Weinberger (Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, 2007, etc.), a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Institute for Internet and Society, argues that the collaborative, hyperlinked, instant nature of the Internet has fundamentally altered the way humans relate with knowledge. In the Gutenberg age, because of the finite nature of the book, limited by both its number of pages and the number of copies that could be printed, knowledge was necessarily ordered and hierarchical. The author added pieces to the collective store of knowledge, while publishers, editors, librarians and the community of scholars decided for the common good what was and was not important to know. The Internet has radically upended that hierarchy and knocked down the walls of the knowledge store. In 1989, pundits worried that with 1,000 books published in the world every day, people were suffering from information overload. That was small potatoes, it turns out. In 2008, Weinberger writes, Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes, “a number so large that we have to do research just to understand it.” The author suggests that we make peace with this overwhelming state of affairs, and it seems many of us already have. The democratizing of knowledge is not without its dangers. Bad information has equal access to the common well with good information, and is just as viral. But crowdsourced and refereed resources like Wikipedia give Weinberger hope. The difference between the old style of knowing and the new one is embodied in the differences between a set of encyclopedias and Google. One can fit on a shelf; the other is uncontainable, essentially “an infrastructure of connection.”
A witty and wise companion in this new age of information overload.
If we look at the bastions of knowledge, things that are emblems of knowledge in our culture like physical emblems, full works of knowledge, things that we put up because we’re proud to know like encyclopedias, they’re all just sort of coming apart. In the past years, the newspapers were a proud sign of cultural commitment to knowledge. They’re being degraded and nobody knows what their future is going to be or if they will even have one. Libraries also, if you ask librarians they’ll tell you they know it’s going to be different but they can’t tell you how. The public libraries that are symbols of a city’ love of knowledge, we can never know what will happen to them either. This is quite staggering, when seeing all of these very symbols of knowledge played at the risk of falling over and all that it takes is a simple little click on a hyperlink this little bit of technology which is of course embedded in much bigger technology. So the question is: How could these emblems of knowledge and the institutions based on it fall apart?
It is an important question to ask because in the western culture, as the Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan quotes it: “everyone is entitled to his own opinion not his own facts”, people think that “if we all just focus, get together, have a good honest conversation, we can all come to agreement”. That is and still be the conception of one and only knowledge, The Knowledge that will get over our differences and bring us together… But what is Knowledge?
Well in the western culture, we first thought that knowledge is the big picture of the world, a picture that we build up fact by fact and all the facts fit together. We did this across generations until it fell apart so we finally assumed that knowledge is a matter of filtering and winnowing from the stream of “true” perceptions and beliefs in order to find its true value. So to do this we first have to elaborate strategies based one fact: The world is far, far too big to know.
So based on this undeniable fact, we begin by simply taking a small complex piece of this world and try to look deep into it. We? Not us. Only experts, of course. And then we can go to these experts or read their books and then ask questions and get answers. The important thing here is that we don’t go further, we believe that it is too complex for us to rerun the experiment or the research so we don’t question the system of knowledge and how it is made. But what if we don’t trust the answer? Well here we have another system to back up the first one which is a system of credentials then we can see what qualifies the expert to say so. “So knowledge has been a system of stopping points justified by a series of stopping points” and that really works! Maybe not as efficiently as Weinberger states because it works mostly for paper based knowledge, books and journals which, as a medium (media), are “disconnected” as the author quotes “One thing that they’re not good at is connecting to other books because they’re stuck between covers and their shelves apart”. And because the books are quite small, even big ones, compared to what there is to know in this world so we thought of it as a long format type of knowledge, longly thought and settled. Now, we have a new form, a new medium where links are, as Weinberger describes it, the new type of punctuation that unlike the old ones that tells us where and how to stop, these links tell us how to continue and give us the means to continue. And this offers new possibilities as for example if we’re reading a book and we want to check for the reliability of a reference in the footnotes, we probably have to go to the library or somewhere else to look for it. Now, we just have to click on it and we’re already there. Now, knowledge is picking up the properties of the new medium as it did for the old one.
