Tags, not categories

Reading “Object Biographies,” I just hit Dannehl’s paragraph about the utility and constraints of categories. After about a sentence and a half, I started skimming, because it’s such a standard discussion. I wonder if that will be the case in ten or twenty years. Right now, I think the dominant metaphor is still one of physical ordering. Where is this thing shelved? Which pigeon-hole should it be stuffed into? The choice of one category precludes (or at least complicates/depricates) the choice of another.

Now that so much of our information is virtual, I wonder how strong that metaphor remains. Gmail got rid of folders—a metaphor with a long history in computing, but easily comprehended by someone who’s never seen a command line—and everyone seems to’ve adapted just fine. It’s not a matter of putting things somewhere, it’s a matter of creating a trail of breadcrumbs. Sometimes, it’s important that those breadcrumbs are useful to others, but in other contexts personalized codes are cromulent. Librarians are paying a lot of attention to metadata (Christine DeZelar-Tiedman’s article about folksonomies versus formal cataloging schemes leaps to mind). As the materiality of data disappears, will the perceived permanence of “categories” also erode? Will Prown’s encouragement to place objects in multiple categories someday seem quaint and unnecessary? Or is there something hardwired into our brains, which will always insist that a thing has a place…and only truly one?

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