Cultural bias in taxonomies

Numerous bloggers, especially John Battelle, have picked up on David Weinberger’s dissection of bias in the apparently neutral Dewey Decimal system. As Weinberger says, any taxonomy will be skewed however universal it attempts to be, since its is intended for use in the real world, not in Plato’s world of pure ideas. Even programming a computer to compile a taxonomy from mining a large document base and allocate documents to apparently plausible taxons will just be one possible view of the conceptual scaffolding around that particular house of language. There could be many more, depending on what you are looking for.

This means that various forms of cultural bias will necessarily be built in to the taxonomies that will eventually underlie the semantic web. Multiculturalism itself is not so much the positive identification of multiple objective inventories of cultural ‘facts’. It is far more about the negotiations we make between different cultures, so that we find ourselves highlighting a specific feature (e.g. a marriage custom, an attitude to age, color, or embarrassment, etc) in another culture since it seems to be absent from ours. This mean that taxonomies that code and filter information will themselves need to be translated into other taxonomies to remove bias, rather as translators negotiate meanings between languages without relying on some angelic, universal language of concepts


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Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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