16 June 2007
After pointing out a few contentious points in Everything is Miscellaneous in previous posts (see: June 13, 2007, June 2, 2007, and May 28, 2007), I wanted to review some of the book’s strengths. And there are many. This is perhaps one of the most interesting books about information and its order that I’ve read. Though I disagree with Weinberger on many points, the book got me thinking, and I found it quite engaging overall.
Order in the Court
A central concept Weinberger proposes is that of three orders of order:
- First order – This is the organization of physical objects: “We put silverware into drawers, books on shelves, photos into albums.”
- Second order – This refers to creating a surrogate record that is derived from the item to be organized. This record itself has a physical manifestation. The classic example used throughout the book is the card catalogue.
- Third order – Here, there is no limitation for the type and amount of metadata that links to an item. Instead, an object can be classified, tagged, and organized by any number of means–essentailly without limit. What’s more, documents themselves become metadata. So this order is really more like disorder, and it is where the book gets its title.
I’m not sure the division between the second and third orders is entirely clear, but it rings true for the most part. It’s probably more of a continuum than true buckets of order.
Interestingly enough, Weinberger–a philospher himself–doesn’t refer to Karl Popper’s theory of reality. In the Popperian cosmology there are three worlds:
World 1: the world of physical objects
World 2: the world of mental objects and events
World 3: the world of the products of the human mind
I’m seeing these map roughly to Weinberger’ order like this:
World 1 = first order
World 2 = third order
World 3 = second order
These mappings aren’t 1:1, but the causation is different with Popper’s worlds. Perhaps the third order of order as Weinberger proposes it isn’t the next step forward, but a step back to something that more closely resembles human thought, knowledge, and understanding. OK, I’m probably getting in over my head, so I’ll just leave it at that and let you decide or comment further.
Lumping and Spliting
Another recurring concept is that of lumping and splitting. This refers to either grouping or dividing a topic in order to manage, use, or understand it better. “Nesting is a fundamental technique of human understanding. It may even be the fundamental technique, at least in its most primitive form: lumping and splitting” (p. 68). For example, dividing patterns of order into three orders (see above) helps us talk about and understand those concepts better.
But lumping and splitting inherently bring bias to the table. In the third order, however, this bias is removed–or at least lessened. Rather than one person or one group of people deciding how to lump and split information, we all do it. And we do it to fit our needs–without suffering from someone else’s biases. In the end, Weinberger argues that a big pile of metadata-rich information is better than top-down control of it. You then let users and machines sort it as needed from the bottom up.
Small Pieces Loosely Joined
The phrase Web 2.0 has a certain buzzability these days. Some times you’ll hear people define Web 2.0 as the use of technologies like AJAX, or worse the use of 3-D buttons with a reflection. Even talk about communities and user participation sometimes misses the deeper meaning of Web 2.0. It’s the miscellanization of information that enables Web 2.0 activity–along with the connectivity only the Web can offer, of course.
At its core, then, Everything is Miscellaneous is really about Web 2.0, or at least about the underpinnings thereof. It’s about the theory and consequences of the atomization and re-connecting of information in the digital world.
Even broader, Everything is Miscellaneous is, in part, a philosophy of information, covering wide range of classification-related topics from a historical perspective. The author reviews the origins of taxonomy and alphabetical ordering, and even Aristoltle’s notion of hierarchies and understanding. But at the same time the book is thoroughly steeped in the modern, digital world of information.
Here are some of my favorite quotes I highlighted while reading it:
page 82: “Reality is multifaceted. There are lots of ways to slice it. How we choose to slice it up depends on why we’re slicing it up.”
page 88: “The basic fact that order often hides more than it reveals has sometimes itself been hidden within the art and science of organizing our world.”
page 105: “The power of the miscellaneous comes directly from the fact that in the third order, everyhing is connected and therefore everything is metadata.”
page 168: “So Peter Morville may have it backwards: Tags may become more useful, meaningful, relevant, and clearer the more there are.”
page 189: “There is no dorm room, divorce, or political scandal as messy as the World Wide Web. There’s an excellent reason for this: Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, in his wisdom made sure that the Web is a permission-free zone. Anyone can post anything she wants, and anyone can link to anything else, all without altering a central registry, without having to get approval, and without anyone saying exaclty where to shelve the new material. So, the Web has grown without plan, which is exactly why it has grown like crazy.”
Interesting side note: Amazon suggests to purchase Everything is Miscellaneous with my book, Designing Web Navigation. This is an interesting contrast thematically: One is about controlling and ordering information from the top down, the other about messiness as a virtue. The thing that joins these two books, however, is the potential audience. So it’s actually a good example of why making a big messy pile and then using algorithms to find new and interesting connections just might work.
Everything is Miscellaneous is well researched. But unfortunately the book uses end notes (does any one really skip back to them while in the middle of a chapter?). And the text lacked numbered references to the points in the notes, so it is extra hard to follow the notes. It’s impressive, though, the Weinberger has talked with many people first hand and actually gone to location to investigate topics, and it’s welcomed that he shares this with us.
The author takes on some deep topics in a fairly accessible style. Everything is Miscellaneous is well written, but not light reading. But at just over 250 pages, you really have no excuse for not picking it up. Throughout, the discussions are thought-provoking and, at times, simply mesmerizing. I highly recommend this to anyone in the information business or doing web design.
13 June 2007
OK, here’s my last gripe about Everything is Miscellaneous, a fantastic book by David Weinberger. I realize that this might be nit, but I’d like to point it out anyway: Weinberger contends that in the past physical formats of information limited the vision of librarians and information professionals.
