In Praise of Digital Disorder


David Weinberger has been a philosophy professor, an entrepreneur, a jokewriter for Woody Allen, and a campaign adviser to Howard Dean. Currently he's a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. His first book—The Cluetrain Manifesto, written with his fellow Internet gurus Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, and Doc Searls—reshaped how companies look at marketing in the digital age. His second book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined, explored and celebrated the open structure of the Web. His newest effort, Everything is Miscellaneous (Times Books), is a defense of digital disorder with a pleasingly anti-authoritarian bent.

Associate Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with Weinberger in May.

Q: You are a strong advocate for messiness. Why?

A: In the physical world, messiness is a jumble of things that you can't see the order in or where you can't find what you want. It's very inefficient. In the online world, messiness works because we can order things in any way that makes sense to us without having to actually move the things themselves. If you want to rearrange your physical CDs, you have to move the objects themselves. If you want to rearrange your digital tracks, you create play lists. You can create as many as you want, and they don't detract from one another.

Q: Many people fear that replacing Encyclopedia Britannica with Wikipedia, newspapers with blogs, albums with play lists, and the Dewey decimal system with will lead to chaos. Should we be worried that the old ways of ordering things are falling apart?

A: There's an indefinite number of ways that we can slice, dice, and cluster the things in the universe. Saying that there is a single "real" order just isn't coherent. That's an order that nobody cares about, by definition. The rest of the orders are the ones that emerge because we have a project, because we care about something.

If you're trying to find spices to put in your curry, then you're going to cluster stuff in the kitchen—at least mentally—by "Is it a spice or not?" If you're looking for something to throw at your cat, then you're going to cluster the objects in your kitchen a little differently.

Q: What is the impact of increased miscellaneousness on politics?

A: It dethrones experts. We're used to government and politics being run by experts, which is a comforting feeling. But we're beginning to see more clearly what we've always understood, which is that we're all basically the same. Some of us know more than others about some things, but there's nobody who knows enough to be given sole authority. We are much better off in conversation with one another, even though that means that we have to change our attitudes toward our leaders.

It has been clear for a while, at least since the Dean campaign, that we are losing patience with the idea that there's one person at the top of the campaign's pyramid who has the ideas, then those ideas are formulated into messages, which are put into forms that can be understood by the widest mass of people, which always means simplifying ideas to the point of turning them into jingles. Until now, we haven't had the means to counteract that. But now we're in touch with this vast, miscellaneous group of strangers thanks to the Web. We talk with one another, and it turns out we are much more interesting than politicians are.

The sound of politicians mouthing messages is beginning to work against them. I think you see this in some of the reaction against Hillary Clinton. Her campaign should be flying! But there is still a fair bit of resistance to her, even among Democrats. In part, it's because she is such a controlled candidate. She doesn't trust us to hear her speak freely and frankly and make mistakes. And she doesn't trust her supporters to talk with one another.