Clay Shirky on Ontologies

I find myself completely agreeing with Clay Shirky’s assertion that ontology is overrated based on a speech he gave at a recent O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. I didn’t go to the conference, but I did hear the speech, courtesy of ITConversations. The gist of it is that we have inherited a world view of the taxonomy and classification of information based on the fact that when a book sits on one shelf, it cannot sit on another. This is the librarian’s physical reality: is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” to be classified under philosophy or fiction? Make up your mind once, and then declare it to be so forever. But this physical reality casts a long shadow across our intellectual tradition in that it lets ontologists define the world that the rest of us live in. As Shirky goes on to say, the bookshelf is gone, and its departure makes way for new and, to the ontological old guard, disturbing ways of categorizing information. Google,, and others let socially aggregated post hoc views of reality define the world. At one point Shirky says: “It comes down to a question of philosophy: does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world?” If the world makes sense, then any conflict you and I have must be resolved against some larger semantic framework of reality. This was the object of Leibniz’s universal philosophical calculus, which sought to resolve all arguments with pure logic, beginning with the words “Let us calculate.” But if we make sense of the world, then context cannot be banished, and we must resolve all arguments with the words “Let’s talk.”

Let’s talk.

2 thoughts on “Clay Shirky on Ontologies”

  1. It’s interesting that you would refer to “ZAMM” and then pose a modified version of that book’s central dilemma. Replace “make sense of” with the concept of quality and its perception, and you have that dilemma: “does quality inhere in the world, or does it inhere in the observer?”

    I wonder whether you did that on purpose as JMike bait, or accidentally :)

    I’m not a compulsive enough Pirsig drone to claim that your conclusion is wrong because you chose the observer rather than invent a totally wacky metaphysics to go a third way, but I am just enough to gently poke at you in a highly verbose and elliptical fashion. Besides, I think the conclusion would have been the same had you cooked up something along the lines of “We and the world cooperate in the making of sense.” It’d still be “Let’s talk” rather than “Let us calculate”


  2. For the purpose of being provocative (i.e. JMike bait… “heeerre JMike JMike JMike”) I did pitch my relativism a little strong. “We cooperate at sense-making” is more like it. The main thing I want to avoid is the explicit anointing of high priests of semantics who then decide how what I see makes sense. There is such a thing as the world, but it is so multifarious that I won’t lightly sign away my interpretive power of attorney.

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