Monday, September 17, 2007

Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger

As librarians we use the Dewey Decimal System to place nonfiction books on the shelf. It’s our way of organizing information, invented in the 1870s by the compulsive ur-librarian, Melvil Dewey. While half of the stacks are novels arranged on the shelves in alphabetical order of authors’ last names, with varying subsets for genres such as mysteries and science fiction, the nonfiction books in the other half of the stacks are arranged in ten large categories and each shelf address number is a classified subset of the larger hundred in which it falls, according to Dewey’s Victorian, Anglo-centric view of how things should be arranged so they could be found by those who know the system.
That’s the first order of arrangement and it’s the same for the grocery store cashier who knows where the cabbages and chickens are in her store as it is for the librarian who knows where the job test books and travel guides are in his library. Everything that is stored physically somewhere is limited as to how it can be stored. After a while you get to know where things are.
The second order of arrangement of information is the catalog of the information that is stored. In the case of a library card catalog there are several ways to find where the book sits, by author, title, subject (or subjects) but all point to where the book or item physically resides and you had to thumb through the list to get at it. A commercial store’s mail-order catalog may have an index to various ways merchandise is described, but all the index terms point to which page in the physical booklet that verbal and visual depictions of such items will be found from which to create an order.
The third order of storing information, however, is digital information. According to David Weinberger in Everything is Miscellaneous: the power of the new digital disorder, since digital information does not occupy physical space, (other than on the memory storage medium on which it sits and that can be as wide as the world), arranging it or classifying it does not need to be based on anything physical. The meaning of each piece or combined piece of information can be made by each individual at the moment the information is extracted and without others' judgment.
That is, of course, if the information contains “metadata” (author, subject, format, title, date, and so on), so it can then be molded digitally according to disparate users’ preferences. The tags one uses to mark blog information or photos in sites such as Flickr are a kind of metadata. So are the lists and reviews of books that readers have created in group reading sites. The links and reviews of Wikipedia articles are others. The keywords that be searched and combined cause the information to become relevant at the point of use, not determined before that moment.
“The more metadata the messier and richer the potential,” says Weinberger of Flickr (p. 176.) “Third-order messes reverse entropy, becoming more meaningful as they become messier, with more relationships built in.”
What it means is that, freed of physical limitations and demands, those who control access to information now may not solely do so for long. The social infrastructure of knowledge is changing. Weinberger calls it the “commoditizing of knowledge.” But, he says, rather than cheapening of the value of information, giving it away increases the value of the meaning of knowledge. In the digital wave the user determines the significance of the information for himself or herself, and the social networking of knowledge, as in Wikipedia, which now attracts more agreement among experts who monitor it more and more, actually enhances it in the long run and ever more so as useful knowledge withstands assaults from frivolous pranksters and fact ignorers.
The social implications of the digital age are tremendous. At the Reference Desk I’ve answered hundreds of phone calls in which people have asked us to tell them if a word is or is not “a word.” I would often reply that most dictionaries, unlike the French Academies, merely descriptively record how words are used and do not proscribe whether they have been accepted by a determinate body to “be a word.” New words and phrases come into use all the time and new dictionaries begin to include them when they decide they have come into common enough usage.
Knowledge works the same way. We have spent centuries in a print culture and our classification schemes of information have been tied to physical limitations which disallow thinking outside the box. There are political cultures which do not want others to have control over knowledge. Weinberger reminds us that when Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the World Wide Web he toyed with the idea of structuring it, (somewhat like a classification system like Dewey or the Library of Congress), but he reasoned that merely linking each computer to every other computer (through the HTML he created) was enough. Thankfully for the rest of us he left the web without a proscriptive manager other than a descriptive committee that doles out web addresses when asked for one. (p. 191)
Knowledge now can organize and re-organize itself through use. All of us may begin to use “public metadata” and what we make of it is what we make of it, given the negotiations of groups and societies, some good, some not. Our libraries may change – Will the fiction section remain as it requires some form of physical medium for those who want to read with eyes rather than hear, while the whole nonfiction section disappears into cyberspace to be retrieved as needed? – And our roles as librarians may change. But we will still be knowledge philanthropists who amass knowledge and give it away to anyone who asks.

“It’s not whom you report to and who reports to you and how you filter someone else’s experience. It’s how messy you are connected and how thick with meaning are the links. / It’s not what you know and it’s not even who you know. It’s how much knowledge you give away.” (p. 230)
David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous (New Book Shelf -303.4833 WeI) gives rise to many thoughts beyond just these. How are these concepts fitting in with postmodernism, semiotics, and ideas or cultural and scientific revolutions? Seminal stuff and a fun read, too.

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