Posted by Amanda Chapel
WARNING: Don't Try this at home! As a 127 lb. amateur, I am going attempt to break Gonghong Tang’s 2004 record for the "clean and press." AND... as I will likely tear off a limb or cause a massive brain hemorrhage, I am then going to attempt to stick the landing and turn the whole bloody mess into a recommendation. Our subject today: David Weinberger's new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous: the Power of the New Digital Disorder.
Trust me, I am a little more than trepidacious. Why? Well, according to the press announcement, Miscellaneous:
Yikes. My first and admittedly regrettable reaction was to get caught up in the title. A grueling rumination ensued. I wonder if he considered: Everything is Misplaced: Where are My Car Keys; Everything is Mischiato: Forgetaboutit; Everything is Meaningless: I think I am Gonna Kill Myself; and my personal favorite, Everything is Miasma: Fuck You.
Allow me to recompose myself. Seriously, this book is just not easily summarized. Even the rollicking "From A to Z” totally underestimates it. This is more like from A to #457 to the Zanzabar Platypus, batteries extra. Almost poetically, David’s logical order to his treatise is... well... whacked. Hurts my brain just to think about it (see hemorrhage above). And that's the problem; to examine it properly, one's got to first straighten it out.
Actually, for me—the total anal-retentive-neat-freak and card-carrying minimalist—that exorcise was close to irresistible frankly. I imagine the famous Dr. Nigel Higgenbottom compelled similarly by an almost overwhelming curiosity to treat a new virulent strain on Kalaupapa.
Okay, here's David's whole premise in a nutshell: Knowledge is dynamic. Static knowledge systems cover more than they reveal. Peer-reviews are elitist. And hierarchies actually frustrate knowledge which is supposedly social.
David’s answer to that: The Wikipediation of knowledge. Rather than an individual endeavor working toward fact vetted through an objective tested hierarchical standard, knowledge becomes a subjective group endeavor vetted by popular opinion.
Here's where it really gets tangled: To the above fairly simple premise, David sets out to make a case for his personal favorite subject, "tagging." See, to the fact that (generally speaking) the world of supply-chain management has become increasingly sophisticated, i.e. we're labeling and controlling stuff with far more extensive criteria; users of the Web are now tagging their blog articles. David argues that that changes everything. Knowledge then becomes an asymmetric global open-source project driven by amateurs basically. Everything Is Miscellaneous does for knowledge what Weinberger's former book Cluetrain Manefesto did for business. The king "control" is dead; and Jarvis' 6 million strong torch-and-pitchfork bearing peasants stand over his body in the lobby. Power to the people!
To quote another Web 2.0 evangelist, Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail: “The world is messy, like it or not, and it’s only going to get messier as the Web destroys rules and rule-makers. You can either complain about the chaos and wish for the good old days of order, or you can understand why delirious disorder will soon make us all smarter.”
First off, for those that are just tuning in... THIS IS ABSOLUTELY A CLASS STRUGGLE! But this isn't just the union wanting a seat at the table. This is the revenge of the have-not nerds. But they don't just want access to the library. In the name of "democratization," they want to raid it spray-paint cans in hand. They want to pee on the carpets, tag the walls and carry out what loot's left over.
As to it all making us smarter, here are a few fresh examples torn from recent headlines: Digg's Mob Rules; German Investigators Probe Use of Second Life to Trade Kiddie Porn; Copyright Infringement Woes Coming Home to Roost for YouTube; Rampant Trademark Infringement in Second Life Costs Millions Yearly; and Myspace using new technology to weed out sexual predators. Smarter? Excuse me but the Web has become a cyberswamp. So rather than drain it, the evangelists are now re-characterizing it as rich in life. Sure chaos increases variability... but at what overall cost?
Excuse me but David like the other evangelists seem to have forgotten a few basics while imaging their utopia: people and natural law.
Keep in mind, people are disgusting filthy animals known for their laziness, proclivity for theft and near total preoccupation with eating and sex. C'mon! And when they travel in packs, the mob is an animal that loves hangins, lootin', public urination and the sound of breaking glass. You ever see a riot? Ever been in one? Have you been to the restroom of any public venue? And you wanna live there?! You want to dine there? You want to send your kids to school there? Excuse me but the creeps in the men's room of the Chicago Avenue stop "tag" every chance they get. C'mon!
Seriously, at its best, Miscellaneous is a proposal for a worldwide "Group Think" system. Sure, when you're in that environment, it seems smart. Ask the engineers who built the Challenger.
And of course, to all that, Mother Nature will weigh in, too. She loves entropy. Messes don't get better; they just naturally deteriorate. Certainly, to David's point, static systems loose there relevance gradually over time. But unmanaged free-for-alls lose their accuracy geometrically and fast. Now, of course, it depends on what you're using the Net for. Do you want your brain surgeon consulting the top peer journals or Wikipedia? You want to feed your kids junk food information just because it's fast, easy and readily available? C'mon!
Again, David argues that the knowledge system we have presently is antiquated and failing. Libraries, books, peer reviews, encyclopedias... all of it will soon be replaced by a global system of mob "conversation."
"Better" is the assumption. It's completely wrong. Let me tell you why.
Here, for comparison sake, let's take math as a model for knowledge. Much like library cataloguing systems, books, peer reviews, encyclopedias... and even the Web... is all boils down to just symbols, units and various functions. In that sense, a system is pretty arbitrary.
Okay, here's a fundamental philosophical question that might shed light on why thinking "better" is wrong-headed: why did we variously invent calculus? If you've ever studied math, you know that we only use a mere fraction of what's possible. Systems we might devise are only limited to our imagination.
