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Justin Marshall

Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. David Weinberger. New York: Times Books 2007. 277 pp.

Standing at the entrance of Bay Centre mall in Victoria, BC, I had been staring at the store directory for almost five minutes. I stared at the groupings of stores on the directory one by one, utterly perplexed, wondering where to find a hat for my upcoming vacation. Arranged by type, stores were bound to categories like “Men’s Apparel,” “Ladies Apparel,” “Footwear,” and “Music & Video.” Although probably accurate, how the stores were categorized didn’t make sense to me.

Mall directory of Bay Centre Mall

“Men’s Accessories.” Maybe I can find a hat in one of those stores? But a hat isn’t only for men. There’s no sportswear, so where can I find a store that sells hats?

Somehow, the author of the Bay Centre mall directory ordered the stores in this way for a reason. However, its order didn’t work for me. Where is the “Stores with Hats” category? Or, I’d even take a “Sport Apparel” category. That way I’d at least have a clue that those stores might sell hats. But, nothing! I assume the stores weren’t organized on the display to serve me alone, at that moment, for that particular task. Instead, the author must’ve organized the stores in these categories to serve a large diversity of people, for an extended period of time, for all purposes.

To David Weinberger, that’s a problem.

In his book, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, Weinberger explores why information—like a store directory in a mall—wants to be messy. Instead of categorized in a neat, organized structure, knowledge wants to be unbound and in many places at once.

Although no clear thesis is presented to the reader, one clear argument runs throughout Weinberger’s book: as information is wretched from the physical world and into the digital, information is “much messier” than it seems (202).

Weinberger begins by arguing that for centuries we have organized knowledge based on four principles: 1) there is only one reality, there is one knowledge; 2) reality is not ambiguous, neither is knowledge; 3) because knowledge is as big as reality, no one person can comprehend it; and 4) experts work their way up through social institutions (100-101). It is these principles that have driven the world into trying to settle on a comprehensive framework of knowledge, such as the Dewey Decimal System. Essentially, thanks to Aristotle, “we work damn hard at straightening things up” (228).

As a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for the Internet & Society, Weinberger brings his diverse knowledge of information making, organizing, and sharing into a work that rivals recent work on how to manage the networked information space—like Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability and Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked—and aligns itself closely with Benkler’s Wealth of Networks.

Weinberger constructs his argument by presenting that sites like Wikipedia and Flickr—like may college students’ silverware drawers—use miscellany to provide flexibility and ease of use to their users. Endangering some of the most well-established institutions of knowledge (i.e., Encyclopedia Britannica), miscellany offers a new way for information to be accessed and presented. In the “digital disorder,” information can be at multiple places at once—categorized in different silos—and accessed in a multiplicity of ways: metadata, tags, comment threads, etc. (102-106). Essentially, in the networked information economy, everything doesn’t have its place, but its places (177). Like I learned at the Bay Centre mall directory, the world is too diverse for any single classification system to work for everyone in every culture at every time.

Weinberger seems well adept at the subject matter, providing examples at different angles and offering a broad stroke of thinkers in the field. However, without a clear thesis statement or order of direction, the book takes its readers on tangential twists and turns, often distract from what the reader has to assume as the overall argument. And while he does offer key challenges to industry leaders regarding the organization and presentation of information (often in an entertaining way) his most obvious argument (and title) of the book—that everything is miscellaneous by nature—was poorly presented and essentially debunked several times by his own words.

One key place in his book where this occurs is when Weinberger seeks to answer why we have a problem with miscellaneous. He surmises that it’s because miscellaneous is “a set of things that have nothing in common” (86). However, he immediately contends (and rightly so) that the “nothing” is actually quite relative, and equally untrue.

Individual items, whether a spoon in an untidy silverware drawer or a photo of Aunt May on Flickr, are never found in a sea of nothingness. Instead, they are bound to inalienable relationships with other items. A spoon is a utensil used to eat. It’s also a toy for my one-year-old son. Whether in a silverware drawer or at the bottom of a toy chest, it is inevitably bound to the relationship it has with its user, the context it is used, and how it is used.

Unfortunately, in the physical space of a toy chest or silverware drawer, when I want to find it to eat, I want one place to look. Yet, place the spoon in the virtual space of the Internet and it can be found in both the drawer and the toy chest. Therefore, it’s miscellany is grounded in its relationality.

Everything isn’t miscellaneous; it’s relational.

Should Weinberger change the title of the book? Probably. But it wouldn’t sell as well; it’s not as controversial of a title. In the end, his book is a good read and informative for those wanting a different perspective of the field of digital communication and information architecture. However, he never took his argument to the length it needed to be, and my only hope is that his book offers an opportunity for completion by another voice.

Questions:

  1. In your book (and on your blog), you say that a blog should be “authoritative and passionate,” and should add value to the space that it speaks. Many people I know have something to the effect of “aggregate” blogs, where they just regurgitate news or topics others have surfaced and brought them together in one place. This seems antithetical to the “authoritative and passionate” stance. Can a blog be successful and add value just by being in the information space?
  2. In what context is a blog not appropriate?
  3. When I consult with corporations about creating a blog, I often speak to the obvious: Be authentic. Be personal. Add value and knowledge to the field. Are there any other points that make corporate blogs successful?
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