Book Review: Everything Is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger

Everything Is Miscellaneous book cover
Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger. New York: Times Books, 2007.
The central thesis of Everything Is Miscellaneous is one with which I completely agree: digital information environments allow us to organize, access, and interact with information in new and previously undreamt ways. It allows us to transcend the limitations of physical storage and communication media, to free information to be everywhere and anywhere all at the same time.

It allows information to be whatever we need, whenever we need it. There exists more potential now to add more value, not just to information itself, but to the ways we access and interact with it. Mr. Weinberger offers us a powerful and compelling vision for our digital information world.

These three quotes perfectly sum up what this book is about:

From p. 212:

The difference in the digital order is the difference between the annoying interactions you have on a product support line… and the conversations you have with real people. … The potential for connections from the trivial to the urgent is characteristic of the new miscellany. We are busily creating as many of these meaningful connections as we can.

From p. 40:

How we organize our world reflects not only the world but also our interests, our passions, our needs, our dreams.

From p. 45:

Now we know that not everything has its place. Everything has its places.

As I was reading this book, I kept stopping to write down reactions that I had to various passages and arguments that he makes. I have seven type-written pages of reactions to this work—some enthusiastic agreement, and some incredulous “what is he thinking?!?” criticisms. It’s rare that a book can generate such passionate involvement from me. I value those that do. As exciting as I find many of Mr. Weinberger’s ideas, and as infuriating as I find some of his reasoning, I appreciate how this work challenges my thinking and requires me to question my assumptions.

This book is important. If there’s only one thing you take from this review, let it be that.

That being said—some of the examples Mr. Weinberger uses to back up his arguments are so off-base that I find myself questioning whether he really knows what he’s talking about. Too often, in order to try and make his point he oversimplifies things too much. But any vision for how we should interact with information must answer to nuanced reality. This book seriously lacks nuance.

One example: He consistently discusses the difference between the organization of information and the organization of access as though these must intrinsically be in conflict. Nothing in my experience working in a public library suggests that this is the case. But he needs it to be black & white in order to argue his point, so he overstates the reality of it.

In my opinion, the biggest failing of this work is that Mr. Weinberger seriously misappraises the state of information literacy in our society. More accurately—he doesn’t appraise it at all. Like most well-educated, well-read, literate people, he assumes that information seekers will exercise discernment and analytical thinking when they interact with information.

Working in a public library, I can categorically state that he’s wrong about this. The information literacy of the average information seeker has not kept pace with the expansion of our information environments.

This, then, speaks to the one aspect of his argument that I absolutely cannot agree with—his vilification of expertise.

He presents experts as dictators—people who jealously control access and capriciously decree what information people are allowed to have. If this is truly how he sees experts, then he’s correct to crusade against them.

But that’s not what experts are—it’s certainly not what what they should be. Not at all. Far from being dictators and judges, experts are teachers and guides.

Consider the role of expertise in light of the two basic acts of information interaction:

1) Searching for information: Mr. Weinberger takes it as given that people know how to search for information effectively. But many people don’t. When people don’t know how to search effectively, our rich and expansive world of digital information becomes overwhelming—a roiling, chaotic mess. Experts teach people how to find what they need within this tsunami of data.

On p. 132, he states: “[W]ith the miscellaneous, it’s all available to us, unfiltered.” And that’s a wonderful thing… but it also means that specific bits of information are harder to find. It becomes the old saw—looking for needle in a haystack. Experts can act as the information seeker’s metal detector.

2) Evaluating information: Once an information search returns results, he assumes that the information seeker will know what to do with them. It’s continually a shock to me how little skill many people demonstrate in the task of evaluating information—how credulous and uncritical people are. Many people don’t know how to recognize good, substantiated information from hearsay, rumor, conjecture; reliable information from the many shades of salesmanship.

Mr. Weinberger assumes that people will be actively engaged in their participation with information. But all too often, I see people looking for quick and easy answers, wanting most of all not to have to think too much about it. It’s continually shocking to me how many people overlook the best results in favor of the convenience of the first results.

Not only do many people lack the necessary skills to discern quality information from dreck, many people don’t understand why that should matter. In Chapter 6, he talks about the ready availability of medical information online. He’s correct that we should be active participants in our care, pro-active information seekers, and recognize that the medical industry isn’t as unbiased in its recommendations as it should be.

But I also shudder at the thought of someone listening to a crackpot on a blog instead of a qualified medical expert. Consider the potential for tremendous harm when someone doesn’t know to be critical of the information they find.

Experts teach people how to be discerning information seekers.

Experts: not dictators, but guides; not judges, but cheerleaders; not pedants, but teachers. We need experts teach people necessary information literacy skills. Given the current state of information literacy in our society, we need experts now more than ever.

Any attempt to address the realities of our digital information age must include a frank discussion of information literacy—and Mr. Weinberger never once mentions it in this book. To me, this is a serious failing.

And this is what kind of drives me crazy about Everything Is Miscellaneous—on the one hand, I agree completely that digital information environments are wonderful and exciting in their potential. I love that I get to spend my career exploring them.

But on the other hand, there are too many examples and arguments in this book that I disagree with for me to ever get completely onboard with it. Digital information environments offer mind-boggling potential for us to reassess and revamp our informational world—but we must ask essential critical questions about whether some of these proposed changes are actually good for us. Whether or not I ultimately agree with Mr. Weinberger’s vision, I don’t see him asking some of these essential questions. He takes it too much for granted that this is all to the good.

What I’d like to see next is an examination of how Mr. Weinberger’s ideas integrate with our current knowledge of neuroscience. No matter how digital our information becomes, no matter how far our access and interaction environments are removed from the constraints of the physical world, there’s one aspect of the information environment that remains resolutely, irrefutably physical—the wiring of our brains. Brains filled with neurons and axons and signal pathways which evolved over millennia to handle the physical world.

We need a better understanding of how our physical brains apprehend and process information when it’s organized according to schema that have no referents to the physical world. This is a gap in our understanding that must be filled.

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