Everything is Miscellaneous

I’ve been on vacation the past few days and finally got around to reading Everything is Miscellaneous, by David Weinberger. I should have just watched the Google Tech Talk, but it was easier to sit by the lake with a book than a computer. If I dozed off and my book fell to the ground, it wouldn’t matter as much.

I liked the book, but I’m not sure I was the right audience, since much of it had a “well, of course” feel about it. All the speculation about the way current trends in sharing knowledge change our understanding didn’t surprise me at all. We seem to be in agreement on the benefits of both blogs and the Wikipedia, and he specifically criticizes Cass Sunstein’s worries about the rise of the “Daily Me.” Like most popular non-fiction I read, the book could have been reduced to an excellent 50-page essay, which could have developed the main point sufficiently without all the repetition. I can’t remember how many times Weinberger quotes Umberto Eco on ways to slice beef, but certainly more than once.

He didn’t seem to me to give libraries a fair shake. It seemed odd that he focuses so much on the Dewey Decimal System, and that in his frequent mentions of library catalogs, they are always card catalogs and he always refers to catalog cards, never to database records. He discusses “three orders of order” – the first order of things put in their places, the second order of “card catalogs” telling us where the things are (both orders of physical things), and a third order of bits and bytes no longer restricted by the physical. Libraries always seem to be examples of the first two orders, because a book has to go on a specific physical shelf, and a “card catalog” has physical cards that limit what can be said about the book. The Dewey Decimal System is an example of the old order, because it classifies each book and puts it in a particular place on a particular shelf. Weinberger makes much of the limitations of Dewey, both because it doesn’t order the world like many people now order it (e.g., too much focus on Christianity, not enough on Islam) and because it has only one place to put a particular book, whereas a third order system can locate the book in many places, even if only virtually.

When he mentions the Library of Congress, he mentions only their relationship to the DDC, not their more sophisticated LC Classification System or their LC Subject Headings. Even when he mentions subject headings in general, which he does once when listing what’s on a catalog card, he doesn’t notice that subject headings themselves are already a way to break out of the second order of order and into the third, even more so once the “cards” are in fact online records. Subject headings are still examples of central groups trying to organize knowledge, rather than letting the folk develop their own organization, but they’re not necessarily an example of the knowledge tree that Weinberger criticizes so often. In the knowledge tree of the library catalog, a particular leaf can hang on many branches thanks to subject headings. He might have mentioned that for a century the Library of Congress has been taking steps to create multiple ways to find a single item in a library, even though the item could be in only one physical place.

He goes on at length about the way social software such as tagging allows us to create new understandings and see the world in new ways. It’s an exciting discussion, but his examples seem to be mostly drawn from business and science. There’s a good discussion of the way customers can take back control from advertisers and producers by creating online forums for evaluating products, and celebrates the transparency that comes from sharing the little bits of knowledge that many people might have. He also notes that publishing science is easer thanks to efforts like PLoS ONE. We no longer have to wonder why “through a startling and persistent coincidence, all the knowledge developed in the natural sciences since 1869 has fit exactly into the number of pages alloted for it in Nature each week,” because now publication isn’t limited by the expense of paper, printing, or distribution.

I wonder, though, about the importance of this new model for other areas of academic research. Weinberger rightly celebrates the ease with which ordinary people can now produce and control knowledge, but most academics doing research have a different relationship to their field than a consumer does to a company. Academics are already knowledge producers, and often tend to have a good idea of who are the other similar knowledge producers in their field. Breaking down some print-bound publishing models will help people publish more easily, but the sense of wonder at being able to control your information must surely be less.

