Book of the Week: David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous (2)

We continue our publication of excperts of David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous.

In the first excerpt, David explained how humanity dealt with four principles of knowledge organization up to the digital era. Here, he describes the big changes that are in the offing.


Three new strategic principles are emerging, severing the ties between the way we organize physical objects and ideas.


A friend of mine who worked at the Harvard Business Review tells amusing stories about the “slush pile,” the unsolicited manuscripts that arrive every day. Harvard Business Review is a sober journal of research and ideas, yet people submit poetry, short stories, and arty photographs. My friend’s job was to go through the slush pile to see what, if anything, was worth passing along for serious consideration. She was a gatekeeper, a filterer, a job that makes sense when the economics and physics of paper force us to make decisions about what knowledge we will publish and thus preserve.

We rely on experts such my friend to spare us from having to wade through the slush pile on our own.

But, when anyone can publish at the press of a button, the social role of gatekeepers changes. For example, from the outside, the “blogosphere” looks like a self-indulgent pool of slush that wouldn’t get past the usual publishing filters. While the economics of publishing ensure that most blogs indeed wouldn’t be let through the gates, the aggregate value of all the blogs in the “long tail” (to use the term Chris Anderson made popular in his book of that name) – each perhaps of interest only to a few people – is incalculable. This is an inversion
of the old model. In a world of parsimonious access to paper, filters increase the value of what’s available by excluding the slush.

But in the third order, where there’s an abundance of access to an abundance of resources, filtering on the way in _decreases_ the value of that abundance by ruling out items that might be of great value to a few people. Filtering on the way out, on the other hand, increases the value of the abundance by locating what’s of value to a particular person at a particular moment. For example, a young physics professor at McGill University, Bob Rutledge, started an electronic bulletin board that posts new findings for any research as soon as it can be summarized. Rutledge doesn’t apply criteria to decide for the reader whether the research is important enough to be included (though only active, professional astronomers can register to post to the site). It’s up to each reader to be the filterer. Similarly, the Public Library of
Science’s biology journal, a peer-reviewed but free online resource, started PLoS One in November 2006. “The idea is to take the editorializing out of the peer review process,” says Hemai Parthasarathy, the managing editor. So long as a paper is “sound,” it will be published. If it’s good science, _someone_ may find it useful. So long as the user has good tools for finding what she needs – and this is a task many are working on – filtering on the way out vastly
increases our shared potential for knowledge.


In the real world, a leaf can only hang from one branch. In the first order of organization,
there’s no way around that limitation. In the second order, most cataloging systems have provisions for listing books under more than one heading, but the physicality of the second order still usually demands that one branch be picked as the primary one and there is a limit on the number of secondary listings.

In the third order, however, it’s to our advantage to hang information from as many branches as possible. If you get a new Casio digital camera to sell in your online store, you’ll want to list it under as many categories as you can think of, including cameras, travel gear, Casio
products, graduation gifts, new items, sale items, and perhaps even sports equipment. Hanging a leaf on multiple branches makes it more findable by customers. Unlike in the second order, this doesn’t make your e-store disorganized or messy. It makes it more usable‚ and more


In a store, it’s easy to tell the labels from the goods they label, and in a library the
books and their metadata are kept in separate rooms. But it’s not so clear online. If you can’t remember the name of one of Shakespeare’s plays, go to the search box at Google Book, type “Shakespeare tragedy,” and you’ll see a list of all of them. Click on, say, _King Lear_ and you
can read the full text, including the famous line, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” Now suppose you want to know where the quotation “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth” comes from. Type the phrase into the search box and Google will list _King Lear_. Simple, but in the first case you used Shakespeare’s name as metadata to find the contents of a book and in the second you used some of the contents of the book as metadata to find the author and title. In the miscellaneous order, the only distinction between metadata and data is that metadata is what you already know and data is what you’re trying
to find out.

In the first two orders of order, we’ve had to think carefully about which metadata we’ll capture because the physical world limits the amount of metadata we can make available: A book’s catalog card has to hold far less information than does the book itself. In the third order, not only can every word in a book count as metadata, so can any of the sources that link to the book. if we want to help our customers or users find information, we’ll try to make as much of usable as metadata as we can.

This not only makes sites easier to use, it vastly increases the leverage of knowledge. Think of what we can do with just the few words that fit on a second-order card or label. Now that everything in the connected world can serve as metadata, knowledge is empowered beyond
fathoming. We not only can find what we need based on whatever slight traces we have in our hand, we can see connections that would have escaped notice in the first two orders. The power of the miscellaneous comes directly from the fact that in the third order, everything is
connected and therefore everything is metadata.


Build a tree and you surface information that might otherwise be hidden, just as Lamarck exposed information left hidden in Linnaeus’ miscellaneous category of worms. But, a big pile of
miscellaneous information contains relationships beyond reckoning. No one person or group is going to be able to organize it in all the useful ways, hanging all the leaves on all the branches where they might be hung. For example, iTunes shows users a branch that pulls together
albums by a particular artist, but the millions of playlists that users have made there find relationships that the organizers of iTunes could not possibly have foreseen, from techno versions of children’s songs to tracks played at someone’s third wedding. iTunes simply cannot
predict what people are going to be interested in, what a song is going to mean to them, and what connections they’re going to see. Some of the combinations will be of passing value only to one person, but other people may find their world changed by how a stranger has pulled
together a set of songs to express a mood, an outlook, or an idea.

That’s why it’s so powerful to let users mix it up for themselves. Go into a real world clothing store and try pulling everything in your size off the racks and into a shopping cart so ou can go through it in an orderly fashion. After all, that’s the rational way to proceed.

Everything that’s not your size is just noise, a distraction. Yet, within ninety seconds you’ll be thrown out of the store and firmly asked not to return. On line, on the other hand, we just naturally expect to organize digital information our way, through tags, bookmarks, playlists, and weblogs. And then we add to the information a site provides us by disagreeing with it in our own reviews. Users are now in charge of the organization of the information they browse. Of course, the owners of that information may still want to offer a prebuilt categorization, but that is no longer the only – or best – oneavailable. Put simply, the owners of information no longer own the organization of that information.

Control has already changed hands. The new rules of the information jungle are in effect, transforming the landscape in which we work, buy, learn, vote and play.

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