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David Weinberger: Why Networked Knowledge Makes Us Smarter than Before

David Weinberger, a senior researcher and Co-Director of Library Innovation Lab at Harvard, is a leading thinker about the impact of the Internet on society, markets, and the production of knowledge. We talked to David about his latest book, Too Big to Know (Basic Books, 2012), and what the rise of networked knowledge means for educators, librarians, print publishing and the very act of knowing, itself. (Interview conducted: April 20, 2012).

When it comes to wrapping your brain around how the Internet has impacted how we think, interact, and learn, David Weinbergerdavid weinberger is always worth listening to.

David is a thought-leader, writer, technologist, and a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Co-Director of Harvard Law School’s Library Innovation Lab.

We interviewed David in April 2012, shortly after the release of his new book, 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. We discussed how the promise of knowledge has been completely transformed in a comparatively short time, why, and what it means to libraries, to higher educational institutions, and to learning.

PIL: In a recent presentation about Too Big to Know, you began your talk by saying, "the promise of knowledge held out to us just isn’t working." How has the way we used to think about knowledge lost some of its gloss, utility, and meaning? What happened?

David: Knowledge is over-promised. Over the course of Western history, we have ratcheted up what we count as knowledge to the point where little beyond axiomatic truths have counted. Descartes provides a convenient pinnacle for us, but ever since, we’ve had the thought in the back of our mind that knowledge means certainty. There is so little about which we can be perfectly certain. Fortunately, modern science has backed away from that position, so that scientists talk in terms of hypotheses supported by evidence, rather than knowledge.

It helps that increasingly over the past century we’ve moved away from the idea that knowledge consists of the apprehension of the (note the definite article) order of the universe. For a couple of millennia, we assumed that saying that there is not a single right order would mark one as a lunatic. Chaos seemed to be the only alternative. For lots of reasons, we’ve come to accept that there are many right ways of apprehending the universe, and that the way that works for us in a given situation is dependent on that situation and our interests.

Now the Internet has given us an infrastructure that is perfectly designed for this sort of multi- and inter-subjective idea of knowledge.

PIL: In your new book, you write, “links change the basic topology of knowledge” (pg. 177). What does this mean? How have hypertext links, those little blue underlined words on the screen, unraveled a world that was once largely based on (relatively) undisputed truths and facts? Are we, individually and as a society, getting smarter as a result of hyperlinks?

David: The old topology of knowledge assumed a firm foundation on which new “bricks” were carefully placed. The authenticating of those bricks, and the decision about including them in our trans-generational knowledge-building project was generally top down. And the relationships among the bricks were assumed to be characterized by uniformity and, at their best, elegance and beauty. Even in the 19th century, we were speculating that planets in our solar system would be discovered at the harmonic distances assumed by the ancient Greek idea of the Harmony of the Spheres.

It turns out to be no accident that the traditional process of knowledge was identical with (and deeply implicated in) the process of publishing. Knowledge was the result of winnowing, as was what made it through the editorial process. Knowledge was that which was settled, just as ink does not erase once committed to paper. While knowledge was of course contextual and related to its sources, its expression was in discrete units that try to encapsulate everything the reader needs to know, because it was too hard to send the reader back to the library.

Now knowledge occurs on a capacious networked characterized by links. It’s thus taking on a shape that reflects its new medium. Deeply linked, incomplete, inconsistent, in multiple-voices, unsettled, bottom up as well as top down, multiple curated. Knowledge now looks like a network (of the Internet sort specifically) because it is a network.

Consider the difference merely between how books and networks handle references. The author of a book has to try to encapsulate another author’s ideas by excerpting a paragraph or two. This not only runs the risk of doing violence to the referenced author’s meaning, it prevents the fulfillment of a reader’s interest once it has been piqued. The author of an online work might also excerpt a paragraph, but she is likely also to link directly to the referenced work. The reader can then explore to the ends of her curiosity. But the reader is also likely to be led out into an emergent web of sources and ideas that stand in every possible differentiating relationship.

This Web may contain original sources, contradictory interpretations, conflicting evidence, applications of the original ideas to spheres far beyond what the author anticipated, wildly wrong explanations of the ideas, commentary at every level of expertise, rude remarks from drive-by boors, and occasional brilliant insights from un-credentialed experts. This Web of knowledge – not every piece of which itself counts as knowledge – has a very different shape than a book. It is vast, complexly ordered, non-sequential, un-curated, vetted after being made public, and intimately tied to its intellectual context. It has no boundaries, no stable shape, and no edges. In short, it is a network within a vast network.

PIL: Where does the unhinging of knowledge leave tangible things like books or print newspapers, which are generally devoted to disseminating knowledge? I realize this is a huge, pressing question, but what is one way for libraries, to stay relevant in the digital age? What would you say are some of the critical questions for thinking about these issues?

