, and tags. Retrieved from http://www.shirky.com/writings/ontology_overrated.html

If only I had read Shirky before I finished my INN533 blog for week six (Master of IT course).  I would have found the language to avoid talking about political economy while talking about it!

Shirky’s summary of ontological and phenomenological problems in information categorization is so close to that bizarre moment when I was confronted by a lecturer in information management. discussing the nature of information and how it is interpreted, who dismissed my point that there is an entire academic discipline devoted to examining how meaning is constructed and derived – semiotics – with the simple statement: ‘Yes, but I’m a professional’.  Clearly professionals have no use for knowledge or wisdom that doesn’t fit their own narrow disciplines.

And just so Shirky fails to link his discussion of ontology and phenomenology to the actual study of those topics in philosophy, dealing with them instead as if their truncated and appropriated forms in managing information categorisation could be a meaningful perspective in its own right.

There is a mistake in ascribing to fundamentally naïve and simplified philosophical ‘categories’ any shortcomings arising from naïveté and ignorance in people who discuss them rather than the dynamics of the topics themselves.  Maybe Shirky hasn’t read too much Kierkegaard or Sartre.

He does, however, go on to make the point that assuming too much about a hierarchy of things in the world is an inherently political decision.  Sadly, Shirky, like everyone else I have read on this topic, avoids the fundamental problem of shaped perspective.  By shaped I mean influenced by specific factors of political economics; I see the world entirely differently for having been socialized in the First World than a Muslim sees it in Iran, or a Zulu tribal leader in South Africa.  But my perspective is a dominant one in a world shaped predominantly by the US economic and military empire.  Moreover, if my First World perspective nevertheless strays into the potentially subversive area of being opposed to some methods of empire (robber baron capitalism, military colonialism), suddenly my own perspective is as alien and alienating as that of the Muslim or the Zulu.

Applied to categorising information, this means my perspective on the economic utility of library classification schema will be seen as hostile to people who base their careers and income on uncritical acceptance of such standards, and on either not thinking about political economic consequences of doing so, or rejecting the very proposition that there are political economic dimensions to what they do.

Shirky is a case in point.  He makes the really valid point about the minimization of the Asia and Africa, to, say Germany (personally I wonder at the ‘also’ category of Oceania, in which there is little apparent commonality between components beyond Australia and New Zealand).  But he doesn’t explain why there so many more materials on Germany and other NATO countries than Asian or African nations: because we see things from the Americano-centric perspective of empire. 

Our focus is determined by the Chomsky-Cambodia effect: by reporting many more incidents in the history of the Khmer Rouge Cambodian genocide than in the American-backed Indonesian East Timorese genocide, the term genocide is legitimated for what occurred in Cambodia, but the events in east Timor aren’t even regarded as war crimes, let alone crimes in which the US was complicit.  (Chomsky’s analysis of the news coverage mentioned in this example was part of the book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), which he co-authored with Edward Herman, and of the documentary film directed by Mark Akbar (1992) Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, which I examined in a previous blog post.

For Shirky, who holds some pretty senior positions in journalism schools, not to be aware of the Chomsky-Cambodia research, basic though it was, is a major failing, which becomes bluntly apparent again when he gushes credulously about the internet user categorization of content as if this were not intermediated and directed according to commercial, and therefore politically economic interests of US corporations like Yahoo and Google; it isn’t actually internet users who classify and categorise online content, it is corporations who use or discard what internet users do to suit their own ends, and who exploit users for profit rather than catering to any but a lowest common denominator of users – like a supermarket stocking only crap food because it sells better than healthy alternatives.

Shirky’s discussion does, however, make two pretty important points for immediate practical purposes in this unit of study: fixed schema are OK for small, relatively unchanging information and user sets, but become less relevant as either part of that equation expands significantly.

In that regard, a great quote is actually Shirky’s bulleted list:

The other key question, besides the characteristics of the domain itself, is “What are the participants like?” Here are some things that, if true, help make ontology a workable classification strategy:


  • Expert catalogers
  • Authoritative source of judgment
  • Coordinated users
  • Expert users

Note the use of the term ‘expert’.


Interpellation: Students, neophytes.
Absences: Intellectual honesty or education in the humanities.
Utility: A tame but passable introductory critique of ontological determinism.
Questions: Given that no standards for library classifications have yet emerged that don’t impose a politically economic perspective on the universe, where does his critique actually lead?  Surrender to the commercial interests of Google?

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