Realistically, we’ll not be able to define all of the properties of the Internet but here are four of its most important characteristics:
As Clay Shirky quotes “there is no such things as information overload, there is only filter failure”. What he may mean by this is that we’ll always come to a point where there is too much of an overload and so we should always keep on adjusting our filters. And that explains why we get nervous when our filters are broken, because we are overloaded. So every time there is an overload (and there is an overload every time), we take our filters and curate. To understand that, Weinberger made a comparison between the old and the new way of filtering; If we go down to a library you’ll find the new books on a new shelve but you’ll surely miss the millions of books that were published last year or the year before because they were removed to make a place for new comers. So we see what’s there and remove what’s not. Now, the filters are digital so if we want to do the same thing, we will not remove anything at all, we’ll just reduce the number of clicks to get there but creating some sort of a shortcut. That’s all about curation. Let’s say if I’m publishing on my blog, I’m not removing what’s out there, I’m just making decisions of what could be of interest for my readers and pushing it up front. And that’s very important because, as Weinberger confirm, inclusion is more efficient than exclusion in a way that we don’t even know what could be of interest in the future, all we can do is predict.
For people who are obsessed with order and really like to organize stuff, this could be very disturbing. We thought that we were getting how the world is by being good at organizing things and so if everything has a spot in the universe, Aristotly thinking, if we know what thing is in what spot, its right and only spot, we would know the world and so not knowing this was not knowing the world. As Weinberger describes it, physically, in this world, we can’t have two things at the same spot, at some point, one thing is going to gain order. The error not to make here is to think that this can apply to ideas as it is applied to things; If we have a tone of CDs, we can only arrange them in one way at a time then we have to change to another order but on a digital platform, we can simply make another playlist without changing the old one, we can make tones of playlists. “It sure can be a mess but it is a rich mess” and messiness is a way to scale meaning…
“For every fact on the internet there is an equal and opposite fact”. There is nothing that we all agree on! Facts are here but they’re not only based on theory, they’re also based on interest and I’m not saying that knowledge is not based on facts. I’m quoting Weinberger that says “…The idea that the house of knowledge is built on a foundation of facts is not itself a fact” and this is changing the role that facts have played in the construction of knowledge because now that we’ve brought our information and communication technologies together, learning a fact can be the same as publishing a fact to the world. So now we’re not even sure that the Senator Moynihan said what he said (everyone is entitled to his own opinion not his own facts) but we can take the content of what we think he said as a fact. And if we do so, every opinion has a spot but has also the possibility to move to another spot with another opinion if they both agree on the same fact. The author argues that if we can’t do so, this could be a serious issue. He calls it the echo chamber; if people begin to hang out only with whom they agree, they can go extreme with certain beliefs and that contradicts the openness of the Internet. Weinberger also states that real conversations are conversations between people that disagree deeply and that are able to dig deeper to get settled.
Well we talked a bit about some structured long form work of knowledge such as books. A book surely can take us from a journey of thoughts, not knowing where it is culminating, taking the reader to some place he was not expecting to go. This is great but not in fact, the greatest way. The author takes Darwin for example, who wrote one of the truly successful long form works, well it took people where they didn’t expect to go and convinced them of what they didn’t expect to believe and if Darwin were to rewrite his long form work now, it might be the same but it would be on the Internet or at least the discussion of it. In that way, the Internet becomes more important than the work itself because this is where all the thinking process happens, “this is where the knowledge is developed, this is where the knowledge lives”. Weinberger thinks that there is a de-structuring of knowledge happening at this level. If we take another example of Darwin again, he spent seven years studying barnacles on earth to discover whether they’re mollusks or crustaceans, seven years collecting data, looking for a fact, before publishing volumes of long form knowledge based work well structured and settled. Now, talking about data, it seems like we’re not on earth anymore. We’re seeing clouds with massive amount of data that are different from facts and that we cannot scale because it will take a long time, much longer than the seven years Darwin spent looking for one fact so it will remain unstructured until who knows…?
If we observe the properties of both forms of knowledge we find that it has always been bounded between books, scarce, settled and orderly going step by step and it proceeds through reason while the knowledge at the age of Internet is unbounded, linked but overwhelming, unsettled, messy and based on connections drawn by interest. So Weinberger is concluding that “Knowledge may or may not be truer about the world, but it is truer about knowing” in a way that we may not know much of the truth but we certainly know something. And that leads to another conclusion which is that we all have in common not “one knowledge about which we agree but a shared world about which we disagree”. This connection not only enables us to share knowledge but also to create it and if we’re still wondering where all of the knowledge goes, we should check in the room where we place our smart work, the room that’s becoming smarter than us… the question is : Are we getting dumber?
Links to stay connected
Inspired from the writings and sayings of David Weinberger