Interview: David Weinberger

This seems to have been my “interview very smart people” month. A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend an hour talking with David Weinberger about his fascinating new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous. The full interview with Weinberger is now up at Salon.

I highly recommend the book: it’s a sophisticated, deep discussion of one of the issues that the Chandler developers in Dreaming in Code were grappling with, as they tried to break personal digital information out of application-based “silos” to create the sort of “miscellaneous soup” that Weinberger celebrates.

Everything is MiscellaneousIf I have any disagreement with Weinberger, it’s that I think he is so enthusiastic about the manifold opportunities digital organization presents — and so gifted at explaining them to us — that he is a little dismissive of the frictional drag created by practical implementation details. He makes a compelling theoretical case for “third order” systems that let us try out multiple organizational schemas. But in practice I think a lot of this stuff remains out of reach and will continue to do so for a long while. In my and I think many users’ experiences, the sheer difficulty of creating good software means that the digital realm remains far less responsive to our changing needs than is modeled in Everything is Miscellaneous. To paraphrase the great William Gibson line, the miscellaneous is here — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Following the break, a relevant chunk of the interview which didn’t make the cut for Salon (pretty high geek quotient).

In theory, digital means things are accessible in a freeform and constantly mutable way — and yet actually wrangling digital tools to do that well turns out to be really difficult. Think about the Windows file system — it’s a huge pile of stuff we should be able to approoach in a multi-faceted way, but we can’t.

The fact that digital data, from the computer’s point of view, is stored by algorithms that are unconcerned with their meaning means that everything on top of that we can arrange as we want to. It’s a great freedom that we don’t have to worry about where the bits are. The computer does that for us, which means that we can then extract those bits without having to worry about where they are, and arrange them in ways that are meaningful to us, and build applications to do that. So that disjuncture between how the computer views it and how we view it is what enables this whole thing. We can do faceted organization on the Windows operating system. It’s just an application. Somebody has to write it.

It’s a better file system?

The low-level file system you can leave as it is. There may be technical reasons why there will be too much overhead, and it’s not efficient. Where the bits are on the platters? Makes no difference at all. You could write a system that lets you attach data to Word documents, or all Office documents, have it be faceted data, and write a faceted system on top of it. Maybe you have to hack Office because it’s not a terribly open system, although it has an extension language. Maybe not. Maybe it’s totally external to it. In fact, Windows, a couple of summers ago, they had a prototype system…

You mean WinFS, the file-system revamp that was supposed to be a part of Vista and then got chopped?

No, a skunkworks Microsoft project — called Tesla. It was XP-based, an application, a layer on top, and instead of having folders, you had tags, and you could organize by that. If people wanted that, if there were demand for it, somebody wrote it well, we’d have it. We’re very used to the Windows foldering system, which emulates a second order system. It has a third order capability that is unused, or not implemented well enough for people to actually use. There’s also a cognitive step to be taken to get used to it. Not much of a cognitive step. We’d be doing this for photographs within Windows if Windows gave us good enough tools.
[tags]david weinberger, everything is miscellaneous, tagging, folksonomy, classification[/tags]

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