I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I’m going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I’ll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I’ll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, is from August 14, 2007. (Weinberger left a detailed comment at the original post, for those that are interested.)

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David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous is one of 2007’s big buzz books. You know, the book all the big pundits read and obsess over. Slightly older examples include books like Wikinomics or Everything Bad Is Good for You. People read them and mostly write glowing, fairly uncritical reviews. Like I said, Weinberger is the latest incarnation of the buzz book in the libraryish world. So, is the book as praiseworthy as the buzz would indicate or is it overrated? Well, both, actually. This is really and truly a thought provoking book, one that bursts with ideas on every page, a book I really found myself engaging and arguing with constantly, literally on every page many times. In that sense, it is a completely, wildly successful book: it got me thinking, and thinking deeply, about many of the most important issues in the profession, at times arguing every point on every page. On the other hand, there were times when it seemed a bit misguided and superficial in its coverage of the library world, almost gloatingly dismissive in a way.

So, I think I’ll take a bit of a grumpy, devil’s advocate point of view in this review. I am usually not shy pointing out flaws in the books I review, but this will probably be the first time I’m really giving what may seem to be a very negative review.

Before I get going, I should talk a little about what the book is actually about. Weinberger’s main idea is that the new digital world has revolutionized the way that we are able to organize our stuff. In the physical world, physical stuff needs to be organized in an orderly, concrete way. Each thing in it’s one, singular place. Now, however, digital stuff can be ordered in a million different ways. Each person can order their digital stuff anyway they want, and stuff can be placed in infinite different locations as needed. This paradigm shift is, according to Weinberger, a great thing because it’s so much more useful to be able to find what we need if we’re not limited in how we organize in in the physical world. In other words, our shelves are infinite and changeable rather than limited and static. Think del.icio.us rather than books on a bookstore shelf.

Weinberger is sort of the anti-Michael Gorman (or perhaps Gorman is the anti-Weinberger?) in that the former sees all change brought about by the “new digital disorder” as almost by definition a good thing. Whereas Gorman sees any challenge to older notions of publishing, authority and scholarship as heresy, with the heretics to be quickly burnt at the stake. Now, I’m not that fond of either extreme but I am generally much more sympathetic to Weinberger’s position; the idea that we need to adjust to and take advantage of the change that is happening, to resist trying to bend it to our old-fogey conceptions and to go with the flow.

So, what are my complaints? I think I’m more or less going to take the book as it unfolds and make the internal debates I had with Weinberger external and see where that takes us. Hopefully, they’re not all just a cranky old guy pining for the good old days but that we can all learn something from talking about some of the spots where I felt he could have used better explanations or substituted real comparisons for the setting up and demolishing of straw men.

The first thing that bothers me is when he compares bookstores to the Web/Amazon (starting p. 8). Bookstores are cripplingly limited because books can only be on one shelf at a time while Amazon can assign as many subjects as they need plus they have amazing data mining algorithms that drive their recommendation engines, feeding you stuff you might want to read based on what you’ve bought in the past and/or are looking at now. First of all, most bookstores these days have tables with selected books (based on subject, award winning, whatever) scattered all over the place, highlighting books that they think deserve (or publishers pay) to be singled out. On the other hand, who hasn’t clicked on one of Amazon’s subject links only to be overwhelmed by zillions of irrelevant items. It works both ways — physical and miscellaneous are different; both have advantages and disadvantages. After all, the online booksellers only get about 20% of the total business, so people must find that there’s a compelling reason to go to physical bookstores.

Starting on page 16, he begins a comparison of the Dewey decimal system libraries use to physically order their books with the subject approach Amazon and other online systems use. I find this comparison more than a bit misleading, almost to the point where I think Weinberger is setting up a straw man to be knocked down. Now, I’m not even a cataloguer and I know that Dewey is a classification system, a way to order books physically on shelves. It has abundant limitations (which Weinberger is more than happy to point out ad nauseum) but it mostly satisfies basic needs. One weakness is, of course, that it uses a hopelessly out of date subject classification system as a basis for ordering. Comparing it to the ability to tag and search in a system like Amazon or del.icio.us is, however, comparing apples to oranges. Those systems aren’t really classification systems but subject analysis systems. The real comparison, to be fair, to compare apples to apples, should have been Amazon to the Library of Congress Subject Headings. While LCSH and the way it is implemented are far from perfect, I think that if you compare the use of subject headings in most OPACs to Amazon, you will definitely find that libraries don’t fare as poorly as comparing Amazon to Dewey and card catalogues. And page 16 isn’t the only place he get the Dewey/card catalogue out for a tussle. He goes after Dewey again starting on page 47; on 55-56 he talks as if the card catalogue is the ultimate in library systems; on 57 he refers to Dewey as a “law of physical geography;” on page 58 he again compares a classification system to subject analysis. And on page 60 he doesn’t even seem to understand that even card catalogues are able to have subject catalogues. The constant apples/oranges comparison continued for a number of pages, with another outbreak on page 61-2, as he once again complains that Dewey can only represent an item in one place while digital can represent in many places; really the fact that Weinberger doesn’t realize that libraries use subject headings as well as classification and that an item can have more than one subject heading, well I find that a bit embarrassing for him, especially at the length he does on about it. Really, David, we get it. Digital good, physical bad. Tagging good, Dewey bad. Amazon good, libraries & bookstores bad.

