[iDC] Everything is Misc - extracts and intro

Astrid Mager astrid.mager at univie.ac.at
Wed Aug 1 11:41:59 UTC 2007

Dear IDC list members, dear David Weinberger,

I just followed the discussion on the book "Everything is Miscellaneous" 
and find it most interesting as it nicely fits to the work I’m doing for 
my PhD, however being much more rooted in empiricism. Before sharing my 
thoughts, let me say a few words about myself (as newcomer on the list). 
My name is Astrid Mager and I’m currently working as a research 
collaborator and lecturer at the Department of Social Studies of Science 
in Vienna. Concretely, I’m collaborating in a project called “Virtually 
Informed – The Internet in the Medical Field”. Closely related to this 
project, I’m writing my PhD on the way the virtual space of health 
information is structured considering both providers’ link and users’ 
search strategies. Drawing together multiple data sources such as 
Issuecrawler maps developing hyperlink networks, video files of surfers' 
Web searches, log files and qualitative interviews with both providers 
and surfers of health-related information, I argue that “the Internet” 
must not be understood as having a fixed (information) structure, but 
rather gets differently performed and structured in practices, very 
briefly said. I’ll further elaborate in which ways these practices 
relate to particular conceptualizations of “the Internet” and its 
“actors” - such as Web sites, links and Google - involved (as 
articulated by both providers and users). In this context, I’ve given a 
presentation at the New Network Theory conference in Amsterdam. 
Afterwards I was surprisingly invited to participate in this list and 
that’s how I ended up here, what I really appreciate thanks to you all!

Having read the excerpts of the book I identified some interesting 
connections to the empirical analysis I’ve done, which I’d like to put 
up for discussion (although – also – feeling quite intimidated by the 
high standards of this list):

First of all, the surfers searching for health issues online experience 
“the Internet” indeed as miscellaneous or as a messy “flood of 
information”, as they call it. Accordingly, they articulate a need for 
adequate tools to structure the messy information in a quick and 
efficient way. In the Austrian context, Google turned out to be “the” 
pre-selection tool people use because it allows to structure their 
search along their specific interests. Contrary to links being framed as 
misleading and chaotic, Google is shaped as virtual guide through the 
Web letting the users keep control over their search with the help of 
keywords. Google is also seen as providing a good possibility to not 
“get lost on the Web” and therefore providing an initial point to where 
people can always “go back” in case of trouble. Thus, these empirical 
findings completely support Weinberger’s argument that Web information 
is “filtered on the way out”, however in a very different way than 
regarding social software etc. In this process users may definitely be 
seen as “filterers” structuring the information with the help of search 
engines by choosing and combining keywords, which in turn crucially 
determine the information people (don’t) get on their screen.

Providers giving their Web sites a certain order, may thus be seen as 
having lost control over the way their information is structured and 
used. While the providers still focus on the Web site as a whole, users 
do not read the sites from the beginning to the end, but rather puzzle 
their own stories by using different pieces of information from 
different Web sites. Instead of following the logic of Web sites (as 
imagined by the providers), people rather follow the logic of Google 
directing the user to a particular sub-page corresponding to their 
keyword, but seldom enclosing information about the provider. It 
therefore happens that people do not realize on which Web site they 
actually are as they have virtually entered it through the back door and 
thus having missed the entrance plate.

As the users heavily rely on Google as pre-selection tool, Google itself 
may also be seen as “filterer” or “gatekeeper” in my point of view. As 
people mainly remain with the first few entries – and thus often end up 
on pretty the same Web sites, as my analysis shows – Google could be 
interpreted as important “actor” in the users’ surf processes giving 
presence and absence to Web sites. In this sense, machines and pieces of 
software may also be seen as gatekeepers helping the user to pre-select 
and order the huge amounts of information surrounding us. Considering 
the debates around Web 3.0, this point may get even more important in 
the future as Web sites are supposed to be “read” not only by users, but 
increasingly also by machines.

