8th May 2007

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…

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posted in Miscellaneous, Tools, Verbalistics, Writing | 1 Comment

8th May 2007

an enormous depression

river runs in the setting sun
something smooth, slippery, elusive
just below the surface
impossible to grasp
to hold

I’d rather grab an angry bear
wrestle and roar
matted fur filthy
and foul breath hot in my face
take it head on

no subtly nuanced quiet whispers
influencing, isolating

damn your wretched soul-sucking judgments
damn your sensitivity, your caution
damn your concern

let it roar, attack
with trident and net
turn the waters red

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8th May 2007

Pynchon and Snyder — happy birthday

Thomas Pynchon and Gary Snyder and Edmund Wilson share a birthday.  File under things Garrison Keillor broadcast.  Mark Woods can, I think, be expected to pull forward something meaningful about one or another of these good old boys.

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8th May 2007

Heidegger’s Hammer

When I received my copy of Everything is Miscellaneous I decided to dip into it here and there to enjoy the prose in little chunklets.  What kind of a narrative would it be to have that title yet require a strictly linear reading?  Later I turned over a new leaf as it were, and began to read the book from beginning to end.  It’s disconcerting to run into favorite passages and have that deja vu, sometimes twice removed, because of course not only might I have read the passage a few days ago, but also these ideas have been brewing at JOHO for a few years so I might have read them there.

I made the mistake of reading some of the reviews.  It’s a mistake because I plan to write one myself and now my range for originality has been limited.  I saw Shelley’s disagreement and thought it natural that the loosely joined guy and the more — well — tightly wound woman wouldn’t see eye to eye.  I saw Susan’s gracious encomium and wished that I myself had the charm to project such sweet sincerity.

A friend sent a note saying some of the discussion reminded her of Simon Winchester’s book about the madman and the OED.  A few pages later (page 136 in fact) a reference to the fellow turned up.  Everything is Serendiptitous.

My review is coming.

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posted in Science, Tools, Web Publishing, Writing | 0 Comments

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