Miscellaneous Days

It’s the Memorial Day weekend in the US (I took a little leave to stretch things out one more day), the traditional start of the summer goofing off season.

In many school systems this also marks the end of another school year. Around here we have roughly another four weeks until summer break in our district so the holiday only means the end of standard testing season.

One of the nice things about a quiet period like this is the chance to catch up on the stack of books and articles piling up on my desk.

First up was David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous, a book I’ve been looking forward to since his wonderful keynote two years ago at NECC.

It was worth the wait. Weinberger does an excellent job of illustrating how the formal information structure built up over centuries has been rapidly crumbling into the digital disorder of the miscellaneous.

He talks about three orders of order, the first where someone organizes the objects themselves, the second where we create metadata pointing to the objects (think card catalog), and the third where the user applies their own organization.

In the third order of order, a leaf can hang on many branches, it can hang on different branches for different people, and it can change branches for the same person if she decides to look at the subject differently. It’s not that our knowledge of the world is taking some shape other than a tree or becoming some impossible-to-envision four-dimensional tree. In the third order of order, knowledge doesn’t have a shape. There are just too many useful, powerful, and beautiful ways to make sense of our world.

Weinberger describes four “new strategic principles” for the way that we organize information in this new third order.

Filter on the way out, not on the way in
Put each leaf on as many branches as possible
Everything is metadata and everything can be a label
Give up control

That last one is probably going to be the hardest for some, especially those in the business of selling control of information (think Encyclopedia Britannica).

As a result of this shift organizing information is becoming a social process, with Wikipedia being the most visible example. And companies, organizations and governments may not have much say in the matter.

Customers, patrons, users, and citizens are not waiting for permission to take control of finding and organizing information. And we’re doing it not just as individuals – its content and its organization – is becoming a social act.

While Wienberger only briefly mentions education in the book, his ideas connect directly to our traditional concept of education, the model of a teacher in front of a class dispensing knowledge to their students.

While the world is quickly shifting into the miscellaneous, most classrooms cling to a structure where information is rigidly structured by textbooks, curriculums, and standardized tests.

Students, the potential users of the knowledge, have no input as to how it is organized. These days, teachers don’t get much of a say either.

This rant was never intended to be a full blown review of the book (and it’s already too long) so I’ll end it here.

Bottom line, read this book! You can find the prologue and first chapter on the book’s web site.

david weinberger, everything is miscellaneous, knowledge