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TECH TALK: Good Books: Everything is Miscellaneous (Part 2)

June 20th, 2007 · No Comments

Cory Doctorow wrote in a review of the book:

David Weinberger’s “Everything is Miscellaneous” is the kind of book that binds together innumerable miscellaneous threads and makes something new, coherent, and incontrovertible out of them. Weinberger’s thesis is this: historically, we’ve divided the world into categories, topics, and hierarchies because physical objects need to be in one place or another, they can’t be in all the places they might belong. Computers and the Internet turn this on its head: because a computer can “put things” in as many categories as they need to be in, because individuals can classify knowledge, tasks, and objects idiosyncratically, the hierarchy is revealed for what it always was, a convenient expedient masquerading as the True Shape of the Universe.

It’s a powerful idea: from org charts to science, from music to retail theory, from government to education, every field of human endeavor is tinged with hierarchy, and every hierarchy is under assault from the Internet. One impact of this change is that it reveals the biases lurking underneath the editorial carvery of our systems. From the Dewey Decimal system’s laughable clunkers (mentalist bunkum gets its own category, but Islam has to share a decimal with a couple competing “Eastern” faiths) to the Britannica’s paring away at “old” biographies to make way for the new, Weinberger makes a compelling case for a new kind of knowledge that more faithfully represents the messy, glorious hairball of the real world.

Weinberger’s conversational style, excellent examples, and extensive legwork (the places he visits and people he interviews can best be described as wonderfully miscellaneous) give this the hallmarks of an instant classic. And unlike many business/tech books, whose simple thesis could be stated in a single New Yorker article, but which are nevertheless expanded to book-length for commercial reasons, every chapter in Everything is Miscellaneous brings new insight to the subject. This is a hell of a book.

Here is an excerpt from the book’s prologue:

The alternative universe exists. Every day, more of our life is lived there. Its called the digital world.

Instead of atoms that take up room, its made of bits.

Instead of making us walk long aisles, in the digital world everything is only a few clicks away.

Instead of having to be the same way for all people, it can instantly rearrange itself for each person and each persons current task.

Instead of being limited by space and operational simplicity in the number of items it can stock, the digital world can include every item and variation the buyers at Staples could possibly want.

Instead of items being placed in one area of the store, or occasionally in two, they can be classified in every different category in which users might conceivably expect to find them.

Instead of living in the neat, ordered shelves we find in the Prototype Labs, items can be jumbled digitally and sorted out only when and how a user wants to look for them.

Those differences are significant. But theyre just the starting point. For something much larger is at stake than how we lay out our stores. The physical limitations that silently guide the organization of an office supply store also guide how we organize our businesses, our government, our schools. They have guidedand limitedhow we organize knowledge itself. From management structures to encyclopedias, to the courses of study we put our children through, to the way we decide whats worth believing, we have organized our ideas with principles designed for use in a world limited by the laws of physics.

Suppose that now, for the first time in history, we are able to arrange our concepts without the silent limitations of the physical. How might our ideas, organizations, and knowledge itself change?

As we invent new principles of organization that make sense in a world of knowledge freed from physical constraints, information doesnt just want to be free. It wants to be miscellaneous.

Tomorrow: The Ghost Map


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