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Everything is Miscellaneous

This article appears in the issue November/December 2007, [Vol 16, Issue 10]
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Longtime KMWorld columnist David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, recently discussed his new book with Hugh McKellar, KMWorld editor in chief.

HM: I was talking to a friend of mine about your new book and her first reaction was to the title, Everything is Miscellaneous. And she couldn’t get the distinction between miscellaneous and random.

DW: I use the word miscellaneous in a slightly non-traditional way, so the title can be confusing to people. Normally the miscellaneous is the category of stuff that has nothing in common with the other things in it, except for the most basic commonalities, such as "they’re all gadgets used in the kitchen." That’s not exactly what I mean by the miscellaneous in the book, as I hope the book makes clear. In the book, I use the miscellaneous to mean the aggregation of everything, with the important difference that with the digital miscellaneous, we find all sorts of ways that the things are alike, all sorts of connections and relationships. We’re doing that together. We’re doing it over the course of time. The digital miscellaneous pile is getting richer and richer with connections, meanings, significant relationships. That’s very different from a random pile. In a random pile, like with a traditional miscellaneous pile, there’s no principle of organization. On the other hand, the digital miscellany that we’re building is super-saturated with meaning and relationships.

HM: So, as this pile of miscellany grows, we find and discover relationships between the elements, and they no longer become miscellaneous.

DW: Yes, they are no longer miscellaneous in the traditional sense because we are discovering the relationships among the pieces. The relationships can be as ordinary as a link. A person links one page to another because she sees some relationship between them. Tags are another expression of a relationship. The semantic Web does this also. All of these relationships are preserved and are available to help us find what we want. The miscellaneous becomes rich with potential, with multiple layers of meaning and a near infinite number of ways of organizing it. In essence, it’s exactly the opposite of the traditional miscellaneous and of the traditional random pile.

HM: From a business standpoint, what can the discoveries in your book bring to an enterprise?

DW: There are a few dimensions in which miscellaneous makes a big difference to business. First, every business provides information to its users. For some of them, the information is itself the product. Under the traditional way of organizing, which works very well for physical objects, the business decides what is the best way to organize and categorize its stuff, and what are the right paths through it. We generally do a good job of that, but the business is still constraining the navigation to how it thinks about how its stuff should be organized. Your customers inevitably will be thinking about that differently. What you think of as a survival backpack may be to a customer a good graduation gift or the perfect shape to carry her new video camera. For another customer, it may be reminiscent of the backpack he had when he was in the Boy Scouts. You enable your customers to find the information that they want far more efficiently if you allow them to participate in the categorizing and organizing of it. And especially if you allow them to do it together.

Number two is that if your business depends upon information, as all businesses do, then by using tools that allow that information to be broken out of its assigned categories, you will discover relationships you didn’t know were there. You’re going to spur innovation, you’re going to discover efficiencies and you’re going to enable people across your organization to find other people who share their passions.

Third is that you’ll also get more use out of your information because your information makes more sense when it’s mashed up with other information. Not infrequently it happens that by allowing information over here that looks like it shouldn’t have anything to do with that other information over there, we discover what we never expected to discover. That’s also known as learning and it’s also known as innovation.

HM: How can an organization get customers involved in categorizing stuff? I’m talking about both internal customers and external customers.

DW: We’re very used to the idea that the people who own the stuff also own the organization of that stuff. Go into a retail store; you as a customer are simply not allowed to reorganize the stuff on the shelves to suit you, even though that’s exactly how you might want to browse. And, most of the store is just noise to you because it’s stuff that just doesn’t fit or you don’t care about.

In the real world, each customer obviously cannot be allowed to reorganize the stuff. But in the digital world, each customer can. There are a variety of tools for doing so. And more are emerging almost every day. The most obvious one is tagging. It’s far from the only one. Tagging systems let the users of information decide how they’re going to think about that information, or what that information means to them. Tagging within the corporation is potentially a very powerful tool for sharing knowledge and for enabling social networks to emerge around shared expertise.

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