I’m not a particulary organized person. I can hear some guffaws in response to that understatement already. My kitchen table, more often than not, is covered with piles of books and unsorted mail, it’s true. But check out my book and CD shelves. They’re alphabetized. I may be behind in cataloging, but there is organization to be found. I do like knowing how to find things, I just can’t stick with a single methodology. As for papers, files, mail… I need things in more than one place, but the geographical limitations of my home, and the fact that I simply don’t have, or want to have, more than one copy of my stuff, rule that out as an option. Turns out what I need is the new digital disorder for things to make sense to me.
Dave Weinberger’s new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, examines my dilemma. It’s another in a growing list of fascinating, readable business books focusing on the way business is changing as result of the disruptive technologies of the internet. Weinberger is the co-author of the classic The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, which came to represent a shift in thinking of the net as just another medium to recognizing that we now have the opportunity for conversations and relationships as never before. This new offering fits nicely as a sequel to Chris Anderson’s excellent The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. The Long Tail showed us that the infinite inventory of web vendors allows for aggregate sales of minor titles can add up to profits even greater than the hits, and that in fact the days of blockbuster hits as we once defined them are gone. And for us consumers – there’s so much available, we can now find niches that cater to our specific interests. Everything is Miscellaneous explores how we’ll find those things.
Weinberger is clearly a pretty organized guy. He writes that "There isn’t a part of our homes that is truly unordered, except perhaps under our beds…" That’s kind of a reach. But his point is that we all employ various schemes to organize our physical space: spices go together, plates of a certain size go together, yet some things are ordered based on frequency of use.
Libraries have enormous problems to solve in deciding how to store things, for obvious reasons relating to physical space.
This is not a new issue, by a long shot. Over 2,000 years ago, scholars in Rome or Greece (depending on who you read) introduced the idea of alphabetization as a way to organize information. It took hundreds of years and many reinventions to stick. Alphabetization was considered an affront to god. It was argued that there is a natural organization for all knowledge, that alphabetization is unnatural. The Dewey Decimal System was the first widely-accepted method of organizing knowledge, employing a numeric categorization with alphabetization as the secondary sort. The high level sort was subject-based and reflects the sensibilities of a Christian man living in a small town in 1875. Thus, Philosophy was considered the foundation of everything, so it earned the the 100s. The system is heavily biased toward Christianity, of course, and (understandably) doesn’t even include computer science. Buddhism doesn’t get it’s own number, but phrenology does. A wholesale change of this system is unrealistic, again for physical reasons. And though it’s still in use in many places, it’s not at all helpful in the online world.
Online, we simply don’t need these rigid categorizations. We have tags now, and collaborative filtering. When I go to Amazon and look up a book, I get not only other related books in multiple categories spanning genres, I get a list of books bought by others who bought this particular book. I get my own customized organization system every time I visit.
Weinberger contends that as we move from physical to digital storage, we need to get rid of the idea that there is a right way to organize things. Rather, we need to embrace the inherent disorganization and allow people to access information in whatever way makes sense to them.
It’s an engaging read. If you liked The Long Tail, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, you’ll like this too.
Note to self: don’t bother searching Google Images for better images for a book title with keywords like "everything" and "miscellaneous" :)
Update: Bad netiquette alert! I didn’t even provide a link to the Everything Is Miscellaneous web site! My apologies. And they were still nice enough to mention and link to this review :)