Meta Here. Meta There. Meta Everywhere?
As a young database professional in the mid-1970s I grew up on metadata – data that describes and defines other data. In fact, I wrote one of the first books explaining it from a data-as-corporate-resource point of view in 1980.
Who knew that in the 21st century there would ever be such a thing as big data, more dependent on metadata (if that’s possible) than even ‘regular’ (transaction) data?! Or that the metadata of phone conversations would become a central artifact in the struggle over civil liberties?!
Back then it never much occurred to me that there could be other kinds of “meta”. Well, except maybe metaphysics. But you don’t want to go there. That’s some realm beyond physics where physics isn’t physics any more.
Anyway, I was wrong about there not being other important kinds of “meta”.
In the 1990s I learned there was such a thing as meta-rules – rules that govern rules. That led to RuleSpeak® – rules for expressing rules in structured natural language. It also more recently led to new thinking about the engineering of governance – rules guiding the creation, approval and dissemination of business policies in an organization. (Think rulebook management as governance infrastructure.)
I’m also pretty sure there could be metaprocesses – processes that orchestrate or transform other processes. It seems to me that one goal of intelligent agents is exactly that. What else? I’m no expert on that.
What other meaningful kinds of “meta” are there? It’s fun to play with the question words where, who, and when, but I don’t think there are any real “meta’s” to those. I could be be wrong. Thoughts?
I do have one strict rule for judging when you have something truly “meta”. Here’s my rule:
Some meaningful verb(s), not a preposition, must be used in defining a “meta” thing.
Examples we’ve already discussed:
Where else could you look for “meta’s”? Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (MWUD) defines the kind of “meta” we’re discussing here as follows:
- Metadata – data that describes and defines data. (You should not say just “data about data”.)
- Meta-rule – rule that governs rules. (You should not say just “rules about rules”.)
- Metaprocess – process that orchestrates or transforms other processes. (You should not say just “processes about processes”.)
3b: of a higher logical type – in nouns formed from names of disciplines and designating new but related disciplines such as can deal critically with the nature, structure, or behavior of the original ones
MWUD gives these examples (the verbs are mine):
In science & research literature these days you commonly read about meta-analysis. An article in The Economist recently defined meta-analysis as “a technique which uses entire studies as single data points in an overarching statistical analysis”. In other words, an analysis that analyzes other analyses.
I wonder if there is such a thing as meta-architecture – architecture for designing architectures? That’s certainly an interesting question, and I’m not certain I know the answer. Thoughts?
I do know there’s meta-vocabulary – vocabulary that enables communication about vocabularies. That’s a central feature of the OMG standard SBVR (Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules). I can tell you with great certainty that a meta-vocabulary is not the same thing as metadata – not by a long shot! I can also tell you that in a knowledge economy, meta-vocabulary will ultimately prove more important than metadata.
The Ultimate Metas
I believe there’s also such a thing as meta-knowhow – knowhow that enables the organizing of other knowhow. Unfortunately, as few business practitioners today know how important meta-knowhow is as knew how important metadata was in the mid-1970s.
That will change. And it won’t take long.
Meta-knowhow for organizing core operational business knowhow is essential not only to play in the knowledge economy, but simply to contain the costs of operating as we do today. Best practices already exist for the area. Companies are paying a huge (and unsustainable) price for not engaging with them. I will have much more to say about meta-knowhow in the near future.
The most interesting and powerful “meta” of all, however, has to be meta-idea – an idea that enables the birthing (ideation) of (other) ideas. These are the things that bootstrap whole cultures to a new level of intellectual empowerment. Examples: (the ideas of) libraries, encyclopedias and universal education.
In The Second Machine Age the authors argue convincingly that with the internet’s true coming of age we’re living the next big meta-idea right now. It’s hard to argue the point. You (the reader) are experiencing it at this very moment. After all, how likely is it that we would be conceptualizing “meta” together here if it weren’t for the internet?!
P.S. The concept “meta” is itself actually a meta-idea. Now there’s a good brain teaser if you want to play with it!
- metalanguage – language for discussing languages.
- metatheory – theory for structuring theories.
- metasystem – system for organizing systems.
 Data Dictionaries and Data Administration: Concepts and Practices for Data Resources Management, by Ronald G. Ross, AMACOM (American Management Association), New York, 1981, 454pp. The definition of metadata in the preceding sentence is straight from the glossary, pp. 432.
 I mean the Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary definition 1b(1): something that deals with what is beyond the physical or the experiential.
 MWUD’s meaning for metaphysics is different: 3a: beyond : transcending. It lists examples as metapsychosis, metageometry, metabiological, and metempirics (meta-empirics). Let’s not go there(!). The “meta” I mean (definition 3b) is far more specific and useful, even if highly abstract.
 MWUD definition: the process of entertaining and relating ideas.
 The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014, pp. 306.
Tags: knowledge economy, meta, meta-analysis, meta-idea, meta-knowhow, meta-rules, meta-vocabulary, metadata, metaprocesses, rulebook management, RuleSpeak
Ronald G. Ross
Ron Ross, Principal and Co-Founder of Business Rules Solutions, LLC, is internationally acknowledged as the “father of business rules.” Recognizing early on the importance of independently managed business rules for business operations and architecture, he has pioneered innovative techniques and standards since the mid-1980s. He wrote the industry’s first book on business rules in 1994.