Everything is Miscellaneous

For years now I’ve been fascinated and bothered by hierarchical systems of organization, starting with the Dewey Decimal System and progressing to typical org charts in businesses and hierarchical file systems on computers. On the one hand, the systematic structure appealed to me; on the other hand, it was clearly much too rigid. Even as a kid I was perplexed by the problem of shelving interdisciplinary books in a library, and I still pester librarians about that issue. (It’s no coincidence that my favorite book is Gödel, Escher, Bach.) A place for everything, and everything in its place…but no, that doesn’t work. And as soon I became an avid computer user I got frustrated by files that belonged in multiple places; alias are nice, but they’re a workaround, not a solution.

I’m still of two minds about this. I like the fact that the email in my gmail account is mostly sitting in one huge pile, where I can use the power of tags and fast searching to retrieve what I want. But another email account, which I access through Apple Mail, is nicely organized into folders and subfolders. Except…does a message from Paul dealing with teaching math at CSA go into the Paul folder or the math folder or the CSA folder? Folders aren’t really right.

Relational databases somewhat have the right idea. Although each of my all-too-many books has to live in a particular (single) location in my home, I can at least search, sort, and list by various criteria. If I want books by Isaac Asimov — which are spread among science fiction, mysteries, science, math, history, and who know what else — I can easily get a list, and furthermore I can sort them by category or date of publication or whatever. But I still have to use those predetermined fields; “whatever” turns out not to be very broad.

So I was already in the right mindset to read David Weinberger’s readable and fascinating book, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. Weinberger presents a convincing case for thinking about organization and information in a new way. In something under 300 pages, he analyzes the “three orders of order”:

In the first order of order, we organize things themselves — we put silverware into drawers, books on shelves, photos into albums… [Then we come to] a prototypical example of the second order of order: a card catalog containing information about each of the eleven million objects….

OK, so my book collection is the first order of order, and my catalog (database) in which I can find all of Asimov’s books (well, the 63 I own, not the 500 or so that he wrote) is the second order. Then what’s the third? My gmail archive is a reasonable example. Because everything is digitized, and the categories aren’t predetermined, I can in principle find anything and find it quickly. The only pesky problem is tagging all those messages…

Anyway, I’m just skimming the surface here. Do read Weinberger’s book — you don’t really need to have a Ph.D. in philosophy, as Weinberger has — and check out his website. And read Cathy Marshall’s article in Tekka for a contrary point-of-view on the utility of tags. Speaking of which, I think I need to start adding some tags to these blog posts; the second order of order provided by my categories just isn’t enough.

Categories: Books, Technology