David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous (Amazon
the overhaul of classificatory efforts brought about through various
digital platforms–del.icio.us, Wikipedia, Flickr, and so on–as each affords
nearly limitless reorganization. This third order, the digital, amplifies miscellany,
and with it characteristics of mayhem, disorderliness, and pandemonium
that distinguishes the digital from contending orders. Weinberger tabs this
condition the "new order of order," and he ends the book’s prologue with a
gesture that brings information to life, infuses it with desire: "[information]
wants to be miscellaneous" (7).
Much of what Weinberger does depends on his own taxonomy–an unshakeable bedrock of three
orders, each distinct from the other. The first order is material
(silverware drawers, shelved books); the second order is paper-bound (card
catalogues, etc.). Each earlier order has its problems, Weinberger argues,
and only a few of those problems are shared with the third order, the digital.
His examples are persuasive, from the arbitrariness (and implicit cultural
rootedness) of alphabetization to dogmatic assertions about the universe (or all
of the fauna and flora in it) to
the design rational of the periodic table of elements–with each anecdote,
Weinberger shows the constraints of monolithic categorization schemes. In
the digital order, the singular scheme is loosened; "everything has its place"
shifts plural, as "everything has its places" (45).
To illuminate this sea change, Weinberger goes at the strained hierarchies of
the Dewey Decimal System and contrasts it with the "planned serendipity" (59) in
a system like Amazon’s, where multiuser metadata and intelligent agents merge
into a robust system for circulating interests, influence, and recommendations.
He also writes about lists, about laundry, Linnaeus, and the inadequacy of trees
(70) (See today’s Wired:
excerpt from EIM and
this). On paper, a classification scheme like Linnaeus’s gets bogged down.
But the digital order supports layers of tags as well as "faceted classification" (76); now coated in
metadata, the sorted object is readily traced along multiple arrays.
The book has much to offer; there’s more here than I’m able to recapture right
now. On the whole, Everything Is Miscellaneous accomplishes
something we can use very much: it works through the ways classification
schemes, if ever they were presumed to be rigid and reductive, are giving way to
digital circulation and with it a certain buoyant impermanence better matched
with the nature of epistemology, especially when we come at it with certain
things in mind: rhetoric, production, circulation, and performance. That said,
the entire project is circumscribed by its promising counterstatement: It’s A
Damn Good Thing Everything Isn’t Miscellaneous (Weinberger says something
similar near the end). I mean, where Weinberger is upbeat about the digital
order, his focal premise forces more thoughtful reconsiderations of just how
much shared ordering is necessary and practical. I would call this a
symptom of all-isms or everything-ness, where the title’s
"everything" is bait rather than a blanket assertion.
EIM bears out a few confusing moments, as Weinberger
himself has acknowledged.
For instance, where he discusses meaning (169), I thought his approach risked
moving too far in the direction of interpretation and away from production
(i.e., knowledge wrought by reading, not writing, though I’m treating
this split too simply). I also wondered how it might work to compound the
order/mess pairing in chapter nine with something like stagnation and
circulation (176); the activity Weinberger stresses with tagging is as much, to
my mind, about scraping raw again that which has settled, grown
inertial–commonplaces, givens, God terms, doxa. Again, I’m back to
I also like the section where Weinberger discusses echo chambers, "Shard
Knowledge." But there’s a point at which he distinguishes conversation from
writing: "The noise this [conversation] makes is very different from the scratch
of a philosopher’s ink on paper. Paper drives thoughts into our heads" (203).
Sure, there’s something doctrinaire and trusted in paper’s longevity, but I worry that anyone would accept as intrinsically
more grounded (i.e., sensible, thought-out, careful) anything simply because it
appeared on paper. Plus, conversation and dialogue don’t belong to the
third order digital apparatus any more than the second order of
As I said three paragraphs ago when I sensed that I was nearing the end of
this entry, there’s much I’m glossing. I’ll come back to some of these
ideas later on, I suspect; they’re good enough to hold with a favorable
lastingness (esp. "joints of nature" (32), metadata defn (104), faceted
classification (78), and family resemblances (185). I’ll also formally,
officially add miscellanize to the
belt of verbs one day soon. And, as if
that’s not enough of an indication of praise, I’m also going to continue to
think through how I might use Everything for the WRT205 course I teach