5 thoughts on “Everything is Miscellaneous

  1. Wayne, thank you for the thoughtful review.
    You’re not the first librarian who’s criticized me for focusing on Dewey and physical cards, as if libraries hadn’t generally moved their catalogs onto computers. I actually do know that. (And, fwiw, I do discuss – briefly – LC subject headings; cf. pp. 15-16.) I use Dewey because, with 90% of US public libraries and public schools conforming to it, it’s a very familiar example for my intended readers. I can see why it would annoy librarians, though, and I should have made that clearer.
    The question you end with is fascinating and difficult. One could argue (and I put it that way because I don’t know what I believe) that because peer review within the humanities doesn’t have the clear methodological criteria of the sciences (yes, I know they’re not all that clear), a peer recommendation system for the humanities is even more important. We’ll depend ever more on our friends and colleagues, and discovery will become ever more social. Maybe.
    By the way, I use the Eco quote twice, once on p. 45 and once on p. 200. I know this because it’s in the very traditional index 🙂
    Thanks again for your comments.

  2. Dear David,
    Thanks for responding. You could probably tell from the review that I was specifically looking at this from the standpoint of an academic librarian, and a humanities librarian at that. I’d read about the book on several library blogs and thought it sounded interesting, which indeed it was, and I wish I’d read it before my own post on the Wikipedia a few weeks ago. I definitely wasn’t the intended audience, though, even though I enjoyed the book.
    But I do wonder about the implications of social software and other new tools for humanities research, which is different than the sciences. I suspect that eventually blogs and other digital publishing ventures outside of traditional journals will slowly gain ground as acceptable methods of publication even in the humanities, especially as ways to reach broad publics. I also could conceive of a future where tagging of humanities web publications by the right people could substitute at a certain level for peer review.
    On the Eco, ha! Sorry about that. I should have checked the index! Possibly I found some of the book repetitive because I was already so familiar with the subject and thus didn’t need any elaboration of the basic terms.

  3. Wayne, you found the book repetitive because it’s occasionally repetitive. Part of that’s bad writing, and part is due to the assumption that I’m writing for people generally new to questions of taxonomy and folksonomic technology.
    Don’t you think that in many of the humanities, blogs are already where much of the intellectual ferment is? I think the key question is how long it’ll take tenure committees to start counting blogging, and how long before being a world-class blogger will count as much as getting published in peer-reviewed journals. That may be a generational shift, since it’s so bound up with power.

  4. I do agree that in the humanities and probably some other fields, blogs are where much of the “intellectual ferment” is, and I think a lot of that has to do with the social knowing phenomenon you discussed in your book. I’ve been particularly impressed by the quality of group blogs run by academics, which relieves the blogger of the necessity of posting so often. I know in my own field of librarianship, blogs are the place to go to discuss or promote new ideas, not the traditional literature, which is slow and for the most part never that engaging.
    But for some fields, I still wonder. Writing in the humanities tends to have a long shelf life. In philosophy, people are obviously still reading the non-scientific portions of Aristotle fruitfully, even if (as you argue) Aristotle was mistaken about the value of definition and categorization. People still find value in his rhetoric, poetics, ethics, and politics (though not perhaps his “history of animals”) because certain kinds of questions seem to endure in the human experience. Thus, the newest ideas may not be as interesting or important as many older works.
    I only make this point because a lot of the interesting blogs I’ve seen have been very topical. They’re discussing current technological trends, or current politics, or current legal arguments. The more current and urgent the topic is, the more valuable blogs about the topic can be, because they allow a rapidity of discussion that traditional publishing doesn’t. They can be a contemporary manifestation of the intellectual coffeehouse culture of the 18th century.
    And academic blogs tend to be the thoughts of clever people on general issues rather than intricate discussions of an academic field. I just randomly selected some academic blogs from a list entitled “Culture, theory, literature,” and couldn’t find one actually discussion literature. I think in a lot of fields it will be a very long time before that kind of blogging becomes as acceptable as traditional academic publishing because it doesn’t relate to the notion of expertise that academics are supposed to have.
    I also think some academics resent attempts by other academics to become public intellectuals, which blogging allows one to do more easily now. Perhaps that, too, will change over time, though.

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