I read David Weinberger's new book, Everything is Miscellaneous, and you should, too. I spoke with the good doctor recently, and one of the results is today's newspaper column, which you can read after the jump.
by Edward Cone
News & Record
One of the surprising things about the Internet, right up there with the fact that the guy who posts pictures of cats with funny captions at icanhascheezburger.com makes enough money from the site that he quit his day job, is how natural it feels to use the Web. We've only been navigating this vast and ever-growing sea of information for a decade, but there's something intuitive about the way it links to itself and responds to our particular preferences and needs.
Now comes David Weinberger, a philosopher for the digital age, to say that our online experiences tell us something profound about the organization and categorization of information -- and not just on the Internet. In his new book, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, Weinberger considers the Web through the lenses of philosophy, history and taxonomy. As it turns out, the Web may feel natural because it reflects truths about the order of the universe that have been misunderstood by previous generations back to the time of Aristotle.
This may not sound much like summer reading, but I read this book by the pool. Weinberger -- co-author of the influential marketing tome The Cluetrain Manifesto and author of an essential exploration of Web culture, Small Pieces Loosely Joined -- is a relaxed and highly accessible writer. He does come equipped with a doctorate in philosophy and a background in academia and the technology industry, but he also has worked as a gag writer for Woody Allen.
His basic arguments are, well, basic. In the physical world, we have to choose one way of organizing things. You can arrange your CD collection, for example, alphabetically by artist, or by genre or era, or you can just pile it up randomly, but you can only use one of those methods at a time. On the Web, though, you can order the same collection in as many different ways as you can imagine, and all of these lists can exist at the same time. This is big news for businesses that want to give customers as many ways as possible to find products, Weinberger told me during a recent interview -- not only can companies create multiple listings themselves, they can allow customers to create their own lists, any one of which might capture the attention of a potential buyer.
But the implications of this simultaneous ordering are much broader than improvements to electronic commerce or challenges to the Dewey Decimal System. Consider the recent debate over Pluto's status as a planet in our solar system. "We have inherited this idea that the universe is ordered one way and not in other ways, and that the job of science is to figure that out, but it gets in our way of understanding how the world works," says Weinberger. "We insist there are nine planets, but it turns out we've never had a definition of what a planet is -- the set of objects that are big and round and circling the Sun wouldn't be interesting at all if we didn't have myths and legends about them. It would be better to categorize them according to the interests of the person making the categories. If she's interested in objects that might support life, classify them by the presence of water. It's no better or worse than classifying them by having copper, or an atmosphere."
And that's the big notion: "There is not a single order of the universe, there are as many orders as we want," says Weinberger. "It's an unsettling idea," he acknowledges, because it flies in the face of the Western tradition back to the ancient Greeks, who made "the founding assumption that knowledge is possible only if the universe is essentially stable and organized the way knowledge is -- that there is a real way things are, and knowledge is the capturing of that real way, and if there weren't one real way, then everything would be confusion and chaos and knowledge wouldn't be possible. It's the very heart of philosophy's mission, this idea that the real world is organized in a rational, orderly and harmonious way. And Christianity adds to this the idea that it's God who set up the world that way. So knowing the universe takes on a religious importance."
Challenges to this world view have been under way for centuries. "It's not like the Web arrived and suddenly philosophy is overturned," Weinberger says. "Since the Enlightenment we've been struggling against those notions to one degree or another. The idea that there are multiple ways of categorizing, that categorization is based on our interests and not simply upon a read-out of how the world actually is, has been brought up repeatedly in the past generation by the post-modernists. But the arrival of the Web and the tools by which we can so fluently create new ways of categorizing what we know make what philosophy has been struggling towards quite concrete and highly democratic."
None of which means all of the old modes of ordering are now obsolete -- your alphabetized phone directory still works fine -- just that the universe is revealed as a richer place for our new ways of understanding it. And it seems to me that if God is in the details, then accepting a multiplicity of meaningful approaches to those details may be a step toward the deepest understanding of all.
© News & Record 2007