David Weinberger’s latest thoughts on our digital world

  Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, Weinberger, David

In Everything is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger turns his attention to how unexamined assumptions about stuff in the physical world have constrained our attempts to organize information and the opportunities implicit in leaving those constraints behind in a digital world. An excellent storyteller, Weinberger takes us through tales of the Dewey Decimal system, Linnaeus’s taxonomic efforts, the history of UPC bar codes and why neither card catalogs or ISBN numbers shed as much light on Hamlet as we might think. He contrasts these with digital approaches such as Amazon’s multiple and multiplex paths to books you might want to buy, and Flickr’s and Technorati’s choices to create and exploit folksonomies in place of controlled taxonomies. While David occasionally veers a bit too close to his roots as a philosopher, he has assembled a rich and thought-provoking array of materials that warrant your attention. In keeping with his commitment to conversation, David has also created a rich website to ensure that there is a digital counterpart to accompany the physical container.

Weinberger starts by examining what he terms “orders of order.” Rooted in the physical, his first order of order emerges when we make choices about where to put a book on the shelves or how to stack dishes in the kitchen. Physical limits dominate; putting a book on one shelf means that we can’t place it on another, stacking the dishes limits their usefulness if we need to wash them or eat off them.

A library card catalog provides Weinberger’s archetypal example of the second order of order. By abstracting information from the physical object, and introducing a layer of indirection, you overcome some of the limits imposed by the physical object. For example, you can have more than one card catalog entry and file them in multiple places.

Weinberger posits a third order of order that arises in the digital world when the assets we wish to organize and their potential catalogs are both digital. Amazon’s multiple ways to help you find books that they will happily sell you provide his most straightforward examples. There’s no question that Amazon’s user reviews, lists, and recommendations of books to consider have all increased my book buying and reading habits well beyond the risks of browsing the physical shelves of my local bookstore.

On the other hand, I am not entirely convinced that this constitutes something worthy of labeling a new “order of order.” At some level, this revisits Nicholas Negroponte‘s argument of atoms vs bits. Relative to atoms, bits are cheap to manufacture, so we need to learn to start taking advantage of that when we design systems and services.

When I first started designing database systems (some thirty years ago), you might have to plan for 15-20% extra space for the database overhead. For every hundred characters of “real” data that you needed to manage, you’d need an extra 15-20 for indexes and catalogs. As disk space got cheaper and database designers more clever, that ratio flipped. Today, we call it metadata instead of overhead. It’s not unusual for metadata to take up 10 to 100 times the space of the “real” data in many systems. Sometimes this can seem counterintuitive, but I’m not sure that what Weinberger gains by labeling it a distinct order of order is worth the cost.

If you’ve never thought about the interplay between atoms and bits, Weinberger’s book offers useful and interesting new perspectives. If you’ve been immersed in that interplay, you’re likely to become frustrated that he doesn’t push on farther than he does.  On the gripping hand, every author has to make decisions about what ends up in the physical package and what gets left out.

Everything is Miscellaneous frames important questions, provides a wealth of raw materials, and will likely launch a wealth of productive discussions about new design tradeoffs. Weinberger’s focus is on digital services targeted at consumer audiences, which makes Everything is Miscellaneous more accessible to a general audience. The tradeoff is that Weinberger doesn’t have the opportunity to probe more deeply into the implications of his insights for meeting organizational needs. Perhaps he will in his next efforts.