The global life of local categories


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What happens when local categories in our websites go global?

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  • Actual global gateway screenshot.
  • Information architect from BelgiumAuthor of Information Architecture for Designers.Lived in London, New York, Colombia and Belgium, and soon 6 months in India.Interested in globalization, culture, anthropology.Vice president of global user experience for Fox Mobile.
  • What is today’s question?
  • I saw this little library while I was traveling in India, it had about 100 books organized in the following 4 categories: English, Dutch, German and Funny Languages.
  • We are all humans, and we have a shared understanding of the world. So the way we categorize that world has a lot of similarities.But culture accounts for a lot, and there are also a lot of differences in the categories we use.Example from medical anthropology: “frio en los huesos”.Animals have different parts in different parts of the world. Food classifications differ a lot.
  • Melvil Dewey, Dewey Decimal.But WHY
  • Melvil Dewey, Dewey Decimal.Categories become embedded.There is no 1 system that works for everyone.
  • Melvil Dewey, Dewey Decimal.Categories become embedded.There is no 1 system that works for everyone.
  • An obvious example of cultural categories.
  • The categories are different (no Sedan’s or SUV’s in the UK, except rare imported ones), the naming is different, the organization scheme is different (Belgium). All this within the category (cars) for the same company (eBay).
  • Categories are cultural. And culture isn’t just countries, organizations hav culture too. A category like crave can serve to show that.
  • You can even go further and really drive home your worldview through your categorization taxonomy, the topic “George W Bush” page.
  • Seven Continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, South America.Seven Continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, Australia, South America. (in USA)Six Continents: Africa, Antarctica, Oceania, Eurasia, North America, and South America.Six Continents: Africa, America, Antarctica, Asia, Oceania, and Europe.Five Continents: Africa, America, Oceania, Antarctica, Eurasia.Five Continents: Africa, America, Oceania, Europe, Asia. (in Europe and South America)Four Continents: America, Oceania, Antarctica, Eurafrasia.
  • To compare cultures, a good way is to take something that’s the same everywhere, and look at what’s different, what surprises. This is a common pattern: global agreement on many categories, with important local exceptions.
  • So what happens when categories go global?Early 1800s were a good time for classification: the British were in Australia and had a whole bunch of crazy new species to classify. The kangaroo was weird enough with its pouch and crazy jumping, but platypus was a special challenge: was it a mammal? Bird? Reptile? The first ones were stuffed, and they thought it was a practical joke.
  • Taxonomic debates lasted for decades, and the public was fascinated with them. Not just coz they were weird (many animals had had a few years of fame (tiger or giraffe), but because they didn’t fit the system. The avocado was a foreign fruit too, it is still classified as a berry. The classification system that was created in 1 part of the world couldn’t deal with things when it expanded worldwide, because things didn’t fit. But things not fitting is just one problem that occurs when classification systems go global.
  • Remember the Dewey Decimal System? This is the top level.It looks like you should be able to fit most books in there. You could argue some of the details, but at the top level it’s not crazy bad. At least when looked at from a Western perspective.So why was a Maori Subject Headings committee created in New Zealand to create an entirely new classification system to replace Dewey Decimal?
  • Maori, a Polynesian culture with an oral tradition in New Zealand.Genealogies were the core of traditional Maori knowledge. Even today, Maori trace their ancestors back to a particular passenger of one of the canoes with which they came. This knowledge is tapu and not for public display.When westerners came, they would take this knowledge and write about it. The Maori have been repressed for centuries, but there’s a movement to reclaim the lost pride and sense of identity. So where do they look for information? In books. Which can be found in libraries, organized according to, yes, Melvil Dewey’s system. So where do you find information about your ancestors? Under social sciences? Stories about canoes under Arts and Recreation? This classification system is wholly inappropriate for Maori looking for information within their knowledge system.The maori subject headings committee was recently created to provide a new taxonomy that’s going to appropriate for this culture. They have developed a Iwi Hapū Names List (reflecting the importance of genealogy in Maori culture this was their first achievement), and are now working on a Maori subject list.
  • Susan Leigh Star write the most relevant book I’ve found about this topic: Sorting things out. She writes:“The tension between locales remains, and this tension is not something to be avoided or deleted.”Standardization is one response, but generates tensions and workarounds. Dominance of one group over another is another response. Ongoing tension and workarounds another.
  • International Classification of Diseases.A classification of statistically relevant diseases.Data is collected by health practitioners (doctors) when people die. It’s used by statisticians. When the ICD started, it had 200 entries, the amount of lines on Austrian census forms. Technology didn’t hold more information than 200 lines. Until recently, every 10 years a new edition was made.Worldwide: every country of the world uses some version of the ICD.The ICD is ubiquitous in medical information systems.Long lived (origins in the late 19th century), and still used today.Multiple audiences. Used by different groups: doctors (MD’s), statisticians, insurance companies, …It’s taught to medical practitioners.
  • Worldwide: developed countries have access to computer systems & manpower, and require more and more detail.Requesting more detail is often seen as an administrative burden imposed by colonial interests.Many countries don’t need this level of detail: In Indonesia, death is overwhelmingly caused by infant diarrhea caused by bad water. Why waste precious resources classifying at finer levels? But other countries want data on diseases that may affect their population. You can see the power struggle there.Culture: Japan famously has a low rate of heart attacks. People used to think they just ate healthily. But recent research shows that the reason may be that heart attacks (suggesting a life of physical labour) have a low status in Japan, so they’re more often described as strokes (an overworked brain).304.6 Other specified drug dependence: Absinthe addiction | Glue sniffingAudiences: Doctors, epidemiologists and statisticians: Statisticians want a limited list of diseases that is stable over time, so they can compare.Doctors want limited “administrative burden”.Epidemiologists want as much data as they can get.Insurance companies want useful data for them: grouped by the age where compulsory insurance starts, for example. Chemical companies want to know whether a person had been in touch with certain chemical components. Etc…And these groups also disagree on the kinds of categories they want to use.
  • The divergence in worldviews is dealt with by standardizing.Which is responded to with workarounds.The “other” category becomes very useful, or the first or default choice.There is no perfect solution for this tension between central and local.Let’s look at some website examples.
  • Craigslist is a website that went global, but didn’t adjust its culturally specific categories. It started in San Fransisco. This is the Dubai site. Green dots have more than 2 or 3 posts, red dots have no posts, empty ones have 1 or 2 posts, often places by mistake in the wrong category.
  • Facebook categories for categorizing your relationships with your friends?How are they cultural? Which ones are more cultural?What types of challenges would you face to take this global?
  • The Scottish Blackface is a type of sheep that is famous and loved for it’s tender and flavorful meat. However, only sheep raised in Scotland itself can receive this classification, and therefore higher prices. There was a news item a few years ago explaining that some farmers would raise the sheep in other places, and then import them to Scotland, feed them for a few months and get the desired classification. The news is full of classification stories, if you listen well. Categories have consequences.
  • During apartheid, there were signs and notices everywhere related to race: “WHITES ONLY”, “BANTU MEN HERE”, “INDIAN BENCH”, “SECOND CLASS TAXI, “THIS PLAYGROUND IS RESERVED FOR CHILDREN OF THE WHITE GROUP”. For apartheid to function at this level of detail, people had to be classified by race. You couldn’t classify yourself, and classification was obligatory and had serious consequences. In one family, one twin as classified as Coloured, the other as African, which had serious consequences regarding the schools they could attend, the public spaces they could use, the jobs they could get etc... Approximately 100,000 people applied for reclassification, only a few were approved.
  • The US Census is a wonderful source of interesting categories.1860 census, occupation idiot.
  • Racial and ethnic classifications used in the US census.Scientist these days generally agree that race and ethnicity are social constructions. In the 1990 census, half a million people ignored the instructions and checked more than one box. Something had to be done. Imagine being a kid with parents of mixed race. One result is that data from the 1990 census cannot easily be compared with data from the 2000 census. This is nothing new. Almost every census for the past 200 years has collected racial data different than the one before it, and extracting racial trends is deeply problematic. People are asked to self-categorize. In the past, census enumerators were instructed to report a person’s race based on observation - you can imagine the problems. The race categorizations are heavily discussed and disputed every time they are changed. Many political groups argue for or against certain changes in the taxonomy. In the mid-1990s, a group of Americans held a march on Washington, with the goal of having the option of choosing multiple races – yet many civil rights groups argued against them.
  • Other countries (Brazil) have adopted this approach too. Livia Labate: “We don’t have a racial problem in Brazil (we have a wealth distribution problem).”’s a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong when sensitive classifications about people or work go global. The classifications may not properly apply. Or the local culture may not wish to use them the way they were intended (think performance reviews in local offices).
  • LinkedIn education categories.
  • signup categories.
  • Classifying work is very common.
  • Categories are not in the world, but local and cultural and the embed values.When they go global, tension arises that can not be resolved.Because they bring together different social groups.The most popular approach seems to be to standardize away local-ness, re-localize much later.Workarounds o standards are to be expected.Categories have consequences.Especially when classifying people or work, and this gets worse when they go global.
  • The global life of local categories

