"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The rise of the Web has dethroned authorities, atomized our culture and set us loose in the resulting sea of fragments. This familiar sky-is-falling argument regularly inspires an anguished plea: We must restore order in the messy digital realm! Won’t someone organize this endless churning chaos? Can’t we clean up the Web?
David Weinberger says, nah. For one thing, such an effort would be futile. More important, it misses a great opportunity technology has opened before us — a chance to transform how we think about, well, everything.
Weinberger’s new book, “Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder,” lays out the upside of digital technology’s impact on our ways of knowing. The book builds on ideas in Weinberger’s previous works — “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” and “The Cluetrain Manifesto” (which he co-authored) — to present a key insight into the nature of the Web world.
The argument goes like this: As long as knowledge was organized physically, on paper, in books and card catalogs and such, we remained stuck in the belief that there is “one right way” to define, organize and think about any subject. Now we’ve moved information into the infinitely mutable realm of digital data — where anything can point to anything else, space keeps expanding faster than we can fill it, and we can reshuffle and re-sort at a keystroke.
In this world, the same thing can “be” in more than one place — it can, in fact, be in as many places as we want. That means we have a chance to think more nimbly and flexibly — to reorganize knowledge from multiple perspectives to suit our changing needs. We’re not losing context; we’re gaining contexts.
“Everything Is Miscellaneous” offers a hopeful, pragmatic vision of how the benefits of moving from paper to bits will outweigh the costs. It’s also an approachable work of popular philosophy in business-book drag. It covers timely topics like Wikipedia and tagging and folksonomies; it also offers diverting takes on the Dewey Decimal System, Linnaeus’ species classification, the periodic table of the elements, and the controversy over Pluto’s membership in the club of planets.
I recently talked with Weinberger at Salon’s San Francisco office.
“Everything Is Miscellaneous” talks about three different “orders of orders.” It’s very orderly, in that way. But by the time I reached the end I’d forgotten what the first two orders were.
The first order is the organization of the things themselves: the books on the bookshelves, the radishes in the ground — physical things arranged physically. It doesn’t get much more basic and primitive than that. Second order is the information about those things, the metadata — physically separated from it, and also organized physically. Typically, that data is a great reduction of the information in the first order: catalog cards that take a book full of ideas and complexity and boil it down to what fits on a 3-by-5 card. We do that because of physical limitations.
What you actually want is not just all of the information that’s in the book, but more than that, you want all the information about the book. You want to know everybody who talked about it. You can’t do that in the second order — the card catalog would be bigger than the library. We’ve grown to accept that we need to reduce the amount of information in order to make things findable.
Is that because we’re locked into the assumption that the physical order is the only order?
Yes, and it has been the best way of doing it. You have to make very good decisions about which information to capture, and we’ve gotten good at those decisions.
In the third order, the contents and the metadata are digital. Because the digital space is unbounded, it’s indefinite, it’s so cheap to add stuff, we can actually get what we wanted in the second order, but we didn’t know we wanted — which is to have a superset of information on the first order as a way of finding it.
One of the frequent reactions to “Everything Is Miscellaneous” is what you might call “the second-order people strike back” — the argument that we need experts and authorities and the order they impose on chaos.
People say, we really still need the expertise and the second-order systems transposed into the digital realm — these are very well thought through taxonomies and taxonomic trees that you can browse through, and they have advantages that you don’t get in messy, Webby systems. And unfortunately for the purposes of controversy, I agree with that! You want to have everything. There are places where you need the precision of a taxonomic tree — you need defined terms, you need very carefully constructed metadata that is a reduction of the full set of information in order to find things. We want that. We just want everything else, too.
So you’re not saying, “Away with you, taxonomy experts — we have no further need for you!” But you are saying to them, and I assume this is where the squawks kick in, your place of privilege is not what it used to be, and you need to step off the pedestal now and get into the pool with everyone else.
Compete on the merits. Yes.
You write about how we no longer need to resolve the old “Odd Couple” war between Felix neatniks and Oscar slobs. But you do seem to have a soft spot for “disorder.” I spent a certain amount of time playing Dungeons and Dragons in my youth — perhaps you as well?
I was nerdy in many ways, but not that way.
In D&D you’d have to choose not one but two “alignments” for your character — good and evil, of course, but also “law” and “chaos.” And among the people I ran with, at least, “chaotic/good,” that was the thing to be, because it let you trust other people and still have fun. At some point in reading “Everything Is Miscellaneous” it occurred to me that the book is a great celebration of the chaotic/good alignment.
Exactly what I had in mind! As with everything else, there are some people who are more rules-based, and some people who are more trickster-like. You run across this all the time on the Web. You’re on a discussion list. There are people who want to be digressive, and people who want to stay on topic.
