Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, by David Weinberger

I’m always reaching to see the intertwingled (Nelson, Media Lib / Dream Machines), the connected, the cause and effect – to understand the flow of things. Paradoxically, my profession, with its roots deep in classical traditions, takes on the work of seeing differences, of categorization and classification, of understanding ontologies and discipline specific taxonomies. We like to keep things tidy and in boxes, organizing knowledge and putting things into their proper places.

intertwingled

Since I have a strong interest in how knowledge is described and represented, and because I find my world view is often in conflict with classical classification schemas, I was drawn to read and review David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous with its thesis that there is a ‘new order to order’. This order is a place where ‘things’ can be assigned to multiple places simultaneously due in large part to the affordances of new information systems and the digital format of information and, I propose, most importantly, as a more accurate reflection of the natural order of things – as intertwingled.

The Three Orders of Order

Weinberger proposes that there are three orders to order. The first order is the organization of the things themselves – books on shelves, photographs into albums, tools into drawers, buttons by color, glasses in racks. In the second order of things, we separate our information about an object from the object itself with descriptions of things and their locality in card catalogs, ledgers, and finding aides that are structured by classical categorization schemas. The third order is a digital order, not physical, and its affordances remove the limitations of physical categorization and propel us into new ways of thinking about how we order knowledge and things (Weinberger, 19).  In the third order, things are described and attached to multiple and diverse descriptors that our information querying systems can order in an indefinite number of multi-faceted returns, based upon our information needs and preferences.

The Geography of Knowledge

Weinberger describes this third order as miscellaneous and the digital order of things as a mess (233). While I think that messiness may be an accurate characterization of the current nature of the third digital order, I do not see it as miscellaneous, even if it appears to be so. I believe that what Weinberger is saying is that third order knowledge simply does not fit into the nice boundaries and geographies that we have previously defined for it. All political maps – including classical categorization systems – have a shape and impose boundaries. These systems, alone, do not work anymore – in a hyperlinked world, knowledge is continually forming as it is shared, remixed with other resources, and used in new contexts (Lankes, 4). This is afforded in increasing measure by digital technologies, multiple ways of describing things, crowd-sourced resources and tagging, hyperlinked resources, and knowledge-building conversations – it is realized in the hyperlinked library.

More Beautiful Ways of Making Sense

In fact, this third order of knowledge is a prerequisite of the hyperlinked library. In the third order, all the ways of organizing knowledge become public (Weinberger, 233). In the third order, participatory networks of content creators and taggers describe and order their resources, and those of others, creating and enhancing the meaning of the whole. There are no hierarchies or overarching categories – no one person’s description is given priority or is more real than another’s. All descriptors are attached, bringing forth the potential for much more representative ways of describing and ordering knowledge. We are no longer bound to classical categories, but are free to see the world through the lens of different cultures, perspectives and ways of meaning making.  “In the third order of things, knowledge doesn’t have a shape. There are just too many useful, powerful, and beautiful ways to make sense of our world.” (Weinberger, 83).

The Third Order and the Hyperlinked Library

The hyperlinked library lives in the world of the third order – the intertwingled world. In fact, the hyperlinked world is central to helping us understand and evolve the potential of the third order. Within the hyperlinked library, people together create meaning and knowledge as they share and define and describe their world and their place in it, rather than leaving it to others to do so.

Hear David Weinberger share more here:

REFERENCES

Lankes, R. David, Silverstein, J., Nicholson, S., & Marshall, T. (2007). Participatory Networks: The Library as Conversation. Information Research.

Nelson, Theodore. (1974). Introduction from Computer Lib / Dream Machines. Self-published. Accessed at http://www.newmediareader.com/book_samples/nmr-21-nelson.pdf, Feb 1, 2013.

Weinberger, David. (2007). Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York: Henry Holt and Company.


2 thoughts on “Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, by David Weinberger

  1. Hey Letha, great writeup – I also wrote about (and hugely enjoyed reading) Everything is Miscellaneous for this assignment as well, and it was nice to see someone else’s take on the book. I was curious to hear your take on Weinberger’s evangelical approach to promoting tagging (and non-‘top down’ organizational strategies in general) – or as you put it, the brave new world where “there are no hierarchies or overarching categories – no one person’s description is given priority or is more real than another.” I’ll admit that I’m slightly torn – conceptually/politically, I absolutely eat up what he’s saying, and I love the idea of a world where everything is organized according to whatever eccentric, individual schema we like. (I actually named my blog after the fictional Borges encyclopedia that Weinberger mentions which categorizes animals into categories like ‘fabulous ones’ and ‘those that have just broken the flower vase’ out of a love for this sort of approach.) On the other hand, as someone who has spent a lot of time on Flickr looking for specific images (for a freelance project where I used creative commons licensed pictures to illustrate concepts at a conference), the lack of any kind of unified structure to the metadata could sometimes make life really difficult – looking for, say, an image of an internet cafe in china without knowing what terms the person who took the photo might have tagged it with could be very, very frustrating. If they tagged it ‘computers’ & ‘beijing’ then I would be fine, but if they put the name of their friend who is in the picture and that of the game they were playing (‘world of warcraft’, say) then I would never even have a chance to see it, even if it was the perfect picture. Having no set rules for metadata is really, really effective when it comes to browsing and exploring intuitively, but in situations where one is looking for a specific thing, the lack of a set structure can sometimes make it easy for good results to fall through the cracks. Anyway – it’s clear that I don’t even really know how I feel about this issue, but I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    1. Hi Matthew, I read your book review also and found it interesting to hear thoughts on the same book. Weinberger offers much to ponder, and I think he argues a good case about the changing order of order. But, I gathered as he started to summarize his thoughts toward the end of the book that even he acknowledged that standard descriptive frameworks were not going to go away. I, like you, hold formal and informal descriptive practice in tension – I think there is a place for both. In my daily work, I am building build common vocabularies in an environment where random tagging was the practice before me. As I am building more standard descriptors into the collection, educators are reporting greater success locating relevant content. At the same time, we allow our users to tag our content. So, I suppose I’m operating in a world that recognizes the value of both approaches!

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