So why calculus? Well, the answer is simple: "Because." Because, at the time, it seemed to express a "natural order." Is it a perfect system? Absolutely not. But tomorrow as you get on that train, go over that bridge, and go up to you office in that elevator... keep in mind, it's all the product of calculus.
The point is that the minor systemic flaws and the dynamic nature of the language are not necessarily strong arguments for a complete system reboot, so to speak. They are ABSOLUTELY NOT an argument for substituting independent controls with real-time populace whim.
Here's the rub: David and others are not only recommending a radical new system; they're strongly advocating something that at its core disintermediates everything we hold dear. Not only is David's Promised Land amorphous, the principles offered in Everything is Miscellaneous eats the present order that feeds us. Take it a step further: Could we do away with money? Sure. Could we come up with a system where we universally “EBay-itize” barter of goods and services... sure. Cue Lennon’s "Imagine." But that’s not real. It just isn’t. Which makes the idea of replacing our current system with chaos all the more ludicrous.
TURNING A MESS INTO A RECOMMENDATION
Listen: Buy this book. Seriously, I'm not asking you; I'm telling you.
Among the true evangelists of the Web movement, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect. Everything is Miscellaneous articulates that very well. Now that their Cluetrain has wrecked and lay in a tangled heap of twisted broken mess... they want to rationalize it and move on to new targets. This is an excellent primer on how they think. If you want to protect what makes sense, best know the language of nonsense.
In David's world, a Strumpette reviewing a book by an esteemed Harvard professor is perfectly legit. Bah! How f-ed up is that?
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
I don't think you can lump all of the "messy thinkers" together. Even Jaron Lanier recognizes the so-called "Wisdom of Crowds" is not yet suited to solve every problem. He's had a number of good essays in the last few months, actually attacking the problem of "When does Group-Think work, and when does it horribly fail?"
Having not read the book, I won't stray too far, but I will say this: It's telling (for me) that the primary answer for the Digital Dystopians is we all should "embrace the chaos." Never do they consider the value of finding a new order, or even laying the philosophical groundwork for determining the best and most efficient "New Order." It's as though we started laying the foundation for a new road, but can't start paving because the kids don't want to give up their precious mound of mud. Normal end-users expect a road to get them from A to Z quickly, and they want it clearly marked so they know they are on course. They don't want the car to get dirty, or miss the turn.
Already, the biggest "digital divide" exists in search. In my journalism days, what set me apart in the newsroom was an ability to find stuff on the internet faster than my colleagues. With the explosion of the "there" out there, you have to master search to be effective. 99% of internet users have no clue how to get what they want out of Google or Ask - and many are not even turning to it at all.
It's fun to play in the mud - but those with real business purposes don't want to spend months learning how to navigate where there are no roads (and no order.) They just want to follow signs to the content they want and need.
I feel like saying "Gosh". In a viable economy we will be led to economic solutions...
Hello do we really feel like we'll resort to Marxism because of the web?
In this country anyway, technology will advance and prevail because there's a viable business model. Can't make money? Bye. Can't convince investors that you'll make money even if you know you can't? Bye. Miscellaneous seems to me to be far from the "specificity" of the Internet. Haven't read the book. Will do.
As Ike says, it's fun to play in the mud...we did it when we were children. It's also fun to speculate. If you can make money speculating, you're rich. Not many folks can.
We're capitalists...the only "system" that matters is the free market system.
This book, and the rest of the recent "web 20 is going to change your life" papers are not the beginning of social anarchy. Instead, in my view they are the new beginnings of worldwide demagogy. Here's why:
The "messy thinkers" who like to proclaim the top down world of information is dead are "arnachy leaders" - an oxymoron. What are the A-Lister doing but bolstering a "top down" information distribution system, the same as before except they are at the top now.
Second, and that's where I think your article went a bit wrong, they aren't geeks, or nerds. Most A-listers are MBAs and didn't know what the internet was until 2 years ago, where they figured they could make a killing by hyping certain things (blogola or not). The topics in that book you review would have been really interesting in ... 2001.
Why is this a real problem? Because just like your above article accurately pointed out, human nature isnt' pretty. We've seen what happened with a 'social encyclopedia' : it gets gamed. We've seen what happened with social shopping : the stake are higher, money is involved, so yup, it gets even more gamed than the encyclopedia. Now the next frontier for the self proclaimed web 20 evangelist is politics. And that's where things get really scary, real quick.
People are slowly being conditioned to accept that "big media lies - blogs are the Truth". The thing is, what people don't realize is that the vast majority of web 20 technologies are sponsored and put in place by the exact same big media. I have yet to attend a Web 20 conference where the topic doesn't slowly drift toward 'advertising' and the sponsor isn't called 'BT' or 'Nokia'.
So yes, global demagogy is coming soon. Why? Because the 'Big Politics' are in the same position 'Big Media' was 2 years ago. They are running out of steam, Republican vs Democrat is becoming a lot like Pepsi vs Coke. So they are going to do for politics online what web20 did for advertisers: they are going to be behind most of these so-called 'edgy' online political initiative, in fact they are going to encourage it.
Proof is in the pudding: I think one of the pioneers of this is going to be Loïc Le Meur. Take a look at his video site http://loic.tv/ - he has a video up there which mirrors the John Lennon song "imagine" - he advocates no religion, no country, no politics. A 'man of the people' if you will, wearing tshirts during his 'shaky cam' episodes. The thing is, that guy was part of the current French President presidential campaign, and encouraged members of the UMP (the President's party) to go and 'create blogs'. It's hard not to be more in politics than that.
So, Amanda(s), consider yourself lucky. Today these 'web 20 though leaders' influence what brand of camera yous should buy. Tomorrow the same weasels will influence who runs your country.
Regarding librarians' reactions to the book--thought you might be interested in this post that Karen Schneider (aka The Free Range Librarian) did for the ALA TechSource blog: