It’s all just metadata

A think piece on why all data is becoming metadata, from DavidWeinburger

There used to be a difference between data and metadata. Data was the suitcase and metadata was the name tag on it. Data was the folder and metadata was its label. Data was the contents of the book and metadata was the Dewey Decimal number on its spine. But, in the Third Age of Order (see the previous issue), everything is becoming metadata.

For example, imagine you’re at a large corporation doing a Third Order treatment of its digital library of research articles. Instead of (or, in addition to) designing a large, complex, hierarchical taxonomy, you focus on adding enough metadata to each article so that people will be able to sort and classify them any which way they want. If someone wants to find all the articles that talk about hydrocarbons written in Italian in 1965 and that have more than 30 footnotes, they’ll be able to. If someone wants to make a browsable hierarchy based not on topic but on gender or on the number of co-authors, they’ll be able to. You build enriched objects first so your users can forever after taxonomize the way they want to, instead of the way you think they’ll want to.

Now take a closer look at these information objects. They look like contents tagged with lots of metadata, but in fact they’re all metadata. If I’m looking for an article about hydrocarbons written by Barbara Rodriguez, then the article’s topic (“hydrocarbons”) and author’s name (“Rodriguez, Barbara”) are metadata, and the content is the data. But, I could just as well be trying to remember the name of the author who wrote an article that included the phrase “Hydrocarbons are the burros of the the cosmos” sometime in the 1960s, in which case the content and date are metadata and the author’s name is the data. What’s data and what’s metadata depends on the person doing the asking.

So, in the Third Age of Order, all data is metadata. Contents are labels. Data is all surface and no insides. It’s all handles and no suitcase. It’s a folder whose content is just another label. It’s all sticker and no bumper.

Why does this matter? It changes the primary job of information architects. It makes stores of information more useful to users. It enables research that otherwise would be difficult, thus making our culture smarter overall. But, most interestingly (at least to me), this does the ol’ Einsteinian reverse flip to Aristotle. Aristotle assumed that of the 10 categories by which one could understand a thing, one must be primary: Where that thing fits into the tree of knowledge. So, you could say that Alcibiades is made of flesh or lived in Greece, but if you really want to understand him, you have to say that he is an animal of a particular kind. But, now that everything is metadata, no particular way of understanding something is any more inherently valuable than any other; it all depends on what you’re trying to do. The old framework of knowledge — and authority — are getting a pretty good shake.

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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