Everything Is Miscellaneous

During my recent, reasonably long (and fully unplugged!) vacation, I was able to read David Weinberger’s latest work, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. I enjoyed this book every bit as much as I enjoyed reading Small Pieces Loosely Joined.

David begins by asking how our ideas, organizations, and knowledge itself might change if we could arrange such concepts without the “silent limitations of the physical.” He immediately suggests that in such a world, being free (as in freedom) is not the desired result; being miscellaneous is.

In the process of making music miscellaneous, iTunes et al revealed that the natural unit of music is track, not album. Translating this to the world of ECM, what is the natural unit of content (or if you prefer, information)? Is it document, or is it something else? Does the answer depend on whether you sort it all out on the way in or sort it all out on the way out?

One of the early solutions from Documentum–long before its acquisition by EMC–provided the ability to take a collection of PowerPoint presentations and present the end user with a filtered collection of individual slides to promote visibility of already authored content and therefore increase the likelihood of content reuse via assembly. (Fast forward to the present and an offering like SlideShare.) Since then, XML has taken center stage along with macro-formats like ODF and Open XML, increasing the potential for chunking, decomposition, remixing, etc.

David defines three orders of order as follows:

  • First: organize things themselves
  • Second: separate information regarding first order objects (e.g. catalog)
  • Third: digitizing content and metadata then being extravagant about placement/categorization/fulfillment

ECM operates largely in a third order world where traditional terms such as document, content and information are exploding–requiring long-held views to be rethought (e.g. are we talking about content or metadata? What is the difference between the two? What about indexing, full-text or otherwise?). Just when you near clarity the landscape shifts again (e.g. a binary/closed document format becomes a more open envelope of embedded documents–some content, some behavior, some presentation-related, etc.; a pivot occurs that swaps foreground concerns with background concerns–authors and publications, content and metadata, taxonomies and folksonomies, indices and relationships, etc.).

Is it fair to continue talking about structured information and unstructured information in the way largely batted around today (e.g. structured information fits neatly into rows and columns, typically within a database)? Or is this characterization increasing less black and white (e.g. databases handling BLOB’s, document assembly at runtime via a managed (structured) process, etc.)?

What other premises are accepted that can/should be re-thought (e.g. there is a set of appropriate criteria for finding–one right way to find)?

Returning to iTunes, browsing Apple’s online music store requires a particular approach (i.e. genre, artist, album–in that order) to find tunes of interest to buy. However, once you return to the iTune music player software, there is more freedom to order and sort your collection–from Apple’s store and/or elsewhere. Better yet, you can create playlists (i.e. pure metadata collections) to share with family and friends–and this is so popular that practically every digital music player supports the creation, import and export of playlists.

“Now that information is being commoditized, it has more value if it’s set free into the miscellaneous.” -David Weinberger

Arguably there are a number of content-related playlists already (e.g. bookmarks/favorites and sites like Delicious, feeds based in Atom or RSS, subscription outlines in OPML). Does your content management system satisfy your playlist needs? How do you share content-related playlists at work or outside of work (e.g. like you would share an .m3u file with a friend)?

I plan to post more about Everything Is Miscellaneous; there is certainly much more to this book.

In the meantime, my feed reader is enriched thanks to David’s references to the following thought leaders: Danah Boyd, Peter Morville, and Thomas Vander Wal–plus David Weinberger, too. Of course, in keeping with this post, you’ll find my updated “playlist” with these inputs now, too. :-)

Update 12/1/2008: For more of my book reviews and to see what else is in my book library (i.e. just the business-related or software-related non-fiction therein), please visit my Books page.