[iDC] Everything is Miscellaneous

Colin Rhinesmith crhinesmith at comcast.net
Mon Jun 4 14:29:49 EDT 2007

David Weinberger
Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of The New Digital Disorder
Book Release Party
Harvard University
April 20, 2007

= The following is an edited transcript of David Weinberger’s new  
book talk at Harvard. For the full audio version including Q&A please  
visit http://tinyurl.com/yulfzd =

The book is called Everything is Miscellaneous.  The overall idea is  
we are a really well organized species.  We like to organize things  
really neatly.  But whether it's a kitchen or a library we almost  
always have stuff that doesn't fit.  So we create a category called  
miscellaneous.  And if it gets too big than your organization  
failed.  What the book suggests is that as we digitize everything the  
miscellaneous category is going to eat the entire chart and that's a  
good thing.  It's good for business, it's good for science, it's good  
for education, it's good for politics . . . In general that's a good  
thing, although it's quite counterintuitive.

When one person gets to organize his or her way of thinking, one  
person, one way, it's incredibly limited.  It seems like the very  
nature and purpose of reality is to keep things apart. We’ve been  
organizing stuff for thousands of years by obeying the two basic  
principles of reality.  Which is you cannot have two things in the  
same spot at the same time no matter how hard you try.

The second rule is that everything has to be in a place.  In every  
domain, whether it's in the commercial realm, whether it's in  
education, if it's in science in how we organize species and or  
physical objects in a museum, everything has to go somewhere.  So two  
basic principles are baked into reality and have some political  
consequences.  It results instantly in authority coming forward  
because someone has to decide what’s going to make it on the front  
page and what the order will be.

Generally we make good decisions about this but nevertheless it's a  
single group's decision (for example, an editorial board that's  
supposed to reflect our best interests).  That's true whether it's  
anything physical.  If it's a newspaper, if it's an encyclopedia that  
tries to fit all of our knowledge into 32 volumes and 65,000 topics  
as in the Britannica where some set of people decides what's  
important and how to organize it in a single way.

Nature says that there is a single order.  We have had this  
assumption for a long time and we still believe this with some depth  
and fervor.  We do this because we want there to be order.  We  
categorize.  But it turns out that categorizing is just bringing  
things together that are alike, putting them next to each other  
whether physically or mentally.  But we get to choose the things that  
make them alike.  This works because the universe consists of things  
that tend to cluster.

We like to know where things are in their relation to everything  
else.  But this way of organization is limited by the physical.  When  
we put away our clean laundry we make piles, we lump and we split.   
As a result if you map this, you end up with a tree.  You start with  
a big lump of laundry but in the end, by making binary decisions, we  
are creating a tree.  And the trees that we create (these guides)  
have been the pinnacle for how the world is ordered.  And how we  
organize our ideas is constrained by the same ideas that we had by  
sorting our laundry. That's a constraint that we no longer need.

Now we're digitizing everything and that changes everything.  So it's  
useful to think about three orders of order:

1. You organize the physical things themselves.  You put them on  
shelves, put them in folders.  And you come up with some order of  
doing things.  The Dewey decimal system is, for example, one very  
good way to organize books.

2. You separate the metadata about the things and you arrange it  
separately, which has tremendous advantages.  By making a file card  
you greatly reduce the information so it fits on a 3x5 card.  Because  
the cards are so small (which is a physical limitation) you can  
organize them in maybe 3 different ways (for example: author,  
subject, topic).  This is much more convenient for finding things.

3. Everything is digital and online.  The content and the information  
about that content.  And that changes the basic principles that we've  
had for organizing physical things for thousands and thousands of  
years.  The assumption has been in the physical world that a leaf can  
only go on one branch.  Online, if you have a digital store, you are  
going to put a camera into as many categories as possible so that  
people will find it.  Amazon is a master of this.  You can go to an  
Amazon page and just count the different ways that they've organized it.

