Tuesday, May 08, 2007

If Everything is Miscellaneous, why does David Weinberger seem not so concerned?

The potential for connections from the trivial to the urgent is characteristic of the new miscellany. We are busily creating as many of these meaningful connections as we can. Everything is Miscellaneous, 212.

Miscellaneous observation: Some of the harshest words in EiM are reserved for paper: (paraphrasing: Paper is trapped in physical dimensions. Two of them. It can only fit so much data, it’s bulky, it forces our metadata into shapes that are limiting, arbitrary, coercive.) David Weinberger’s critique of paper, nonetheless, wrote itself into existence on paper.

The “revolutionary” frisson, to the extent there is one in David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous, derives from the idea of going beyond, or breaking the arche, the organon, the order of things as we’ve known it. Not just replacing it with another taxonomy, but rather encountering the moment that is the historical and critical threshold of rupture, the crisis from and within which the book is written.
As we invent new principles of organization that make sense in a world of knowledge freed from physical constraints, information doesn't just want to be free. It wants to be miscellaneous. (7)

Throughout, Weinberger writes about these large matters with a miniaturist’s precision. He writes from the far side of a cultural divide which, if he’s right, is momentous. And from that coign of vantage, he sends us a sort of philosophical picaresque, a tale of ancient systems and once logical projects that are now sinking into the shifting sands of a far larger, more complex and blustery digital universe.

He does it so smoothly that even for good readers, it’s hard to be sure anything has really happened. Shelley Powers’ critical reading for example seems to rest on the assumption that there’s nothing really new here. That there is some stable additional order that is being overlaid, and that the first ones in will be the fathers of a new arche:
On 'mess', David wrote, Third-order messes reverse entropy, becoming more meaningful as they become messier, with more relationships built in. He uses Flickr and the site's ability to evaluate associated tags and derive clusters, as evidence for this proclamation. Yet we're finding out, more and more, that people who want to participate in Flickr as a social enterprise actually modify their tags in order to deliberately place their photos into clusters.

In other words, they do not participate in tagging as a chaotic enterprise, but literally one that is based on a pre-defined order.

Powers appears to be envisioning what Weinberger calls "the third order" (relations built upon digital techniques, e.g., tagging, blogging, commenting, unique identifiers, etc.) as another mode of genealogy, the birth of another system with its own consistent means of locating things. Richer than a card catalog, but essentially performing the same function, with the same sweeping hieratic control over categories. The first ones on the scene get to establish them:
Though the order itself may seem to be derived from the masses, in actuality, just like with Wikipedia, it derives from a small group of early users–founders, if you will.

I think Weinberger is saying that there are no more fathers – there are only children who are playing at order, playing with order, playing with all the possible modes of order and disorder. Playing so busily they might not have noticed Dad is missing.

Weinberger seems to be peering into a near future in which usage rewrites the dictionary – we'll no longer ask Merriam Webster to tell us what a word means; instead, we discover a bewildering new assortment of meanings for a word deriving from innovative and unrelated instances of speech. Each time we open our digital mouths, we’re jumping into the moving Heraclitean river, creating reference points on the fly – “points” which distend, get modified in conversation, completely disappear as purposes and ideas change. Panta rei. The Devil take the hindmost as Merriam Webster’s orderly columns of carefully defined words smush into a blur…

If we don’t see this as a big thing, we'll be misled by David’s witty and prosaic examples into missing the point. I joined Powers in wondering what the big deal is if all we’re doing digitally is adding tags, blogs and other linking features to prior ordering systems. There would seem to be little reason for this book. Now, after wrestling with it a bit, I’m persuaded that David is talking about a sufficiently large change as to give us pause. His prose might sound unconcerned, but we probably should be concerned.

(More tomorrow) Update: David Weinberger has helpfully commented here. More soon.

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Blogger Sandra said...

What should concern us most?

5/09/2007 7:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sandra - yep - that's exactly the question I'm aiming at in the second part of this, which I'll post tonite or tomorrow -

5/09/2007 10:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

further and further we burrow deeper yet not burrowing at all we spread who knows what we might scatter how we know... plus!?

5/10/2007 10:22 PM  

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