The book that changed my mind


I’ve talked about my preference for ordered taxonomies before. In another article, I even claimed that folksonomies weren’t scalable. Everything is Miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder, by David Weinberger may have just changed my mind. Published in 2007, the book isn’t new, but I came across it on a list of recommended reads for knowledge management.

Weinberger, co-author of the international bestseller The Cluetrain Manifesto,  has an easy-to-read conversational style. In Everything is Miscellaneous, he lays out humankind’s fixation for heirarchy across history. “[O]ur knowledge of the world has assumed the shape of a tree because that knowledge has been shackled to the physical.”

From Aristotle to Apple and Amazon, the way we work with information and knowledge has changed. Apple freed our music libraries so we could order our music how we wanted. Amazon clusters books in as many ways as we can so that we may discover what we want as well as find what we know we want. In Amazon’s world we can make our own top 10 lists—tagging and categorising books in the multiple ways that make sense to us as individuals. Collaborative filtering then displays other books that Amazon thinks we might like.

That’s when I opened my eyes.

I’ve espoused careful categorisation because I believed it meant for easier browsing. But with a digital knowledge base, who browses in order anymore? Not me. I have a carefully ordered list of bookmarks in my web browser, but I don’t look down that list, I rely on auto-completion and Google, and that is no-doubt common and quicker. I took a long, hard look at my own behaviour and realised I’ve been holding onto a hard-copy way of looking at the world.

Weinberger argues that it’s the metadata that holds the value in the way we can make new connections, new knowledge. In the miscellaneous world, everything is metadata. So, in our knowledge bases, how do we decide what metadata to collect; how do we decide the ways in which the user can create their own information display based on that metadata. Many of our knowledge base tools constrain us to categories, forcing us to decide how the reader should experience what we want them to know. But what if our knowledge bases were more like Amazon? “People that read this article also read this one”, or “this article is in the top 10 list for others in the marketing team”, etc.

This book seems to be about offering new ways of working with digital information, but it’s so much more than that. It highlights our reflexive grasp on hierarchy in the real world, too. Just as Apple democratised music playlists, Zappos’ Tony Hsieh is taking structure out of the organisation. Is that just the beginning of what could become miscellany in the corporate world? It makes sense that cross-functional roles could get more done in an organisation, because they don’t have to present their ideas up through the hierarchy of one silo and then have it be passed down the next. We reflexively grasp order though, because we don’t want to think too hard and come up with new ways. Hierarchy, steps, pre-defined order—it’s all automatic pilot—but it’s also conforming to someone else’s idea of how things should go.

A miscellaneous world may seem chaotic but it’s filled with boundless opportunities.

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