In this sense, I would agree with Weinberger “that the control has 
changed hands” as people do not strictly follow the information 
structures proposed by the providers - or "experts" - (neither within 
the sites, nor between the sites when thinking of links), but rather 
find their own ways through the information jungle. However, considering 
my empirical findings, I would like to add, that we need to keep in mind 
that new gatekeepers have entered the scene establishing new hierarchies 
and information politics. And gatekeepers such as Google must not only 
be understood as crucially determining what users get on their screens, 
but also as effectively transforming "the Web" as providers increasingly 
react on the dominat Google use by exchanging huge numbers of 
(extra)links to gain a preferred position in search engine results and 
thus visibility, at least in the health-related context. Google’s 
omnipresence – with all its algorithm politics and consequences involved 
– may thus be understood as being strengthened and stabilized by both 
users’ and providers’ practices. Google could therefore be interpreted 
as being at the interface of providers and users and thus exercising 
control over information structures in both ways.

As I only know the excerpts of the book having circulated on the list so 
far, I don't know if search engines play a role in Weinberger's 
arguments at all. Nevertheless, I find the arguments quite striking in 
regard to my empirical material and thus already look forward to reading 
the whole book. In the meanwhile, I'm curious about all kinds of 
comments, criticism, recommendations, further discussions....

Thanks & all the best from sunny Vienna,
p.s.: sorry for responding to the thread that late...

