Internet

Miscellany Unleashed

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David Weinberger is most famous as Howard Dean's Internet guru. His new book, Everything is Miscellaneous, sings the praises of big piles of miscellaneous information. Information free from intrinsic hierarchies is now more valuable to us now than the pre-sorted: Think Dewey Decimal versus Amazon.com, albums versus iTunes, Aristotle versus The Encyclopedia of Life.

We have entire industries and institutions built on the fact that the paper order severely limits how things can be organized. Museums, educational curricula, newspapers, the travel industry, and television schedules are all based on the assumption that in the second-order world, we need experts to go through information, ideas, and knowledge and put them neatly away.

But now we—the customers, the employees, anyone—can route around the second order. We can confront the miscellaneous directly in all its unfulfilled glory. We can do it ourselves and, more significantly, we can do it together, figuring out the arrangements that make sense for us now and the new arrangements that make sense a minute later. Not only can we find what we need faster, but traditional authorities cannot maintain themselves by insisting that we have to go to them. The miscellaneous order is not transforming only business. It is changing how we think the world itself is organized and—perhaps more important—who we think has the authority to tell us so.

Read the prologue and first chapter of this fascinating book.

Update: Stay tuned for an interview with Weinberger in the next print issue. 

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  1. it’s all fun and games until you actually need to use a library… (eye loss follows)

    naw, i mean, in many cases he has a great point, and these kinds of distributed information systems give me great hope for the future. but on the other hand, the key to utilizing effective distributed information systems (i.e. the resources of others) is to accept that some people are better at things than others. which is generally what people do, though “better than” is always up for grabs.

  2. The problem that will develop – and I expect this to be a full-blown cultural problem and psychological neurosis, in the coming years – will be excess of content.

    I now have personal access to more intellectual and entertainment content than I could ever possibly consume. The backlog of content I have set aside for myself to review is too large to ever get caught up. And I now find that the weight of the knowledge of that mountain of content weighs on my mind, and makes it difficult to enjoy or assimilate the content I actually get to.

    It’s as if life itself is now a gigantic slush pile at some cosmic literary agency. Ask anyone who has ever worked in publishing – it doesn’t matter how much you love to read, just looking at the slush pile turns your stomach and makes you want to watch TV instead. Now that principle is starting to apply to everything.

  3. Here it comes…the death of the information service economy.

    Expect, in the coming decades, tales of woe from the “second order” as their jobs are replaced by the 21st century’s equivalent of manufacturing robots, i.e., customer-oriented self-service databases.

  4. I think this guy has set up a false dichotomy. Or he’s talking about a difference in degree rather than kind.

    First, it sounds like he’s talking about sorting rather than about miscellaneous-ness. A library is a collection of miscellaneous books; it’s just hard to sort them in any way other than the order in which they’re shelved (Dewey, LOC, whatever).

    In addition, pure miscellaneous-ness is still as hard to deal with as it ever was. Useful sorting is possible only to the extent that someone has tagged the miscellaneous units in a useful way and permits search queries that correspond to what you want to know. Being able to search for every single word in written units, for example, is not helpful if you get 10,000 hits that can only be sorted in the order in which they were loaded.

    Have you ever tried to use an index that just gives every single proper noun in a book followed by a long list of page numbers?

    Until someone invents good editing/indexing robots, we will still need people to do the “cataloguing” function. Granted, people may do it for free, as at Wikipedia, but that doesn’t mean the function has been dispensed with.

  5. It was just too much to read, sorry.

  6. That’s OK. You know where to find it if you change your mind.

  7. dhex and Fluffy, in my book I argue (suggest?) that the huge increase in available info is spurring the development of new principles of organization that are only possible because digital data escapes from the limitations of the physical. Our traditional notions about how ideas and knowledge are structured in fact assumed the same limitations that apply to the organization of physical things. For example, we’re coming up with better and better ways to use our social networks as filters. This makes me optimistic that we’re going to keep our heads above the digital water. I hope.

    But, jp, I think I am describing a difference in kind (while acknowledging, of course, that the traditional ways of sorting, finding and re-finding generally continue to work and have value, too). Instead of having to come up with a single way of sorting, we now benefit by having as many connections as possible. Instead of filtering on the way in, it is now often better to include everything and let the user sort on the way out. Instead of reducing entropy by avoiding messes, messiness often has practical and semantic value. Etc.

    (By the way, I must demur from Katherine’s kind introduction. I worked on the Dean campaign as a volunteer, and had a great-sounding title. But the campaign had figured out its approach to the Net well before I joined up. I worked on Net policy issues and did some kibbitzing about tactics. And it makes me very proud that Joe Trippi, the campaign manager, says that some stuff I’d written influenced him. So, much as I’d like to be known as Dean’s Internet guru…)

  8. David W. — Thanks for your response. I will have to give it more thought.

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