    1. The global life of local categories
    3. If categories are local, and websites are built on categories, and websites go global, what happens with our local categories?
    4. Categories are not in the world
    5. • 210 Natural theology • 220 Bible • 230 Christian Theology • 240 Christian moral & devotional theology • 250 Christian orders & local churches • 260 Christian social theology • 270 Christian church history • 280 Christian denominations & sects • 290 Other and comparative religions
    6. But WHY is it still used?
    7. • Embedded in infrastructure. • Serve different social groups that can not agree. But WHY is it still used?
    8. Categories are local.
    9. Different Stuff (things, laws, customs, …)
    10. Different ways of organizing the same stuff
    11. USA UK Belgium
    12. Categories are cultural.
    13. Categories embed values.
    14. Categories are not in the world.
    15. Standardization with local exceptions.
    16. When categories go global
    17. • 000 – Computer science, information, and general works • 100 – Philosophy and psychology • 200 – Religion • 300 – Social sciences • 400 – Languages • 500 – Science and Mathematics • 600 – Technology and applied science • 700 – Arts and recreation • 800 – Literature • 900 – History and geography and biography
    18. Maori subject headings committee.
    19. Susan Leigh Star
    20. ICD
    21. Multiple Audiences, Worldwide
    22. Standards and workarounds
    23. You can’t just take local categories global.
    24. Standardization.
    25. Classification has consequences
    26. Especially when classifying people and work.
    27. The US Census.
    28. Classifying people. 1977: 1997: • Please choose your race • Please choose your race (only one): (one or more): - White - American Indian or Alaska - Black Native - American Indian and Alaskan - Black or African American Native - Native Hawaiian or Other - Asian and Pacific Islander Pacific Islander • Please choose your - White ethnicity: - Some Other Race - Hispanic • Please choose your ethnicity - Non-hispanic (only one): - Hispanic - Non-Hispanic
    29. When sensitive classifications go global
    30. Classifying people.
    31. Classifying people.
    32. Classifying work.
    33. Thank you!