Review: David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder
Don’t be bamboozled. This book is puffery on the outside and propaganda within.
A booster of Internet-enabled consumer-generated content, Weinberger hails all its new modes—social networks, tagging, folksonomies, wikis, mash-ups etc.—to argue that the Internet enables new bottom-up ways of organizing and creating knowledge. His two theses are irrefutable. First, information is getting chopped into smaller and smaller pieces. Second, the organization of information has escaped physical world constraints and control by experts and their institutions. The net result: any one can now organize information any way one wants to suit one’s own purposes and do so at any time for one’s immediate use. From this potential Weinberger foresees though rose-colored glasses an ever-changing array of “useful, powerful and beautiful ways to make sense of our world.” Excuse me but such a view has huge problems.
As Weinberger points out, the best grouping and sorting of information into knowledge is done by small groups not only online but also offline, as his own examples demonstrate. The Internet brings nothing special to this process. To be sure, the Internet does make it much easier to form groups and very much easier to form groups that include strangers and groups devoted to narrow topics. But a vast increase in quantity does not necessarily yield any improvement in quality, and although Weinberger is always careful to label such an outcome as “potential,” I’ve yet to see any marked change in our ability to make sense of the world.
Nor is the appetite and aptitude for this activity suited to all. As any teacher who ever graded term papers will confirm, the ability to cut-and-paste information and turn it into knowledge is not innate. Even after some schooling, such a rudimentary skill is very far from universal. It is essential for the new occupational stratum of Information Age employees who manipulate words and numbers for their livings, but such “knowledge workers” are not Everyman. Presenting the abilities and interests of this or any other elite as those of everyone is the essence of ideology and shouldn’t fool anyone.
Nor should anyone accept, much less applaud, Weinberger’s cavalier dismissal of discipline and authority. He argues that knowledge should not have any shape and that deciding what to believe is now our burden. His laissez-faire alternative would have John and Jane Doe fend for themselves, finding and creating meaning from and among each other—link by link, tag by tag. Fortunately, this cannot happen because humans can only make sense of things, especially disconnected facts, through the frameworks of our inherited arts and sciences. Nor should it happen. The casual indifference to several millennia of human efforts to make sense of the world only leaves John and Jane in the post-modern void, unarmed and aimless.
There’s a lot to be said in favor of user-generated content but to suggest that the fragmentation of knowledge and the cacophony of cyberspace will improve our ability to make sense and meaning of life is cybertopian bunkum.