Too Big to Know: David Weinberger explains how knowledge works in the Internet age

David Weinberger is one of the Internet's clearest and cleverest thinkers, an understated and deceptively calm philosopher who builds his arguments like a bricklayer builds a wall, one fact at a time. In books like Everything is Miscellaneous and Small Pieces, Loosely Joined, he erects solid edifices with no gaps between the bricks, inviting conclusions that are often difficult to reconcile with your pre-existing prejudices, but which are even harder to deny.

Too Big to Know, Weinberger's latest book-length argument, is another of these surprising brick walls. Weinberger presents us with a long, fascinating account of how knowledge itself changes in the age of the Internet -- what it means to know something when there are millions and billions of "things" at your fingertips, when everyone who might disagree with you can find and rebut your assertions, and when the ability to be heard isn't tightly bound to your credentials or public reputation for expertise.

Weinberger wants to reframe questions like "Is the Internet making us dumber?" or "Is the net making us smarter?" as less like "Is water heavier than air?" and more like "Will my favored political party win the election?" That is, the kind of question whose answer depends on what you, personally, do to make the answer come true.

Weinberger starts with a history of knowledge, from the pre-Enlightenment idea of knowledge as something that is revealed by one's understanding of the divine, to the scientific method and the positivist notion that knowledge requires falsifiable hypotheses. From there, he moves onto the challenge of expertise and of the merits and demerits of a set of diverse, disagreeing "experts" who don't speak with one voice in their agreement about the world's true nature, and to a world today where the disagreements that always lurked in science are visible to everyone.

He explores the merits and demerits of "echo chambers" -- the fact that it's easier to get stuff done if you exclude those who question all of your axioms, and the risks of being swallowed by your blind spots when you do. But Weinberger is optimistic about the net's ability to balance out the need to agree with the need for disagreement. He shows how pre-digital media put artificial constraint on argument, forcing it to all fit within a set of covers and pre-empting the possibility of debate among readers and writers.

Moving onto science, Weinberger sets out examples of the amazing possibilities for amassing and synthesizing facts individually and as a group, citing huge scientific datasets like ProteomeCommons, run by a single grad student and comprising 13 million data files. He examines what it means to reach scientific conclusions when there is so much data, and what this means for the scientific method and the idea of falsifiability. If you can use data-mining to arrive at equations describing the relationships between different phenomena in the physical world, and if those equations reliably predict future actions, does it matter if you don't know why the equation works? And if it does, should you exclude that equation from the realm of science, especially if there's nothing else quite so useful to take its place?

But Weinberger isn't entirely optimistic about the net. It's "incontestable that this is a great time to be stupid," when "nonexperts" can create plausible-seeming bodies of "facts" to support anti-vaccination campaigns.

Ultimately, Weinberger treats the net as a fact, not a problem. It exists. It has remade our knowledge processes. It has bound together communication, information and sociability so that you can't learn things without communicating, and so that every communication brings the chance of a human encounter. In a closing chapter of recommendations, he talks about how we treat the fact of the net as a given, and work from there to try and use it to make us smarter. The concluding chapter is a set of eminently reasonable recommendations on policy, technology, administrations and mindset, expressed with admirable brevity.

Weinberger is one of the original Cluetrain Manifesto authors, and has been influencing our relationship to the Internet since very early days. As the net evolves, he continues to be relevant -- and indispensable. You can get a taste of the book at

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


  1. “That is, the kind of question whose answer depends on what you, personally, do to make the answer come true.”

    Reading that sentence, first thing I thought of was the multiverse theory of reality. Maybe our new relationship with information will allow us to see this theory played out in realtime.

    Or “realtimes” if you prefer.

  2. This looks like a triumph of style over substance.  A collection of non-sequiturs and half-arguments.  It’s possible this reviewer has simply conflated knowledge with cognition, which would explain this preposterous review, but either way, this book looks like a prime example of its tenet: there’s never been a better time to be dumb – especially if you can write a book as dumb as this, safe in the knowledge that there’ll be a market of numpties ready to lap it up.

    1. May I be so bold as to suggest you open such critiques by mentioning if  you’ve read the book in question?

      1. You may, but I should have thought that was obvious.  If I had read it, I’d have said so. 

        Who reads reviews of books they’ve already read? And who writes reviews for people who have already read the book?  I was merely commenting on what this review gives me to expect.

        1. I’m glad you told me all this, because before this, I thought Weinberger was a wonderful and insightful writer, always full of stuff worth thinking about, but now …

          Oh, hang on. I still think this. 

          Go figure, an anonymous poster who hasn’t read the book judging its content and a review of it on stupid grounds, and it didn’t change my mind? It’s a strange world.

  3. The good thing is that people with good ideas can get them out without having to jump through the hoops traditionally filtering wider dissemination of ideas. The bad thing is that people with bad ideas can get them out without having to jump through the hoops traditionally filtering wider dissemination of ideas. It’s a new day.

    1. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.  Censoring bad ideas prevents people from learning how to deal with them.

      However, every tyrant that ever lived absolutely  loved preventing dissemination of “bad ideas”.

  4. The underlying problem is the emotional stress people feel. This creates a compulsion for reassurance, and makes contradictory information almost painful. And the latter leads to a strange phenomenon I’ve experienced, where I’ll deliberately go look at the comments on Fox News articles about controversial topics sometimes, just for a bit of adrenaline. This makes me think that “emotional information filtering” isn’t just a childish wish that the world fit comfortingly with what we wish were the case, but that there’s also a Sartrean “horror of others’ subjectivity” thing going on.

