Book review: Everything is Miscellaneous

Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder.
David Weinberger. Times Books, 2007

As he demonstrated in The Cluetrain Manifesto and Small Pieces Loosely Joined, Weinberger is as much entertainer as writer. Everything is Miscellaneous is an appealing account of the deep human need to keep track of all the stuff we produce and keep stashing away.

Until very recently humans kept track of all their stuff by clustering them into categories and lining them up on shelves. Categories could be as simple as alphabetical order or as arcane as the Dewey Decimal System. For the most part, categories have served us well, even though any classification scheme has its limitations.

With the advent of the digital age, the schemes we have been using simply break down. Categories and systems designed to order concrete things in three dimensional space don’t help us keep track of all the digital content that is spread all over the internet. Every day we look for online documents, photos, sound clips, lists, reports, web sites, blogs, videos, and databases—and that pile of stuff grows daily, thanks to new user-generated content, digitized legacy content, and the simple human desire to be seen and heard amidst the noise and clutter of life.

The premise of Everything is Miscellaneous is that yes, we can keep track of our ever growing pile of stuff, both digital and physical. And not only that, the bigger the pile, the more valuable it potentially becomes. Why? Because we are creating links to it, and others link to our links. We are putting tags on it. We share our tags with everybody else. People tag photos on Flickr.com; we tag blogs and web pages with Delicious.com; we shop for stuff at Amazon.com, where we have many ways to search (and we even get suggestions for what we might want even though we may not know it yet), based on what others have sought. It’s all tags and links.

So, for the first time in human history, the tree of knowledge doesn’t work. We now have a web of knowledge. Unlike a leaf that can go in only one place on its branch, a digital object can go on as many branches as we want it, thanks to links and tags. Anything can be found by any number of people, coming from any number of directions. Objects are not represented by an index card in a catalog; they are represented by tags put there by users, and made available to us by indexes generated on the fly by computer power.

Lest you think this book is a dry read: it ain’t. Yes, Weinberger trots us through classification systems of Aristotle and Linnaeus and Francis Bacon and Melvil Dewey (in fact, he dedicates the book to librarians). But he’s so good at providing colorful context and weaving in stories and anecdotes, I was tempted to dispense with my review and instead just serve up a series of his very quotable quotes. I haven’t read a page-turner like this since the DaVinci Code.

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2 Responses to Book review: Everything is Miscellaneous

  1. Hi,

    “So, for the first time in human history, the tree of knowledge doesn’t work. We now have a web of knowledge. Unlike a leaf that can go in only one place on its branch, a digital object can go on as many branches as we want it, thanks to links and tags..”

    Buckminster Fuller talked of this too As did Telhard de Chardin in the nooesphere.
    For that matter I can think of many who talked of this capacity to create a group thinking process….it’s so exciting really.

    I’ll look up your book. I wish you’s do the quotes too…
    sarah

  2. […] II What reporters really want Come out of your academic cave A teacher-researcher network Book review: Everything is Miscellaneous Research to practice: bridging the gap How Computer Games Help Children Learn Public […]

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