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The Sound of Taxonomy

Hi! – I’m Gordon Taylor – a Senior Techical Consultant with TOWER North America – this is my first post on the shiny new TOWER Blog. If you will, allow me to rant a little about taxonomy, and share something wonderful I found…

Taxonomy is the practice and science of classification. It’s the foundation for all nearly all of the information management models in the world.

Before information management was a recognised discipline, people who had to classify and organize collections included historians, archivists, botanists, zoologists. Much of what we know about modern taxonomical process comes from the swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus.

At the heart of the Linnean Taxonomy lies a series of descending levels for classifying all biological matter on the planet. The idea being that based on observable characteristics of the plant or animal, a biologist would be able to accurately classify it’s position in the taxonomy.

Stephen Jay Gould wrote in Wonderful Life: “Taxonomy (the science of classification) is often undervalued as a glorified form of filing—with each species in its prescribed place in an album; but taxonomy is a fundamental and dynamic science, dedicated to exploring the causes of relationships and similarities among organisms. Classifications are theories about the basis of natural order, not dull catalogues compiled only to avoid chaos.”

As with all good theories, classificaitons and taxonomy are constantly under review. As we move into the new Web 2.0 world, there are people who question if formal classification is really relevant in the modern world. After all, Google manages to do search and retrieval pretty well, without classifying anything – do we really need all these categories?

Additionally, the peer-tagged classification system, or Folksonomy has also appeared. A Folksonomy is not really a true taxonomy – it’s based on a collection of tags that have been added by people who have saved things. For example, I could save this blog post at del.icio.us – and tag it with the keywords ‘taxonomy’ and ‘folksonomy’, but you could also tag the same post with the words ‘utter’ and ‘bollocks’. Depending on what the majority of people thought, a trend will emerge as to what is the best way to classify the post, given enough people tagging it over time.

Clay Shirky wrote an excellent article on this topic: Ontology Overrated. It’s highly reccomended if you’re looking for more insight into the folksonomical.

But, I digress. The real reason I started this post was to share something wonderful with you – The Music Genome Project. This Project was an attempt by a series of expert musicians to build a giant taxonomy of all the music in the world, based on musical characteristics. And the fruits of their labor are free candy for your ears: Pandora – an internet radio station that allows you to take your favorite music, and discover other bands and artists with similar qualities – do you like The Meters ? (major key tonality, extensive vamping, prominent organ and electric guitar riffs) Explore what else is classified at that level in the taxonomy.

Would Pandora work if it was based on a folksonomy, rather than an expert classification system? Almost certainly not. (For example, every second band would be tagged with ‘SUCKS’, or ‘ROCKS’…)

It seems to me that if you really want to have a definitive idea of the order of your information, you need some level of expert classification. That often it’s not actually what’s classified, but it’s context – what’s classified near it – that matters.

I know – it’s only glorified filing – but I like it!

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