It’s been a while since I finished ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ by David Weinberger, and I’ve been planning to put down some thoughts on it. It’s an interesting book; it forced me to think about stuff in new and different ways than before. I don’t always agree with Weinberger, though.
The book is about how the web and its new ways of organizing and connecting things changes how we think, how we work, how knowledge forms, and, ultimately, us. That last point, how the web 2.o (which is a fancy buzzword for web pages and appliances letting its users contribute in different ways) changes us is actually never discussed in the book, but it certainly is understood and implied in Weinberger’s grandiose views. After all, how we think is a part of who and what we are.
Weinberger main topic is order. There are three orders: The first order is the order of physical things, like how books are lined up on shelves in a library. The second order is the catalogue order. A catalogue typically refers to a physical order; it is still physical, but one can make several catalogs of the same physical order. Weinberger’s prime example is the card catalog of libraries. The third order of order is the digital order, where there is no limit to the number of possible orderings. The digital order frees itself from physical reality, and in it, everything can be connected and related to everything else: Everything is miscellaneous.
‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ is, naturally, the topic of numerous blog entries and online discussions. For example, I stumbled across the blog ‘Experiencing Information’ by James Kalbach, and he has some interesting thoughs on Weinberger’s book. In one post, he discusses an analogy between Weinbergers three orders of order and Karl Popper’s theory of reality: I was unaware of Popperian cosmology, but the analogy is striking. In another post, he critizises Weinberger’s use of the library card catalogue as example and illustration of how backward the second (and first) order is. Instead, he suggests that the real topic of interest is the Time of Information in the third order, and not the order itself:
I agree with Weinberger that the third order of organization the web affords is different, but not because other means of accessing books (just to stick with that example) don’t exist. That vision was already there in the paper world.
There are indexes that provide access to Bach cantatas by the first line of text, for instance. Same for poetry. And then there are the countless literature guides in just about any discipline and sub-discipline.
So what the web really changes is:
a.) Who is doing the organizing. Now it’s everyone instead of information professionals
b.) The time it takes to create new lists of access points to books, to then find those list, and to use them effectively.
The Time of Information in the third order, then, is the real thing to focus on.
I would say it is also worth to foucs on who organizes, and who contributes content. Weinberger thinks highly of Wikipedia, for example, where any user can add, change, tag, comment, and link to any material. It sounds chaotic, and it often is. However, over time, stuff tend to settle down. In Weinberger’s view, it’s all fantastic:
[I]magine it is ten years from now. New topics are still being added to Wikipedia an old ones edited, but not at the rate of the early years. The big arguments have mainly been settled. There are continuous small edits polishing the more popular articles, but big changes have become more rare. Wikipedia then constitutes the body of knowledge about which we agree. […] Wikipedia is commoditizing knowledge, continuing a trend that search engines such as Google began. Text-books also present settled knowledge, or at least present it as settled, but the Internet makes knowledge as instantly available as a calculator’s “equals” button [pp. 214-215].
In fairness, Weinberger admits that Wikipedia will never be complete, and there will always be something to argue about. I think there are several reasons to be skeptic towards Wikipedia. Interestingly enough, Wikipedia itself has a discussion of some of its problems (here), and most of my concerns are in fact covered there. (I’ve quoted more of Weinberger’s ideas about how the internet changes knowledge in an earlier post.)
Weinberger sees potential value in every link, tag and comment added to the third order. Personally, however, I often find the links distracting. I should just ignore them, of course, but when I click them, it’s not because I don’t think its interesting to me. That is not the point. A thought experiment illustrates the problem: In a hundred years, there may exist articles on Wikipedia, or elsewhere on the web, where every word links to something else. Every word. And, even worse, and we don’t even have to do time travel to experience another problem; the same word may link to different things at different places. (Of course, that can be a strengt as well, but it can certainly be a problem.)
I want to go back to James Kalbach: In a third post he claims that libraries are not as useless as Weinberger seem to think:
Missing from Everything is Miscellaneous, then, is a discussion of the user experience you have while in the stacks of a DDC library. [Dewey Decimal System: A very common classification system used by libraries.] Namely, the books are arranged by subject. If you find one book on Muslims, others around it are likely to be about Muslims too.
And if you think people don’t look left and right when retrieving a book from a shelf, you’re wrong. They do. It’s an important type of information discovery in physical libraries. Let’s say you go to the stacks for a biography of J.S. Bach. You may then see biographies of C.P.E. Bach and J.C. Bach, perhaps whom you didn’t know much about or even existed. That’s an interesting connection you may not have seen online or in a card catalogue.
I love to go to the library, the only problem is that it takes more time than I usually have.
Without going into more detail, I disagree with Weinberger on a lot of issues. I still found the book very interesting; a lot of it is philosophical discussions related to order, knowledge, information, and communication. A particularly interesting discussion is the one on ‘The Span of Meaning’ (p. 169 and onwards). I end this post with a short quote from it:
Meaning‘s own meanings span a range unique in our language. On the one end, a meaning is a simple definition one can look up in a dictionary. At the other end, meaning is the broadest term for what gives value to our lives [p. 169].