June 2007

Drew Nellins

nonfiction

Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger

There is no order. There never was an order. There never will be an order. That’s the order. Or so David Weinberger convincingly (and far more gracefully) postulates in his incredible new book, Everything is Miscellaneous.

I’ve been struggling for days trying to explain Everything is Miscellaneous to my friends, and the best one sentence description I’ve managed is, “It’s a book about how, in our effort to understand the world, humans keep coming up with all these wrongheaded ways of sorting data.” It’s not a very detailed description, but it is sort of accurate. It fails, as Weinberger would argue, in part because one can never describe a complex book accurately, in the same sense that a street map can never be perfectly precise. But it also fails because it doesn’t capture the great optimism of the book. Weinberger’s text suggests that the Information Age has gotten us on the right track at last. As a member of a generation which has never heard anything from the old guard except that the world is going to the dogs, this strikes me as important news.

In the first chapter, titled “The New Order of Order,” Weinberger writes, “We’ve been raised as experts at keeping our physical environment well organized, but our homespun ways of maintaining order are going to break -- they’re already breaking -- in the digital world.”

Mankind is achieving this revolutionary improvement, Weinberger explains, by shifting from our old systems of thinking and organizing data to the new, digital method, which is a messy and ultimately more successful way of working. We’re moving from atoms in the physical world to bits of information in the non-physical space of the internet. To use one of Weinberger’s favorite examples, rather than hanging a “leaf of information” from a single spot on the tree of knowledge (like a book sitting on a library shelf), a leaf can now hang in many different places (as bits of information do on the Internet). We’re no longer bound by real space or the unnatural methods of organization real space demands. Think: card catalogs verses Google.

Weinberger does much more in Everything is Miscellaneous than merely extol the virtues of our newest system. He explains in astonishing detail exactly why it’s the best we’ve come up with so far by exploring every conceivable method of organization humans have used in the past. Starting with alphabetization and moving through the development of modern maps, knowledge trees, the organization of animal species, and an insanely readable analysis of the Dewey Decimal system, Weinberger reveals the flaws in each developmental system and what can be learned from their failures.

Leaping between explanations about these outdated methods and analyses of modern informational and organizational powerhouses like Wikipedia, Flickr, and Del.icio.us, Everything is Miscellaneous reveals more about the way we think in a single chapter than will have occurred to most readers over a lifetime. Weinberger, a doctor of philosophy, possesses an admirable mind, and draws out the battle between simplicity and complexity with an elegance uncommon to this type of text.

Simplicity, he argues, is not what we want, even if it’s what we think we want. What we really want is complexity. More and more data and more and more ways to search for and access it. Wikipeda is complex. The Encyclopedia Britannica is not. Even a book search on Amazon.com is staggeringly complex when compared to a book search at any public library. Complexity is the best case scenario, according to Weinberger, because it eventually leads us to what we want. For every meaningless blog entry found by an off-target search engine query, there is a payoff: more information to choose from and a higher percentage chance that the information you want is just around the corner. What’s more, thanks to the complexity of the new system, you’re more likely than ever to happen across a new piece of information you didn’t even know you wanted.

Nothing I write here can communicate what an oddly fun, smart, and thought-provoking book Weinberger has written. In discussing The Brothers Karamazov, Weinberger himself ponders this phenomenon: “Somehow, through a series of explicit statements, Dostoyevsky manages to create an understanding of the brothers so rich and tangly that it defeats articulation.” In the end, one can only say of either book, “Read it.”

Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger
Times Books
ISBN: 0805080430
288 Pages