David Weinberger schrieb:
> Dear IDC'ers,
> I'm a long-time lurker on this list, but I haven't contributed because I
> find mailing lists intimidating, and this one particularly so. Yet,
> Trebor's offer to try to turn the discussion to topics raised in my
> book, "Everything Is Miscellaneous" (EIM) was too good to turn down.
> Thank you, Trebor.
> Trebor's asked me to introduce myself. I'm a Boston-based writer with a
> particular interest in how the Web affects our ideas. (Well, that
> narrows the scope to just about everything!) I was a co-author of "The
> Cluetrain Manifesto" (www.cluetrain.com) (2000) and the author of "Small
> Pieces Loosely Joined" in 2002 (www.smallpieces.com). I taught
> philosophy until I was 36, but was not in a tenure-track position, so I
> joined a high-tech company in 1986 as a marketing writer. I've been a
> marketing guy ever since, although in the past few years I've been able
> to spend much more of my time writing than marketing. I also am involved
> in some political issues and campaigns. For the past few years, I've
> been a Fellow at Harvard Law's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
> Given this list's interests, it might help to know that during my
> philosophical "career," Heidegger was very influential. But I'm totally
> out of shape as a philosophy guy, and, frankly, was always pretty
> flabby.
> Here are some Web coordinates:
> My main blog: www.JohoTheBlog.com.
> The EIM blog: www.EverythingIsMisc.com
> A hype-y bio: www.hyperorg.com/speaker/bio.html
> My newsletter: www.hyperorg.com
> Trebor's suggested that I post the following two excerpts from
> "Everything Is Miscellaneous." These are posted with permission of my
> publisher, Times Books.
> [From Chapter 5, pp. 100-106. The first four chapters have tried to
> convince the reader that how we order and classify our world has a
> history, is always the result of our culture and interests, confers
> power on those who get to do the classifying, and is complex and messy.
> I've also introduced the idea that there are three "orders of order":
> (1) Organizing the things themselves (books, photos...not Dinge an
> sich!), (2) physically separating the metadata and organizing them
> (e.g., catalog cards), and (3) digitizing both the content and the
> metadata. The third order requires us to invent new principles of
> organization.]
> College students' silverware drawers, Delicious, Flickr, the BBC and
> Wikipedia are miscellaneous in different ways, except for one thing:
> How their content is actually arranged does not determine how that
> content can and will be arranged by their users. In some cases -
> Wikipedia, for example - no one even knows exactly where the raw
> contents are. These examples are miscellaneous _because_ users don't
> need to know the inner organization, _because_ that inner order
> doesn't result in a preferred order of use, and _because_ users have
> wide flexibility to order the pieces as they want, even and especially
> in unanticipated ways. This means that the miscellaneous enables _all_
> of the information contained in the set to be discovered over time.
> But this also means the miscellaneous doesn't much resemble our
> traditional view of knowledge. Knowledge, we've thought, has four
> characteristics, two of them modeled on properties of reality and two on
> properties of political regimes.
> As we've seen, the first characteristic of traditional knowledge is
> that just as there is one reality, there is one knowledge, the same for
> all. If two people have contradictory ideas about something factual, we
> think they can't both be right. This is because we've assumed
> knowledge is an accurate representation of reality, and the real world
> cannot be self-contradictory. We treat ideas that dispute this view of
> knowledge with disdain. We label them "relativism" and imagine them
> to be the devil's work, we sneer at them as "postmodern" and
> assume that it's just a bunch of French pseudo-intellectual gibberish,
> or we say "whatever" as a license to stop thinking.
> Second, we've assumed that just as reality is not ambiguous, neither
> is knowledge. If something isn't clear to us, then we haven't
> understood it. We may not be 100% certain whether the Nile or the Amazon
> is the longest river, we but we're confident one is. Conversely, if
> there's no possibility of certainty - "Which tastes better, beets or
> radishes?" - we say it isn't a matter of knowledge at all.
> Third, because knowledge is as big as reality, no one person can
> comprehend it. So we need people who will act as filters, based on
> education, experience and clear thinking. We call them experts and we
> give them clipboards. They keep bad information away from us and provide
> us with the very best information.
> Fourth, experts achieve their position by working their way up through
> social institutions. The people in these institutions are doing their
> best to be honest and helpful, but, until humans achieve divinity, our
> organizations will inevitably be subject to corrupting influences. Which
> groups get funded can determine what a society believes, and funding is
> often granted by people who know less than the experts: The fate of a
> DNA research center may rest with Congresspeople who couldn't tell a
> ribosome from a trombone.
> The way we've organized knowledge has been largely determined by these
> four properties of knowledge. We've tried try to settle on a single,
> comprehensive framework for knowledge, with categories so clear and
> comprehensive that experts can put each thing in its proper place.
> Institutions grew to maintain the knowledge framework. Their ability to
> certify experts and to vouch for knowledge made them powerful and
> sometimes rich. So, when the miscellaneous shakes our certainty in the
> nature of knowledge, more than the future of the card catalog is at
> stake. Because a third order miscellany is digital, not physical, we no
> longer have to agree on a single framework. Things have their _places_,
> not a single place. We get to create our own categories, ones that suit
> our way of thinking. Experts can be helpful, but in the age of the
> miscellaneous they and their institutions are no longer in charge of our
> ideas.
> These are big changes, but perhaps the most urgent one is this: Over the
> course of the millennia, we've developed sophisticated methods and
> processes for developing, communicating and preserving knowledge. We
> have major institutions - serious contributors to our culture and our
> economy - devoted to those tasks. We're good at it. Now we have to
> invent new ways appropriate to the new shape of knowledge. We are doing
> so at a pace unparalleled in our history.
> Three new strategic principles are emerging, severing the ties between
