Monday, March 24, 2008

Everthing is Miscellaneous

(Recent) Book read - Everything is Miscellaneous : The Power of the New Digital Disorder

David Weinberger's work is an excellent look at the current state of informational organization and the history of the philosophy of information. This book is a great read, and really shows the underlying significance that is forming from the information we are producing.

Weinbeger chronicles the development of organization. The first order is the real world, things can physically be organized, but there has to be a system, as things can only be in one place. The next step was the second order - the paper order, where lists were maintained detailing the locations of thins, such as a card catalog. But this systems has its limitations, things can be cross-referenced to have multiple locations on a list, but the physical limitations of paper make it hard to change and hard to search. The periodic table, for example could be reformulated in many different ways, but this was not possible until technology had a way of instantly reorganizing the data. The third order - the digital order is an advanced evolution of this system. Information is made into bits and then thrown into a miscellaneous pile. It can then later be sorted in any way the user wants, making searching easy and the results much more useful.

One of the latest improvements is the use of tags and labels. These provide metadata that can be searched and cataloged. This metadata becomes data of its own, and conversely data becomes metadata. For example searching on the name of a Shakepeare play (metadata) results in the text of the play, but if you want to learn the name of the play, then you could search by using text from it. Through the use of tags, things are organized as they're searched for. Information is only useful because of what it leaves out, as Weinberger says " the explicit diminishes the implicit". So maps such as Google Earth, become much more useful because they can be customized to include whats important, and exclude non-relevant locations. Music playlists have become the 21st century "mix tape", but the playlist itself is only metadata - it only points to the music that is the data itself. But, as the mix tape had meaning, there is also meaning in whats include in the playlist.

The implicit is the context, or meaning, of the data. The development of technology has been the externalization of human abilities, books and computers have externalized memory, and now information has externalized meaning. Weinberger notes that making something explicit is often difficult as we have to oversimplify to make things fit. "My lists of interests at Friendster is not really a list of my interests. It's a complex social artifact that results from my goals, self-image, and anticipations of how other people will interpret my list." An interesting problem that most of us have encountered on-line. His solution is finding the balance between implicit and explicit. As our data is becoming more meaningful, we can hope that this balance will become easier. As he shows, we have entered an era where small improvements to our on-line experience are having a dramatic impact on the usefulness of digital information.

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