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.