Miscellaneous Is Terrific

I started reading David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous late, partly because it took me a while to get around to obtaining a copy (Margaret bought one in North Carolina before me) and partly because it’s taking me some time to get the knack of “reading books” again after the school year. I had read the early reviews, both the enthusiastic and the critical, and I wanted to respect the critical reviews even as I also wanted to admire the work of someone I regard as a very dear friend (DISCLAIMER: To my grateful astonishment, I discovered that David refers to me as his friend on page 211 of Everything. Margaret said, “You didn’t look for yourself in the index? You always do that!” which is embarassingly true, but since I didn’t expect to appear in this book, I had not peeked.)

David’s argument will be familiar to anyone who reads his blog regularly. On his account, the transition to a world in which we store information digitally rather than physically effects a “third order of information.” He says, “In the first order of order, we organize things themselves” (17-18). We order our environment by locating objects in predictable, meaningful places. The second order of order creates further objects that refer to first-order objects: we call many of these things “catalogues,” even though a library’s card catalog differs from the innumerable catalogs of merchandise that arrive in my mail every day. They do not physically set the objects to which they refer in order; they constitute an order of representation, which points to the physical objects. Weinberger’s pivotal point here involves the fact that these representations themselves remain physical entities, limited by the necessity of locating these representations in space. One could, solely in theory, generate a catalogue in which every item was connected by a catalog entry to every possible association by which one might want to look it up — but even proposing such a thing provokes the realization that the scope of such a project would be impossibly vast. The second order to which David adverts remains constrained by its physical limitations.

The book goes on to celebrate what David calls the third order of order, the digital environment in which catalogs can function apart from the limitations of spatial organization. The all-encompassing catalog for Lands End merchandise would be infinitely thick (though the postal service would still offer an absurdly low mailing rate to subsidize mail-order companies) because Jeneane and I think differently about clothing, luggage, linen, shoes, and so on (DISCLAIMER: I don’t actually know if Jeneane buys anything from Lands End, or if we think differently about their merchandise, but it’s a likely guess that we do). But in David’s third order, Lands End doesn’t need to produce a single ultimate catalog to accommodate Jeneane and me; instead, they could produce a digital catalogue that presents Jeneane and me with different representations of their merchandise that fit our respective different interests. Freed from the constraints of physicality, “order” can remain miscellaneous at the back-end as software presents us with infinite different personalized “orders” when Jeneane and I consult it.

That’s the heart of David’s argument, if I understand it correctly; most of the book illustrates this principle, amplifies its ramifications, and endorses its implied metaphysics, and I agree with David ninety-five percent or so. I’ve put a lot of energy into pushing the theological and pedagogical angles of this point, that the non-spatial character of digital interaction changes the environment in ways that most authority figures in those fields haven’t begun to deal with (but also, to be fair, in ways that the self-promoting hucksters of change mostly misrepresent). David does a beautiful job of highlighting the difference of digital information with vivid, convincing, provocative examples. Everything Is Miscellaneous should help undermine the pompous ukases of the media authorities who run around like the character in the Homecoming Parade sequence at the end of Animal House who shouts, “Remain calm! All is well!” (take, for instance, David’s recent point-counterpoint appearances with Andrew Keen).

David embellishes his argument with a terrific hip-pocket history of ideas about taxonomy. He explains the metaphysical backstories that inform claims about the “natural” way of parcelling out information, and disarms them with insight, wit, and actual counterexamples. This element of the book delighted me, but I expect that some readers will resist the possibility that the joints at which we endeavor to carve our world are as miscellaneous as David shows them to be. Tom takes this up and launches it into the orbital shell of brilliance by comparing David’s thoughts in this chapter with Benjamin’s observations on tradition and the collector.

I’m not sure about the other 5%, though. As others have pointed out before me, digital data is still spatial in several senses (otherwise I’d be able to carry around infinite data on my laptop computer), and that does make a difference in the scaling of data. It’s a difference that’s insignificant relative to card catalogs or retail merchandise displays, certainly, but we shouldn’t overlook the real spatiality of data in our excitement about the difference digital storage makes. I’m not convinced, either, that this is a different “order of order”; I’m inclined to think that the order of order is the same — that is, it’s still “a representation of information about objects,” just as a card in a library catalog, or an entry in a Lands End circular — but it’s a different dimension of that order, or a different regime of that order. Maybe that’s hair-splitting, but I have a hunch that it’s related to the “spatiality” reservation, and to protests that David isn’t really describing anything very new. More metadata, even a lot more metadata, is still metadata.

[As a side issue, in connection with reading David’s book, I’ve been messing around with the Wikipedia lately, and it’s heightening my mixed feelings about that source. In my own area of specialized knowledge, the Wikipedia is heavily shaped by partisanship, and it’s hard to see how it will move away from its current condition toward the ideal of a neutral point of view. At least, I don’t have the energy — nor do I presume to volunteer others to supply the energy — to push back against ardent partisans. In relatively uncontroversial areas, or areas where I know the background terrain pretty well, I will continue to use the Wikipedia as a first source for general information, but I’ve become somewhat disillusioned about Wikipedia’s prospects overall.]

In short, Everything Is Miscellaneous fittingly heralds a dramatic change in the ways David‘s readers now encounter information, and even more so in the ways that they will shortly encounter it. For those who want to understand that transition better, and those who want the help of a lucid, engaging, convincing expositor, Everything Is Miscellaneous provides a unique touchstone. Once we grant a couple of David’s premises, we can get into further arguments about his conclusions — but that signals what an extremely valuable waypoint David has published.

David responded:

Thank you, Akma, for the thoughtful review, and especially for the way you honor difference. As always.

The division into three orders is, of course, merely a convenience for thought. So, there’s a strong sense in which an argument about exactly where to draw the line (if there is a line to draw) could become a self-referential self-parody. Nevertheless, I do want to maintain that the moving of info into the connected digital world is not merely more of the old, or even more of the old faster. It’s a truly significant change. And you’ve anticipated what I’m about to say. It does have to do with the spatiality of data.

First to acknowledge the limit you point out: Yes, we are not in the limitless world of connection yet. And yet…we are rapidly putting our info devices online, which means they have (slow or fast, easy or hard) access to the wide world of the Net. We’re connecting it all up. But put that aside for the moment.

The difference between what we have had and what we are giving ourselves erases the formal boundary between data and metadata. We certainly will continue to attach metadata to data, and as far as that goes, yes, we’ll be attaching more than we could when we had to fit it on a label or a card, and that’s not all that different. But there are real differences. I’d point to two:

First, in the connected world, even the new labels and cards are linked into the big mess we call the Web. So, the metadata for the online book (let’s say) may give the pub date, but because it’s on the Web, you can find a whole bunch of other stuff via that date. All of that other stuff — i.e., the Web — now can serve as metadata for the online book. The explicit metadata leads to data that can act as metadata (let us find and understand the original book) even though it wasn’t intended to and may never have heard of the book.

Second, in the new world, objects themselves are metadata, if we use them that way. The book is online, not just its metadata (well, some books are online, and I assume that will be the norm within just a few handfuls of years…I hope). The content is metadata. The content of the book the original book points to in a footnote is metadata. The ability to link, traverse, find, navigate, relate, coordinate, contextualize and get distracted is something new enough to be worth calling new. IMO.

In closing, you’d better agree with me or you’re not my friend any more. That’s how it works, right?

Love and peace,

David W.

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