Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder
Author: David Weinberger
Publisher: New York: Times Books, 2007
Review Published: April 2008
Every day people expend a significant amount of energy trying to place things in some kind of order. Whether it be through filing papers, putting CDs in alphabetical sequence, or applying a scientific classification system to a newly discovered species, order is seen as being preferable to disorder.
In Everything is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger challenges the popular wisdom of the desirability of fixed order, and suggests instead that messiness is a virtue. Rigid classifications and the practice of assigning a single "right" position in a hierarchy are no longer sufficient, let alone desirable, as the amount of information available explodes and the barriers between authorities and information users diminishes.
Writing for a general/business audience, Weinberger develops over the course of ten chapters the concept of "messiness" in information of all kinds -- from scientific schema to store fronts, to smart barcodes and the (perhaps unavoidable) discussion of Wikipedia and consensus information. Moving from example to example, and area to area, this book meanders through the changing notion of what is now considered useful information, and the place of "traditional" order in the new information economy.
Everything is Miscellaneous is not focused solely on issues of information on the internet, but rather casts its net more widely. Starting with the familiar though unspoken design concept of "the milk is at the back of the store," the book begins with the idea of physical space as information, which can be designed and controlled in ways that both help and hinder users as they navigate through to achieve their goals. Other areas brought into the discussion include libraries, encyclopedias, scientific collections, storefronts, and social networking sites. Weinberger darts in and out of these areas, and in so doing, makes clear that these are not separate areas but rather related and interlinked through their common underlying assumptions as to how information should be organized. Along the way, he demonstrates how new ideas, practices, and innovation can emerge out of unexpected linkages or combinations.
The book distinguishes between three levels of information and information organization. The first, the physical organization of things in space, may dictate how you line up CDs on a shelf but has little relevance to how you organize your music playlists on your computer. The second order manages information about things -- lists, ledgers, index cards. The second order links limited amounts of information to objects in rule-orientated ways, such as in library classification systems. Despite itself being a physical object of information, Everything is Miscellaneous argues that we are moving towards a third order of information, where rules and structures of information are discarded in favor of clouds of information, messy piles tagged and cross-linked so as to be searchable beyond the limitations of a classification system. Weinberger argues that this shift is already occurring, and much of the subsequent chapters are taken up with exploring the practice and some of the more positive implications of this movement.
Weinberger has an easy-to-read, fluid, and often appropriately sardonic style of written expression that carries readers through the panorama of examples that he lays out to exemplify his claims. The diversity of cases he produces, and the way he explores and explains them, is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of this book. Instead of oversimplifying or engaging in a superficial manner, Weinberger works to make explicitly clear what is going on, and why it helps explain his central thesis of messiness as a virtue. In particular, his exploration of Wikipedia compared to prior reference texts is extremely well written and argued. Distinguishing between Encyclopedia Britannica's claims of authority over information versus Wikipedia's developing ideas of information by consensus helps to clarify how information messiness might usefully be applied.
Having said that, it is necessary to add a rather significant caveat. Several times throughout the book, I found myself coming to the end of such examples and saying to myself, “yes, but what about X?” Whilst a book can only contain so much (as Weinberger himself argues), I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated by the way the author repeatedly glossed over important implications or alternate outcomes without even acknowledging their existence, or even their weaknesses or limitations. For example, the book argues well the strengths of "piles" of information unrestrained by traditional hierarchies of classification -- but it is strangely silent on potential problems such as information overload (a possibility only hinted at the end of chapter six as he reels off the dizzying amounts of information a potential consumer may have available to them through their data-enabled mobile phone). Weinberger naturalizes and almost idealizes messiness and a kind of complexity that supports innovation and unexpected interaction. Yet without engaging, even in passing, the potential problems third order information could present, the overall argument for third order information is somewhat weakened.
Perhaps the key issue with the argument of this book can be found in the shifting use of the term "miscellaneous." Moving from chapter to chapter, there was a sense of drift in the usage and implications of the term. In some chapters, the author seemed to be implying a kind of complexity (though without engaging with the existing debates around complexity and emergence); in others, it was used more in the sense of delocalization or decontextualization. Whilst this may seem a pedantic criticism, the concept of miscellany is a key part of the central thesis of the book. As such, the shifting usage sometimes made it difficult to appropriately engage with each of the chapters, and with the argument overall.
Overall, this book reads like a primer for (to adopt Weinberger's language) first and second order information users to a third order world. For readers such as myself, who find familiar the concepts of metadata, intensely targeted information, tagging, and information clouds, the book is a reconfirmation of the trends observed in daily life. But for those (particularly in business) for whom this is a brave new world, Everything is Miscellaneous is an entertaining, well-paced, and reasonably well-argued introduction to the changing face of information.
Erika Pearson is a lecturer at the Department of Media, Film and Communications, University of Otago, New Zealand. Her research interests revolve around issues of social life on the internet, and she is particularly interested in how ideas of social capital and complexity can describe these relationships. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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