Everything is Miscellaneous recap


Everyone gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. –Gertrude Stein

…the solution to the overabundance of information is more information. –David Weinberger in Everything is Miscellaneous.

Weinberger’s book is a great read, taking you to lots of different places–from a prototype Staples store to the underground Bettmann Archive, and meeting a variety of different folks from Linnaeus to Dewey. It’s the kind of book that attaches itself to a particular idea and riffs on it at length, covering lots of details and implications that show great insight, but yet seem obvious after reading.

The book posits three “orders of order”. The first I’d call the problem of atoms. Arranging physical things, whether a library or your silverware drawer is primarily limited by the physical realm. If you have only one copy of a particular book, it has to go on a shelf somewhere. If you have two copies, you need to decide whether to keep them together or separately, possibly increasing the chances of losing track of one.

The second order I’d call solving the problem of atoms with more atoms, the prototypical example being a library card catalog. It’s still physically limited: a card can only hold so much metadata, but at least it’s easy to have multiple cards for a given book, making it easier to find something based on your choice of title, author, subject, or something else. Notably, many of the early online efforts have been straight translations of the second order into the digital realm.

But the third order is something else altogether, solving the problem of bits with more bits, as the leading quote indicates. I get the impression that some sites, like Amazon and del.icio.us, are getting closer to Weinberger’s third order, but none have fully achieved it yet. The third order fully blows the doors off of the constraints of atoms, which we’ve spent the last few thousand years developing and getting used to.

If you’re geeky enough to be reading this here, you’ll be familiar with many of the lines of thought found in this book: Wikipedia vs. Britannica; implied vs. concrete hierarchies or ontologies; centralized vs. decentralized control; Semantic Web vs. “smushiness”.

My complaint is that for a book that talks about the three orders of order, the text itself is firmly tied to first order atoms. Sure, there’s a ongoing blog with tagging, comments, etc. but to actually read the text, you need to find your way through a book store, card catalog, or online bookstore to get it. Sure, there’s no third order of economics (yet), but still I would have liked to see something more.

So, what does this all mean for a company like Yahoo!? That’s the question I’m working on now. Stay tuned. -m

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