Review: Everything is Miscellaneous

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.

Designing Web Navigation and Everything is Miscellaneous

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.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

One comment

  1. Pingback: Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger « Kvams

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