Saturday, 02 Jun 2007
Chop it all up and start anywhere
It occurred to me while participating in a discussion
about David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous that the problems
with what he calls
the first order of order aren't entirely solved by putting
information online, because they often have nothing to do with
physical constraints of stores and libraries. They're actually about
how we express ourselves.
For example, writing a non-fiction book is an organizational
challenge, because you want to find the best order in which to explain
things to the reader, and you have many things to say that depend on
other things that the reader should know first. The problems are even
worse (I presume) making everything line up when writing a novel,
where the story can depend on what happened before in a deep way, and
changing your mind about something important means a lot of rewriting.
And movies are often very dependent on what happened in earlier
scenes, to the point where if you start watching in the middle, you'll
never figure out what's going on.
The shuffling, searching, and reorganizing that we now take for
granted depend on content that allows for random access. Shuffle play
works because the beginning of any song is a suitable starting point,
regardless of what went before. That's what a song is, after all.
It's possible to have music without clear boundaries in space and
time, but your iPod can't shuffle that.
If we want to reorganize on a whim and start from anywhere, we have to
make a decision about ambiguous boundaries and chop things up as best
we can. Where does this song end and the next one begin? Should this
be one article or three? Is this a movie or a series of episodes?
Writers adapt to the Internet by doing smaller projects or multi-part
projects, where each piece depends less on what comes before. The
giant Internet collaborations take advantage of tiny contributions
from an ever-larger and more diverse pool of contributors. It's never
been possible to assume others have read the same thing you did, but
it's even less so now.
When there are prerequisites, we're more explicit about them. Web
pages now start by saying, "Hey, you're reading part 5. Here's a link
to the first article." Or better yet, "This article really only
depends on part 3, and you can skip the others if you like." Or just
drop sequential ordering altogether and put links to any articles
you'd like readers to look at first, like prerequisite courses in a
college catalog. But not too many, and you can't assume too much.
This boundary-drawing and standardization happens at all levels, from
genre down to the single character or pixel. It's a bit ironic how
David Weinberger celebates our freedom from the old physical
constraints on libraries and stores. Most of the pictures and
conversations that we're moving online weren't organized in libraries
or sold in stores, and to put them online, we often have to follow
stricter rules than before in how we express ourselves. Everything
has to fit into the standardized content containers that our machinery
depends on, so it can shuffle them, ship them around the world, and
reassemble them into a page in some new order that hopefully has
meaning to the reader.
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