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 TooBigToKnow.com.
Published 5:48 am Wed, Feb 1, 2012
books, Business, happy mutants, ontology, philosophy, Reviews, Technology, web theory