I have a love/hate relationship with my digital camera. On the one hand, I love how easy it is to snap a shot, see it, and take another if I’m not satisfied. On the other hand, once I’ve taken the pictures there’s the daunting task of uploading them to the computer and searching through them to find ones to print and place online. And once those photos are online, there’s still another step if I want to tag or put descriptions of the photos. More often than not, I find myself just uploading the whole batch and intending to go through it later. Meanwhile I take more pictures.
In his new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger uses the pileup of digital pictures as just one example of how managing the influx of information is a problem we all face. “We’re just never going to catch up,” he writes, both of me with my pictures and the Library of Congress trying to keep on top of categorizing the millions of items they receive every day. With increasingly smaller limitations on bandwidth and hard-drive space, the vast amount of digital information available to us is quickly becoming mind boggling.
Complicating the issue of quantity is the problem of how to organize it all. Weinberger traces the history of classification systems, exploring how they were created and used and how they’ve evolved over the years. He also explains that, given the quantity of digital material, applying any existing system of order to the digital world is problematic. As Weinberger writes of the Library of Congress, its
carefully engineered, highly evolved process for ordering information simply won’t work in the new world of digital information. Not only is there too much information moving too rapidly, there are no centralized classification experts in charge of the new digital world we’re rapidly creating for ourselves, starting with the World Wide Web but including every connected corporate library, data repository, and media player.
With too much information to keep track of and no uniform, accepted classification scheme, how do we go about organizing the digital world? Weinberger believes we start by thinking of knowledge as messy and get away from the idea that there should be a single, orderly method of organization. Without the binds of physical matter, digital information can be jumbled but continually re-ordered as each individual seeks out specific information. In what Weinberger calls the third way of order, every bit of knowledge is miscellaneous, non-hierarchal, and intertwined.
Weinberger embraces the idea of multiple methods of categorizing and connecting information. He uses the analogy of “smart leaves” to describe bits of information that are easily found through multiple routes, or branches, if you will. Although a physical book can only be in one place on a shelf, digital “leaves” can be hung on numerous branches, and, as Weinberger points out, it’s advantageous to do so. From a business perspective it makes more sense to make products and services more findable by placing them on any logical branch that a customer might think of searching. Oddly, However, Weinberger barely mentions search engines as a way of connecting users to data in this new order. No matter how high the level of organization, I still need a way to, well, search out info.
User-created content and classification are a big part of this new order. People now tag articles and news with self-described terms that help retrieve this information later on. They also rate information, lending credibility through sites like Digg or Amazon, or generate their own through a site like Wikipedia. Weinberger argues that these social ways of knowing are changing the way our minds understand and group information, seeing it as an ongoing collaborative process.
The paradox of user-constructed information is that while it takes control away from organizations, institutions that restrict people from organizing knowledge for themselves risk losing users. Weinberger believes that “the paradox is already resolving itself. Customers, patrons, users, and citizens are not waiting for permission to take control of finding and organizing information.”
Everything Is Miscellaneous opens the door for more conversations about the political aspects of information management in the digital world. The current debate over Net Neutrality—the idea that certain sections of the Internet should not be accessed via inferior “pipes,” leaving premium address to those who can pay for them—has huge implications as to who has access as both knowledge-makers and knowledge-seekers. Or look at digitization projects like Google Book: Who decides what materials are put in digital format and what technologies are used to do so? Although collective input gives people the ability to create, describe, and classify information, they can only do so to the degree that access to information is democratized.
My virtual stack of digital pictures is still ever-growing, but I’ve accepted that I may not ever catch up. Instead I’m taking a cue from Weinberger and focusing on making it easier to find the pictures I care most about. And while my digital photo spread may not be as carefully organized as a physical photo album, there’s a miscellany about my pile of photos that lends it to new connections and meanings.
Megan Keane lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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