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'Too Big to Know' by David Weinberger
February 10, 2012 - 12:06am

Too Big to Know is a surprisingly small book (around 200 pages - you can sample an excerpt at The Atlantic) that covers a lot of ground, touching on issues of interest to anyone who wonders where knowledge is headed and what shape it is taking in this unstable era. The long subtitle, in the elevator pitch style that is so popular with publishers these days, provides a hint of what's inside: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. Weinberger was trained as a philosopher and is now a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which is where some of my favorite thinkers hang out. Previously he co-authored The Cluetrain Manifesto and wrote Small Pieces Loosely Joined and Everything is Miscellaneous, all of which looked at the ways the Internet not only works, but is changing the way we work and how we relate to one another and to ideas themselves as they are scattered throughout a new digital (dis)order.

Too Big to Know is an ambitious follow-up that looks at how we now handle (or try to handle) knowledge and how it has been affected by being networked. We now have access to more knowledge than ever, though anxiety about being overwhelmed is nothing new: Seneca and the Book of Ecclesiastes both fretted there were too many books being produced. But the abundance we face now is different by nature. It not only is abundant, it spills out of epistemological containers. As knowledge is networked, we lose our means of ordering it, or rather it can be ordered in many different ways at once. The internet, Weinberger writes, has no edges. "No edges means no shape. And no shape means that networked knowledge lacks what we have long taken to be essential to the structure of knowledge: a foundation" (17). He points out that our notion of a foundation has changed over time, and facts themselves became important only relatively recently as a building block for knowledge. Our idea of what makes someone an expert has changed in part because the network doesn't restrict speech to a limited number of experts and because speech online is itself networked and open to discussion, accreting further interpretations, disagreements, discursions, and detours. Negotiating the conduct of these discussions is examined in the book, including the problem of echo chambers and the need for diversity. In this section he lays out some observations: 

  • All knowledge and experience is an interpretation.
  • Interpretations are social.
  • There is no privileged position.
  • Interpretations occur in discourses.
  • Within a discourse, some interpretations are privileged.

These, he is quick to point out, are not new - I first thought about these things when Gopher and WAIS were the hot new thing, when the World Wide Web was a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee's eye and I was getting familiar with composition theory. But these now-common ideas map well to the way the Internet works and how it sometimes doesn't work very well for advancing understanding. Weinberger says the Net can make us smarter - but only if we want to be.

Though some things about authority and discourse haven't really changed, the shape of how we display and share knowledge has in ways that destabilize both expertise and the way we construct a complex argument. When long-form arguments were shaped like books, they had firm stopping places and fewer temptations (though honestly, I have always found footnotes as distracting as hyperlinks. That one looks good! Better look it up right now, while I'm thinking of it!) Book-shaped arguments also had the impression of being fixed, finished - though of course, they weren't. The authors would tinker further with those ideas, and others would comment and extend or complicate them. It's much easier now, though, to see all of that happening in real time. In the next section, Weinberger looks at changes in science as knowledge is networked and says "the Net's rebooting of science" through the increase in data and our ability to store and share it "has revealed that the old ways were more broken than we'd thought. In a phrase: Science had been a type of publishing and now it's becoming a network . . . now that science is becoming a network, knowledge is not something that gets pumped out of the system as its product. The hyperlinking of science not only links knowledge back to its sources. It also links knowledge into the human contexts and processes that produced it and use it, debate it, and make sense of it" (152, 155). The product isn't bits of established stuff; it's the network itself. Again, part of me says "this isn't new. Science has always been a network that is in ferment." But it's more visible now, even as journal publishers assert the rights to the product.

Weinberger also looks at how the networking of knowledge changes our idea of leadership, decision-making, and creativity itself. The Net seems to have as basic attributes abundance, interconnectedness through links, lack of agreement or a sense of conclusion, and encourages use to think of what's online as public and available for reuse. All of these things, of course, are problematic in practice. The problem with the expectation that what's on the web should be "permission-free" is on my mind constantly; the more we are technically able to link, share, and repurpose, the more prohibitions and threats are imposed by industries that rely on payment for use. A few hours before I started to write this, for example, Penguin USA announced they will not allow libraries to have access to their ebooks. Period. End of story. They had no way to impose such restrictions before the era of networked knowledge. Weinberger addresses these tensions and concludes "Traditional institutions need to be fierce contributors to the Net if our new infrastructure is to move us toward knowledge and not dazed ignorance" (191). Weinberger also suggests we need more than ever to teach everyone how to find information, how to evaluate claims, and how to appreciate and learn from those who see things differently than we do. In many ways the optimal approach to the future he describes is the one academic librarians prepare for - but it is also one that we have to fight for every single day. The sharing we do has become suspect, and publishers are now in a position to cripple what we do as much as possible.

Weinberger covers a lot of ground, and when you cover so much, there are places where depth is sacrificed for breadth. There are also inevitable lacunae. For me, the missing piece that kept intruding on my thoughts but makes no appearance in the book is the problem of privacy and the way that so many of our platforms for networking and sharing knowledge are actually data-gathering and influence-hoarding devices. This, to me, is a fundamentally vexing problem with our current network infrastructure: our "free" access to networks is actually paid for through the constant leakage of personal information. Those platforms that invite the greatest volume of sharing are taking advantage of the hopes we have while retaining enormous power - not only over our lives through surveillance, but because they have become big enough and essential enough platforms that they control much of the network itself. Users create and freely share knowledge and expression, delivering it into the hands of those who have the power to alter our knowledge base and culture and history in ways unimaginable before. They can change it or make it disappear with the flick of a switch.

When GLBT books disappeared overnight from Amazon's websites worldwide, the books didn't all disappear in reality. Most of them were physical books, merely discovered and sold through Amazon's online store. But the disappearance was significant because Amazon has made its database a uniquely powerful one, one that has insinuated itself into many  other databases, and the disappearance of information about thousands of books (which the company blamed on a metadata error - an employee apparently decided the subject was a subset of the class "obscenity" or "deviant sexuality," so should not appear on a family-friendly site) simply illustrates the dangers of networked knowledge when one company controls huge parts of it - and no, of course, owns the rights to much digital stuff. The Internet was designed to work around failures like this, but the tools we rely on to search the network and share our ideas are being designed by giant corporations to appear free while being centrally controlled. Weinberger touches on this when he discusses the limits of toll access publication, but the problem is much broader and deeper than that.  

Still, what Weinberger has done in a relatively short, admirably readable book is take on a complex, shifting, destabilized, and boundary-free set of ideas and talk about them in a way that makes them connect in a way that gives them coherent shape. He has used the the edges provided by the format of the book to organize a lot of material into a series of linked observations, even as he prompts us to think "yes, but" and "of course, there's also..." and in the final analysis encourages us to think about the way knowledge behaves today and where it may lead us.


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