The full title of David Weinberger‘s treatise on knowledge in the networked society is: 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. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case, you can judge this book by its title; it’s brilliant and incredibly wordy.
What Weinberger wants us to know is that the ways in which we are sharing and generating knowledge en masse through the net is fundamentally changing knowledge as we once knew it. Gone are the notions of hierarchical expertise, decisive facts, static information, and grand narratives. We now live in a time when crowds can collectively contribute to and morph ideas and contexts, no facts are indisputable because we have a kazillion bytes of information to search through to counter them, and what we really need to worry about are the invisible algorithms that guide our paths to information and networking.
Early on in the book, Weinberger convincingly argues that knowledge has taken on network properties. These early chapters, were, to me, the most engaging and accessible. He then raises a challenge – how to “build networks that make us smarter, especially since, when done badly, networks can make us distressingly stupid.” The latter half of the book deals with his exploration of this question.
The second half of the text has an abundance of examples illustrating Weinberger’s ideas – sometimes to a fault. I occasionally found myself re-reading sections to remember what the stories were referring to. What I realized as I was reading was that this was not Weinberger’s best form, and in fact, he was writing it as if it was in the form he prefers – “web form.” In a blog format, these chapters would be full of links that I would have fun jumping around and exploring. Yet in “long form,” some examples seemed unnecessary. (By the way, I understand long form vs. web form mainly due to chapter 6, “Long Form, Web Form” – so thanks to the book, I was able to critique it. Funny how that works).
Weinberger even writes about his inner conflicts about the form in his book: “I am aware that it is at best ironic, and at worst hypocritical, that I have written a long-form book, available only on paper (or on paper’s disconnected electronic simulacrum), that is arguing for the strengths of networks over books.” Although he goes on to convincingly justify the book format, it is clear he loves the web form. I’m not sure he knows how much the web has changed his writing style – is he conscious of how similar his writing style is to blogging? Actually, he could respond to that question on this blog, since I’m writing in web form! Hmm. Maybe I’ll tweet him.
Lastly, and more seriously, what I would have liked to see more in the book is a discussion of how the networking of knowledge is impacting equity and social justice. Certainly there are access issues for individuals in poor and marginalized communities, yet more-over I am concerned about the question of who sets the algorithms that guide our networking and knowledge production. How does the lack of transparency in algorithms that companies like Google, Facebook, crowdsourncing applications, and other social media shape information in ways we cannot see? I’ll leave that question for you, my readers, to carry on in (web form) conversation.