Tuesday, May 15, 2007

David Weinberger's "Everything Is Miscellaneous"

David Weinberger is the co-author of the international bestseller The Cluetrain Manifesto and the author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined.

Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder is his new book.

Weinberger applied the "Page 99 Test" to the book and reported the following:
This test is simply too, well, miscellaneous to resist.

Page 99 happens to be about the miscellaneous of bits. That's an extreme edge of the book's argument, which is far more interested in the miscellaneousness of meaning. So, I would not have picked page 99 as representative of the book. Nevertheless, by the end of the page, it's lifting its head back into the air it wants to breathe.

Page 99 is in Chapter 5, which is the hinge of the book. The first four chapters have tried to convince the reader that categorization is an important topic and that the obvious ways we organize our world actually have a history. Chapter 5 introduces four principles of organization that change radically once we move from the physical to the digital. The next four chapters discuss those new principles and their implications.

On page 99, I'm trying to show that the digital realm is miscellaneous all the way down to the level of the bits, using Wikipedia as the example. The page the user sees is assembled from contents - text and graphics - stored on several servers. In fact, here's the middle of page 99:

Another level down, Wikipedia, like all computer applications, is even more miscellaneous. The computer may decide to store any single element of an article — say, the text, or a photo of an elephant — in discontinuous sectors of a hard drive in order to fit the most data onto the drive and to optimize the time it takes to retrieve all those bits. That’s why when I asked the chief technical officer of the Wikipedia organization where the text information for the elephant article is actually stored, he replied, in the chat room we were in:

god only knows.

On the disk somewheres

A shame-faced admission of an appalling ignorance? Not at all. The gap between how we access information and how the computer accesses it is at the heart of the revolution in knowledge. Because computers store information in ways that have nothing to do with how we want it presented it to us, we are freed from having to organize the original information the way we eventually want to get at it. The bits and pieces of Wikipedia are, in effect, an enormous reserve of miscellaneous information that can be assembled in precisely the ways we need at precisely the moment we need it. That’s true all the way through Wikipedia, from the microscopic bits stored on the hard drives to the finished articles we read.

Now, I'd worry that page 99 depicts Everything Is Miscellaneous as a techie book about how computers work, except that the very last lines bring the discussion back up to where it should be:

At the top level of this hodgepodge of bits, images, text, articles and ideas, something remarkable happens. The million articles in English are not arranged alphabetically. They are not put into a...

The book is way more concerned with the remarkable ways we are putting our ideas together, and the effect that has on business and authority, than in the bits and bytes. Page 99 leaves off exactly where the real interests of the book are about to be restated.
Read an excerpt from Everything Is Miscellaneous, and visit the Everything Is Miscellaneous website.

--Marshal Zeringue