> the way we organize physical objects and ideas.
> FILTER ON THE WAY OUT, NOT ON THE WAY IN. A friend of mine who worked at
> the Harvard Business Review tells amusing stories about the "slush
> pile," the unsolicited manuscripts that arrive every day. Harvard
> Business Review is a sober journal of research and ideas, yet people
> submit poetry, short stories, and arty photographs. My friend's job was
> to go through the slush pile to see what, if anything, was worth passing
> along for serious consideration. She was a gatekeeper, a filterer, a job
> that makes sense when the economics and physics of paper force us to
> make decisions about what knowledge we will publish and thus preserve.
> We rely on experts such my friend to spare us from having to wade
> through the slush pile on our own.
> But, when anyone can publish at the press of a button, the social role
> of gatekeepers changes. For example, from the outside, the "blogosphere"
> looks like a self-indulgent pool of slush that wouldn't get past the
> usual publishing filters. While the economics of publishing ensure that
> most blogs indeed wouldn't be let through the gates, the aggregate
> value of all the blogs in the "long tail" (to use the term Chris
> Anderson made popular in his book of that name) - each perhaps of
> interest only to a few people -  is incalculable. This is an inversion
> of the old model. In a world of parsimonious access to paper, filters
> increase the value of what's available by excluding the slush. But in
> the third order, where there's an abundance of access to an abundance
> of resources, filtering on the way in _decreases_ the value of that
> abundance by ruling out items that might be of great value to a few
> people. Filtering on the way out, on the other hand, increases the value
> of the abundance by locating what's of value to a particular person at
> a particular moment. For example, a young physics professor at McGill
> University, Bob Rutledge, started an electronic bulletin board that
> posts new findings for any research as soon as it can be summarized.
> Rutledge doesn't apply criteria to decide for the reader whether the
> research is important enough to be included (though only active,
> professional astronomers can register to post to the site). It's up to
> each reader to be the filterer. Similarly, the Public Library of
> Science's biology journal, a peer-reviewed but free online resource,
> started PLoS One in November 2006. "The idea is to take the
> editorializing out of the peer review process," says Hemai
> Parthasarathy, the managing editor. So long as a paper is "sound," it
> will be published. If it's good science, _someone_ may find it useful.
> So long as the user has good tools for finding what she needs - and this
> is a task many are working on - filtering on the way out vastly
> increases our shared potential for knowledge.
> can only hang from one branch. In the first order of organization,
> there's no way around that limitation. In the second order, most
> cataloging systems have provisions for listing books under more than one
> heading, but the physicality of the second order still usually demands
> that one branch be picked as the primary one and there is a limit on the
> number of secondary listings.
> In the third order, however, it's to our advantage to hang information
> from as many branches as possible. If you get a new Casio digital camera
> to sell in your online store, you'll want to list it under as many
> categories as you can think of, including cameras, travel gear, Casio
> products, graduation gifts, new items, sale items, and perhaps even
> sports equipment. Hanging a leaf on multiple branches makes it more
> findable by customers. Unlike in the second order, this doesn't make
> your e-store disorganized or messy. It makes it more usable…and more
> profitable.
> easy to tell the labels from the goods they label, and in a library the
> books and their metadata are kept in separate rooms. But it's not so
> clear online. If you can't remember the name of one of Shakespeare's
> plays, go to the search box at Google Book, type "Shakespeare tragedy,"
> and you'll see a list of all of them. Click on, say, _King Lear_ and you
> can read the full text, including the famous line, "How sharper than a
> serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!" Now suppose you want
> to know where the quotation "How sharper than a serpent's tooth" comes
> from. Type the phrase into the search box and Google will list _King
> Lear_.  Simple, but in the first case you used Shakespeare's name as
> metadata to find the contents of a book and in the second you used some
> of the contents of the book as metadata to find the author and title. In
> the miscellaneous order, the only distinction between metadata and data
> is that metadata is what you already know and data is what you're trying
> to find out.
> In the first two orders of order, we've had to think carefully about
> which metadata we'll capture because the physical world limits the
> amount of metadata we can make available: A book's catalog card has to
> hold far less information than does the book itself. In the third order,
> not only can every word in a book count as metadata, so can any of the
> sources that link to the book. if we want to help our customers or users
> find information, we'll try to make as much of usable as metadata as we
> can.
> This not only makes sites easier to use, it vastly increases the
> leverage of knowledge. Think of what we can do with just the few words
> that fit on a second-order card or label. Now that everything in the
> connected world can serve as metadata, knowledge is empowered beyond
> fathoming. We not only can find what we need based on whatever slight
> traces we have in our hand, we can see connections that would have
> escaped notice in the first two orders. The power of the miscellaneous
> comes directly from the fact that in the third order, everything is
> connected and therefore everything is metadata.
> GIVE UP CONTROL. Build a tree and you surface information that might
> otherwise be hidden, just as Lamarck exposed information left hidden in
> Linnaeus' miscellaneous category of worms. But, a big pile of
> miscellaneous information contains relationships beyond reckoning. No
> one person or group is going to be able to organize it in all the useful
> ways, hanging all the leaves on all the branches where they might be
> hung. For example, iTunes shows users a branch that pulls together
> albums by a particular artist, but the millions of playlists that users
> have made there find relationships that the organizers of iTunes could
> not possibly have foreseen, from techno versions of children's songs
> to tracks played at someone's third wedding. iTunes simply cannot
