In attempting to catch up with the ever growing backlog of side reading, I was scanning the current issue of the semi-irregular newsletter by David Weinberger, one of my favorite big concept writers.
David has a new book, Everything is Miscellaneous, coming in May, and for the last few years he has been writing and editing it in public view of anyone who might be interested in his ideas on the changing nature of knowledge.
In the lead essay of the newsletter, Weinberger asks “If too much information is noise, what’s too much meaning?”.
It used to be hard to make sense of things, so we relied on a few people who could do it for us. The evening news broadcast featured the National Dad telling us How It Was. Encyclopedias may not have given us all the facts, but they condensed the big picture into a little picture that was unarguable. Heck, you might as well argue with the encyclopedia! Columnists and magazines with well-recognized slants gave our side its story, whatever that side was. Of course there was lively debate – before the Net we weren’t complete idiots – but the debate was either between media stars (Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley vs. Norman Mailer, Norman Mailer vs. Norman Mailer) or was as local as our living room, classroom or bar. You could only hear distant voices if they were famous because a voice you could hear at a distance was by definition famous.
Now there is an abundance of ways of making sense of things. Blogs give a billion people the possibility of making sense of things in public. News sites such as Digg and Reddit let readers decide which stories are important. The endless traversability of links means we can construct contexts of understanding by clicking, and there are a near-infinity number of paths we can take. Tags are simple statements, context free, of what a page or a photo means to an individual, from which emerges a topology of social meaning.
So now, in addition to a flood of information, we also have a flood of meaning, or at least an abundance of people offering their version of the context in which the data fits.
It’s worth your time to read the whole newsletter. For me, Weinberger’s thoughtful ramblings always add a measure of meaning to the mix.