Saturday, March 15, 2008

David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous

David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous

I just started reading David Weinberger's Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, which is just as exciting as I thought it would be. Information classification is something I do instinctively, and I encounter the benefits and challenges physical arrangements daily. One of the reasons I enjoy database administration is that anything can be queried and arranged how I wish, which cannot be said about information stuffed into file cabinets! Anyone with a passing interest in the digital age and data organization should pick up this engaging book.

Here's an excerpt from Chapter One: The New Order of Order:

Before the Web, the word browsing was usually a polite way of telling a salesperson to buzz off. “May I help you?” a salesperson asks. “I’m just browsing,” you reply with a little smile. With that word, a customer declares a lack of commitment. With that smile, she asserts that she’s within her rights: “Just try and stop me, salesboy!”

Browsing is more than window-shopping, fantasizing about what it would be like to own something or resenting those who do. You browse when you intentionally ignore the organizational structure the store has carefully imposed on its stock. You have a hankering to read something about the Civil War, but the bookstore has Civil War books strewn about the fiction, nonfiction, biography, and travel sections, all neatly arranged in individual aisles and on individual shelves. Or you’re in the mood for some light reading—nothing more specific than that—and appealing books pop up on just about every shelf. The store helps you violate its order by providing tables at the front with staff picks, new books, and bargains, but it can’t anticipate all the ways every customer who walks in the door is going to want to browse. So it has to depend on its sales staff to help its customers find the exact book they want when they say, “I need something as a sweet sixteen present.” Sometimes they get it right; sometimes—say, if the available staff person thinks all the kids still have a favorite Beatle—they lose the sale as the customer decides it would be safer just to give her niece a check.

The normal organization of a store works well enough if you come in knowing what you want: Go to the fiction shelf, find the “A” section conveniently located at the beginning of the alphabetized authors, and locate that copy of Pride and Prejudice for your niece. But discovering what you want is at least as important as finding what you know you want. Our bookstores look like they prefer seekers over browsers because the usual layout works well for people trying to find what they came in for, whereas there are almost as many ways to organize for browsers as there are browsers. An order that works for one interest may not for others—clustering all the books about the Civil War would help the Civil War buffs but would pull Gone with the Wind off the shelf where the historical fiction buffs browse. On the other hand, dumping the shelves into a bookstore-sized pile of books would turn browsing into pawing through printed rubble.

If only there were a way to arrange the stuff in stores so that every possible interest could be captured. When we know what we want, we’d find it immediately. When we want to browse, the store would rearrange itself based on our needs and interests, even when we aren’t quite sure what those are.

At Apple Computer’s iTunes music store, it’s already happened. For decades we’ve been buying albums. We thought it was for artistic reasons, but it was really because the economics of the physical world required it: Bundling songs into long-playing albums lowered the production, marketing, and distribution costs because there were fewer records to make, ship, shelve, categorize, alphabetize, and inventory. As soon as music went digital, we learned that the natural unit of music is the track. Thus was iTunes born, a miscellaneous pile of 3.5 million songs from over a thousand record labels. Anyone can offer music there without first having to get the permission of a record executive. Apple lets customers organize the pile any way they want and markets through their customers’ choice of tracks and playlists rather than to the mass market. By making music miscellaneous, Apple has captured more than 70 percent of the market.

And the iTunes store isn’t even all that miscellaneous. It’s a spreadsheet that can be sorted by the criteria iTunes provides: the track’s name, length, artist, album, genre, and price. If you want to browse, first you pick the genre, artist, and album, in that order. If you want to browse by the artist and then by genre, you can’t. If you want to browse by mood, language, or date, you can’t. Even though iTunes is all digital, there are still more ways you can organize your physical collection of CDs. The problem isn’t that iTunes has chosen an inappropriate set of criteria for sorting, although that certainly could be argued. The real problem is that iTunes accepts the premise we’ve had to operate under in the physical world: that there is a set of appropriate criteria.

While iTunes is parsimonious in its built-in ways of sorting, it generously enables customers to create their own playlists, pulling together songs from across the entire ocean of tunes. By allowing customers to then publish their playlists—and rate and comment on other people’s—iTunes provides as many ways to navigate its inventory as there are customer moods and interests. That lets in an important breath of the miscellaneous and shows that iTunes has learned the right lesson: To get as good at browsing as we are at finding—and to take full advantage of the digital opportunity—we have to get rid of the idea that there’s a best way of organizing the world.

Everything Has Its Places
It won’t be easy. The world started out miscellaneous but it didn’t stay that way, because we work so damn hard at straightening it up. Take eating, the most basic bodily activity we do on purpose. Preparing to serve a meal is a complex dance of order. We have separate storage areas for each of the implements of eating: silverware, plates, glasses, napkins. Each of these areas has its own principle of organization: plates stacked by type, clustered by pattern and how “good” they are, juice glasses separated from wineglasses and from tumblers, silverware tucked cozily into special compartments. We then break these items apart to form patterns (salad fork to the left of dinner fork) determined by tradition, one set per participant in the meal. When we clear the table, we recluster the items by type because we generally don’t wash the implements in the same pattern we used when we were eating with them: We do all the plates at once, put the silverware into a pot to soak, and line up the glasses next to the sink. If we stack the dishwasher, we cluster the items yet another way. When it’s all clean and dry, we again store everything in its initial order, completing our nightly choreography.

