Sunday, November 16, 2008

When everything is Miscellaneous - what is left ?

This is the third great book of David Weinberger that I was happy to read. Of course, the first, Cluetrain Manifesto (he co-authored it) and the second, Small Pieces Loosly Joined are great books that show the transforming power of Internet and its role in business and in social life.
"Everything is miscellaneous" is a bit different. The book, with some small exceptions, focuses on knowledge and the fundamental transformation that the very concept of konwledge and science undergoes today. The book demonstrates the weakness of the old-style "categorized" and well-ordered knowledge originating in Aristotelian science (to who - of course - the credit of the knowledge creation must be given !!!). It was known since the dawn of civilisation that since and knowledge evolve through discourse of scholars and thinkers. Today everybody can be a scholar and thinker and publisher and mentor. The amazing fact is that, contrary to common sense - this not only degrades the level of discourse, but in fact increases it. See Wikipedia case (which author analyses deeply).

From my perspective, the most interesting parts are those about classification systems, with the stress of "faceted classification" (e.g. colon classification system), that allows to build unlimited trees of knowledge and the notes about semantic web. Without pretending to know the reasons, Weinberger sheds some light on the failure or maybe rather, slow progress of Semantic Web. Surprisingly, the potential reasons are in the very nature of Semantic Web formulation, in RDF like mode, which does not fall far from Aristotelian, non-miscellaneous way of thinking.
For me it is like David Weinberger was to tell us - it is the meaning that matters, not the rigid structure of knowledge.

He tries to find the tools to represent meaning in the concept of "the third order of order": " ... but only if we see past its mess to its meaning, for that is what the third order enables" and “The world won’t ever stay miscellaneous because we are together making it ours”

However, in line with the message of the book - it is not easy to explain clearly and without some ambiguity, what are the tools to contain the meaning. Are they in folksonomies? are they in interaction and the way Wikipedia works ? We may fall short if we try to DEFINE them. Or maybe we need to wait until the next book of this great author ...

There are also very interesting thoughts about business today. See the quote: "In a truly miscellaneous world, a successful business owns nothing but what it wants to sell us. The rest is ours."


  1. Mirek, This is interesting and I have been thinking about it. I haven't read the book, but wonder if these ideas mirror what data-miners and marketers are learning: often knowledge is best gleaned from "models" that are more like a committee of weak predictors than one strong rule...does that make sense? Yes, I will read the book. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

  2. you just right - we no longer can base our knowledge on strong & firm rules. Very often, something fuzzy, something being "sort-of" rather the "type-of" is more applicable to the realm of modern world....
    BTW, I like the phrase: "comittee of weak predictors" - have you coined it?

  3. It is a nice descriptive term and I am glad that you like it, too - but it is not mine! All credit goes to the machine learning community, who dreamed up the "committee of experts" and related ensemble learning methods.

    I've been working with one of these methods that lets the committee members be just so-so predictors, i.e., they are not experts. It works great - the 'noise' averages out....does that sound familiar?

    So, again, thank you for opening up a new view of things. I am looking forward to reading this book!