David Weinberger on Too Big to Know

David Weinberger – another of those authors whose books I read as soon as they come out – recently published Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room, a very long title on the topic of how to separate the wheat from the chaff in a world where knowledge is seemingly inexhaustible. As anyone who has edited Wikipedia knows, knowledge is now dynamic, networked, and crowdsourced, both in academia and outside. Knowledge – good and bad – spreads blisteringly fast and can flatfoot many an authority.

I attended a seminar with David Weinberger today, at the Berkman Center – the turnout was quite good, about 150 people in my estimate. Here are my notes:

  • Physical instantiations of knowledge coming apart (encyclopedias, newspapers, libraries) because of one little innovation: The hyperlink.
  • Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, not his own facts (senator Patrick Moynihan.)
  • Knowledge seen as building on bricks on bricks, nailed down, and then a product of filtering
  • Too much to know, the world is too big to know – the strategy is to break off a brain-sized (“skulls don’t scale”) part of the world and allow an expert to know it really well. We can ask the expert, then get an answer and then we can stop asking. A system of stopping points – you don’t have to rerun the experiment, you can trust experts based on credentials.
  • Books are not linked – linear, winnowed (through good writing), permanent
  • Following footnotes used not to be done, now it is trivial.
  • Knowledge is picking up the properties of the new medium, just as it did pick up properties of the old medium.
  • Clay Shirky: No such thing as information overload, just filter failure.
  • Information overload (Toffler) came from sensory overload idea, 60s. People worried about information overload, would not keep you sane.
  • What constitutes information overload has changed – we tolerate much more stuff now.
  • Previously, stuff that was filtered out (by publishers and newspapers) was not available, but now it is, in blog posts. We filter forward on the Internet, we do not filter out.
  • New strategy: Include everything, the cost of getting rid of something is higher than getting rid of it. So you include almost everything. And you filter on the way out. (you’d never keep notes from library committee meetings in Wozilla, Alaska, because they would not be interesting, until Sarah Palin becomes vice-presidential candidate)
  • We are good at making order out of things. Knowing categories is to know the world – categorization is a serious pursuit for thousands of years. But physical entities need to have one and only one categorization – you cannot sort your CD collection alphabetically and by genre. But on the web, you can have thousands of playlists – a mess but a very rich mess.
  • Messiness is how you scale meaning.
  • For every fact on the Internet there is an equal and opposite fact. The Internet is a stew of disagreement. We don’t agree on anything and we never will. And that is fine.
  • We don’t even know if Moynihan really said that thing about facts and opinions
  • Shows picture of platypus, lots of arguing about its categorization – now we don’t care any more. We can have different namespaces that allow us to choose categorizations based on what we prefer.
  • We like to hang out with people like ourselves, and that is a problem – because we can create echo-chambers, which fragment and amplify disagreements.
  • Idea from the enlightenment – deep, down to the level of facts, anything else is not a real conversation. But this is a fallacy, for in order to do that you need to have large degree of similarity. Not going to solve that here, but Ethan Zuckerman and Yochai Benkler (both present) are working on it.
  • Long-form arguments are loosing their pre-eminence as highest form of human discourse. (Yes, I know I wrote a book, get the irony.) Not going away, but losing its preeminence. Darwin would, if he published now, be tweeting from the Beagle, had a conversation about finches’ beaks. And this web of knowledge would have more value than Darwin’s original work.
  • Michael Nielsen: Redesigning discovery. ArXive.org, scientists posting papers and discussing them.
  • Destructuring of knowledge is happening at all levels, also at the level of the data themselves. Darwin studied barnacles for 7 years after Beagle trip. Data is not like that any more. Data commons happening in field after field: Genetics, astronomy, government, libraries. Data.gov posting raw data because cleaned and curated data doesn’t scale.
  • Tremendous value in getting data out – and fast. Peer review doesn’t scale. Cannot scale science research, unless it is peer-to-peer review – open access journals that are peer reviews.
  • The third way data is changing is that it is linked – computers can make sense and link three different knowledge nuggets about platypuses (characterizing them as platypus, watermole, and ornithorhyncus anatinus) can be linked by linking to references.
  • This process is fractal and recurring.
  • Data are getting linked, fractal and destructured.
  • Networked knowledge may or may not be truer about the world, but it is truer about knowing.
  • What we have in common is not knowledge about which we agree, but a shared world about which we disagree.

Professor Ann M. Blair (author of Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age) with question: On the pyramid from data to information to knowledge to wisdom, Plato said that the purpose is wisdom. Aristotle wanted a disciplinary (certain) form of knowledge, middle ages brought us information concept (Bacon). Information explosion already in the 1800s, that’s when data enters the language, takes off during 1950s. Now it is just raw data.

Good things about the book: Nuanced, neither technology deterministic or not, but you can find data and authoritative knowledge behind every position. Like that it is not about substitution but net as an addition. The net cannot stand in for current institutions. The book is optimistic – we need to understand and use the net. I do hope that we are imparting mental maps and the wherewithal to make judgments – though I am of the wrong generation. Not “don’t use Wikipedia” but learning how to notice deficiencies.

Comment from librarian Harvard (missed the name). What are going to do about building a knowledge infrastructure? Knowledge is lumpy, intertwiningly linked and so on, but there are still tensions between truth and untruth. We do not have one foundation on which we can rest for very long. Today we are caught in a time warp between the long form book and the Net revolution, and we don’t have a handle on this new form of knowledge yet? Refer to Thinking, Fast and Slow: Is the net making us change from thinking slow to thinking fast – i.e., making decisions based on reactiveness rather than analysis?

Ethan Zuckerman: This is the book that shifts us from the early Weinberger to the middle Weinberger. I don’t think this a happy book – we just had a very smart man stand up and tell us that facts is not what we thought they were and consensus is probably not achievable. If this doesn’t unsettle you, what will? David’s central point is that this is not economics: What killed the Boston Globe was that some fundamental processes change the world, in how we know things and how we find it. He is making the argument that we are going to put something in a book and make it authoritative is challenged. We are now three nanoseconds after the Big Bang, and it will take us a very long time to navigate through this. The deep challenge he is putting forward is to understand the world is to understand and accept the complexity of the world. Those of us who figure out to navigate this space are given the possibility of succeeding in a new and very different way. Houseman: The advent of economic complexity: Think of it in terms of person-bytes: Houseman argues that you can figure out what economies can or cannot do, by understanding how many person-bytes you have in it. You can line up experts and that is good, but it works really well if the knowledge lies between the experts – understanding knowledge as a process. So what I am hoping for is some understanding of how we are going to navigate this web of knowledge. This is the most exciting question you can wrestle with. The world David is describing is much messier, but by helping us wrestle with it he has helped us.


How does the definition of truth change – have we gotten truth wrong?

We all have categories, fight about them, are you saying they are losing relevance? No, not at all, but the notion of a single, right categorization is losing its primacy. We discuss whether bloggers are journalists or not, many things hang on it, but we understand that there is not one right answer.

Importance of personal relationship rising parallel to web? Social dimension to knowledge? Will take the easy way out – I learn from mailing lists, and they eventually become social bonds. We want to turn information into communication.

2 thoughts on “David Weinberger on Too Big to Know

  1. Pingback: Caseundervisning og utdanningskonkurranse | Tversover

  2. lsniestrath

    I enjoyed reading the notes that you wrote about 2B2K. I am finishing the book and am creating a presentation for a graduate course in social media. While the internet is certainly a stew of disagreement, as you pointed out, it’s one that I know that I can no longer live without.

Comments are closed.