Too big to know

The central thesis of David Weinberger’s Too big to know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That Facts are The Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and The Smartest Person in the Room is the Room is that contemporary (networked) knowledge is unlike that which came before. Knowledge today is huge, less hierarchical, more public, less centrally filtered, more open to differences, and hyperlinked. The social implication of this is that there will always be too much good stuff to know and too much bad stuff to avoid. Also, there will always be disagreement as you can always find a contradictory claim on the Web. Hence, we can no longer rely upon authority, or even bemoan information overload as our ancestors once did. (“Information overload isn’t what it used to be” [Weinberger2011tbk, p. 5]). Our relation to information has changed and we must accept that “filters no longer filter out. They filter forward, bringing their results to the front” [p. 11].

This topic is not unlike the subject of his previous book Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder in which he characterized how we’ve managed information “stuff” over time. (David is also a co-author of the famous Cluetrain manifesto – if the length of his book titles keeps increasing at this rate, I shudder to think what the next book will be!) I’m fond of Weinberger’s work (and David as a person) and I’ve recommended Everything to many people. If you liked Everything I think you’ll like this one.

David (rightfully) appeals to the popular tech/business set and aptly combines contemporary digital anecdotes and fascinating historical background with gentle philosophical framing (and he outs his Heideggerian roots in this latest book). For me I find the historical engagements to be most interesting. Otherwise, discussion of contemporary media phenomena is sometimes only based on an introductory anecdote of the latest gee-whiz story – to be fair, very common to this genre. And while I often agree with his subsequent argument – and find the claims intriguing – it feels less grounded than I would like. For example, the following quote is supposed to be representative:

That knowledge is a property of the network means more than that crowds can have a type of wisdom in certain circumstances…. As knowledge becomes network, the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and is in the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it. It’s not that the network is becoming a conscious super-brain. Rather, knowledge is becoming inextricable from – literally unthinkable without – the network that enables it. Our task is to learn how to build smart rooms – that is, how to build networks that make us smarter, especially since, when done badly, networks can make us distressingly stupider. [p. xiii]

I suppose I agree, but I find it non-satisying none-the-less. What does it really mean to say the room is smart? How do people’s practices change become of this? Now, the topic of Too Much’s information is a more difficult one than Everything’s discussion of how we order information. Indeed attempting to figure out what one is even talking about in this space is difficult, and I greatly enjoyed Weinberger’s introduction of the confounding data-information-knowledge-wisdom (DIKW) hierarchy. Hence, in Too Much you will not find the grounding one might find in a detailed history or ethnography, but you will find plenty of big ideas to mull over.

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