Friday, June 12, 2009

Miscellaneously Yours

I met the Berkman Center's David Weinberger last month when I gave a talk there and was very grateful that he provided a lengthy live blogging post that translated the group's discussion into text, so that the lively exchanges about what constituted the public record in the age of experiments with e-government could be disseminated with more keywords and metadata than a simple videorecording alone would have provided. I tend to be leery of live blogging, for reasons that I explain here, but I know from experience that even blogging with a slight rigor mortis has been appreciated by workshops and conferences [1], [2], [3], [4].

That's why I was especially pleased to realize afterwards that he was the same David Weinberger whose book I had been carrying around before my trip to Boston, Everything is Miscellaneous, an extended meditation upon what he calls "the power of the new digital disorder" that cites Plato, Aristotle, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, as well as theorists of the digital age such as Vannevar Bush and John Seely Brown.

Not that I'd necessarily agree with everything in the book. When Weinberger enthuses about tagging I remember hearing research from Hugh C. Davis on folksonomy in 2007, which showed that many tags were actually not useful for categorization purposes by others, since only about 5% of tags were usefully descriptive. For example, he said 34% of them could be categorized as personal references (“toHugh,” “myBlog,” “toRead,” etc.), and many used the redundant “SaveThis.” Others used evaluative terms like “cool” and “kickass" that were interesting in aggregate but difficult to work with. Weinberger's examples, like "SF" and "London," often suggested a much more limited range of meaning. Of course, with enough people tagging digital files, that 5% could aggregate a large number of useful tags, and it could be argued that users will eventually be trained in good digital behavior over time, much as people had to learn to say "hello" when they first picked up the telephone in the analog age.

As someone who specializes in "scandal, disaster, miscommunication, and mistakes," I would have liked to have seen more analysis of cases in which digital disorder seems to be . . . well . . . disorderly. For example, on page 100, Weinberger mentions the Wikipedia article on "elephant" without discussing Stephen Colbert's famous prank with that page.

Given his work as a corporate consultant, I also felt possible conflicts of interest could come into play, since his analysis was sometimes remarkably uncritical about how privacy could be compromised by commercial data mining that exploits unwitting or unwilling user behavior with new search and cloud-computing technologies.

Finally, by asserting that "[w]hen our kids become teachers, they're not going to be administering tests to students sitting in a neat grid of separated desks with the shades drawn" (144-145), Weinberger sounds inclined to accept the idea of a "digital generation" a little too uncritically without considering the issues raised by Siva Vaidhyanathan in "Generational Myth" or the research of Diane Harley that shows that younger scholars aren't necessarily innovators with instructional technology.

But this is a useful book that contains real epistemological and rhetorical insights. For example, Weinberger recognizes that a profile on a social network site actually constitutes "a complex social artifact that results from my goals, self-image, and anticipations of how other people will interpret my list" (155) and that "length is a symbol of importance" in the Britannica, while it is "a manifestation of interest and importance" in Wikipedia (208). His definitional work on "knowledge" and "understanding" is particularly good and shows off both his Ph.D. philosophical training and his pramatic experience as a bestselling author.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Innovator does not equal user does not equal member. A lack of one of these is not a cause to dismiss the fact that ALL of our lives are now ruled by digital means, whether we want it to be or not, or are even aware. Ask my TV if it cares if I'm an innovator or if I want to belong. Using a kind of self-generated myopic meaning of something and extrapolating to exclude all other meanings that are different is infantile.

11:03 AM  

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