David Weinberger should sort his silverware as he puts it into the dishwasher. How this man has struggled: From his collegiate days of dumping all the silverware unsorted into one drawer to his current domestic cold war, in which he is happy to remove and put away every clean dish but leaves the cutlery to his mildly chagrined wife. Well, duh, Dave: As the silverware gets dirty, I put it into the silverware section by type: forks in the first two slots, knives in the second two—well, you get the idea.
OK, I guess I have some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I’m also guessing the Weinberger family will not be alone in ignoring my suggestion. Weinberger’s suggestions are a different story.
In his most recent book, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, Weinberger humanizes the nearly inconceivable scope of the digital content universe. From his use of imagery like his silverware situation, he masterfully leads us through the history of man’s efforts to organize knowledge. He illustrates how—while we seek to increase our pool of knowledge in almost every act—we long for simplicity. “Simplicity,” according to Weinberger, “was the only reasonable strategy before we developed machines that can handle massive amounts of data and metadata.”
Yet simply having the computational resources to manage non-linear data should not compel us to stray from order. Instead, he posits, we must develop a new definition of what we mean by order. Some call it “findability;” we don’t expect information to sit on orderly (if inherently limited) Dewey Decimal-delineated shelves, but we want to find exactly what we need, when we need it.
We have often heard the phrase “information wants to be free” referring to its price tag, if not its value. After reading Everything is Miscellaneous, I think that even this idea should be reinterpreted as information wanting to be free of its bindings; broken loose from its filtered, interpreted value to be reshaped at the whim of the user in ways that are infinitely more valuable, if on an infinitesimal scale. Rather than offering information in the one way that will maximize its value to the masses, we loosen its strictures so that it can be remixed and reinterpreted by anyone.
In the hands of individuals, content derives new meaning. Or perhaps more accurately, nuanced meaning. Take Everything is Miscellaneous, for example. To many readers, it will be a wake-up call for businesses to tag, to impose order on their content on its way off the desktop and out into the World Wide Web. To others, it will make a case for the semantic web. Still others will find credibility lent to the wisdom of the users and online community. Yet without doubt, I have not touched the surface of the many isolated “a-ha” moments this book offers the individuals that read it. Weinberger is right: Those moments should not remain in isolation.
By letting content loose online, and enabling interaction with it and about it, we do more than allow it to be used in multiple ways. Beyond utopian visions of collective wisdom, the interaction that surrounds the content adds value to it. As content providers, though, this does not mean tossing out all structure in favor of dice-rolling for content distribution. In fact, the structure we offer may well provide the launch pad required for ideas to really take off.
“By discussing differences while standing on shared ground, we work toward understanding,” writes Weinberger, who points out that understanding rather than knowledge is what we are aiming at in most conversations. Thus, the ways in which we interact online often take the form of conversation, rather than simply recording formalized knowledge. Knowledge has been restricted to paper—be it literally or figuratively—and Weinberger points out that the noise conversations make “is very different from the scratch of a philosopher’s ink on paper. Paper drives thoughts into our heads. The web releases thoughts before they’re ready so we can work on them together. And in those conversations, we hear multiple understandings…
Despite being freed of paper, we will continue our quest for knowledge, rather than disintegrate into some sort of chatty anarchy. Weinberger offers an example of the extent to which information could become iterative that resonated with me: the potential for any digital text to be highlighted by each person that reads it. Then, a new reader could search for the passages most often highlighted by A-students, poets, or perhaps philosophers. You see, back in my college days, my silverware drawer may have been neat, but my textbooks were not. I almost always bought them used, and they were frequently marked up by previous readers. I remember wondering at underlined passages; why did they resonate with the book’s previous owner? In Weinberger’s vision, I could know.