Yes and no.
Many paper-bound information specialists and librarians had plenty of vision. Take Raganathan. He was able to see organization completely independent of the media that represents it, well before the electronic computer. By pointing out his genius many times in the book, Weinberger contradicts himself. Or look at the work of Paul Otlet. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about him: “His vision of a great network of knowledge was centered on documents and included the notions of hyperlinks, search engines, remote access, and social networks—although these notions were described by different names.” Then there’s Eugene Garfield, who created a reverse citation index in the early 60s–well before library automation.
The point is that the vision was apparently there in many instances. Sure, there were limitations in implementation, but there are in the digital world too.
I believe it was the GOALS of librarians that limited their foresight. Namely, library systems were created by librarians and primarily for librarians. They are traditionally very content-centered and not user-centered. For instance, what library patron really cares about the dimensions of a book or CD when searching for information? Yet this information is meticulously recorded by librarians as a rule of thumb. The bottom line is that libraries simply are not user-friendly systems.
Perhaps this is subtle and not-so-clear distinction, but one that still exists in my opinion: the vision was there, but the goals were off. Maybe this is what Weinberger was expressing, or maybe it’s really the same thing. In any event, there were visionaries in information organization before the digital world took over, as Weinberger himself points out.
2 June 2007
Again, let me start off by saying that Everything is Miscellaneous is a really great book, particularly for an old librarian/IA type like me. Fascinating stuff.
But Weinberger’s comparisons and criticisms of the card catalog in libraries seem odd. There’s hardly a library in the US that still uses them. Even the smallest public libraries have probably converted to an OPAC years ago–many in the mid 80s. Why even bring them up?
Even if you want to keep the argument in the offline world of libraries, Weinberger still makes it seem like the card catalog is the only access point to books. It’s not. There are many many bibliographies and reference resources that slice and split works by any number of facets. There are also many different indexes to articles with many many access points. Heck, you can even see who else has cited that important scientific article you found with the Science Citation Index. Weinberger over-simplifies a very complex system of citations and linking of resources that exist in physical libraries.
I agree with Weinberger that the third order of organization the web affords is different, but not because other means of accessing books (just to stick with that example) don’t exist. That vision was already there in the paper world.
There are indexes that provide access to Bach cantatas by the first line of text, for instance. Same for poetry. And then there are the countless literature guides in just about any discipline and sub-discipline.
So what the web really changes is:
a.) Who is doing the organizing. Now it’s everyone instead of information professionals
b.) The time it takes to create new lists of access points to books, to then find those list, and to use them effectively.
The Time of Information in the third order, then, is the real thing to focus on. It’s not about more information or more ways to organize information or even more people doing the organizing. The information experience people have in the third order world of the web is one that changes the relationship and proportions of time in information seeking, organizing, and use.
28 May 2007
I’m just about in the middle of Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger. I’ve enjoyed his other books, and this one perhaps tops them all. Really good read. If you have anything to do with the development, conception, or organization of web sites and web content, get it.
I find myself, however, agreeing with him and disagreeing with at the same time: “Yes, that’s right, but…” For instance, while I’m sure Mr Weinberger knows exactly what the DDC is, I feel he misrepresents it at times. Not that I’m a fan of the DDC nor am I defending it in any way. I’ve never really used it. But it seems he’s attacking some of the wrong aspects of the DDC and in the wrong way.
Of course, seen abstractly–as a second order organization system, to use Weinberger’s term–there are many problems with the DDC. Yes, the geographic splits are very Western-centric. Yes, Christianity gets many divisions while all other religions are lumped together. Those are certainly weakness of the system that shouldn’t be glossed over and will hopefully be corrected.
But the DDC is really about the first order organization of books–how they sit on the shelf. So if you compare its second order arrangement to other second or third order systems, you lose a lot. The DDC is a classification scheme, not a cataloging system. Missing from Everything is Miscellaneous, then, is a discussion of the user experience you have while in the stacks of a DDC library. Namely, the books are arranged by subject. If you find one book on Muslims, others around it are likely to be about Muslims too.
And if you think people don’t look left and right when retrieving a book from a shelf, you’re wrong. They do. It’s an important type of information discovery in physical libraries. Let’s say you go to the stacks for a biography of J.S. Bach. You may then see biographies of C.P.E. Bach and J.C. Bach, perhaps whom you didn’t know much about or even existed. That’s an interesting connection you may not have seen online or in a card catalogue. Or, you may find other novels by Herman Melville near Moby Dick that also interest you. It’s almost like a menu of links for “related products.” Yes, it’s only one dimensional and limited by physics (a book can only be in one place), but it’s a heck of a lot better than no order of books at all.
Also, on page 58 he compares DDC to topics of books on Amazon. This is just wrong. The DDC is a classification scheme, not a list of topics for cataloging books. Comparing the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) to topics on Amazon would have been better, for instance. Of course, you’d find problems with LCSH, but at least the comparison would be accurate.
In other words, a subject heading catalogue is about the second order organization of books–what they are about–, whereas DDC is about the first order organization of books on the shelf. I was missing this in the book, and felt Weinberger’s argument gives readers the wrong impression. He seems to make DDC something it’s not, and sets it up as a paper tiger at times. I agree with many of Weinberger’s conclusions, but how he gets there is problematic, in my opinion.
Note: Rather than a single review of Everything is Miscellaneous, I hope to post more thoughts on individual topics in the future.