We juggle multiple principles of organization without even thinking about it. You know what goes in your spice rack and what doesn’t, even though the principle of order is hard to find: What makes dried leaves (oregano), dried seeds (nutmeg), and dried bark (cinnamon) all spices? All add a little more flavor to a dish? But so do chocolate sprinkles, and they don’t count as a spice, despite coming in a shaker the size and shape of an oregano bottle. And even if you count salt and black pepper as spices, you probably don’t keep them in the spice rack, because you use them too often. Without pausing for thought, you have coordinated four intersecting sets of criteria: how big the bottles are, what the contents are used for, which part of a meal they’re applied to, and how frequently you need them.

The same is true for every room, every closet, and every tabletop in our houses. Even the oddest, most random items have their place. The gin-flavored floss someone gave you as a joke goes on the top shelf of the bathroom cabinet, while the Miss Piggy night-light goes in with the rarely used electrical equipment in the box in the basement. If you’re genuinely stumped, you’ll probably throw it in a box of things to give away.

The two processes by which new things are introduced into our homes are typical of how we handle information: We go through new arrivals and then we put them away. We go through the mail and file it in the special places we have for bills (the desk), cards from relatives (the refrigerator door), and junk mail (the trash). We go through bags of groceries and put the food away within minutes of bringing it into our house. We address these elements of disorder—unsorted mail in the mailbox, groceries sorted by relative weight into bags by a clerk in the store—with remarkable alacrity.

There isn’t a part of our homes that is truly unordered, except perhaps under our beds, and for many of us even that is the site of the spontaneous ordering of dust into bunnies.

We invest so much time in making sure our world isn’t miscellaneous in part because disorder is inefficient—“Anybody see the gas bill?”—but also because it feels bad. Knowing where things are and where things go is essential to feeling at home. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then slovenliness is next to The Odd Couple’s Oscar Madison. And who wants to be next to Oscar Madison?

We’ve been raised as experts at keeping our physical environment well ordered, but our homespun ways of maintaining order are going to break—they’re already breaking—in the digital world. The most visible breach so far: the folder on the family computer that stores the digital photos.

If you’re managing to keep your digital photos well organized, congratulations. But you’re probably going to lose the battle sooner rather than later. It’s a simple matter of numbers. A typical album you buy at your local camera store holds between fifty and two hundred paper-based photos. You likely have a thousand photos in all your albums put together. A thousand photos, each with its own story. “Oh, remember how Mimi was always wearing that silly cowboy hat? And there’s Aunt Sally on the beach. She was so sunburned we had to take her to the hospital, and that funny doctor said we should just baste her in barbecue sauce.”

Now check your computer. If you have a digital camera, you may well have saved over a thousand photos in just the past few years. It’s only going to get worse. Digital cameras started outselling film cameras in the United States in 2003 and worldwide in 2004. And, in 2004, 150 million cell phones with cameras were sold, almost four times the number of digital cameras. Because digital photos are virtually free, we’re tempted to take more and more pictures, sometimes just in the hope that one will come out well. We’re also keeping more of the photos, and not always because we want them: Since our cameras apply names like “DSC00165.jpg” to our photos, it’s easier to keep bad photos than to throw them out. To keep them, we just press a button to move them from our camera. To get rid of them, we have to look at each one, compare it with the others in the series, select the bad ones, press the Delete button, and then confirm our choice.

As a result, we are loading onto our computers thousands of photos with automatically generated names that mean nothing to us. When you have ten, twenty, or thirty thousand photos on your computer, storing a photo of Aunt Sally labeled “DSC00165.jpg” is functionally the same as throwing it out, because you’ll never find it again.

We’re simply not going to be able to keep up. Even obsessive-compulsives have only twenty-four hours in a day. Perhaps technology will get better at automatically figuring out what and who is shown in a photo. Or perhaps labeling photos will become a social process, with others pitching in to help us organize them. The user-based organizing of photos is already happening on a massive scale at Internet sites like Flickr.com, where people can post their photos and easily label them, allowing others to search for them. Moreover, anyone can apply descriptive labels to photos and create virtual albums made up of photos taken by themselves and strangers. What’s clear is that however we solve the photo crisis, it will be by adding more information to images, because the solution to the overabundance of information is more information.

We add information in the real world by putting a descriptive sign on the shelf beneath a product, sticking a label on a folder, or using a highlighting pen to mark the passages that we think will be on the test. The real world, though, limits the amount of additional data we can supply: Staples has to keep the product information labels on the shelves small enough so they won’t obscure the product; a manila folder’s label can’t have more than a few dozen characters on it without becoming illegible; and if previous students have already highlighted every other sentence in your textbook, the marks you make won’t add much information at all. In the digital world, these restrictions don’t hold. The product listing on the Staples Web site can link to entire volumes of information, our computers can store more information about a desktop folder than is actually in the folder, and if the digital textbook has had every word highlighted by previous readers, a computer could show us which sections have been highlighted by the majority of A students.

Such features are not just cool tricks. They change the basic rules of order. When we come across the paper photo from 2005 of Aunt Sally on a beach in Mexico at sunset celebrating cousin Jamie’s birthday, with the twins in the background playing badminton, we have to decide which one spot in one album we’re going to stick it into. If it were a digital album, we wouldn’t have to make that choice. We could label it in as many ways as we could think of: Aunt Sally, Mexico, 2005, beach, birthday, twins, badminton, sunset, trips, foreign countries, fun times, relatives, places we want to go back to, days we got sunburned. That way we could have the computer assemble albums based on our interests at the moment: all the photos of the cousins, all the trip photos for the past five years, all the photos of Aunt Sally having fun. The digital world thereby allows us to transcend the most fundamental rule of ordering the real world: Instead of everything having its place, it’s better if things can get assigned multiple places simultaneously.


Link to the Everything is Miscellanous website

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