[iDC] Miscellaneous (Prelude)

trebor at thing.net trebor at thing.net
Sat Jul 7 06:19:16 EDT 2007


Last week I went for a trip from Stockholm to Uppsala to see the Carl Linnaeus
museum, his former house and garden. There was a connection between the
originator of our way of organizing nature to a book that I just read: David
Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous.

Here is somebody who really brings his multi-faceted fascinations to writing
about technology: the art and science of categorizing our worlds. The book is
about what happens when books are freed of their physical constrains and
everything is online. The current information landscape is characterized by
access to a hodgepodge of bits, images, articles, physical things and ideas.
And that changes the way we work, buy, learn, vote, and play.

While Cluetrain Manifesto, one of Weinberger's previous books, mainly aimed at
business people, Everything is Miscellaneous is different. Like the director
Alexander Sokurow in his film Russian Arc, Weinberger, in a single take, winds
his way through many rooms filled with the olden days, from Victorian times and
histories of the classification of the geography of knowledge to the ordering of
planets, Jorge Luis Borges, maps from 2500 B.C.E., the five billion barcodes
that are scanned every day, Amazon.com's software, the RFID tags that are
clipped onto summer hats, and "thinglinks."

Weinberger weaves these threads together in a way that will make it hard for you
to put down his book once you embarked on the journey.

You'll find yourself standing in front of the 47 million "active customers" of
Amazon.com and imagine the massive shelves it'd take to house the 200,000
unique book titles, which Amazon sells every month. And you can listen in to
many conversations Weinberger had with technologists like Brion Wibber, the
chief technical officer of the Wikipedia organization.

Melvil Dewey, about whose life and strive Weinberger reports much, was not
amused with inefficiencies even when it came to his own name, which he
abbreviated to Melvil Dui in 1879. Dewey studied at Amherst College and later
became Columbia University's first Chief Librarian. He believed that libraries
could be more than repositories; they could empower everybody to become
lifelong learners. His Dewey Decimal System and the idea of ordering books in
relation to each other rather than alphabetically turned the floor plan of the
library into a map of ideas, a "memory palace."

In 1999 the BBC started spending $100 million a year to convert its archived
material into digital format, making it available for reuse. In similar ways,
the digitization of books by Google on a massive scale goes far beyond
preservation: it allows for any piece of content from a book to be placed next
to any other, which makes for a new layer of meaning that is constructed in
between short pieces of texts. It reinforces a type of clip or quotation
culture where de-contextualized snippets are mixed up at free will.

Amazon.com groups books based on a statistical analysis of buying patterns. A
Dewey-compliant library and Amazon.com, Weinberger reminds us, are as far from
each other as one can get. Dewey gives the tonnage of books a stable place in
the library. As a "third order of order" Amazon is no longer shackled to
physical restrictions. It socially connects information. "In the third order,
everything is connected and therefore everything is metadata."

Today, we know the world socially. We conduct conversational research or use
referral systems such as Digg.com, Rojo, and Rollyo.com. The broadcast
media-dominated times for one nation united under Walter Cronkite are over,
Weinberger assures us. People start acting as filters, contributing all their
education, experience, and lucid (and not so cogent) thinking. The expert and
their institutions do not become superfluous but they are no longer in sole
charge of our ideas.

Today, we are molecularized, grouped into small local cultures. We are reading
“The Daily Me, My Friends, and Some Folks I Respect.” "The connections among
people help guide what the group learns and knows." Kids are doing homework
socially via Instant Messaging and also the CIA realized that collaborating on
blogs and wikis might be a better way of pulling knowledge together. In the
case of Wikipedia, "a miscellaneous collection of anonymous or pseudonymous
authors can precipitate knowledge." Only the genuine interests of people will
cut through the mess of miscellany. Today, knowledge is not just in our heads,
it is in between us.

I may add here that there is a significant difference in ordering knowledge for
the sake of access to knowledge or with the objective of profit. But, of
course, I'm not saying that Dewey, Linnaeus, Darwin or others like them did not
engage in their pursuits partially for monetary reasons. Linnaeus was the father
of seven children and owned a large garden. Amazon's "carnival of books,"
however, is a commercial techno-spectacle that unites ideas of access to
knowledge with consumption on a new level. A library and a store are two
different animals altogether, granted that at the time of Dewey far fewer
people would have access to scholarship.

Weinberger suggests that trees of knowledge will lose their place as the
preferred means of navigation and, more importantly, as representations of how
knowledge is "actually" structured. We'll always have trees because they're
sometimes incredibly useful. The Aristotelian dreams of trees of knowledge,
however, are collapsing in the age of information digitization.

And on the way to faceted classification systems, Charles Darwin contributed his
grouping of animals by causation rather than merely by similarity. Today,
Wikipedia's structure is far more complex than a tree. Here, one leaf is not
just on one branch of a tree but attached to several places at once. Weinberger
quotes Ted Nelson, the visionary who coined the term hypertext as saying that
people keep pretending that things are hierarchical and categorizable when they
are not. Historically, there was also an Indian mysticism-tinged system of
categorization and Ranganathan's analytico-synthetic classification system, the
colon classification that questioned the Western approach.

Today, companies like Endeca provide classification systems that can organize
all 90,000 reviews from Wine Spectator magazine (25 million different pieces of
oil industry hardware) in a myriad of ways.

"Computers are demonically good at sorting through things." The GAP online
offers pants and jeans while J.Crew breaks things down into loungewear, denim,
and suiting. While computers are very good at what they are good at, they also
only deal with what they have been told. In 2006, for example, Amazon's
automated system was telling people who were searching for books about
"abortion" that they might actually have meant to search for "adoption." Amazon
commented that it only made the suggestion as both words have a similar
spelling. This is a good example for the (sometimes) accidental politics of

Weinberger interviews Jimmy Wales who founded Wikipedia after failing with the
idea of a soft-porn "guy-oriented search engine" and also Joshua Schachter, who
created the social bookmarking service Del.icio.us.

Schachter (http://del.icio.us/Joshua) introduced the idea of "tagging" and "tag
streams" that originated in his idea of finding a way of getting quick access
to about 20,000 bookmarks that he had saved in his browser. Delicious tags can
read like haikus but, visualized as tag clouds, they portray a person possibly
better than their biography. The practice of tagging led to folksonomies and
later Flickr was convinced by Schachter's tagging-idea as well. The
photo-sharing site Flickr adds 900,000 photos per day and has 5.7 million
different tags. Yet, if you search for the tag "San Francisco," the 680,000
pictures resulting from this search are astonishingly accurate.

Weinberger talks about the fact that books make us just listen; they are a
format in which we are merely lectured to. But while Everything is
Miscellaneous is a book, David Weinberger is not the monological type: he
started his website on December 6, 1998 and is a fervent blogger who gets
countless comments, has a "Technorati authority" of 1,237, and almost 30,000
incoming links. He certainly goes both ways-- prestigious print culture (yes,
PAPER) and participatory culture.

He points out that already in 2005 more people looked at the pages of the
grassroots encyclopedia Wikipedia than read the New York Times. And for those
who are surprised by that, how about Craigslist apartment listings annotated
right onto the actual address in GoogleMaps?

Arrived at the end of trip we learned much from Weinberger who is a writer on
technology with a PhD in philosophy (... and it shows), a fellow at Harvard Law
School's Berkman Center, and a marketing consultant. A few questions remain and
so I asked David for a brief interview, which will follow together with
excerpts from his book.

Trebor Scholz

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