It was at this point that I thought to myself that in reality, even Amazon has a classification system like Dewey, in fact they probably have a lot of them. For example, the hard drives on their servers have file allocation tables which point to the physical location of their data files. At a higher level, their relational databases have primary keys which point to various data records. Even their warehouses have classification systems, as their databases must be able to locate items on physical shelves. Compare using a subject card catalogue to find books on WWII with being dropped in the middle of a Amazon warehouse! He sets up the card catalogue as a straw man and he just keeps knocking it down and it get tiresome that way he just keeps on taking easy shots.

Weinberger also misunderstands the way people use cookbooks (p.44). Sure, if people only used cookbooks as a way of slavishly copying recipes for making dinner, then, yeah, the web would put them out of business. But, people use cookbooks for a lot of reasons: to learn techniques, to get insight into a culture and way of life, to get a quick overview of a cuisine or a style of cooking, as a source basic information for improvising, to read for fun, to get a insight into the personality and style of a chef, to get an insight into another historical period. The richness of a good cookbook isn’t limited by just recipes.

I have to admit that at this point I was tempted to abandon the book altogether, to brand it as all hype and no real substance, a hoax of a popular business book perpetrated on an unexpecting librarian audience. Fortunately, I didn’t. There were more annoyances, but the book got a lot stronger as it went along, more insightful and more penetrating in it’s analysis. However, I think I’ll stay grumpy. (hehe.)

One of the more annoying arguments (p. 144) that I often encounter in techy sources is that the nature of learning and the evaluation of learning has changed so radically that we will no longer want to bother evaluating students on what they actually know and can do themselves, but rather will only test them on what they can do in teams or can use the web to find out. In other words, not testing without cell phones and the Internet at the ready. Now, I’m not one to say that we should only test students on memorized facts and regurgitated application of rote formulas; and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many schools that only do that. From my experience, collaboration and group work, research and consultation are all encouraged at all levels of schooling and make up a significant part of most students’ evaluation. Students have plenty of opportunity to prove they can work in teams and can find the information they need in a networked environment. But, I still think that it’s important for students to actually know something themselves, without consultation, and to be able to perform important tasks themselves, without collaboration. Certainly, the level of knowledge and tasks will vary with the age/grade of the students and the course of study they are pursuing. If someone is to contribute to the social construction of knowledge they, well, need to already have something to contribute. In fact, if everyone always only relied on someone else to know something, then the pool of knowledge would dry up. The book asks some important questions: what is the nature of expertise, what is an expert, how do you become an expert, are these terms defined socially or individually, how is expert knowledge advanced, how is expert knowledge communicated? A scientist who pushes the frontiers of knowledge must actually know where they are to begin with. At some level, an engineer must be able to do engineering, not just facilitate team building exercises.

And little bits of innumeracy bug me too. On page 217 he’s trying to make the point that the online arXiv has way more readers than the print Nature. ArXiv has “40,000 new papers every year read by 35,000 people” and “Nature has a circulation of 67,500 and claims 660,000 readers — about 19 days of arxiv’s readers.” Comparing these two sets of numbers is a totally false comparison. What you really need to do is compare the total download figures for arXiv to the total download figures for Nature PLUS an estimate for the total paper readership. For arXiv does he think all 40K papers are read by each of the 35K readers for a potential 1.4 billion article reads? The true article readership is probably much, much smaller than that. As for the print, the most recent Nature (v744i7148) has 14 articles and letters; for a guestimate for a whole year print, multiply by 52 weeks and 660,000 readers equals a potential 480 million article reads; probably not everyone reads each article, but at least most probably at least glance at each article. For the print only. He doesn’t even seem to realize that Nature, like virtually every scientific journal, has an online version with a potentially huge readership, which Weinberg in no way takes into account. It’s clear to me that, at least based on the numbers he gives, what I can actually say about the comparison between the readerships for Nature and arXiv is limited but that they may not be too dissimilar. Not the point he wants to make, though. Again, the real numbers he should have dug up, but did not seem to want to use, was the total article downloads for each source.

Now, I’m not implying that print is a better format for science communication than online — I’ve predicted in my My Job in 10 Years series that print will more or less disappear within the next 10 years — but please, know what you’re talking about when you explore these issues. Know the landscape, compare apples to apples.

I find it frustrating that in a book Weinberg dedicates “To the Librarians” he doesn’t take a bit more time to find out what librarians actually do, how libraries work in the 2007 rather than 1950. (See p. 132 for some cheap shots) But in the end, I have to say it was worth reading. If I disagreed violently with something on virtually every page, well, at least it got me thinking; I also found many brilliant insights and much solid analysis. A good book demands a dialogue of it’s readers, and this one certainly demanded that I sit up and pay attention and think deeply about my own ideas. This is an interesting, engaging, important book that explores some extremely timely information trends and ideas, one that I’m sure that I haven’t done justice to in my grumpiness, one that at times I find myself willfully misunderstanding and misrepresenting (misunderestimating?). I fault myself for being unable to get past it’s shortcomings in this review; I also fault myself for being unable to see the forest for the trees, for being overly annoyed at what are probably trivial straw men. Read this book for yourself.

(And apologies for what must be my longest, ramblingest, most disorganized, crankiest, least objective review. I’m sure there’s an alternate aspect of the quantum multiverse where I’ve written a completely different review.)

Weinberger, David. Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York: Times Books, 2007. 277pp.

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