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woensdag 2 april 2008

Everything is miscellaneous

David Weinberger's Everything is miscellaneous, the power of the new digital disorder offers a refreshing view on the way we organize our world and order information, and on the importance of knowledge. Historically he divides these efforts into the first, second and third order of order. The first order of order comprises the physical world. It is the way we organize our personal things, our house, a store, factories, etc. The second order tries to make knowledge accessible: classifications, taxonomies, encyclopedia, card catalogs etc. In the third order (which has the same object as the second) miscellaneousness rules.

The second order of order has been guided by the limitations of the physical world. No two things can be in the same place at the same time. Conversely, no one thing can be at two places at the same time (although quantum physics has cast somewhat of a shadow over that idea). In the same way, the organization of world views had to be thought out on paper. A certain item, a concept, can only be placed in one spot on the page. In the third order, these limitations no longer exist. Within the digital realm every concept can be at different places at any given time and knowledge can take on the form we choose to see at any given time.

The opening chapters of the book give an historical overview of the way we have been classifying the world, starting with the Aristotelian idea that there is a natural order of things and that knowledge should be divided according to this "natural formation, where the joint is, not breaking any part as a bad carver might" (Plato). This has resulted in tree-structures, where everything has its place and is a part of a broader or narrower class of categories. The problem is that the world is more complex than that. Besides, the way unified trees are structured depends on the way the person who has conceived it sees the world. The classical example is Melvin Dewey's Decimal Classification system (DDC). The choices he has made, honorable as they were, were obviously historically, personally and culturally biased. Nevertheless, the traditional classification methods have their virtues. In his own style, Weinberger explains what they are about, how they work and how they came about, in chronological order (from Plato over faceted classification to taxonomies, over ontologies to the semantic web), together with their virtues and shortcomings.

The newest member of this family is the folksonomy. A folksonomy is derived from the words 'folk' and 'taxonomy' (not to be confused with folk taxonomy). It describes methods of collaborative tagging. The classic examples are the sites and Flickr, but there are many more who utilize the same principle (eg. CiteUlike, LibraryThing, Connotea, BibSonomy, Technorati, Digg, Reddit). On these sites you can tag (add keywords) to the content you're saving to your account. These tags, together with the content you saved, are visible to the rest of the community who can use them to find interesting information. Folksonomies are more flexible than classical categorization schemes since anyone can add any type of keyword they'd like. The disadvantage is that anyone can add any keyword they'd like. Folksonomies provide a bottom-up approach, which enables finding items more intuitively because they are stated in a language that everybody speaks. On the other hand they can hide objects for the same reason because of problems with homonymy, synonymy, typos and the use of idiosyncratic tags.

The major innovation of the digital age however, lies in the fact that concepts (and its related content) no longer need to be in one specific place. As Weinberger puts it, in tree-like structures every leaf hangs from a particular branch. Now, a leaf can hang from many branches at the same time. He states that messiness can be seen as a virtue, since you only 'clean up' when you need to according to your preference of the moment. As an example he cites the online shop Amazon. A shop which arranges itself in different ways every time you visit it, in a view suited to what you're looking for at the time.

David Weinberger has a very positive view on the way technology is changing the way we think. This latest information revolution is providing us with new possibilities. He feels that we are reverting to a more natural way of gathering and disseminating knowledge: through conversation. And he's right. The more connected we get, the faster our knowledge base will grow as a species. Taxonomies provide you with a view of how information is related and how knowledge should be divided, according to the author of the taxonomy in question. Now, everybody can create his view. We have to watch out though that we don't revert to what Jaron Lanier calls digital maoism. It is not the 'hive mind' that will set us free, but the collective work of individuals. Sharing information, heightens our general knowledge. Working towards a consensus where everybody is happy with the outcome is an illusion however.

Only a small percentage of people actually are concerned with all of the above, but if only 1% of the world's population plays an active part, the rest can still make use of what these 6.8 million people have done. Of course, not everything is digital. We have to live in the physical world. An online shop can rearrange itself every time you visit it, in the real world there are some different constraints. This is especially true for archives, where finding a piece of information is not the only issue. In order to understand what you have found, you need to be able to place it into context. The structure of the inventory (taxonomy) will, ideally, provide you with the structure of the archive(s) in its original and/or functional state. This structure depends on the choices the archivist has made, so it's subjective to a certain extent. When done well however, these choices can give you an insight about the relevance of the document to the research you are conducting.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the digital realm is enabling us to get connected, make our work more efficient, erode certain traditional power structures. Weinberger depicts somewhat of a digital utopia which sounds very appealing. How it will evolve, only time will tell. I'm sure not everybody will agree with his stance, but the least you can say is that Everything is miscellaneous provides us with something to think about.

To keep the discussion going, Weinberger has set up a website.

Here's a summary by the man himself (in case the embedded video doesn't work, you can watch it here):

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