On Knowledge and Form: A Book Review of “Too Big To Know” by David Weinberger

Too Big To Know Book ReviewThe 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.



4 thoughts on “On Knowledge and Form: A Book Review of “Too Big To Know” by David Weinberger

  1. Kira, thanks so much for the thoughtful review!

    You are right that I am unaware how much blogging and other forms of webby writing have affected my form.Very cool point! It’d be interesting to see if my prior books show the same weakness, and thus is not just an accidental flaw in this book. (I understand that it’s a weakness only in that the webby form doesn’t work well in book form.) I work for a couple of years on the outline of a book, so from my point of view, it is carefully structured in a linear form. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve made that structure clear, or even that the structure is actually there. What you’re attributing to the influence of the Web may turn out to be just old-fashioned bad writing.

    After writing the chapter that argues against long-form writing as the pinnacle of Western explanatory culture, I thought for a couple of years that I’ve given up on that form. But I’ve come to think thatwhile long-form writing may not be the preferred way to express the truth (for it necessarily simplifies what is in fact an overwhelmingly complex universe), there nonetheless are aesthetic reasons to pursue it. I like reading long-form books that are elegant in their reasoning and structure. So, I’ve talked myself into starting to write another book. It too will be wildly incomplete and present linear explanations as if that’s how the world works. But I’m more self-aware that that’s an expression of art as much as truth, and that there’s some value in that art. I only wish I were better at it.

    The relation of knowledge and power is a subtext in “Too Big,” and it deserves much much much more thought. I’m probably not the person to do that, for uninteresting reasons. But “Too Big” is not intended to be a complete exposition about the new shape of knowledge. Lots of people write about the power dynamics engendered (a carefully chosen word) by the new form of knowledge. That they are doing so makes me happy. I look forward to reading what you have to say about it.

    PS: I got to your review via a tweeet 🙂

    • David,
      Thanks so much for your reply. It is so fascinating, this networked world we live in, that one can write a book review and have a conversation hours later with the author of the book! I guess that is your point, right?

      I started noticing the influence of web from on writing style in my own writing when I was taking notes on paper at conferences in tweet-length scribblings. It’s been on my mind ever since and your book really highlighted it for me in more ways than one!

      I’m always interested in reading more about networks, knowledge, and power, so if you have any recommendations of blogs on these topics please feel free to share.

  2. Pingback: Too Big to Know by David Weinberger | A Good Stopping Point

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