    The “echo chamber” thing is not the fault of the internet, but the internet does provide an easy way to indulge this compulsion. One of the worst examples is the “support groups” paranoid schizophrenics get into to talk about their delusions, like “gang stalking” and “targeted individuals”. But I suppose it’s a matter of degree rather than a qualitative difference from say Prison Planet.

  5. For these book reviews it would be nice if they mentioned if there is or is not a non-DRM version of the book.

    The book might be interesting, but that’s a purchase barrier that’s too high for me to get over.

    1. you could try a paper version of the book. so far I have not bought a single paper book that had drm.

  6. “if those equations reliably predict future actions, does it matter if you don’t know why the equation works?”

    Well, no, it doesn’t matter, and it never has mattered. Science answers the What, not the Why. Newton never said ‘why’ gravitational force reduces with the square of distance; he showed that it *does*, and you can verify this by predicting the subsequent motions of the planets etc.

    1. That’s rubbish. Theory is all about answering the ‘why’. The purpose of theory is to explain. Why do you resort to Newton? You do know that there have been other scientists since him, right? Read something recent, and you’ll see that we use theory all the time, explicitly to explain ‘why’.

      1. If you look at the history of science, you’ll see over and over again that disciplines in their early years start out by describing the what, and as they mature, start explaining the why. Because you can’t examine the why until you have a what in the first place. 

        If the reviewer’s report of the ‘science’ section is anything to go on, it is fatally flawed.  Either he, or the book’s author, doesn’t seem to get what science is – the what provides the foundation of the why, always has done. 

        Also, although it’s very nice to keep things simple, the ‘equations’ described above, however reliable, do not model phenomena without an error term. 

        In any case, ‘theory-free’ research is neither new, nor rejected, nor unfalsifiable, and nor is it uniquely a product of the internet.  You only have to look at the findings and use of biodata in occupational psychology in the early 90s, as a pop-example.

  7. All this stuff has been going on for centuries without the Internet. It just happens at a faster pace now. We can get wrong answers instantly via our telephones, instead of having to ride a horse into town to visit the library to look up our wrong answers.

    And the publication of wrong information is nothing new either. Read a hundred year old sex ed book to get an idea of just how learned of prose can be written that has absolutely no basis in fact.

  8. I consider the internet to be a great Quackapedia. I’ve seen heavily foot-noted pseudo scientific papers, right-wing rants, and many doubtful attributions. 
    Unless you already have a background in a certain field it’s tough to parse the crapolla that’s posted. I applaud the effort to digitize and make available texts that you might not find even in a college library.
    Otherwise, let the reader beware.

  9. “If you can use data-mining to arrive at equations describing the relationships between different phenomena in the physical world, and if those equations reliably predict future actions, does it matter if you don’t know why the equation works?”

    This is exactly what Planck did when he discovered quantum physics.  He figured out an equation that fit the curve for blackbody radiation, and then afterwards realized that this is the equation you would get if the energy in light of a specific frequency came in “quanta”.

    Often the equations come first and the interpretation comes later.  The experimentalist might have no idea, and later the theoreticians figure it out.  As Richard Feynmann was fond of pointing out, in many cases we really don’t know why the math seems to work they way it does.

  10. Yeah: stupidity is not a new kind of knowing, and the conviction of the idiots that they are right is older than Socrates. People who know what they’re talking about and have difficult things to say have always had a hard time being heard. What’s *different* about the Internet?

    Also, though the Net is loud, I’m not sure that it’s important: lay mistrust of expertise is nothing new, but the development of competence proceeds in the same way as it always did, through careful acquisition of training. And so does its application: the Internet hasn’t prevented people from becoming competent doctors, or evolutionary biologists, or climate scientists, merely because of a glut of bad information and arguments. Becoming competent has always involved learning the principles necessary to reject these bad arguments: any evolutionary biologist must learn enough to explain why intelligent design is not a scientific argument.

    I think there is exactly one domain of knowledge where the Internet is now the main avenue towards the development of competence (that is, refined knowledge), programming, and that’s only because programmers live and work on the Internet.

    Knowledge, and truth, have always been something that we fight over. What the Internet introduces is not the existence of argument, or the obfuscation of Truth; there was never a moment when, say, positivism stood forth as the standard-bearer for Truth. Who held the standard was always in dispute. The Internet provides a new forum for old arguments, but really, are those arguments any different? Are the people producing them any different? Is their influence on events any greater?

  11. I read the entire article regarding David Weinberger and basically all were theory.  I beg to disagree on Weinberger theory on how knowledge works on internet especially on  “Weinberger treats the net as a fact, not a problem.” Honestly, not all documents listed on the nets are facts. It is because of some typographic error I seen in some sites which I think overseen by person who typed it. Moreover, I strongly disagree on Weinberger perception that “net is not a problem! There’s no such thing in this world that had no negative effects on human. Whether in science, math, philosophy or whatever field of study the positive and negative are present.

    1. I think the idea is that the net exists, like Mt. Kilimanjaro exists – it’s a fact.  I don’t think Weinberger believes everything on the net is factual.  Anything you want to say about the Internet has to recognize that it’s a real thing that’s not going away anytime soon, so your ideas about what it is and how it interacts with individual people have to bear up to comparison with the actual fact of its existence.

      Not sure if that helps, but hopefully.

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