Everything Is Miscellaneous – a Must-Read Book

David Weinberger, author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined (2002) ((Weinberger, D. (2002). Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.)) and one of the four contributors to the Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine, Locke, Searls, & Weinberger, 2000) ((Levine, R., Locke, C., Searls, D., & Weinberger, D. (2000). The Cluetrain Manifesto : The End of Business As Usual. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books.)), published a new book this year: Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (2007). ((New York: Times Books.)) The central argument for the book is that a new order in organizing ‘things’ that he calls ‘the third order’ is emerging and that we need to rethink the frameworks we put in place inside and between our organizations.

David elaborates … In the first order we organized things — putting similar things together. He uses several exemplars and analogies, one of which is emptying the dishwasher — when we do this, we put similar utensils (e.g. plates and bowls) together. Likewise, the original libraries stored books alphabetically and therefore patrons relied on a knowledgeable librarian (read knowledge specialist) to find appropriate material on their request. But then along came Melvil Dewey and, with the creation of the Dewey Decimal system, libraries moved to the second order. Now we could have card catalogs and organize books by subject as well as by author. The stacks could be opened up to patrons and we could find things without relying on a librarian who needed to have intimate knowledge of the entire collection. But books, in the second order, are reduced to 3×5 cards in a catalog and we have a couple (or a few; but not infinite) ways of organizing them — and therein lies the limitations of second order frameworks.

In the digital age, David claims, everything is miscellaneous. Welcome to the third order. He supports his thesis using a number of exemplars, most of them with strong web-based business models. Along came Amazon leveraging the vast capabilities of computers and techniques of collaborative filtering (‘people who bought this book also bought…’) to allow us to traverse collections of books. Think about it: we are no longer told how to organize books, the community contributes to our understanding of the relationship between various books, and the organization is not static but dynamic and grows over time. With every search the collection is rearranged to match our point of reference/view.

I have spoken with a couple of colleagues at the University of Toronto Faculty of Information Studies who have built their academic careers in the area of knowledge organization and information/knowledge credibility. Having approached this book skeptically at first, they became converts to the concepts espoused.

So how do things work in the third order? People organize things the way they personally and individually think about them. They put them into folders or classify them as ‘alike.’ They can put the same things (e.g. documents) into several places. They can tag things. They can search on their own tags — as well as other people’s tags. Tools such as del.icio.us, YouTube and Flickr do this today without imposing ways of organizing things on the user/participant/community.

Publishers feel that their business models are threatened by the idea of Google books or any service that allows people electronic access to the full text of their publications. But, I sure like the thought of being able to go through the twelve books I have read this year on expertise subjects and to be able to find things electronically — instead I am reduced to manual marginalia and my poor memory of what and where certain material I have read is. I like the idea that in the third order, everything in the book (full text) is in the card catalog, so to speak.

So, I ask those of us who are involved with knowledge management (inside and outside of the practice of law): what would happen if we acquiesced to the third order and instead of fighting it, embraced it? Why not let people in your organization ‘tag’ their own materials (documents, pictures, websites, books, articles, publications, etc.)? Should we be forcing the world view of knowledge organization on our people (various classification schemes, taxonomies and knowledge organization frameworks) versus letting them organize materials on their own and as they see fit (folksonomies)? Why does it matter how things are organized in a digital/third-order world where organization is a dynamic snapshot at any point in time?

At first glance, many of the things that David proposes seem like heresy; but dig deep, and you will find there is much of substance in the way he sees things. This is an excellent book. If you haven’t read this book yet, I highly recommend it. It will challenge your thinking about what is possible as we move KM forward.

Comments are closed.