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May 05, 2007

"Everything Is Miscellaneous": a must read


  Everything Is Miscellaneous 
  Originally uploaded by BKMD.

In Everything Is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger has assembled a collection of stories about taxonomy which when taken together implicitly gives us a meaning of the new digital lifestyle enabled by the Web. This includes finding  and conversing with others who share our interests.

In some ways, you can say that Everything Is Miscellaneous is the work of an amateur—but in the absolute best sense.

Amateur, not in the sense of Sanjaya and American Idol, but rather like Matthew Brady, beginning the discipline of photography by struggling with a load of equipment including glass plates and darkroom tents to photograph Civil War battles. Or maybe John Snow, the physician who developed the data gathering tools that would define the discipline of public health in order to prove his waterborne theory of cholera spread over the pervasive miasma myth.

Similarly, David Weinberger is a passionate participant in the new discipline which doesn’t have a name yet. He’s far ahead of anyone who tries to claim expertise in this new field. But what is it? What’s it called? Where does this book go on the bookstore shelf? It’s not strictly about library science, or business.

This week I attended a talk by David at the SIBL library here in Manhattan, which maybe makes sense when dealing with taxonomy and the work of Dewey, but I felt that he would have been better appreciated by grammar and high schoolers who are already using collaborative networking ala SMS. But, he did dedicate this book, “To the librarians.”

The problem that David tackles in this book is the deficiency of the concept hierarchies used to sort and define entities. For example, he looks at the Bettman Archive to show how categorizes in a tree-like schema or hierarchy eventually falls apart in utitility. But this also echoes the evolution of database design. Databases based on hierarchies can handle one-to-many relationships, say for a medical database, one physician connected with many patients, but once that patient seeks a second opinion, she is connected to another tree. Handling these many-to-one relationships led to concept of the relational database described by EF Codd, and is now the major model, used by Oracle, MySql, etc. Advance techniques such as data  mining  can then be used to discover new, implicit relationships.

In the same spirit, the digitization of data and metadata, photos, books, maps, news stories, and interpretations of Hamlet can now be freed from the traditional hierarchies, and thereby “miscellanized.” These entities or "leaves" can then be attached to multiple trees depending upon the  semantic tags attached to each leaf. The underlying concept hierarchy can remain in place, but now strange and wonderful and messy things can happen at the periphery.  The sorting process can happen spontaneously, without restriction, without  a priori assumptions.

Within the field of medical publishing, David gives his views of the peer review process in his last chapter, "The Work of Knowledge."   He notes the experimentation that is occurring in a very traditional field:

So in June 2006, Nature began a three-month experiment in which authors could agree to have their submissions posted for open comment, although the comments had no effect on which papers were accepted for publication. Campbell [Nature’s editor in chief] lists some other ideas the editors have been discussing with various degrees of seriousness, including providing each published author with a blog where readers can comment.

He also discusses the online publishing organization ArXiv which he notes is not necessarily the bottom-up counterpart to the top-down Nature:

The third order [digitized data] is an ecology with niches of every sort. What starts out in the third order as open, authority-free, and permissionless can find itself evolving in unexpected ways.

The Public Library of Science (PloS), another effort to put more research in the public domain, was created by editors of peer-reviewed journals. All these efforts found their reason for being because of the Web.

If you’re getting your information more from the Web than the main stream media, as more of us are, you’ll need to find how to gain the best experience, either for entertainment, self-edification, or strategies for competing with other businesses. David explains it in his latest book, not as an observer but as the Web's most dedicated participant.

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