Physically you want a nice neat arrangement because otherwise you  
have entropy going on, wasted effort, you don't know where to find  
things.  Online you want as much messiness as possible.  That's  
because you can organize on top of the mess.  You’re organizing the  
metadata.  You don't have to actually touch the stuff itself.  So if  
you have a web post that's got so many links that you can't even  
follow them.  That's a huge success.  It's enriched by all of this  

In the real world we're really used to thinking about the content and  
all the information about it.  When it's online that difference  
disappears.  When everything is online you can say, “I know the first  
line of a book, but I don't know who wrote it”.  There is no  
difference between data and metadata anymore when everything is  
online.  The only difference is that metadata is the thing you know  
and data is the thing that you don't know, but you're trying to find  
out.  This is important because we use metadata as a lever to pry up  
what we don't know based upon what we do.  And if everything is now a  
lever then we are way more smarter than we were before everything  
went online.  We have so many more ways of finding what we don't know  
based upon the little that we do.

It used to be that the people who owned the stuff also owned the  
organization of it.  Now that's not true anymore.  The people who own  
the stuff don't own the organization.  We own the organization.   
Which means that now we are making up ways that we can sort through  
all this stuff and find it.

So another way that we are trying to pull ourselves together once we  
lose the classification and organization, that is given to us by  
single individuals in authority, is by tagging (for example,  
del.icio.us).  But because we are an insanely social species we'll  
also most likely notice that some of the people are finding really  
interesting stuff.  So tags are intensely practical.  They are being  
taken up by corporations to share the stuff that people are finding.   
But there is something more going on, as well.

There is a lot of joy in tagging because, in part, it is a way of  
sticking it to the man.  It's a way of saying, “We will classify.  We  
are in charge of what's interesting”.  So, doesn't this create chaos?

Well, it turns out when you have enough tags (for example, Flickr)  
there is so much data there, just in the tag set itself, that they  
are able to cluster photos without knowing anything about the photos  
except the tags they are using.  And it's remarkably precise.  So  
when you have enough tags (despite what common sense would say) you  
don't necessarily end up with chaos.  You may end up with actually  
more meaning and quite precise meaning.

In the old way of classifying there was value in winnowing.  In the  
digital world you want to include everything because we have  
alternative ways of sorting through it.  The thing to you that looks  
like trash, in five years there's going to be a graduate student who  
will be studying it.  So include everything.  And instead of  
structuring everything ahead of time into neat categories postpone  
that moment until the user needs it.  Because we'll sort through it  
based on our interest at the moment.  Categorization always reflects  
interests.  Our interests change.  We can now have that dynamically  

Give us the tools and we will sort through things the way we want.   
The more, the better.  This is radically different than the job that  
our knowledge workers and editors have had for thousands of years.   
The people who create the almanac, they want to get as much as will  
fit in within a thousand pages.  But their value is within keeping  
stuff out.

3 types of implications for all of this:

1. We are in a process of making the world more complex after having  
to keep it simple in order to organize it.  We don't have to keep it  
simple anymore.  And it's an enormous relief not to have to keep it  
simple anymore.  Complexity makes us smarter.

2. The world's greatest expert doesn't matter because he refuses to  
engage in a public negotiation of knowledge (for example,  
Wikipedia).  Which is what happens when the authority vanishes and we  
are only left with each other and we engage with one another.  This  
is how we get to the best truth we can manage.  This is through the  
public negotiation of knowledge.

3. Something really important is going on.  Human beings seem to  
advance by externalizing functions of consciousness.  What we're  
doing now maybe is externalizing meaning.  (In a Heidegger sense) The  
connection of things enriches them and lets them have the context in  
which they are what they are. They are there for the next generations  
to make sense of to see if there are connections between two things  
that are tagged the same way.

The semantic web is adding meaning to this collection of chaotic  
pieces that we have.  Every link we make adds semantics, adds meaning  
to things in piles that we are able to mine and make sense of.  And  
the amazing thing is, it's all ours.  This is not done by someone  
else no matter how wise or smart they are.  They can do this too.   
They can add into this and it becomes ours.  It becomes our way of  
understanding the world.  We've never had that ever before and now we  


Colin Rhinesmith
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