Is Everything Miscellaneous? June 22, 2007Posted by Andre Vellino in Information retrieval.
David Weinberger is promoting his book Everything is Miscellaneous and there are videos both of the talk he gave at Google and the talk he gave at Yahoo. The Google talk is more “polished” in some ways (PPT charts etc.) but the Yahoo talk is more like a fire-side chat, which I prefer.
His argument, in a nutshell, is that society, media, authorities, libraries etc. have placed constraints (i.e. limitations) on how we organize things (information in particular) by imposing an (arbitrary) order (e.g. library catalogs, newspaper sections, TV schedules) controlled by “experts”. Now, however, the new-world order, empowered by collaborative tools and common spaces on the web (Flickr etc.) is democratic – we can (individually and collectively) define our own order on things (e.g. by tagging things via folksonomies.) Nothing belongs to fixed categories anymore everything should be classified under “miscellaneous”.
I can think of several counter-arguments. One is the observation that there are “natural kinds“. Trees are trees, dogs are dogs and Aristotle was right about (some aspects of) taxonomies. There is a way in which the world is – it isn’t just what we want it to be.
Secondly, I like to defer to authorities (sometimes) – like lexicographers and experts who know more than I do. When I want to learn about something I look for an authority that I can trust has done a lot of deep thinking that I haven’t had the time to do.
Thirdly, predictable sources of information – business sections of the newspaper, slashdot and the register for all things geeky and even old fashioned dictionaries – they all have real value because they give us conventions and (some) predictability.
As any linguist will tell you the meanings of words in a language change over time. Language is a dynamic thing. But it also depends on convention. That the phrase “that’s really sick” means the same thing as what in my generation was “that’s really cool” requires a community of users to agree, by convention, about the meanings of words, and dictionaries reflect those conventions.
There’s real value in having understood and commonly held conceptual structures – mathematics being the best of them – with which to define relationships between observables and create explanatory models of how the world might be. Not every way of “slicing and dicing the world” is on par – Einstein’s theory of gravitation is better than Newton’s.
Furthermore, there is no theory-free data. It’s virtually useless to just dump the text 12 million scientific articles into an index and say that you have a science library. Even Google’s full-text index is imbued with some “world-knowledge” – if only through Page Rank or TF-IDF.
Take for example the impressive Seadragon demo that reverse-engineers a 3-D model of Notre Dame from photographs. If everything is miscellaneous, then we have no theories about the world or the way the world is. These photographs don’t reconstruct clouds, or an abstract human body (there are lots of both in the original stills), but Notre Dame. Why? Because Notre Dame was the “object of interest” and they were looking for Notre Dame elements in each photo.
We always have an “object of interest” (or a question we want to answer) whether we do science experiments or type a query in a search engine. We come to data and to the world with preconceptions about how it might be. I think there’s some merit in sharing those preconceptions!
In a way, I think that’s Weinberger’s point: we are more free now, in the new world order, to create these shared world-views rather than have them imposed upon us. So I applaud the fact that the Gilbert library has dropped the Dewey decimal system for organizing it’s books – Free at Last!…. but free only from one tyranny, only to be replaced by another (in this case subject classification).
My point is – we’re always going to be bound by some way of organizing the world, and if we want to be understood, it needs to be one that we share in common with others. Personally, I don’t enjoy the tyranny of folksonomies – I don’t understand them (well) and I prefer a natural (librarian) or artificial (AI) classifier. Even if some of the categories are wrong – wildly wrong, even – at least we get some consistency.