David Weinberger proposes 3 orders of information in his new book Everything is Miscellaneous. In the first order are physical things which he calls atoms. The nature of physical things is that they can only be in one place and this causes difficulty when organizing physical things. A book recounting the scientific achievements of Nikola Tesla can be shelved in only one place, so should it be in Science, History or Biography?
The second order can be represented by the card catalog, listing the book in several subjects and by title and author. This second order improves our ability to find information but it is still limited because the cards in the card catalog are physical things. We can’t use it to find 19th Century Serbians that later gained American citizenship for example.
The third order of information is digital and not constrained by the categorization of atoms. Weinberger says since the world doesn’t fit neatly into a single ontology, we shouldn’t try to shoehorn it in. But we can use power of meta-data to find, re-find, lump, split and list information the way we want to use it.
He leads us on an interesting history of the organization of information. From alphabetization* to Melvin Dewey to tagging, the semantic web and social sites like Flickr and Wikipedia and how these affect the third order.
One of the minor themes throughout the book is that in the first and second order, those that control the categories have power. While he doesn’t advocate doing away with Linnaeus and the like, the consequences of the miscellaneous turn the authority’s control over the categories into only one of the ways of looking at information.
I recently heard from a couple of friends that, like me, they never finished Battelle’s The Search. In my case, once he described how cool the zeitgeist was, there was no new insight to be gained. Everything is Miscellaneous keeps developing interesting ideas throughout. This isn’t a book about libraries or tagging but if you’re interested in those you’ll want to read this book.
* The order of an alphabet is so closely linked to its existance I’d never thought of it as a separate concept. In fact, there were opponents to an alphabetical ordering of early encyclopedias because it was contrary to “God’s” ordering of the topics! You may not find this interesting but I did.