I clearly have taken sides in the book — I like what’s going on. But there’s also a sense in which I’m simply attempting to describe what’s going on. I’m not saying, wouldn’t it be great if everything were miscellaneous, though I do think there are big advantages; I’m saying, I think that’s a way of describing what’s happening, with a certain inevitability. Content that had been locked up in careful structures and connected with other pieces and arranged and organized, and that has real value, that stuff is getting unlocked. And now we have this massive amount of stuff that we need to pull together in various ways.
Your reaction to that may be glee, may be fear. There is an element of personality in it; there’s also an element of power. That is, if you are in a business that depends on maintaining tight control over the structure of information, then you probably don’t much like what’s going on.
You cite the BBC as one example of a business that’s trying to figure out how to make the best of the new world, but of course it’s a nonprofit public institution. You talk about media companies finding ways to “bring their assets new value.” But the traditional information or media company looks out and says, “Hey, there’s old value here that’s being threatened, how do we build the stockades?” Your stance seems to be, change is inevitable — adapt or die.
If you are a content company, I don’t know what’s going to happen. There are absolute imponderables, like, in the U.S., what will the Congress do? What will the courts do? And what will technology do? We just can’t know what will happen. We can certainly see that there is a strong trend, a strong impulse to take content that’s under lock and key and to make it widely available. You just have to look at music — it’s incontestable. Insofar as stuff is available, how are we going to reassemble the pieces? Which we can now do without having to own the pieces. We can reassemble the pieces by pointing at them — a playlist, basically, as the structure.
You’ve described your book as an “argument with Aristotle.” Here you are, it’s a book about “the new digital disorder,” and we’re arguing with the ancients. How did that happen?
Our culture’s been arguing with him for a long time. The argument is, whether there is a right order of the universe — one right order. Aristotle didn’t come up with the idea, but he was the person who articulated it so forcefully that for 2,000 years he was simply believed. This is an order in which everything has a place, and to know what something is is to know that place, and in knowing it you’re seeing what makes it what it is. That’s why it can’t be in two places on the chart, on the diagram — because then it’s two things, and that’s chaos.
You also need to know within a category, things are different from the other things in that category — this is the genus/species idea. It’s a deep and fascinating notion — that to be something is to both be like something else and be unlike it. And it works really well — it allows you to construct a universe. And it allows you to keep some things implicit. We know this is a bird without also having to think, oh, bird, that’s a type of animal, oh, and animal therefore is a type of thing, and things all have these properties. That’s one of the mysteries of knowing — that we don’t know everything simultaneously all the time.
So we have this definition, and it’s clear and it’s precise. The entire system is beautiful and balanced and harmonious. And this is the vision that we carried with us for a long, long time. But we’ve been shaking it off for generations now — it’s not like, the Web came along and suddenly we were free of Aristotle. Multiculturalism, relativism, postmodernism — all these things are disputing the notion of a single order. The Web just slaps us in the face with the fact that there’s lots and lots of ways of slicing up the world.
But how we slice it up, how we cluster it, how things connect, depends on what we’re trying to do. It’s an amazing tool for consciousness to have, to be able to see the world according to the relevant attributes based upon a project — that’s what lets us survive, and do more. But that places the clustering of the universe, to some large degree, on our interests and our cares. Which is, from the Aristotelian point of view, to put it in the realm of whim and madness.
This is also why it seems to me so important that we’re doing this socially. One of the mistakes that we’ve made in our history is to think that if there isn’t a single order that’s right, then it’s up to every person to make it up for herself. And that’s what we call madness.
Anything goes — everybody puts things together any way they want.
That doesn’t accord with how we live. The fact that so much of the clustering we’re doing online, the techniques we’re evolving online for pulling together the pieces of information that we need, are social, are based upon recommendations made by social groups, that we learn from others, is one of the things that takes away from the madness that otherwise might ensue.
The other thing it does is that we so clearly can be wrong. That’s the other constraint on everything goes. A pair of pliers doesn’t belong in a fruit basket. There are right and wrong ways of clustering. But there are so many, an indefinite number of ways of clustering because of the infinite number of attributes, that it is up to us to decide what matters to us.
In the case of Pluto, there was a golden opportunity for scientists to instruct us. There is no definition of a planet. We just don’t have one. Something that wanders against the sky was fine for the Greeks, when they’re gazing up and they saw irregular motion. But now we’re looking at the solar system, we see stuff that’s so far away. And there’s a lot of stuff circling the sun. What makes a planet?
So the International Astronomical Union meets last summer to settle this issue. And they come up with a definition for planets which is based upon properties that are not themselves interesting properties, but do give us back eight out of the nine planets, and that’s why they chose those properties.
They were trying to reconstruct a reality that people are comfortable with because of tradition, or because they learned a song about nine planets when they were kids. So they could go home without having the world rise up in anger.
