Weekly Response Post – Elizabeth Frank

The Alex Wright article introduced to me the word Mundaneum, which evoked in me memory of certain temp jobs, so I went online to determine whether it actually derived from the word “mundane.”  I failed that part of the quest but learned that this same author recently published a book about Paul Otlet.  The summary of the book on the amazon website provided phrases even more entertaining that the ones in the article, including defining the Mundaneum as the “steampunk version of hypertext,” and adds that beyond dubbing his envisioned network merely a réseau, he described it as a réseau mondiale – a worldwide web.  Perhaps this article, published in 2003, started the thread of interest in Alex Wright that led to the book, which was published only last June.

But outside the steam punk fun of it, Wright reveals Otlet as a true visionary:  “he simply believed that documents could best be understood as three-dimensional, with the third dimension being their social context:  their relationship to time, language, other readers, writers and topics.”  And later, “With the advent of the Semantic Web and related technologies . . . we are moving towards an environment where social context is becoming just as important as topic content.”

The chapter “The Geography of Knowledge” from Everything is Miscellaneous was entertaining and informative.  One never gets tired of reading about Melvil Dewey, his bizarre fascination with the metric system, his attempt to make English more efficient, and his limited world view, which is only recently being acknowledged.  While Weinberger acknowledges that Dewey’s perspective is that of a “small-minded American Christian jingoist,” he concludes “today’s category easily becomes tomorrow’s embarrassment,” and answers a question raised earlier, when we discussed radical cataloging, “The Dewey Decimal Classification system can’t be fixed because knowledge itself is unfixed.  Knowledge is diverse, changing, imbued with the cultural values of the moment.”  Case in point:  Weinberger’s analysis of amazon.com, which examines its classification system, is described as “fun” and “friendly.”  He describes its collection as a “miscellaneous pile that can be digitally sorted to reflect the individual interests of each visitor.”  In fact, human beings are responsible for sorting through that pile in order to fulfill purchases, human beings employed by other human beings who may also be described as “small-minded.”

Weinberger’s book was published in 2008.  In June, 2014, the Department of Labor launched an investigation of Amazon’s labor practices after two worker deaths.  Labor practices have also been decried here, and here.

Even when you’re digital, everything is geography.

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