Book of the Week: David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous (1)

David Weinberger, co-author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” (2000) and the author of “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” in 2002, has received many positive reviews for his latest “Everything is Miscellaneous‘.

It’s a marvelous book for understanding the evolution of knowledge, both how we know things and how we organize our knowledge.

We publish it as book of the week, with 2 excerpts. Today, the evolution of knowledge organization so far, of which Weinberger describes the four characteristics. In two days, how the digital era is changing this.


Introduction to the excerpt by David Weinberger:

“From Chapter 5, pp. 100-106. The first four chapters have tried to convince the reader that how we order and classify our world has a history, is always the result of our culture and interests, confers power on those who get to do the classifying, and is complex and messy.
I’ve also introduced the idea that there are three “orders of order”:

(1) Organizing the things themselves (books, photos…not Dinge an sich!),

(2) physically separating the metadata and organizing them (e.g., catalog cards), and

(3) digitizing both the content and the metadata.

The third order requires us to invent new principles of organization.


College students’ silverware drawers, Delicious, Flickr, the BBC and Wikipedia are miscellaneous in different ways, except for one thing: How their content is actually arranged does not determine how that content can and will be arranged by their users. In some cases –
Wikipedia, for example – no one even knows exactly where the raw contents are. These examples are miscellaneous _because_ users don’t need to know the inner organization, _because_ that inner order doesn’t result in a preferred order of use, and _because_ users have wide flexibility to order the pieces as they want, even and especially in unanticipated ways. This means that the miscellaneous enables _all_ of the information contained in the set to be discovered over time.

But this also means the miscellaneous doesn’t much resemble our traditional view of knowledge. Knowledge, we’ve thought, has four characteristics, two of them modeled on properties of reality and two on properties of political regimes.

As we’ve seen, the first characteristic of traditional knowledge is that just as there is one reality, there is one knowledge, the same for all. If two people have contradictory ideas about something factual, we think they can’t both be right. This is because we’ve assumed
knowledge is an accurate representation of reality, and the real world cannot be self-contradictory. We treat ideas that dispute this view of knowledge with disdain. We label them “relativism” and imagine them to be the devil’s work, we sneer at them as “postmodern” and assume that it’s just a bunch of French pseudo-intellectual gibberish, or we say “whatever” as a license to stop thinking.

Second, we’ve assumed that just as reality is not ambiguous, neither is knowledge. If something isn’t clear to us, then we haven’t understood it. We may not be 100% certain whether the Nile or the Amazon is the longest river, we but we’re confident one is. Conversely, if there’s no possibility of certainty – “Which tastes better, beets or radishes?” – we say it isn’t a matter of knowledge at all.

Third, because knowledge is as big as reality, no one person can comprehend it. So we need people who will act as filters, based on education, experience and clear thinking. We call them experts and we give them clipboards. They keep bad information away from us and provide
us with the very best information.

Fourth, experts achieve their position by working their way up through social institutions. The people in these institutions are doing their best to be honest and helpful, but, until humans achieve divinity, our organizations will inevitably be subject to corrupting influences. Which
groups get funded can determine what a society believes, and funding is often granted by people who know less than the experts: The fate of a DNA research center may rest with Congresspeople who couldn’t tell a ribosome from a trombone.

The way we’ve organized knowledge has been largely determined by these four properties of knowledge. We’ve tried try to settle on a single, comprehensive framework for knowledge, with categories so clear and comprehensive that experts can put each thing in its proper place.
Institutions grew to maintain the knowledge framework. Their ability to certify experts and to vouch for knowledge made them powerful and sometimes rich. So, when the miscellaneous shakes our certainty in the nature of knowledge, more than the future of the card catalog is at stake. Because a third order miscellany is digital, not physical, we no longer have to agree on a single framework. Things have their _places_, not a single place. We get to create our own categories, ones that suit our way of thinking. Experts can be helpful, but in the age of the miscellaneous they and their institutions are no longer in charge of our ideas.”

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