David: I don’t know. I would like to think that the media will change to address the new opportunities, and that media that address vanished opportunities will lose their sway. We’ve seen that with CDs, and overall it’s a good thing. We’re having more trouble on seeing what the value of printed materials is because ink-on-paper has such a long history in our culture. Talk about the end of books and most of us usually think about leather-bound Bibles and magical tomes, not about the yellowing paperbacks with shrill covers that actually constitute the bulk of books in print. We are attached to it for many reasons, including some that have nothing to do with print’s affordances. And there are large economic interests furthered by continuing to use paper, mainly based on the scarcity implied by paper. I hope that we can sort through these, and shake off the uses of paper that serve only the narrow interests of publishers one those interests keep us from achieving broader social values. To sum up: I don’t know. QED.

PIL: In our 2010 Project Information Literacy study, when we surveyed 8,353 college students enrolled in 25 US colleges and universities, 76% of the respondents reported that finding answers to prove they had done the course research assigned was important to them (pg. 34). What does finding “answers” entail for students these days? How has the activity of intellectual inquiry changed, or is it still basically the same kind of process?

David: I don't know what teachers are counting as answers. Nor do I have data about what students count as answers for themselves. That’s why we need Project Information Literacy (PIL)!

I do think, however, that it’s helpful to see intellectual inquiry as changing in fundamental ways. Obviously, in many ways it stays the same: curious people pursue their interests and make their findings public. But the process itself seems to me to be essentially different now. It is not a publishing process any more. That is, the old model was that you do your work in private (or within a closed public of colleagues, etc.), and when it has settled enough for you to have confidence in your idea, you submit it for publication. Once it’s published, you become its owner. I’m not talking about copyright, but about your ability to take credit for the work. If someone beats you to it, you only get a right to a bitter “I thought of it first” non-credit.

Increasingly, not only is the development of the ideas now occurring fully in public via collaborative media, I think it’s helpful to think about this development occurring at the level of the network. The network of people discussing the ideas, disagreeing, developing, explaining it to one another – that’s where the knowledge develops and lives. That network is the fundamental unit of knowledge.

Important institutional functions still assume the old processes. Tenure comes to mind. Institutions will catch up eventually, if only because the old tend to die first.

PIL: So, lastly, David, how do we teach our students and/or our children to be active learners—to be smarter—in a world where there is too much to know? What would you say educators and librarians should bear in mind about the radically changing digital landscape we all inhabit?

David: I think there’s a lot to learn from the rapid education system created by software developers for themselves. If you have a question, you pose it at a search engine. Because in a scaled environment it is unlikely you are the first one to have that question, there’s a good chance you’ll find a site that’s already discussed it. There will be answers, comments on the answers, improvements, sample code, iterative improvements on the code, and an up voting of the best results. There is as real intellectual honesty here, and a lot of generosity. But, perhaps most importantly, there is an assumption that education ought to be a public process, one that improves not only the student but also the public sphere overall. I hope that our educators and librarians embrace this attitude fully: Whenever possible, education ought to be done in public in order to make the public smarter and more resourceful.

Clearly, in a world so super-abundant with ideas and information, knowledge is knowledge if it is “good enough.” That’s the only way to gain the efficiency of knowledge that our old system of authority provided. But, it’s not always (or perhaps even usually) obviously what constitutes being good enough. Good enough for a weather forecast is different than good enough for brain surgery.

Educators and librarians need to aggressively teach students in this skill. Students need help in gaining the skill to discern what’s worth believing and what’s hucksterism and wish fulfillment. This is an age-old need exacerbated by the Net’s eroding of homogenous authority (for better and for worse). But I think educators and librarians have an especially important role in not only steering students to authoritative sources. Given the human temptation to hang out with ideas that are familiar and unchallenging, librarians have a special role to play as guides to sources that also disturb us, challenge our hidden assumptions that celebrate difference and disagreement.

There’s so much more. We need to figure it out together.

David is the author of the critically acclaimed Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of Digital Disorder (Holt, Henry, and Company, 2007) and Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web (Perseus Books, 2002). He has been a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, Salon, Scientific American, Smithsonian, and Wired and a commentator for National Public Radio (NPR).

In 1999, David co-authored the nationwide bestseller, The Cluetrain Manifesto. The book set out 95 groundbreaking theses, informing businesses—and the rest of us—about a newly connected workplace where “markets are conversations” and “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.”

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of conducting research and managing technology and cultural capital in the digital age.

Smart Talks is an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL). PIL is an ongoing research study, based in the University of Washington’s Information School and supported with contributing funds from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Institute of Museum and Libraries (IMLS), creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Smart Talks interviews are open source. No permission for use is required from PIL, though we ask that this source be cited as Project Information Literacy Smart Talk, no. 11, David Weinberger, “Why Networked Knowledge Makes Us Smarter than Before."

Alison Head, Co-Director and Co-Principal Investigator at Project Information Literacy, conducted the Smart Talk interview with David Weinberger over email, between March 23 and April 20, 2012.