Finding our way through the miscellany: Book review of Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger
I wrote this book review for one of my grad school classes and was amazed at how timely the title nearly ten years after publication.
Back in early 2008, I wrote a book review of the newly published Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger. At the time, the first version of a Kindle ebook had just been released. Facebook and Twitter were still relatively new tools that hadn’t yet hit the mainstream. Few people I knew even owned smart phones. Although that was less than ten years ago, it is amazing to see how much the way we create and consume information has evolved. Weinberger’s book has proven to be impressively prescient, yet overlooks many of the implications for how we come to understand and seek out knowledge.
Weinberger’s central thesis is that any way of organizing information in the material world is inherently limited by the physical. However, no such three-dimensional limitation exists in the digital world or what Weinberger calls the “third order” of the organization of knowledge. Weinberger posits
As we invent new principles of organization that make sense in a world of knowledge freed from physical constraints, information doesn’t just want to be free. It wants to be miscellaneous. (p.7).
Rather than attempt to win the losing battle of categorizing the explosion of digital information, Weinberger argues we embrace the miscellany and let users organize and reorganize information to make their own meanings.
A philosopher by training, Weinberger explores the ways we have come to understand knowledge, from Aristotle to Amazon. The librarian in me appreciated the historical context in which Weinberger traces how different classification systems came about and the possibilities and limitations of each. The inherent problem in such classifications is not the just the bias that comes with any sort of classification (and a glimpse at the original Dewey Decimal system headings can quickly reveal other problematic nomenclature), but also the fact that these systems assume that knowledge must have a specific form. Instead, Weinberger proposes thinking of knowledge as a different kind of faceted information. He uses the analogy of knowledge as “smart leaves” that can hang from multiple trees simultaneously and be arranged and re-arranged without the bounds of the physical world (p.83).
Yet while imperfect, Mann (2010) explained how categorical reference systems allow the user to narrow the scope of an overwhelming amount of information and judge the validity of sources in ways that a Google search cannot – or at least not yet. As Wilson (2000) noted, an important part of information searching behavior is also assessing the legitimacy of information. Despite the limitations of formal categorizations, they still offer a reliable, consistent framework for finding and evaluating information.
Weinberger is particularly perceptive when it comes to his assessment of the social construction of meaning. He points out the potential of tagging and other user-generated forms of categorizing knowledge using their own terms, effectively, “…breaking things out of their old organizational structures, and enabling individuals to sort and order them all on the fly” (p.96). In the time since the book was published, tagging has indeed continued and evolved into the use of hashtags to organize and share information on Twitter and other social networks. This has flipped the usual power structure, facilitating user-driven dialogue, be it around political movements or topical news.
Additionally, Weinberger correctly foresees businesses of all types moving towards “meta business” or as it is commonly phrased today, “social business.” He recognizes the power of user-generated information (reviews, ratings, recommendations, etc.) as a trusted source of information for other potential customers. What Weinberger does not address is how the interaction between businesses and customers, as well as users to each other impacts their information gathering behavior. As Flanagin, Hocevar, & Samahito (2014) later report, “People also tend to find information contributed by others to be more credible and are more likely to indicate that they will act on this information” (p.10).
Yet Weinberger’s thinking reflects a deep understanding of the value of social data. He argues that the important information is not what we make explicit in our online profile, but the implicit information to be gleaned across all of our online interactions. He rightly warns about the potential for data mining by marketers, and the ethical and privacy implications that these present. We see this happening today with efforts by Facebook, Google, and others to connect various online services together for user convenience, but also to deliver more personalized marketing.
I appreciated that Weinberger discusses the power structures inherent in any kind of knowledge organization in both the physical and digital realms. He points out that even on Wikipedia, a community generated source of information, a very small percentage of users create the majority of the content. Still, I wish Weinberger had gone further and took a closer look at the users taking part in social tagging and content creation. Even now with many more people engaging on social media platforms, there is still a large segment of the population without regular internet access. In my initial review, I noted the need to continually question if information is indeed being democratized (Keane, 2008). That continues to be the concern I hold today. Even as more tools for information creation and organization are handed to users, it is important to look at who is not being included.
For Weinberger, the solution to information miscellany is more information. However, is more information always a good thing? When we can fine tune information to our individual interests and preferences, do we lose opportunities for “accidental information encountering” that Erdelez (1999) described? Or does it increase what Seely Brown & Duguid (2000) referred to as “tunnel vision”, where we focus so much on what we are seeking that we overlook the context in which we are seeking it? When we can filter out alternate points of view, do we risk reducing our tolerance and understanding of what is different? These are important questions that Weinberger’s insights continue to raise, and his book remains relevant in 2016 as we as we negotiate and make sense of the miscellany.
Brown, J., & Duguid, P. (2000). The social life of information – Introduction: Tunneling ahead. First Monday, 5(4). doi:10.5210/fm.v5i4.737
Erdelez, S. (1999). Information encountering: It’s more than just bumping into information. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science 25(3). Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/bult.118
Flanagin, A. J., Hocevar, K., & Samahito, S. (2014). Connecting with the user-generated web: How group identification impacts online information sharing and evaluation. Information, Communication & Society, 17(6), 683-694. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2013.808361
Keane, M. (2008). Everything is miscellaneous by David Weinberger. [Review of the book Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder by D. Weinberger.] The Quarterly Conversation, Winter 2008(10). Retrieved from http://quarterlyconversation.com/everything-is-miscellaneous-by-david-weinberger-review
Mann, T. (2010). Reference and Informational Genres. In Encyclopedia of library and information sciences (pp. 4470-4480). Retrieved from http://www.crcnetbase.com.libaccess.sjlibrary.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1081/E-ELIS3-120043707
Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. New York: Times Books.
West, L. (Photographer). (2013). Drawer of Junk. [Photograph], Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/9312918585
Wilson, T. D. (2000). Human information behavior. Informing Science, 3(2). Retrieved from http://www.inform.nu/Articles/Vol3/v3n2p49-56.pdf