Notes From Underground

Entropic (in tropical weather)
September 23, 2007, 3:04 pm
Filed under: controlled language, entropy, information theory, librarians, libraries

Entropy is a fun idea.

And I’m writing in the broadest sense of the word, more along the lines of “2 a : the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity b : a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder” (from Webster’s).

Robert Frost once defined poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion” (listen to some of his readings, along with that quote here) which always reminded me of something like an act of defiance against the inevitability of entropy, against everything breaking down into pure, uniform disorder. I think this song does a fair job of explaining it the way I’m thinking about it ๐Ÿ™‚

In David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous (and, by the way, there will have to be some later discussion about the term Everything and the power/laziness of its use in titles — Everything is Miscellaneous, Everything Falls Apart, Everything is Illuminated etc.) his over all claim is that the digital world helps us to construct a 3rd order of order that is curiously based on and valued through miscellany. He presents an excellent treatise on the idea and has sold me on it. I mean, I’m there. I’m with him. Digitized information means we get to arrange information any way we want from a miscellaneous pile into a unique, individualized compilation of information (and, is it a surprise to anyone that it was the ME Generation who made this happen?).

What Weinberger is writing about is entropy. We’re taking what he refers to as the 2nd order of order, our arbitrary arrangements of things in the world into systems (though imperfect) that we can work with (like the card catalog and the periodic table), and we’re blowing them apart into a miscellany that should no longer worry us because the digital age can sort it all out for us. The information in a card catalog is no longer restricted to little 3×5 index cards, but is rather now infinite in its size, in the amount of information it can contain. And from that complexity of information we can pluck the information that is relevant to us individually through tags, keywords etc. I doubt that I’m doing Weinberger justice here by trying to summarize his ideas so succinctly, but the point is he’s talking about the eventual falling apart of the 2nd order of order because everything falls apart.

An interesting side note to his book is this: it’s one of the more poorly edited publications I’ve read. There are multiple misspellings, several ink blotches, and a few cases where the sentence structure is just confusing (the kind of sentence that would have been re-written under a different editorial group). None of this really distracted from the book. Any reader could have deduced that he meant “multiple” instead of “multiply” in one sentence, and the ink blotches rarely covered more than one letter. I only bring it up because of the debates about editing that have been brought up by the emergence of blogs, wikis and wikipedia.

The fear with wikipedia seems to be that any one article could possibly be presented to the world without being edited first, and by edited I mean without its grammar being checked, without its facts being verified, and without its writing style being clarified. This is equally true of blogs. Those who hearken back to their 31 volume encyclopedia sets cry out “It’s falling apart! Everything we loved about our encyclopedia is done for!” And yet, despite the potential for serious flaws, wikipedia is beginning to be looked at more and more as a source rather than just an internet curiosity.

I’m reminded of an email that makes the circuit every couple of years where every word in the email is scrambled except for the first and last letter of each word (knid of lkie tihs but the wlhoe eailm is wttiren tihs way). The email demonstrates the interesting fact of a person’s ability to read (and/or guess at the words of) and understand words that are not spelled correctly, especially if they begin and end with the right letters. And to think of all the years the grammarians of the world have worked hard and diligently to make sure everything was spelled and punctuated correctly, even as lately as the popular Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Their hard work and diligence now comes to an end as the internet and other factors play into less and less pre-publication editing and fact checking. Everything falls apart.

Let’s face it. When it comes right down to it, whatever our work is now to try to make sense of the world, it will all come apart in the end and either be replaced by some other new (but temporary) order or be lost in disorder forever. Like the poets, all we are really doing is creating a “momentary stay against confusion”


3 Comments so far
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Thanks for the engaged review. Really interesting.

I think I disagree with your idea that I’m really describing entropy. I think I’m actually describing something like the opposite of entropy. But, then, I’m a humanities major so I’m probably misunderstanding the term. In any case, the key characteristic of the miscellaneous — and what confusingly distinguishes it from the normal use of the term — is that it’s super-saturated with meaning (relationships, connections, linkages). It is thus unlike the gray, homogenized dust that I think of as a pure entropic state. How far off am I?

As for the bad editing job: It actually was very carefully edited. It went through two passes by a professional copy editor, two passes by an excellent and careful editor, and I copy-read it at least twice. So, I was surprised when I was reading through the printed copy to find obvious solecisms. Even with all that care, obvious whoppers made it in. Total d’oh moments. I take that not as a sign that the book was produced haphazardly, because I know that the publisher actually treated it quite carefully. Rather, we humans are so error prone that we may actually be correction-proof. (The ink blotches are new to me. I haven’t seen any nor have I heard complaints. I hope you just happen to have a botched copy. I bet the bookstore would let you replace it.)

Comment by David Weinberger

I’d been expecting this, even if you haven’t. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Comment by Doc Martens

Well, I have to admit first that about half-way through this blog entry I realized I was on course for something that would need a lot more fleshing out than the typical blog wants to allow space for (the other blogs I’ve read anyway, tend to the short entry). I’d like to explore the idea further at a later date.
I agree that your description of the miscellaneous is indeed a miscellany that is information-rich. What I was trying to get at (and not doing much of a good job) was the idea that this miscellany is, at its basic level, less orderly than the previous order. It’s just that the digital age allows us to squeeze every last bit of information from that miscellany. Technically, a library-worth of books piled on the floor miscellaneously is just as information-rich as the miscellany you describe in your book, but a useless one without the digitized access you describe. So, in the sense of entropy I’m working from (a trend to disorder), you are in many ways describing that — with the added benefit of the digital technology to work through what would otherwise be an unusable mess. But without the internet we are left with a collection of hard drives where even the owners of the hard drives aren’t sure where all the information is — less order than pre-internet days…
Otherwise I’m just cynically writing/joking about how everything falls apart — using the editing errors in your book as a picking-point.
When it comes to editing errors, I always say “let ye who have not sinned cast the first stone” — another way of saying that humans are “correction proof”.

Comment by labelman

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