> predict what people are going to be interested in, what a song is going
> to mean to them, and what connections they're going to see. Some of the
> combinations will be of passing value only to one person, but other
> people may find their world changed by how a stranger has pulled
> together a set of songs to express a mood, an outlook, or an idea.
> That's why it's so powerful to let users mix it up for themselves. Go
> into a real world clothing store and try pulling everything in your size
> off the racks and into a shopping cart so ou can go through it in an
> orderly fashion. After all, that's the rational way to proceed.
> Everything that's not your size is just noise, a distraction. Yet,
> within ninety seconds you'll be thrown out of the store and firmly asked
> not to return. On line, on the other hand, we just naturally expect to
> organize digital information our way, through tags, bookmarks,
> playlists, and weblogs. And then we add to the information a site
> provides us by disagreeing with it in our own reviews. Users are now in
> charge of the organization of the information they browse. Of course,
> the owners of that information may still want to offer a prebuilt
> categorization, but that is no longer the only - or best - one
> available. Put simply, the owners of information no longer own the
> organization of that information.
> Control has already changed hands. The new rules of the information
> jungle are in effect, transforming the landscape in which we work, buy,
> learn, vote and play.
>           * * *
> [From Chapter 7, "Social Knowing," pp. 131-133]
> In February 2005, Michael Gorman, the president of the American Library
> Association, lambasted weblogs in the association’s flagship magazine,
> Library Journal:
>      A blog is a species of interactive electronic diary
>      by means of which the unpublishable, untrammeled by
>      editors or the rules of grammar, can communicate their
>      thoughts via the web…
>      Given the quality of the writing in the blogs I have
>      seen, I doubt that many of the Blog People are in the
>      habit of sustained reading of complex texts. It is
>      entirely possible that their intellectual needs are
>      met by an accumulation of random facts and paragraphs.
> Some librarians—especially those who were also Blog People—were
> outraged. "An example of irresponsible leadership at its worst," wrote
> Sarah Houghton on her blog, Librarian in Black. "Excoriating ad hominem
> attacks wrapped in academic overspeak," blogged Free Range Librarian
> Karen Schneider, adding, “No citations, of course.” The best title of a
> blog post had to be "Turkey ALA king" by Michael D. Bates at BatesLine.
> Gorman brushed off his critics, citing his “old fashioned belief that,
> if one wishes to air one's views and be taken seriously, one should go
> through the publishing/editing process.” How fortunate for Gorman that
> he heads an organization with its own journal.
> But then, Gorman is hardly alone in his skepticism about online sources.
> In October of the same year, Philip Bradley, a librarian and Internet
> consultant, said in The Guardian that Wikipedia is, theoretically “a
> lovely idea,” but “I wouldn’t use it, and I’m not aware of a single
> librarian who would.”
> Robert McHenry, a former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica,
> summed up his analysis of Wikipedia:
>      "The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some
>      subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather
>      in the position of a visitor to a public restroom.
>      It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise
>      great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he
>      may be lulled into a false sense of security. What
>      he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities
>      before him."
> If these experts of the second order sound a bit hysterical, it is
> understandable. The change they're facing from the miscellaneous is deep
> and real. Authorities have long filtered and organized information for
> us, protecting us from what isn't worth our time and helping us find
> what we need to give our beliefs a sturdy foundation. But, with the
> miscellaneous, it’s all available to us, unfiltered.
> More is at stake than how we’re going to organize our libraries.
> Businesses have traditionally owned not only their information assets
> but also the organization of that information. For some, their business
> _is_ the organization of information. The Online Computer Library Center
> bought the Dewey Decimal Classification system in 1988 as part of its
> acquisition of Forest Press. To protect its trademark, in 2003 the OCLC
> sued a New York City hotel with a library theme for numbering its rooms
> with Dewey numbers. Westlaw makes a good profit providing the standard
> numbering of court cases, applying proprietary metadata to material in
> the public domain. But just about every industry that creates or
> distributes content - ideas, information or creativity in any form -
> exerts control over how that content is organized. The front page of the
> newspaper, the selection of movies playing at your local theater, the
> order of publicly-available facts in an almanac, the layout of a music
> store, and the order of marching bands in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day
> Parade all bring significant value to the companies that control them.
> This creates a conundrum for businesses as they enter the third order.
> If they don’t allow their users to structure information for themselves,
> they’ll lose their patrons. If they do allow patrons to structure
> information for themselves, the organizations will lose much of their
> authority, power, and control.
> The paradox is already resolving itself. Customers, patrons, users and
> citizens are not waiting for permission to take finding and organization
> information. And we’re doing it not just as individuals. Knowledge—its
> content and its organization—is becoming a social act.
> ----------
> And thus ends the longest post to a mailing list ever!
> I look forward to the discussion, although the way it's worked out, I'll
> be on dialup starting on Sunday or Monday, and thus may be somewhat
> laggy in my own participation.
> David W.
> David Weinberger
> Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society
> self at evident.com
> www.JohoTheBlog.com
> www.EverythingIsMiscellaneous.com
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Mag. Astrid Mager
Institut für Wissenschaftsforschung / Department of Social Studies of Science
Universität Wien / University of Vienna
Sensengasse 8/10
1090 Wien

Tel.: 0043-1-4277-49616; Fax: 0043-1-4277-9496

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