David Weinberger: Too Big to Know

November 16, 2012
9 min

David Weinberger is a technologist, speaker, commentator and writer. His book, Too Big to Know (published in 2012), is about the Internet’s effect on how we know and understand.

The following summary is from his talk at Google, in which he explores the concept of knowledge in our connected, networked world. He shows why it was easy to define facts in the world of books, and why it is so much harder on the Internet. He help us to understand the world - and ourselves.

The promise of knowledge

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s quote above represents the great promise of knowledge, which is with us from the Greek beginning 2500 years ago: that knowledge will enable us to live together across our differences. It offers some comfort: Yes, we all disagree and there are fights all over the place, but if we could just sit down and focus on the facts, then we can come to agreement. We can live together in agreement.

How did knowledge promise that? In the past, we had the following assumptions about knowledge:

  • Knowledge will create a picture of the world.
  • We can build up knowledge brick-by-brick (even if it takes long time).
  • We can take it into pieces and nail it down (and that part won’t change).
  • Knowledge is the real stuff, and like gold, we can filter it out from vast amount of ideas.

We are looking for stopping points

The world (and the knowledge) is much bigger than our skulls, we have learned early that we need to deal with it. The natural strategy was that we have reduced what there was to know, so that our brains could manage it. We allowed to break off brain-sized chunks of the world and allowed somebody to master a chunk, dominate it and become an expert.

If we have a question, we can go to the experts and ask them, or 'ask' the book they wrote. We can get the answer and move on. If we don’t trust the experts, then we can look up their credentials and accept those, then move on.

The system is designed to have stopping points. If we trust the expert, and he/she gives the answer, we can close the issue, we don’t need to repeat the experiment or ask another one.

Knowledge on the paper

Paper is a perfect stopping point.

The book, as the previously dominant medium of knowledge, is a hugely disconnected medium. It might contain references out to the world, but most of the time it is self-contained, you cannot click a link and explore it further. While the footnotes give us the feeling of connected knowledge, we don’t follow them. Going to a library to check the other book takes time, they might not have it - investigation gets very expensive, so we just don’t do it.

Paper-based medium is very restricted. It has a certain space, reading continuity, and the prints can produce only a limited amount. The author and the publisher controls the reading experience, and its availability over time and regions. We are used to think about the nature of knowledge in a certain way, which is mostly derived from the restrictions of the paper medium.

Knowledge on the Net

The Net is a fundamental change, as it is a hugely connected medium. The old paper tells us where to stop, while links on the Net tell us where to continue and provide us with all the means.

Too much information?

Yet, the problem of knowledge remains: it is just too much of it out there. David Weinberger lists a few examples explaining that the "information overload" is not specific in our modern age: in a historical perspective it was always there, and we have always dealt with it - we have built filters. Our sanity itself required us to create these filters.

As Clay Shirky put it brilliantly:

There’s no such thing as information overload - only filter failure.

When we complain about information overload, we don’t want the information to stop. We want to have only the right information.

Filters do change

Physical filters are remove something from within our reach. We don’t see the books which got rejected by the local bookstore or library, therefore we don’t worry about what we might be missing.

Filters on the web work differently: they don’t hide or remove anything, they just make a shortcut, we can access things with fewer click. The stuff is still there, and we are aware of the vast amount we can now access. We don’t reduce the world by filtering out, we can enhance it by filtering forward.

The Net enables users to build and use their own filtering, instead of relying on a curator. Which work itself was very valuable, but they couldn’t possibly guess what everyone else thought was interesting.

There is no single interpretation

In the physical world, we cannot have two things at one place. We cannot organize our CD collection by genre and alphabetically - it will be always one or the other. In the digital world, we can have separate playlists for both. Each of these exposes a different meaning, a different angle of our collection.

The argument on how to organize things just disappeared. So did the single order of the universe, our old way of strict hierarchies and single classification.

What’s on the Web?

Every link expresses some difference between the page that you’re on and the one that you’re being sent to. In the first time in our history where we’re able to see all the ways we disagree, the ways that our points of view are different. And those points of view are now linked.

You go out on the web, and what you see is all of this disagreement. What’s actually happening is that the net is exposing a truth that we’ve always known in our hearts, but we couldn’t quite acknowledge. It’s that we actually don’t agree about anything.

There are facts. Some statements are false, and there are people who lie. The point is we’re not going to agree about who those people are. It doesn’t matter how many facts you bring to bear.

In all of human history, we’ve never agreed about anything. Now, we can see that we don’t.

Dealing with the differences

Online conversations can be heated, people will diverge from the original topic. Forking threads is a really powerful tool for enabling difference to continue without telling people, "Shut up!", which is what we would do in the real world if that conversation broke out.

If we are not able to agree on how to classify things, we can introduce more namespace, and put them into multiple categories. We can coordinate and map different namespaces more easily than to agree on common categories upfront.

We like to be with people who are like us. We spend our time in echo chambers, but many times they are necessary. If we’re going onto a site of a politician, a candidate who we support, we want and we need an echo chamber, because that’s how political movements are formed. If we’re going to a sports site, we don’t want to hear from everybody who hates our team.

Can we agree on the facts? On anything?

A Jew and a Nazi will never ever agree on the other’s points.

In order for two people to talk, there has to be so much agreement and so much sameness. Same language, interested in at least one topic they can talk about, enough common assumptions about how that domain works and what the facts in that domain are. In addition to that, they need some sense of the norms of conversation: who gets to talk, how much, when you interrupt, all that sort of very subtle thing. Conversation, to be successful, needs to be 99% sameness.

Knowledge is better off because, now, we recognize that we don’t agree and because we are linked in those disagreements.

Knowledge is not the thing that is settled anymore. It is where this disagreement happens.

Where does the new knowledge lead us?

The knowledge on the Net is scattered, connected and doesn’t follow the long-form arguments one can make within a book. It is not short-form, it is web-form. Knowledge is at the level of the network, of people corresponding, disagreeing, agreeing, enhancing, differing in every possible way.

Previously, media had other people deciding what’s interesting to us. The web is a direct reflection of what’s interesting to us. Every link is a direct expression of human interest.

The new medium is giving knowledge its new properties. These are also characteristics of the world that we live in. What it means to live in a world as a human being. It’s overwhelming, it’s unsettled, it’s unresolved, it’s messy, it’s deeply, endlessly connected, but sometimes loosely connected. It’s held together by the fact that the world matters to us, that it’s interesting to us, that we care about it.

Last updated: August 29, 2014
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