Everything is Miscellaneous

Everything Is Miscellaneous…is the title of David Weinberger’s new book. It’s a must-read, go get it now. David is a friend, someone I have immense respect for, but don’t let my bias come in the way. Go buy the book and read it for yourself.

What is it about? I won’t make the mistake of classifying it — otherwise I might as well not have read the book….. So think of these as tag-descriptors:

  • It’s a paean to the power of the digital world
  • It’s a lesson in the challenges of information discovery and retrieval
  • It’s a history of tabulation and classification, sequinned with great anecdotes
  • It’s a sequel to Small Pieces Loosely Joined; or maybe the Cluetrain Manifesto; or maybe The Social Life of Information
  • It’s a series of blog posts on a common set of themes
  • It’s a welcome addition to my library
  • It’s what you make it

And no, it’s not a solution to the Mid-East crisis or Global Warming. It’s a book. It’s a very good book. And it is all about information, which is one reason why I love it.

David takes us on a fascinating journey through the history, geography and science of classifying information, interspersed with his wry sense of humour (e.g. defending the state of the space under the average bed: “There isn’t a part of our homes that is truly unordered, except perhaps under our beds, and for many of even that is the site of the spontaneous ordering of dust into bunnies.” Or the way he describes Mendeleev as “unburdened by theory”.).

While doing this, he keeps drawing both parallels as well as differences between the two prior physical orders of collection and classification and the new, emerging digital order. Anecdotes are plentiful, covering plants, species, elements, books and even subjects themselves.

Anyone who is serious about the digital world would do well to read the book; anyone interested in information should read the book; anyone who is interesting in taxonomy and ontology must study the book.

As his arguments come to a crescendo, David espouses four new strategic principles, each of which deserves a set of posts in itself:

  • Filter on the way out
  • Put each leaf on as many branches as possible
  • Everything is metadata and everything can be a label
  • Give up control

I found much to fascinate me, and I am currently going through my third “very slow” read. There are tidbits for everyone: the description of the arguments between Panizzi and Carlyle should stir memories for everyone who’s ever been involved in a “we will define a data structure for everything” project; the description of Schachter’s insights compress a great deal of learning into a very small space; the paragraphs devoted to the Linnean Society HQ have a H.W. Fowler-like sense of humour: “It makes sense to bury first- and second-order organisations such as [Linnaean classification] and the Bettmann Archive. Specimens made of atoms are fragile and need protection.”

It’s a good place to go to if you want to understand more about items as diverse, yet related, as tagging, collaborative filtering, listmania, “statistically interesting phrases” and so on.

One of the more intriguing ideas David comes up with is espoused in the following sentence: “Because it can’t be fixed, the Dewey Decimal System is caught in a problem endemic to large classification systems tied to the physical world.” Until I got under the hood of that sentence, I never really accepted the notion of “legacy classification” as being a meaningful problem. Reminds me of the problems in shifting between Julian and Gregorian calendars….or why QWERTY remains in use….

I was particularly taken with the stories related to S.R. Ranganathan and his Five Laws of Library Science (a term, incidentally, that he is credited with first using). Ranganathan’s Laws are:

  • Books are for use
  • Every reader his/her books
  • Every book its readers
  • Save the time of the reader; save the time of the library staff
  • The library is a growing organism

When I first saw that, something strange stirred in me. I could imagine my maternal grandfather, Dr SV Anantakrishnan, saying just that, right down to the brusque to-the-point-ness. I was therefore completely unsurprised to find out that Ranganathan was, like my grandfather, also a Professor at Madras Christian College (where I holidayed, with my grandfather, every summer from 1961 to 1971 or so). So I will find out everything I can about the man who gave the world Colon Classification!

I was also intrigued by the way David made me understand something else that is happening, symptomatically shown in the way Wikipedia articles increase in length while Britannica articles shorten. I see something very opensource about that, and will comment in detail later.

For the unconvinced, here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

We have to get rid of the idea that there’s a best way of organising the world.

The solution to the overabundance of information is more information.

How we draw lines can have dramatic effects on who has power and who does not.

The real problem is that any map of knowledge assumes that knowledge has a geography, that it has a top-down view, that it has a shape.

It’s not who is right and who is wrong. It’s how different points of view are negotiated, given context and embodied with passion and interest. Individuals thinking out loud have weight, and authority and expertise are losing some of their gravity.

It’s not what you know, and it’s not even who you know. It’s how much knowledge you give away. Hoarding knowledge diminishes your power.

Go buy the book. Even better, go read it.

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