David Weinberger IS Heidegger’s Hammer

This lovely book was written to be taken apart – in a good way. It asks us to reflect on how the great worlds of knowledge and authority have been changed beyond recognition by the advent of the internet.
Susan Crawford

With Everything is Miscellaneous David Weinberger asserts himself as one of top pop epistemologists of all time, a visionary genius comparable perhaps only to ze Frank. From an explication of “twenty questions” as rudimentary training in hierarchical distinctions and nuanced direction, to a discussion of Steven Wright’s full scale map, David leads us this way and that through the ever more chaotically disordered clutter of hyper-modern culture and the interesting (and often profitable ways) that people are assembling knowledge and understanding out of chaos.

David lays out three orders of understanding, and while disguising the burial of “essentialism” as an inquiry into classification and social systems, he creates something as metaphysically bounded on the high end as Kant’s noumenon and the thing that shows itself as a first order object. Hard to argue with David while he’s invoking Samuel (SJ) Klein and omitting Kant, sharing Shirky’s insights and ignoring Schopenhauer’s. I’m not equipped to argue with him anyway, but I disagree about the death of essentialism.

One view of the history of knowledge focuses on our attempts to understand the essential nature of things by fitting them into hierarchies. The things themselves are David’s “first order,” and classification systems from Linnaeus to the Library of Congress, the application of metadata to permit us to keep track of the things are the second order. What’s wonderful is the third order, a way of looking at things through the panopticon of database engines, looking out of the squinty corners of our eyes and seeing new and different relationships, meaningful relationships. David communicates his fascination with folksonomic classification, taking first order digital stuff like text, audio, video, and still pictures and permitting everyone to look in and add cross references, tags that are meaningful to them. By some law of large numbers or law of the mundane, the more tagging that’s done the more useful to the community the assembled common information becomes. The metadata about metadata, we sense, is in the Weinbergerian weltanschauung an almost metaphysical gateway to an emerging mass mind and that is somehow a good thing. The information that is implicit in the tagsonomic clouds of meta-metadata grows with the growth of the net and our web of relationships seems to take on a life of its own.

It doesn’t of course. The most optimistic Harvard emeritus, rejuvenated in a Second Life avatar today, will eventually find peace in Mount Auburn and the Kurzweilian delusion of an emerging singularity of machine consciousness is simply sweet science fiction.

I love this book. The murderous madman whose contributions were so essential to the OED appears on page 136. Carmela Soprano, Ivan Karamazov, and King Lear appear together later followed by a riff on AOL and the marketing ramifications of access to implicit data. I’m sure it’s stealth philosophy (rather like “stealth disco” in some ways). While David bows to the technical, he never gets too deep. He asserts that “essentialism is failing” and proves it with a rap about Oprah and Tiger Woods, sweat pants and chinos, meaning and fuzzy boundaries, and piling it on about the uncertainty of planetary and colorific classification with Eleanor Rosch in his corner or he in hers, thus they refute Aristotle.

This is a book about grouping, about the value of polling data in determining a consensual reality. It debunks Linnaean categorization but ignores modern biological taxonomic concepts focussed on phylogenetic alternatives. It turns the professional astronomers’ work in planetary classification into pop cultural woo woo, and it conflates different ways of learning with the necessary interiority of knowing. It extolls messiness, while invoking the popular order in grouping. The book suffers from a baffling dismissal of opening metadata wider into RDF triples, and assumes that the Semantic Web is some kind of top down ontological engine that drives the randomness out of the web we know and love. I hope some of the Semantic Web experts see fit to engage regarding what the next big step in metadata evolution should be and for whom. Right now we’re happy in a world of XML driven utilities, syndication formats, microformat driven calendars and so forth. We can grab every fuzzy photo of the Golden Gate Bridge off FlickR due to the wonders of tagging.

On the other hand, there are scientific problem sets in the areas of weather prediction and complex protein analysis, business data needs in the areas of complex financial analysis and portfolio management, public service matters such as regional land use planning and demographic analysis that could use a little of the ontological truthiness that the Semantic Web might deliver.

The web that David writes about is the public web, the web that Susan Crawford (a member of the ICANN board) praises because “no one is in charge” and everything is linked and accessible. This is only true if one ignores the boundaries between academia and MySpace, the corporate DMZ and LiveJournal. I have no access to JStor journal articles at home, because I am not now affiliated with a University. I have no access to the customer files of XYZ Corporation because I am not their employee. These islands of information coexist with the large messy web where we have become much better informed because of the rush to publish as much of the public domain as possible. The Internet, our network of networks, contains a lot of places that show the bright reflective surface of a one-way mirror. At the University they can see out, but we can’t see very far in.