I believe that’s exactly what happened. One of them said, “We can’t say there are no planets, there’s no definition, because we’ll be laughed at, everyone knows there are planets.”
So here’s a missed opportunity for scientists to have said, look, of course there are nine objects circling the sun that we have a particular interest in, because we have tradition and mythology about it, and that’s great, we love them. But we should recognize, there are billions of things circling the sun, and they’re interesting in different ways, they have different properties. So in addition to these nine that really have nothing in common except that we like them (there are other objects that are basically the same size, and so on), let’s consider what’s circling the sun as a soup of things that have attributes. Let’s talk about some of the categories that are really interesting scientifically.
I talked recently with Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the Museum of Natural History in New York and an author, and he basically says, there are four objects in the solar system that have atmospheres — three planets and one moon, Titan, circling Saturn. That’s really interesting, because atmospheres are interesting — big rocks are not all that interesting. There are four things that have water, that’s really interesting; if you care about extraterrestrial life, that becomes a very interesting category. Things that are hurtling towards us — that’s an interesting category, also.
Tyson says, at the Museum of Natural History, they no longer focus on planets, they focus on the interesting clusters and categories.
In a sense, the form of “Everything Is Miscellaneous” does not reflect the content; it’s not miscellaneous, it’s a single book. You’re a writer who’s comfortable on the Web, the Web is your home, yet you made this a book.
My previous book, “Small Pieces Loosely Joined,” I wrote online. Totally online. It was so online that every day I posted the current draft. This was a book that I wrote and unwrote, Penelope-like, every night — I’d get up and undo what I’d written the night before, because it was difficult and I wasn’t getting it right. I posted, I had a discussion board. Hardly anybody followed it — why would you, knowing that the next day I’m going to undo it because it wasn’t good enough?
That was an interesting experiment, and I’m glad I did it. With this one, that was an option, but I had an intuition that I didn’t want to write it in public. In large part it was because I wanted to write this one better. I wanted to be able to work with my head down and door closed and try to peg pieces together well enough. So I did. I only feel a little guilty about that. I would post pieces and ideas on my weblog, mainly ideas, and that was very helpful.
It’s an argument and development of ideas, and books are a good form for that. But it’s also on paper because there’s an economic system that rewards me for doing that, and I want to make a living. And there’s certainly a price. It’s much harder to talk about it online because it’s not available online.
The world “Everything Is Miscellaneous” describes looks like one where there’s a lot more work for the individual. When you put an expert on a pedestal, you’re saying, I don’t have to think about this anymore, I trust this authority. On the one hand, you’re relieving us of the pressure to feel that we have to organize everything perfectly, but on the other, there’s a message that now we’re going to have to sweat to reshape the stuff that we encounter each time we encounter it.
In the early 1990s, there were all these fear-mongering books warning us that we were about to face information overload. And the amount of information got to be way higher than anyone anticipated, but we’re not drowning — we’re doing really, really well.
We’re able to do this well because we generated more information about information. The solution to the information overload problem is more information!
So now the complaint is, there’s too much metadata! We’re going to be overwhelmed with metadata. Every time we want to know what to believe in the newspaper, we’re going to have to start checking the discussion page, and looking up the pseudonym of the person to see what else they said.
I think that’s not going to happen. Because the aim of the miscellaneous is not to keep things miscellaneous; it’s rather to be able to find exactly what we need, to cluster things as we need them, and to do so really easily. And so we are in the process of evolving tools that let us do that.
So should you believe what’s in Wikipedia? Jimmie Wales, its founder, would say no, not without checking. But I don’t think that’s going to be the final answer. Because we don’t have time to do more work. Today we work to believe what’s in the encyclopedia, tomorrow we have to work to believe what’s in the newspaper, what the sports score is, whether the recipe we just found online will in fact kill us. So we will evolve trust mechanisms that will give us the shortcuts we need.
We’ve already evolved tons of them, but these will occur at the metadata level. So, for example, there’s no reason that the International Astronomical Union couldn’t go through Wikipedia, find the articles about astronomy, and find the versions of those articles that it thinks are right. Can’t find one? Fix it up and make it right and point to that one. And it would build its own astronomical Wikipedia that is nothing but a metadata level. And if you’re a schoolkid and you want to know the truth about Jupiter, you go to the IAU Wikipedia, which only contains the pages that they certify. So there’s the authority again, but it’s pointing at other stuff.
It’s not that a new single order has emerged, or that new single authorities have emerged to replace the old ones. It’s a fundamentally different sort of authority — an authority that points. It points beyond itself, and there’s always more, now. And there’s always the possibility of seeing, how did they get there?
We certainly need the convenience. We cannot always have to do research to figure out who won the baseball game last night!
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)