X-Wing Fighters and Classification Systems

Yesterday Clay Shirky published an amazing article called Ontologies are Overrated. Though he doesn’t mention Star Wars directly, his article has big implications for X-Wing Fighters and Land Speeders…

One thing I always loved about the Star Wars movies was the transportation: land speeders, star fighters, the Millenium Falcon. From the opening scenes in Star Wars when Luke is speeding around trying to prevent the attack on his aunt and uncle to the amazing woods scene in Return of the Jedi where Luke and Leia outmaneuver stormtroopers in the woods of Endor, I always appreciated the freedom to go anywhere at anytime. No roads, no signs. If you need to go into an asteroid field to avoid capture by the Empire, there are no rules preventing that.

In other words, there are no physical contraints that prevent Han from taking the Millenium Falcon where he pleases. There are no pathways that he must adhere to, no roads he must follow, no asteroid belts he cannot enter. In our world, of course, we have these constraints. We can’t go to Manhattan without using one of the existing roads or bridges. We can’t just drive directly south from Albany in an straight line, hovering over obstacles that get in our way, and reach our destination. We are currently constrained, of course, by gravity.

Yesterday Clay Shirky published an amazing article called Ontologies are Overrated. It is a writeup of several talks he’s given recently, one of which was made into a podcast that I linked to a few weeks back. In his article Shirky talks about constraints that drive classification systems: shelf space, money, politics, and religion.

In an ideal world, information should not be constrained by physical, political, or religious limitations. It should be free for everybody. Our children should be able to go online (or enter a library) and read about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Atheism, Judaism, as well as Christianity. In this way they can make up their own mind about what is right, and what isn’t right, (or simply what is right for them) and help the rest of us figure out how these religions can co-exist without bloodying each other.

In practice, though, our classification systems are full of constraints. As Shirky points out, and much to my dismay, 7 of the 9 Religion categories in the Dewey Decimal System are Christian-based. This, of course, is not exactly a good constraint if you’re trying to get an objective view about religion…

Another interesting example that Shirky uses in his article is the example of cities and countries. He points out that cities are physical places while countries are no more than a political constraint. This reminded me of a similar example given by Jeffrey Zeldman in his article Remove Forebrain and Serve, where he points out that only by drilling down through the country Turkey within a taxonomy would most people find the Taksim area within the city of Istanbul. What Zeldman doesn’t mention, though, (and what a Shirkian would point out) is that this example is only valid in today’s political climate for a user who happens to know that Taksim is in Instanbul is in Turkey and who thinks of it in that way.

This stuff fascinates me to no end. While on the one hand it would seem to make sense that many folks would make use of a taxonomy to find things, it certainly doesn’t feel like we should be limited to using one interface only (that may or may not be in our own words). In my view, one-ontology-fits-all approaches inhibit learning, they restrict our ability to see information with impartial eyes, and worst of all they destroy the notion of many-sidedness. Learning, at its most basic, is about discovering the many sides to every story.

Or, in Star Wars terms, I want to take my X-wing fighter, ignore all the galactic roads and navigation signs, and fly into any asteroid belt of my choosing.

Published: May 17th, 2005