[Online Information 2005] David Weinberger keynote

David Weinberger at Olympia 2005
Here’s a snippet of David Weinberger’s keynote to Online Information. His speech is entitled Everything is Miscellaneous and rattled a mostly taxonomy-loving audience by looking radically at how we can extend the organisation of knowledge by introducing alternatives to tree structures.

Check out the Online Information blog for some more vox pop video clips. If you’re not already subscribed to Joho the Blog, then shame on you.

This is a (very) rough transcript of the content of this clip:

When the data and metadata are both digital what gets made easier? Well, there are four things that change:

1. Leaves can sit on multiple branches – for example a camera has to sit somewhere, probably best under ‘cameras’ but in an electronic store you want to put it in as many places as possible

2. Messiness is terrible in the physical world, organisation is success, whereas in the digital world you want as many links in and out and crossing over as you can find, so many links that no-one could possibly follow them all – that sort of messiness really works – the more contextualised, the more findable you are.

3. In a clothing store, almost everything you see is noise. It’s the stuff that doesn’t fit *you*. Much better to be able to go to the store that says: Sixteen and a half, thirty two inch shirt store – that would be good for you (if you happen to be that size) So in a normal store, if you do the rational thing and make a big pile of everything that fits you so you can go through it in a rational way- you’ll get thrown out, they’ll think you’re crazy – because the owner of the information also owns the organisation of that information. So now we have electronic stores that let you order how you view stuff – close to faceted classification (actually parametric search) but getting closer to you being able to design your own store. It is less and less the case that the owner of the information owns the organisation of the information

4. Users are becoming contributors to the metadata that used to be owned by the information owners. For example, sequential file names from digital cameras give the problem that it’s impossible to remember what the content of the file is. Uploading such a picture becomes functionally equivalent to throwing it away – because you’ll never remember which one is which. So why not upload your pictures and have other people annotate them. For example at an event like this, people can say “that’s me!” and type in annotations, so that onerous job of entering metadata (which humans are supposed to hate so much) when distributed over a large enough group, especially when that group is motivated in part by egotism then magically it gets done. Sometimes that’s the only way to get information.

So the tree metaphor is incredibly useful – compact and efficient and will continue to be valuable. The difference is that in the future the question will no longer be about getting the right tree, there will be many trees. So rather than trees, it’s helpful to think of knowledge as a large pile of leaves.

It used to be that the role of information professionals to keep us from bad knowledge to cut down what people see, but now it’s the opposite, now it’s a complete flip we want as much metadata as possible. Now filters may be filtering out something useful and keeping a user from something they want. This flips the basics of our culture because before with paper, we couldn’t handle an abundance of information, now we’re really good at it.

Information is growing all the time, but we’re not overwhelmed with it, because we did what we’ve always done, we generated more information to be able to deal with it. Just like Callimachus the librarian at the Library of Alexandria who had 400,000 scrolls or so to classify. How did he manage it? He made more scrolls.

But we don’t need to filter things on the way in, we need experts who can help us think about things in all sorts of multiple ways, but filtering on the way in is a dead idea.

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