[iDC] everything is miscellaneous - some replies

David Weinberger dweinberger at gmail.com
Wed Jul 11 12:06:03 EDT 2007

Thanks for all the comments, criticisms, advancements, etc. I apologize 
for not responding more promptly, but I ended up going away right when 
the posts hit, and am suffering from dial-up lag.

First, an overall comment.

Ryan Shaw is right when he accuses me of "cheerleading." My intended 
(assumed, imagined) reader hasn't thought about the politics of 
classification, isn't quite sure what "taxonomy" means, and probably 
hasn't used Flickr. So, my aim in the book is to show the reader that: 
(1) Our simple, traditional ways of organizing ideas aren't simple, 
natural or free of politics. Seemingly neutral and natural 
classification schemes express and enable power regimes. (2) A challenge 
to our traditional, "natural" schemes is developing on the Web with 
important consequences, most of which may look bad at first sight but 
are in fact quite positive. (Chapter 1-4 are devoted to the first point, 
and 6-10 to the second, with 5 as a hinge.) So, yes, I am cheerleading 
for the change because I need to counter my imagined reader's 
objections. Also, I do believe that overall, what's happening is good, 
albeit certainly not without problem, blemish or danger.

To continue with Ryan's msg:

(a) Ryan points to the problem with low recall at tagging sites like 
Flickr. I agree. I believe in the book I say explicitly that tagging 
systems are bad at finding everything you need to know about, say, San 
Francisco (i.e., poor recall), and that's a problem for some uses.

(b) Ryan characterizes as "stupid" -- is that really necessary, Ryan? -- 
my belief that authority has vanished and my "blindness" to the new 
concentrations of power and authority. Of course he's right that 
different software imposes its own view of what counts and how it will 
count. I actually talk a bit about that when explaining Flickr's concept 
of "interestingness" (which, btw, I think should be added to precision, 
recall and relevancy as criteria of search engines). And I agree, of 
course, that every site has its own rules and norms. But, the 
proliferation of sites with their own affordances, rules and norms -- 
authority, if you prefer -- means that the the traditional shape of 
authority is radically altering. It's important to recognize, as Ryan 
says, that we are not free of all authority. But it's at least as 
important to acknowledge that when just about anyone with a good idea 
can create a site with her own form of authority, we are gutting the 
traditional notion that the authorities have authority because they have 
unique or privileged access to The Truth.

Now, to respond to a few of Paul Hartzog's points.

(a) The first and second orders _were_ distinct historically -- we were 
separating piles of seeds before we had separable metadata to represent 
those piles -- but even if they weren't, they are distinct conceptually. 
I don't see how I could talk about the change in the nature of metadata 
without first distinguishing metadata from data.

(b) I don't mean to say that we will ever discover every possible 
relationship in the pile of miscellaneous stuff that is the Web. As my 
book says explicitly (but apparently my excerpts did not), the 
importance of the miscellaneous rests on the _potential_ relationships 
in it.

(c) Yes, my book is explicitly about Western thought.

(d) Yes, Michele's phrase "publish, then select" deserves to be as well 
known as "publish, then edit." (And, thank you, Michele, for your msg to 
this list.)

(e) Yes, we have always had the ability to do multiple sorts and orders. 
But, as is often the case, the change in speed is not a mere change in 

(f) WRT to Lessig's warning: I spend a fair bit of my time as a 
freelance advocate for keeping the Net open, so I take Lessig's warning 
  seriously...so seriously that I'm pretty depressed. This ecosystem is 
fragile, and as the FCC makes some crucial decisions in the next few 
days, it could well be dramatically changed. (See 
www.hyperorg.com/misc/delamination.html for something I've written 
recently on the topic.)

(g) Paul takes strong issue with my saying "But, with the
miscellaneous, it's all available to us, unfiltered." He is right. I 
meant, and should have said explicitly, "unfiltered by traditional 
experts et al." In the book I try to be clear that we never encounter 
the miscellaneous per se. It always shows itself to us on the basis of 
our interests, biases, project and the affordances of the software we're 

(h) Yes, I agree with Paul that knowledge has always been a social act. 
What's new is that we are losing our ability to deny that fact.

Thank you for taking seriously what I wrote.


David W.

David Weinberger
Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society
self at evident.com
Elevator statement on file with building supervisor

More information about the iDC mailing list