Everything is Miscellaneous – how the Web destroys categories, disciplines and hierarchies

David Weinberger's "Everything is Miscellaneous" is the kind of book that binds together innumerable miscellaneous threads and makes something new, coherent, and incontrovertible out of them. Weinberger's thesis is this: historically, we've divided the world into categories, topics, and hierarchies because physical objects need to be in one place or another, they can't be in all the places they might belong. Computers and the Internet turn this on its head: because a computer can "put things" in as many categories as they need to be in, because individuals can classify knowledge, tasks, and objects idiosyncratically, the hierarchy is revealed for what it always was, a convenient expedient masquerading as the True Shape of the Universe.

It's a powerful idea: from org charts to science, from music to retail theory, from government to education, every field of human endeavor is tinged with hierarchy, and every hierarchy is under assault from the Internet. One impact of this change is that it reveals the biases lurking underneath the editorial carvery of our systems. From the Dewey Decimal system's laughable clunkers (mentalist bunkum gets its own category, but Islam has to share a decimal with a couple competing "Eastern" faiths) to the Britannica's paring away at "old" biographies to make way for the new, Weinberger makes a compelling case for a new kind of knowledge that more faithfully represents the messy, glorious hairball of the real world.

This celebration of hairiness is just the tonic for the fights being waged today over whether bloggers are real journalists, whether Wikipedia is a real encyclopedia, even whether chaotic guerrilla armies are real armies or mere "enemy combatants." Weinberger shows that Internet messiness has a special quality that distinguishes it from meatspace mess. On the Internet, messiness can be used to make sense of the world: Flickr tags can be grouped (people lump "rome" and "italy" together, so they must be related) with other characteristics ("lots of people call this picture their favorite") and combined with search terms ("more people search for "italy" than "itayl," so the latter is probably a typo) and the most interesting pictures of Rome, Italy can be automatically surfaced, thanks to all the messy, uncoordinated, unchecked, unintentional meaning that the Internet's users infuse its pages with.

Everything is Miscellaneous is the latest inspiration from Weinberger, whose Small Pieces, Loosely Joined and Cluetrain Manifesto were important contributions to our understanding of the Internet. Weinberger's conversational style, excellent examples, and extensive legwork (the places he visits and people he interviews can best be described as wonderfully miscellaneous) give this the hallmarks of an instant classic. And unlike many business/tech books, whose simple thesis could be stated in a single New Yorker article, but which are nevertheless expanded to book-length for commercial reasons, every chapter in Everything is Miscellaneous brings new insight to the subject. This is a hell of a book.


See also: Cory interviewed by David Weinberger about metadata