Comparative ontology asserts that humans already have ontologies, and that machine ontologies are both projections of human ontologies (those of the numerati) and material agents that intervene in the ongoing reproduction of ontologies (everyone else’s). Developers of ontologies for the web of linked data would do well to understand the nature of human ontologies, as well as they way machine ontologies intervene in the ongoing construction of social life.
Human ontologies are not like ROM programs, hard-wired into our brains and executed without modification; they are designed to be reprogrammed through engagement with the world. They are one of our most effective adaptive traits.
Ontologies are adaptive
Anthropologists have studied ontologies in the wild for a long time, under the various categories of “structure,” “symbolism,” “culture” and “collective representations.” One of the most important contributors to the study of ontology is the American cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins.
Sahlins began as a cultural materialist but had a road to Damascus experience in the 1970s in which he got culture. You may recognize his name as the unfortunate target of fellow anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, who criticized Sahlins’ interpretation of the events leading to Captain Cook’s death in Hawai’i as orientalist. In fact, Obeyesekere’s criticism was an exercise in occidentalist stereotyping and, in any case, Sahlins’ control of the material eventually proved his critic’s position incoherent.
Sahlins’ principal theoretical contibution to cultural anthropology has been to retrieve the concept of cultural structure from the ahistorical, formalist, and mechanistic conception developed by Lévi-Strauss, whose own work on mythology belies his more theoretical pronouncements. Rather than separating structure from event (and history), and locating the former deeply within a universal mind–like a camshaft responsible for the jigsaw puzzle of culture–Sahlins focuses on what he calls the “structure of the conjuncture” of structure and event. History emerges as a culturally distinctive second-order structure that results from the ongoing work of categories in praxis. So categories have a structure, but that structure undergoes reevaluation and change as it is applied to the world.
In this, Sahlins is consistent with both Victor Turner’s understanding of processual structure in ritual behavior, and Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus which mediates, through improvization, the “dialectic of objectification and embodiment.” In fact, I believe that the revised structuralism developed by these anthropologists (and others) is coherent enough to deserve a name; I call it “neostructuralism.”
In Islands of History Sahlins describes the process of cultural (ontological) change in terms of the “risk of reference”: as cultures classify things in the world–as they deploy ontologies–they also put these ontologies at risk. For things in the world do not always behave as classified, or planned. Even the sun has an occasional eclipse. Although the keepers of culture–from priests to grandmothers–try to enforce adherence to the categories, the behavior of things will inevitably contradict the categories and call for their revision. Sahlins reads the Hawai’ian’s classification of Captain Cook as Lono as just such a world changing event.
Ritual is one mechanism humans use to synchronize the world with world view. As people grow, for example, and change statuses, rites of passage are used to mediate this “contradiction” and reclassify people so that they can fit into the system. Another mechanism is prophecy, where the reverse is true–world views are aligned with a world that has changed. Millenarian movements are the classic example of this: a prophet emerges who can make sense of the new in terms of the old, but changes the old in the process.
Rituals and prophetic movements are the original forms of change management.
This is the ongoing work of culture. Cultural reproduction is never mechanical. That is one reason we humans have history. There is always a disproportion between words and things, plans and situations.
Texts, as forms of discourse, can be likened to rituals and prophetic movements. Novels in particular are efforts to both makes sense of and influence the world, a task in which they often succeed. They deploy a set of categories that make sense, to the author at least, in a certain time and place. The risk of reference works at various levels–from the basal meanings of words out of which tropes are created, to the description of scenes in which the unsaid is shared among a presumed audience, to more elaborate allegorical mappings of fictional characters to real persons. But the referrential risk of textuality is compounded as the message is removed from its original personal, cultural, and historical contexts, and the world of the text is forced to fit new contexts for new readers. Hermeneutics arose as a method to retrieve meanings lost in this way; Roman Law and the Christian Bible being two major examples of distanced texts being applied and reapplied to new situations. The French philosopher and hereneutic theorist Paul Ricoeur called the result of this risk the “surplus of meaning” in a text, and saw it at as an opportunity for a kind of ontological excavation.
Databases (and the point of this post)
Now, a data model, such as a set of tables and fields in a relational database, an XML schema of elements and attributes, or an RDF vocabulary of classes and properties, is a plan, a schema of classification. And database applications, like rituals and texts, have their own forms of referential risk to contend with. They classify the world and, in the process, both effect the world they classify and open themselves up for revision by that world as it changes.
For example, the categories produced by a requirements elicitation process for an application designed to improve some workflow, and encoded in a database that sits at the bottom of an application stack, may not accurately represent the workflow as it is actually practiced, and as it will inevitably change as new developments take place–changing personnel, clients, strategic plans, etc. The database, then, is put into a situation–the situation of the conjuncture–into which its categories are at risk.
In this situation, databases are like texts–they are built on the armature of a hard-coded ontology, and they can move beyond their original domain of applicatibility.
But unlike most texts, and very much like sacred texts, database applications (and their administrators) are usually given a central position within an organization. They are often deployed as key elements of an enterprise architecture that calls the institutional shots. Thus they can insulate themselves from referential risk. They can force conformity to their logic–as Michael Wesch’s New Guinea villagers redesigned their settlement pattern to conform to the government census–or they can produce a black market of behaviors in an organization that bypasses the database governed workflow. This is what faculty do who are forced to use an LMS but would rather use Google Docs.
Comparative ontology can help here. If we view ontologies as always situated, then we should (1) design systems for maximum flexibility and adaptabilty, and (2) learn a lesson from the ritual life of peoples around the world and throughout history: engage our ontologies in constant reevaluation and modification, making the world (of our organizations) fit where appropriate, and also refining the categories to fit the world.
To meet the first challenge, we shouldn’t create overwrought ontologies, but rather focus on just enough classification to achieve the effects we need. Usually, the effects we are most concerned with are connecting people to people, people to information, and information to information, in as few links as possible.
To meet the second challenge, we may want to refine what we mean by “social operating system”–for that is precisely what a ritual system is. Maybe it’s time to follow McLuhan’s advice and exploit the ritual effects of the electric, in order to mitigate and shape the more dangerous effects of the electronic. When we build ontologies, maybe we should also be thinking of the physical and virtual spaces in which they will be deployed, and the material and digital artifacts that will be their vehicles of expression.