Thursday, February 12, 2009

Notes from Everything is Miscellaneous

I just finished David Weinberger’s book “Everything is Miscellaneous” and heartily recommend it. Appropriately enough, Amazon suggested it to me when I was looking for Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody” which pretty much everyone in my online world has recommended and for Cass Sunstein’s book “Infotopia” which Michael Nielsen suggested to me in a response to a blog comment. Each of the three books is broadly about changes enabled by the Web, but they each focus on different aspects. To summarize full-length books on a variety of interesting topics in a couple words: Shirky focuses on the effects on human social groups, Sunstein on markets, and Weinberger on information itself. Of the three, I liked Weinberger’s the best – probably because it resonates most strongly with my own recent studies and interests. The topics cited in the book were uncannily related to my own personal reading/dreaming/experimenting list –Aristotle, Shirky, tagging, ontology, semantic Web, intertwingularity, blogging, Nature Publishing, Vanevar Bush, Dewey, it even mentions LSIDs of all things!

Weinberger writes in an imminently quotable style. Practically every paragraph contains a pithy sentence worthy of repetition. To illustrate, here are just a few that caught my attention (page numbers from paperback):

...the solution to the overabundance of information is more information” p. 13

“...Making complex, meaningful phenomena explicit can leave us rudderless, force us to oversimplify, and result in statements that are incomplete and misleading.” p. 156

The meaning of a particular thing is enabled by the web of implicit meanings we call the world” p. 170

A Semantic Web that loosely stitches together imperfect, smushy, local efforts is not only more likely, it is to be preferred” p. 195

Paper drives thought into our heads. The Web releases thoughts before they’re ready so we can work on them together.” p. 203

That was Aristotle’s startling discovery: a thing, standing on its own, is what it is because of its connection to other things like it and other things not like it” p. 219

Obviously, I liked the book and tended to agree with most of its arguments (funny how liking and agreeing often go together). My only complaints about it related to its treatment of social tagging and of the semantic Web; these complaints likely arise from the book’s successful attempt to appeal to a very general audience and the coincidence that I might know a tiny bit more about these areas than the intended audience – hence I would like more detailed treatment of the consequences of more specific aspects of the technologies than is provided. For example, it annoys me when people talk about social tagging as if it is a permanent, stable technology, thus assuming that the ambiguity of tags (as simple Strings unlinked to concept definitions) is a fundamental aspect of all such systems rather than an optional weakness of the design of particular instantiations. It also annoys me when people talk about RDF as an “ontology language” – especially without at least making some attempt to explain its relationship to things that are most definitely ontology languages like OWL..

Overall a good quick read and a useful reference for anyone interested in the continuing evolution of the Web and, through it, our species.

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