Wednesday, May 23, 2007
David Weinberger's Everything Is Miscellaneous (Amazon | blog) accounts for 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 circulation.
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 paper--just differently.
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 next spring.Posted by Derek Mueller at May 23, 2007 7:00 PM to Reading Notes