The last chapter of Everything is Miscellaneous is called “The Work of Knowledge.” David pulls together all the threads of knowledge and meaning, simplicity and complexity, information and understanding. He takes his last swipe at “essentialism,” declaring that knowledge’s new place is within a mesh of social meaning.

This is partly true.

Coda: I read the dead trees version and have these observations. There is a comprehensive notes section that would benefit from some kind of “hyperlinking” apparatus allowing a “click-through” capability from the text to the note. There is an index that contains a nicely ordered metatextual arrangement of the book. Again, it would be nice to be able scan down the index and “click-through” to the topic that interests one. Perhaps someday…

[tags]David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous, Everythingismiscellaneous[/tags]

Posted in Miscellaneous, Tools, Verbalistics, Writing
One comment on “David Weinberger IS Heidegger’s Hammer
  1. Aunt Hentic says:

    It sounds like a good read, highly recommended! 🙂

    Poetry and Ambition

    Tofu Scramble with Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Tempeh Bacon

    Tofu Scramble

    1 tablespoon olive oil
    3 cloves garlic, minced
    1 fresh green chili, minced
    1 teaspoon cumin seed
    1/2 teaspoon coriander seed
    1 sweet onion, chopped
    1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
    7 mushrooms, sliced
    1 teaspoon each of sage, oregano, and thyme
    1 block tofu, firm
    1/2 cup cream cheese or non-dairy cream cheese
    1 teaspoon tumeric
    1/2 cup sweet peas
    1 ripe tomato, sliced
    2-3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
    salt and pepper to taste

    Heat the olive oil over medium high heat, add the garlic and the chili, followed by the cumin seed and coriander seed. Toast the seeds, then add the sweet onion and saute another minute. Add the red bell pepper and the mushrooms and the rest of the dried herbs, and let everything cook together. Meanwhile, open the package of tofu, drain the water, rinse the tofu, and pat dry. With your hands, crumble the tofu directly into the frying pan. Do not crumble the tofu too small, leave some bite-sized chunks for texture. Mix the tofu well into the vegetable mixture, then add the cream cheese and mix again until everything is blended. The cream cheese is optional, it will give this dish a creamier texture that is more consistent with scrambled eggs. Add the tumeric to change the dish’s color from white to yellow. Let the mixture simmer for 4-5 minutes so the flavors will blend into the tofu and more of the water will be cooked out and the mixture firms up. For the last touch, add the peas, the tomato, and the fresh basil. Let the scramble cook another 2 minutes, then season with salt and pepper to taste.

    You can make a simpler version of this scramble without all the vegetables and just use the ones that you like or have on hand in the refrigerator. You can simplify the seasoning as well. Salt, pepper, and garlic would be sufficient for a tasty scramble (the tumeric is very nice for the yellow egg color as well). Use the cream cheese or non-dairy cream cheese if you want a traditional tasting breakfast of scrambled eggs.

    Roasted Sweet Potatoes

    2 sweet potatoes, Asian variety
    1/4 cup olive oil
    1 teaspoon sage
    1 teaspoon thyme
    1-2 teaspoon curry powder
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon fresh rosemary
    1/4 cup Brewer’s Yeast

    Cut the sweet potatoes into cubes and place in a mixing bowl. Pour the olive oil over them and stir until every piece is coated with oil. Sprinkle all the herbs and spices over the potatoes and mix well. The curry may seem unusual for a breakfast meal but it will add a nice spice to the sweet of the potatoes. The Brewer’s Yeast will add a nice crusty coating to the roasted potatoes. Place the spiced potato pieces on a baking sheet making sure that no potato pieces overlap each other. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes until the potatoes are crispy on the outside and can be easily pierced with a fork.

    Tempeh Bacon

    1 package Tempeh Bacon
    1 teaspoon olive oil (optional)

    Tempeh is fermented tofu and is easy to digest. It has lots of protein, is low in fat, and no choesterol! Heat a skillet over a high heat. If you are using a nonstick pan there is no need to use any oil. Lay the bacon strips in the pan and fry on each side for a few minutes. You won’t hear the popping sound of fat bubbling, but that is good news for your heart and your arteries!

    I got it for free, though, so keep that in mind. 🙂

    Have a good one!

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