Blog Post

The 3rd Order of Order and the Coming Media Production Paradigm, part 1

Recently I read the first chapter of David Weinbergers book, Everything is Miscelaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. In it, he describes the "Three Orders of Order":

  1. "In the first order of order, we organize things themselves - we put silverware into drawers, books on shelves, photos into albums."
  2. The second order of order "separates information about the first-order objects from the objects themselves." Weinberger uses the card catalog as an example. This second-order information is what many of us call metadata - information about information.
  3. "The third order removes the limitations weve assumed were inevitable in how we organize information," namely that the first two orders of order must "arrange atoms." A digital music library, for example, is a third-order system and can thereby be searched, sorted, and arranged in ways that a physical CD collection could not.

What grabbed me in this chapter was his discussion of the power differentials associated with each order of order:

Second-order organization, it turns out, is often as much about authority as about making things easier to find...Museums, educational curricula, newspapers, the travel industry, and television schedules are all based on the assumption that in the second-order world, we need experts to go through information, ideas, and knowledge and put them neatly away.

But now we - the customers, the employees, anyone - can route around the second order. We can confront the miscellaneous directly in all its unfulfilled glory. We can do it ourselves and, more significantly, we can do it together, figuring out the arrangements that make sense for us now and the new arrangements that make sense a minute later. Not only can we find what we need faster, but traditional authorities cannot maintain themselves by insisting that we have to go to them. The miscellaneous order is not transforming only business. It is changing how we think the world itself is organized and - perhaps more important - who we think has the authority to tell us so. (Weinberger, 2007)

I would add the entire 20th century media production industry to Weinberger's list of second-order practitioners. Everything from blockbuster movies to the local news program is traditionally based on the assumption that there is a standard way to tell stories and that those methods also require expertise in certain media production technologies, e.g. studio lighting, video cameras, editing software. Even interactive platforms like Flash or Silverlight require the designer to decide what kind of interactivity the end user is allowed.

Consumer-level tools for creating media have been around for some time and are now even affordable for a large number of people, especially if we're talking about text publishing on the web or digital audio production. However, these tools are still based on a media production paradigm that favors expertise, and are mostly just digital versions of older, first-order systems. They therefore favor those who have traditionally held the knowledge to use those tools. The same groups of people who held the power in first-order media production industries have largely maintained that power in the current media production landscape because we have not yet fully tapped into the possibilities of the third order of order.

I believe that's all about to change. A new kind of media production tool is about to emerge and I hope that you and I are making some of them.

More to come on this next week, in part two: What's a Wikumentary?!

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2 comments

Having "browsed" the extract you linked I wonder if Weinberger goes on to discuss the ways in which the apparently free and open "third order" can wind up replicating second order exclusivity - through information burial, "secret" keywords, googlebombs both intentional and spontaneous, and a sort of tyranny of the obsessive. The last category is a major problem for designers of competitive MMORPGs and for wikipedia: the bar for entry tends to be set by the most committed users (the "necessity" parent of gold farming), i.e. the ones who have the most time to devote to their pet cause.

Weinberger appears to be talking about the power of beling able to select your own filters, but what sort of investment does that filter-making imply? What skill set do you have to acquire in order to be empowered by filtering and not prey to other filter-authors' agendas? How does becoming an informed and critical filterer mirror becoming an informed and critical reader? Does Weinberger allow for an impulse like Anne Cong-Huyen's  - a desire for an expert-group-moderated list of canonical readings, which can serve to get some quorum of us on the same page?

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Richard,
I haven't read the rest of Weinberger's book, so I can't comment on that.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by filtering? Because my take on of the third order of order is that if you have to become an informed and critical filterer, then you're defeating the possibilities of digital information again. It doesn't matter how you filter. Filter any way you like. If you have to have filter experts, then you're in no better position than you were in the first or second order. I want to diminish the role of experts.

I will say that it seems the problems you're concenred about occur in large scale information platforms, which is interesting, but not really what drives the idea of wikumentary that I'm proposing. The concerns you enumerate, in fact, seem to me evidence of the problem that I'd like to solve: once your information ecosystem expands beyond the point were it can be reasonably governed by either formal or ad hoc community standards, it becomes less sustainable. My thinking on information systems is akin to the anthropological concept of carrying capacity: any given piece of land has a natural carrying capacity which is the amount of life that land cand sustain given its resources. Humans are very clever at finding ways to beat carrying capactiy - in information systems, too. Perhaps any information system that allows for a "tyranny of the obsessive" is simply too big for its own good.

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