There Is No Such Thing As Metadata


The USA Freedom Act, just voted into law, ended the government’s bulk collection of phone call metadata. While people of good conscience can disagree on whether this is a good or bad thing, here’s an uncontestable fact: There is no such thing as metadata.

David Weinberger, Internet polemicist, former joke writer for Woody Allen, and all around fun guy, pointed this out in his great book, Everything Is Miscellaneous. He gave the example of someone looking for plays by Shakespeare.

Imagine you type Shakespeare into Google and get a list back that includes King Lear. You click that, read a bit of the play and come across the famous quote, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” Now imagine you hear that quote one day but you forget where it comes from. You Google “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth” and the search results show you it comes from King Lear  by Shakespeare. In the first case, you used the author’s name as metadata for his plays. In the second, you used a line from the play as metadata for the author. Weinberger sums it up this way:

“In the miscellaneous order, the only distinction between metadata and data is that metadata is what you already know and data is what you’re trying to find out.”

To be fair, Weinberger drew the opposite conclusion from mine. Rather than saying there’s no such thing as metadata because the stuff is, itself, data, he said that everything is metadata because every thing points to something else.

The metafact that both of these facts are true makes the case more effectively than either alone.

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