Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Book Review: Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, by David Weinberger

This book is a lot of fun, especially if you're a publishing/XML/writing geek like I am. But unless you're really into this stuff, I recommend watching the hour-long talk he delivered at Google, especially because he's such an entertaining speaker. The talk covers the same major points, so much so that after watching it I felt very deja-vued reading the book. So choose one or the other – but not both. (Also, this being a book about the internet, you can also read his blog).

His basic idea is this: Up until recently, the way we organize information was dictated by physical reality. For example, libraries are composed of a physical arrangement of books on a shelf. A book can be in one and only one spot, and the collection can be navigated only one way dictated by the strict tree structure of the Dewey decimal system. To find a book, you have to know the title, author, or, if you have all day, you can guess its general subject area.

But when you go to Amazon.com, the books aren't on a physical shelf anymore, they aren't limited to being identified by a single organizational scheme. You can browse or search them by author, by title, or by lists put together by other customers. If you know the beginning of a book but can't for the life of you recall the title, you can reverse the usual scheme and use the text of the book itself to find out which book it is.

Weinberger takes this idea and runs - no, sprints - with it. Eventually he concludes that not only is the way we access information changing, but the very way we've conceived of it since Aristotle - that there is "one right way of organizing the world."

Well, maybe. I don't know too many people who think in strictly black-and-white-everything-has-one-spot-in-the-org-chart way - for instance, most people can simultaneously categorize a car "transportation," "status symbol," and "death trap" without their head exploding from cognitive dissonance. I'm certainly over-simplifying his arguments, but still, Weinberger is at his best when he avoids dramatic epistemology in favor of examples of practical applications, such as the faceted navigation of Newegg.com.

Still, his love for everything Web 2.0 – especially tagging – blinds him to both the limits of the technology and the sheer technical difficulties involved in using the technology for things other than uploading photos and selling stuff online.

For information to be accessible in a way that has enough meaning - for example, the names of other authors in the text of a review of, say, Everything is Illuminated, there has to be a way to identify that those are the names of authors. Unless we're content with each website as an island, there has to be a standard way of tagging information so different sites can understand each other. And that requires agreement about a standard tagging language, which can produce the very same categorizing-as-straitjacketing problem that Weinberger hates so much. He does talk about these problems - in fact, that's one of his big arguments in favor of free-form tagging - but he dismisses them a little to eagerly.

I spent more of the post criticizing the book than I meant, which probably obscures my overriding opinion of it – that's it's great. It's easy to quibble over details because Weinberger pulls together so many new ideas so enthusiastically. His book is a great gateway into thinking about how vast computing, storage, and network resources allow us to organize and access information in new ways that are not immediately intuitive. And it's a really fun read. Just read it quickly, because it will be out of date in a year.

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

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