One-A-Day: David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous

Cory Doctorow makes a lot of sales to me through his recommendations on Boing Boing. He tends to have an eye for things that I at least think I’m interested in. Sometimes, though, I feel a bit let down, feeling more like “I gave a little bit of money to one of Cory’s friends (which seems an ok thing to do)” rather than “He’s right, this book or graphic novel is really compelling”.

Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous feels to me more like one of the former than the latter. The book strains to say something new about digital search and digital knowledge. It also has the obsession that some of the digerati have with proclaiming the digital as a utopian revolution against an old order. It’s not really thinking in original ways about the history of categories, typologies, information hierarchies, catalogs and so on: we get the obligatory fly-by of Plato and Aristotle, sure, but not much in-between. It’s only at the end that Weinberger even asks the question: if knowledge is intrinsically miscellaneous, why have we had such a long interregnum of typology, taxonomy, and classification? What he offers is a kind of three-page potted sort of Enlightenment-style fable about how we fell from miscellaneous Eden through the original sin of some old thinkers and now can glimpse utopia once again.

It feels as if he’s selling something. This is one thing that really wearies me about a certain kind of writing by the digerati. It’s often reads as if the child-catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has just pulled up and invited me to hop on his caged bandwagon. On one level, Weinberger is just preaching the gospel of Web 2.0, and I’m pretty much inside that revival tent myself. When he describes four key strategies (filter on the way out not the way in, associate a piece of information with as many classification systems as possible, everything is metadata and everything can be a label, and give up control), I pretty much agree with them all as approaches. I just don’t accept them as inevitable, universal and ubiquitious.

What irritates me is the either/or character of his presentation, which is one of the basic attributes of digerati manifestos. You’re in or you’re out. This is the way to do it, all other ways are bad. Thank god technology is at last liberating information and knowledge. There are no choices to be made, only discoveries of the one true way. People who feel confused or alienated by a Web 2.0 environment are just fossils. Information is miscellaneous, in Weinberger’s description. Reality is being unveiled at last.

It reminds me a bit of naive holism, of flip dismissals of “reductionism” in knowledge systems. Saying that you’re against reductionism or for it is like saying that you’re against breathing out carbon dioxide but very much in favor of breathing in oxygen. We confine or expand the questions we’re asking of the world situationally, in dynamic relationship to other people’s questions and our own purposes of the moment. Today I may compress some heuristic boundary I’m using, tomorrow I may discard it, and I’ll be perfectly right to do so both times. The same goes for information and knowledge as “miscellaneous”. Today I may classify from the top, tomorrow I may tag from below. Today I may want to be in a narrow, tightly-bounded conversation with a limited number of specialists who are following disciplinary constraints; tomorrow I may want to drift on the ocean of humanity’s digital sea, seeing what I pull up in my net.

The problem with old expert-driven bibliographic control or academic disciplinarity is that its strong correspondence with institutional organization made it seem both natural and essential to its practicioners, rather than a strategic tool adopted at certain moments to heighten the generativity or focus of knowledge-production–and it encouraged highly specialized knowledge practices to claim the right to dominate public decision-making and everyday forms of knowing as their birthright. Old practices of cataloging and disciplinarity kept scholars and experts from remembering that those practices were provisional, tactical responses to knowledge production.

Weinberger is right that everything can be and often should be miscellaneous, as he describes it. The problem is that he goes well beyond that to proclaim this as manifest destiny: “traditional trees”, as he puts it, have been “useful”, but it’s rather the same way that we might say that horses were useful for getting around before the internal combustion engine. Knowledge, in his view, is not organized. This is a Platonic claim about the essential character of all knowledge, at all times. When it’s organized prior to use, that’s a false, misshapen imposition. No capacities, abilities, or possibilities are lost in the recognition of the truth of knowledge’s miscellaneous character.

“In the miscellanized world, every idea is discussed, so no idea remains simple for long.” (p. 213) Doesn’t that just warm your heart? I feel as if Tiny Tim is about to yell out, “God bless us, everyone”. But when there isn’t any discussion anywhere of the disadvantages, the problems, the practical challenges, the downsides of what Weinberger calls “the third order”, when there isn’t any kind of sophisticated investigation of why past systems for organizing knowledge came to exist, then I’m uneasy even if I’m interested in and open to what he’s peddling.

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6 Responses to One-A-Day: David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous

  1. Doug says:

    ” some of the digerati have with proclaiming the digital as a utopian revolution against an old order”

    Goodness me, acquisition editors are still buying this as a rhetorical strategy? I can see it for the first couple of years after Mosaic went out into the world, but then something like reality set in…

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah. I mean, I thought it got old after Negroponte promised that digital stuff would clean your house, do your homework, take your vacations for you, and solve world hunger, but it’s still going strong.

  3. Haven’t read the book, so I don’t quite know what’s going on, but there’s a lot of room between the notion that there’s one best natural way to organize knowledge and there’s no way at all. The fact that there’s no particularly good way to arrange my books on shelves so that like is near like doesn’t mean there’s no order to what’s in those books.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s another issue: he takes informational objects (artifacts, books, natural objects, photographs, etc.) as if they don’t have any internal organization or structure themselves, as if they’re intrinsically “miscellaneous”.

  5. “Multiply-connected along many dimensions” is very different from miscellaneous.

    What happens when you query the web via Google is that the search engine imposes a virtual order on the whole web such that items most relevant to the query are at one end of the ordering and those least relevant are at the other end. The way it does this is rather crude, as are the queries one typically makes, but it couldn’t happen if there weren’t some order there. The problem is to make the process more effective.

  6. back40 says:

    If Weinberg had claimed that data was miscellaneous who could quibble? But knowledge? Isn’t organization an inherent attribute of knowledge, almost a defining attribute? Information is organized data. Knowledge is understood information. Some would say.

    BTW, you are right that this is a very old idea even if you only consider the data processing world.

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