Everything is Miscellaneous

After six months of dilatory attempts, I have (more or less) finished David Weinberger's Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder.

I wish I could issue a firm pronouncement of my opinions of Weinberger's work, but I can't. So instead, some general observations.

First, Weinberger is in love with metadata, and with systems that mine metadata in an inherently organic, user-driven way. That's all well and good. The problem is that he doesn't seem to see any practical limit to the amount of metadata that's worth accumulating about a given object. I disagree with that perspective, because after a while, the pile of metadata becomes so dense that the marginal return of adding further descriptors is vanishingly small. Pile on enough metadata about an object, and you wind up recreating the object, for all intents.

Second, Weinberger is in love with technology. This should more or less follow from the first observation, because metadata rich organization is necessarily high-technology organization. It is not possible to practically maintain rich metadata sets on index cards. Weinberger's faith that high-technology systems are the savior of organization is touching, but has major flaws. For one thing, it is a hopelessly Western-centric, first-world-centric point of view. It's reliant on broad availability of cheap, high-speed, interconnected computing power that simply isn't a fact of life in the developing world. Weinbergers vision works for me, with my two laptops, iPhone and broadband-wireless-everywhere lifestyle. For Nanook and his sled team, not so much.

Further, for the world to organize (or disorganize) itself in Weinberger fashion, we have to assume bottomless supplies of cheap energy. Energy to build and maintain the technological systems that gather and mine metadata, primarily. I'm not convinced that an energy-rich society is a long-term possibility. If energy goes, or becomes prohibitively expensive, suddenly it becomes a lot less of a priority to have wireless access to a multi-billion record database, compared to, say, walking to the library for a book.

Finally, I think Weinberger is guilty of simply spreading a little technology frosting over old concepts and calling them new. In discussing "new learning," he talks about now in the new information age, recall of facts is a skill more suited to quiz shows than to education. I call philosophical bullshit on this argument from the start, but even if you accept it, it's not new. Instant recall of facts has rarely ever been as important as the ability to know where to find the relevant facts.

Our ability to find the required facts is certainly enhanced by our technology. But the fundamental need is not new or special.

I guess at the core of things, I'd say that Weinberger is a smart guy with a lot of good ideas, and some genuinely penetrating insights. That said, he's also guilty of believing his own bullshit, and that ends up turning what might have been an interesting book into an exercise in pro-technology cheerleading. For me, anyway. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.