Network knowledge

I’m a bit late in blogging about and urging you to read David Weinberger’s new book, Too Big to Know. That’s because I couldn’t find my oft-underlined, much-dogeared galley, which I soaked in as soon as I got it.

David is an intellectual hero of mine. He is a coauthor of the seminal work of net culture, The Cluetrain Manifesto. His subsequent books, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined and Everything is Miscellaneous taught me to look at the world differently (yes, it’s partly his fault) and to understand the changing architecture of relationships, information, and now knowledge. He is generous with his thoughts. He challenges me (when I presented Public Parts at Harvard, where David moderated, he pushed me to consider what I was saying about the relationship of ethics and norms and he likely influenced me to consider that as a next project … his fault, again). He is open and curious. He does this with charm and unwarranted but sincere self-deprecation. All that comes across in his books.

Knowledge is an awfully big topic, the biggest. As he started this project, I heard David fret over that. But he succeeded in bringing new perspective even to this. The nut of it:

As knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t 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 witout — 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.

I interpreted that through one of my favorite (and, sorry, oft-repeated) memes these days: the Gutenberg parenthesis. Among other things, it argues that before Gutenberg, knowledge was about preserving the wisdom of the ancients. In the Gutenberg parenthesis, knowledge sprung from contemporary authors, experts, and institutions. After the parenthesis, as I see Weinberger’s thesis, knowledge becomes province of the network. It isn’t resident only in single facts or artifacts (that is, books) but is a much more complex prism that can be seen from many angles and changes its appearance across them. Knowledge becomes less static, more living. David says it better:

Knowledge now lives not just in the skulls of individuals. Our skulls and our institutions are simply not big enough to contain knowledge. Knowledge is now a property of the network, and the network embraces businesses, governments, media, museums, curated collections, and minds in communication.

Knowledge until now was about creating and controlling scarcity. Up to now, says David, “[w]e’ve managed the fire hose by reducing the flow. We’ve done this through an elaborate system of editorial filters that have prevented most of what’s written from being published . . . Knowledge has been about reducing what we need to know.” But now, of course, information is abundant and only growing — multiplying — as we invent more ways to create and discover and capture and analyze and question. That’s what freaks the old — pardon my choice of word — sphincters of information, the controllers and owners of it. This conflict erupted when Gutenberg invented the printed book and scholars feared we’d end up with too many of them. It emerges again now that Berners-Lee has invented the web.

David grapples with the history of our perception of facts, then wrestles with the idea that we “are losing knowledge’s body: a comprehensible, masterable collection of ideas and works that together reflect the truth about the world. . . . We’ll still have facts. We’ll still have experts. We’ll still have academic journals. We’ll have everything except knowledge as a body. That is, we’ll have everything except what we’ve thought of as knowledge.”

Knowledge, he says, “has been an accident of paper.” We convinced ourselves that a set and knowable worldview was possible because the media into which we put our information created that comforting expectation. Same goes for news: “All the news that’s fit to print” is the greatest conceit imaginable: that everything that matters happens to fit in what we can afford to produce. We know so much better now.

These are profoundly disruptive ideas about ideas. It helps that they come from someone who presents them via doubt rather than dogma. David is, like me, essentially an optimist, but he sees the choices we have and the dangers that present themselves if we chose the wrong paths.

At the end, he examines the characteristics of the net and its knowledge: abundance (“The new abundance makes the old abundance look like scarcity”); links (“Links are subverting not just knowledge as a system of stopping points but also the credentialing mechanism that supported that system”); no need to get permission (“Let anyone publish whatever they want … and the Knowledge Club loses its value”); publicness (somebody ought to write a book about that); and the unresolved nature of questions (“The old enlightenment ideal was far more plausible when what we saw of the nattering world came through filters that hid the vast, disagreeable bulk of disagreement”). “What we have in common,” he concludes, “is not knowledge about which we agree but a shared world about which we will always disagree.”

So the idea that things will settle down and opinions will coalesce around shared facts once we get through this maelstrom of change is a fantasy born of experience but blown apart by the network. So will the future sound like the Fox-News-and-comment-snark present? It needn’t if we adapt our norms to a new reality and if, as David says, we build our networks well. That means building them around new opportunities, for example: “The solution to the information overload problem is to create more information: metadata.” We don’t need more filters, more gatekeepers, more mediators. We need smarter, bigger brains digging through more and better information. Don’t recreate old models. Disrupt them.

David concludes: “We thought that knowledge was scarce, when in fact it was just our shelves that were small. Our new knowledge is not even a set of works. It is an infrastructure of connection.”

Chew on those wires for a while.

  • It was Gurdjieff who said ‘Knowledge can’t belong to all, not even to many’. According to Ouspensky he ment that most people can’t really understand or work with the available knowledge. They aren’t even interested. So I guess that, although the transparancy and social hypes are different, there is something to say for being more modest in the diffusion of knowledge. Those who will understand will come.

  • Brandon

    It strikes me that the author is trying to find a glamorous perspective on the commoditization and, therefore, devaluing of knowledge. Knowledge is just another commodity, like corn. It no longer has any value. Especially when any knowledge can be regarded as having value. A riff on “if everything is special, nothing is special.” What this says to me is this: Before Gutenberg, knowledge had value because most people didn’t have it. Gutenberg made it possible for knowledge to be more widely spread, and so it became more valuable to publish your knowledge and sell it in it’s medium. But once the medium becomes virtually free, and the knowledge is widespread, then all value in publishing it is destroyed. So we come full circle, the knowledge you DON’T publish in any form becomes the most valuable. So more transparency devalues the knowledge you hold. It is in your economic benefit to restrict access to a piece of knowledge in an extreme fashion. If I can make $1 for every published copy of my knowledge, then I want to disperse it as much as possible. But when I make $0 for a published copy, then it is in my benefit to restrict it from publication and sell it only to the extremely-limited number of individuals (or corporations) who can most benefit from it.

    • Andy Freeman

      see It’s a talk by Robert B. Laughlin, Physics, Stanford University (and yes, Nobel Prize).

      “There is increasing concern about the disappearance of technical knowledge from the public domain, both on grounds that is presents a security danger and because it is economically valuable “Intellectual Property”. I argue that this development is not anomalous at all but a great historic trend tied to our transition to the information age. We are in the process of losing a human right that all of us thought we had but actually didn’t–the right to learn things we can and better ourselves economically from what we learn. Increasingly, figuring things our for yourself will become theft and terrorism. Increasingly, reason itself will become a crime. “

      • Brandon

        We have an economic system based on scarcity and competition for control of those scarce resources. Without that scarcity, the entire economic model will break down. We’re talking about an epic collapse of modern civilization. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that.

        If the scarcity can’t be in resources, we create it in physical property.
        If the scarcity can’t be in physical property, we create it in distribution.
        If the scarcity can’t be in distribution, then all we have left are the original ideas.

        The economic system demands that we protect the scarcity of ideas; i.e. patents, copyrights, or outright-restriction of dissemination.

        I don’t know what sort of Utopian society advocates of “free information” imagine, but I don’t believe they’ve thought through the consequences.

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  • Essential reading.

    Suggest: as a local bookstore finder as well.

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