2009 began with the declaration that taxonomy was dead. In 2010, I want to suggest that taxonomies have a role to play in regeneration. I recently reread an influential essay by George Orwell, called “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s essay is about writing, but it is a request to choose carefully how we label our experience. Orwell writes, language is “full of bad habits. … To get rid of these habits is to think more clearly, and to think more and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”
Orwell’s essay, written at the end of WWII, was a quest was to end the bureaucratic language that led to the Holocaust and Stalinization and that gave us us desensitizing phrases like “collateral damage” or “pacification” but despite Orwell’s large polemics, on rereading his essay, I realized he had an important insights for taxonomies — and why how we label and categorize matters.
Orwell exerts us to exercise mental energy to construct meaningful, vivid and lively labels. Orwell has a few good rules that probably should be added to the list of taxonomy editing guidelines.
- Avoid overused or dying metaphors and phrases
- Use more action words, and avoid the passive voice
- Avoid pretentious words
Think of all the words that emerged in 2009 could use some more complete taxonomic description to understand what they really meant: “Health care reform” “death panels” “single payer” “What do these really mean ? I am also quite certain how I define a term is not how my neighbor or even 2 experts might define the term. As a concrete illustration, in 2009, I was part of a very knowledgeable group who looked at health care reform. I proposed that each of us write a definition of “single payer” on an index card — and we had multiple definitions even among a like-minded group.
I am interested in Orwell’s idea to look at phrases as action words — which goes against the passivity of taxonomies as nouns phrases. For example, although this might be a bit turgid, what if we start thinking about investment as an activity. By separating investment (the product) for investing (the action), we might start to understand who the players are, their roles, and methods and practices, and then we are on our way to understanding the an action-oriented defensive role played regulation and regulatory agencies. And now we are on our way to designing more comprehensive systems for understanding financial goobledy-gook.
Orwell even has a formula for creating user-generated labels that is as good as any instruction I have seen. Orwell has a process of visualization, where you capture your ideas about a concept in a “mental model” before you attempt to write a label for the object. He writes:
When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.
In 2010, my goal is to think about overused terms and phrases and to take the time to map what is actually meant. On my blog , you will see more concept mapping using CMAPS and I’ll be posting my maps for different projects on this blog regularly. I’ll also be looking for other projects that are doing innovative work.
But the main point of Orwell’s work is that words have to be discussed in an open dialog. Taxonomy work should not be done in isolation, because we are questioning and defining core concepts. We need to ask in public spaces about these fundamental definitions. If we shake our heads in acknowledgement, when we don’t understand, then we are imitating, and not exercising mental energy or regenerating our own thinking.
This is a year to use taxonomies for regeneration – for taxonomies to become a more conscious activity to see if the label conveys what is meant and everything that is meant. As Orwell says, we need to avoid imitation because is corrupts our own thought processes. If we don’t understand a phrase, ask the speaker to define the concept – precisely and unambiguously. In tagging my objects, I need to ask if my tags are specific enough? Did I use enough tags? Have I covered all the facets aspects of the object? Can another person find my object or my post using my tags?
Perhaps, I am going to walk around with bunches of index cards in my bag in order to create spontaneous moments for regeneration and dialog. Asking for clarity is something we can do graciously.