If David Weinberger is to be believed, the Internet hasn’t just changed how we access information, it has altered the very meaning of ‘knowledge’. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Weinberger claims that “for the coming generation, knowing looks less like capturing truths in books than engaging in never-settled networks of discussion and argument.” Supposedly, the networked, collaborative, and social nature of the Internet has changed our very understanding of knowledge to the point that knowledge is no longer tied to concepts of truth, objectivity, or certainty. Instead, as Weinberger argues in his recent book, Too Big to Know, “knowledge is a property of the network” (p. xiii). That is, the Internet has profoundly changed what it means to be a fact, to be true, or to be known. This book has been making the rounds among librarians, so I thought it might be a good idea to try to explain Weinberger’s argument and what librarians should–and should not–take away from it.
Weinberger begins by challenging our assumptions about what it means to be a ‘fact’. For centuries, facts were “relatively sparse, painstakingly discovered, and used to prove theories” (p. 38). This “Age of Classic Facts” has been torn asunder by the Internet age, insofar as the vast network we’ve created allows us to quickly and easily find disagreement about truth. As Weinberger explains, “push on a fact hard enough, and you’ll find someone contradicting it. Try to use facts to ground an argument, and you’ll find links to those who disagree with you all the way down to the ground” (p. 41). Sure, there’s always been disagreement about what is and is not true, but the vast size and networked nature of the Internet magnifies contradictions and dissent to the extent that mutually incompatible “facts” can exist simultaneously, equally, and democratically.
All this, because the hyperlinked and social environment of the Internet has supplanted the historic dominance of paper as our means for recording information. As Weinberger repeatedly insists, paper is a medium beset with limitations: books are limited in size, limited in distribution, and relatively expensive to make. Thus, he argues, traditional knowledge is a product of physical limitations–an “accident of paper”–and
if your medium doesn’t easily allow you to correct mistakes, knowledge will tend to be carefully vetted. If it’s expensive to publish, then you create mechanisms that winnow out contenders. If you’re publishing on paper, you will create centralized locations where you amass books. The property of knowledge as a body of vetted works comes directly from the properties of paper. (p. 45)
Given that “facts” are the putative foundations for knowledge, when that nature of facts change, the nature of knowledge must change as well. We have developed a tendency to reduce the number of things we’re willing to count as “facts” only because we have been historically conditioned to think in terms of the limitations imposed by paper. Yet,
because the Internet shows us how much there is to know and how deeply we disagree about everything, our old strategy of knowing by reducing what there is to be known–knowledge that is shaped like the data-information-knowledge-wisdom pyramid–is badly adapted to the new ecology” (p. 81).
The bulk of Weinberger’s book pursues this line of thought. He touches on the epistemic benefits of collaboration (Chapter 4), that the Internet allows greater voice to a diversity of opinions (Chapter 5), how hyperlinking has changed the (previously linear) way we think (Chapter 6), how science is flourishing in the Internet age (Chapter 7), how the Internet has affected decision-making (Chapter 8), and best practices for encouraging the growth of the Internet in light of how knowledge has been changed (Chapter 9). It’s an ambitious project, and Weinberger has certainly opened the floor for a compelling dialogue. (And I do hope I’ve presented his argument fairly.)
…now that the facts aren’t the facts…
I think part of the reason librarians have gravitated towards this book is that we realize that the library is in a state of flux. The rise of the Internet has complicated how we seek information, how we communicate information, and how we preserve information. It’s only natural during a sea change to shake the foundations a little bit. And, given that the historical foundations of librarianship are rooted in the collection of recorded knowledge in the form of print books, Weinberger’s ideas must seem enticing, to say the least. However, we owe it to ourselves as information and knowledge professionals to take a philosophically coherent approach towards the objects of our trade; and on this count, Weinberger’s book falls flat.
Evgeny Morozov has already pointed out that Too Big to Know is ultimately a “shallow” and “incurious” project. Indeed, Weinberger’s handling of epistemology is about as philosophically sloppy as you can get; he comes across as deeply confused about the difference between (1) justified, true belief and (2) what is believed to be true and/or justified. The former is what philosophers generally mean by “knowledge” (Gettier cases aside). The latter is more properly the domain of the social sciences. It’s “what do we know” versus “what do we think we know” and it’s a distinction that philosophers have long appreciated…and sophists have long abused. When you factor in the numerous straw-man arguments against classical views of knowledge, truth, objectivity, and information, the book is clearly bad philosophy.
Then again, Weinberger is coming at philosophy from a postmodernist standpoint (his dissertation was on Heidegger), so some of his more egregious fallacies can be explained away as mere rhetorical devices. What’s more salient here is his avowed debt to postmodernism. Supposedly, the Internet has proved the truth of the familiar postmodern tropes that “all knowledge and experience is an interpretation”, that “interpretations are social”, and that “there is no privileged position” (p. 89 ff). I’m not going to rehash the many, many, many, many problems of postmodernism, though I would like to add that if Weinberger were correct, and “the Internet showed us that the postmodernists were right” (p. 90), then we’re not really left with any reason to agree with his arguments in the first place. After all, Weinberger is only offering one interpretation among many and there is no disinterested position from which we can evaluate competing interpretations, no “experts” or objective description of the world in which to appeal. So, if Weinberger’s right, then I’m correct in asserting that he’s wrong. As Steven Poole wryly observed, the argument of Too Big to Know only proves that a “flashmob of Wikipedia editors [would] probably have done better in a few weeks.”
…experts are everywhere…
Yet, despite the philosophical incoherence of Weinberger’s discussion of the new world of knowledge, there’s still something valuable for librarians: namely, the questions that the book raises. Postmodern critiques have always been powerful and adept at exposing problems in our worldview. That their proposed analysis of those problems is usually inconsistent and incoherent shouldn’t detract from the importance of the problems raised. At the very least, Weinberger’s book does point to some interesting issues in which librarians are very well versed. Actually, if anything, the value of Too Big to Know is best found in the way it draws attention to issues that bring librarians to the forefront.
For example, Weinberger is concerned about knowledge creation in a networked and social world and his proposal is that we abandon (or at least heavily modify) things like fact, truth, reason, and objectivity. However, what he fails to realize is that we already have an entire field of study devoted to knowledge in a social world; it’s called social epistemology and it was first introduced by none other than Jesse Shera…a librarian. Not only is social epistemology a core part of library science, it also avoids the postmodern fallacies by properly focusing on the impact of social networks on justification, rather than focusing on truth as Weinberger does. For librarians, who are already heavily invested in social epistemology, most of Weinberger’s observations are already objects of study, even as his analysis falls short.
In a similar vein, Weinberger tackles the sheer magnitude of information accessible via the Internet. He would have us redefine ‘fact’ from the sparse, hard-won facts of the past, into “networked facts” relying on “Linked Data” (p. 39). Of course, wrestling with massive quantities of data is also par for the course in library science. We’ve always wrestled with massive quantities of information: linked data, metadata, classification, you name it. Librarians, better than anybody, understand that the problem isn’t that there are more facts (the number of facts is and has always been not just infinite but uncountable) or that facts are now more accessible. Most facts are mundane and uninteresting: my name is Lane, the Earth is bigger than a marble, 47 is greater than 46, 48 is greater than 47, and so on. No, the problem is not that facts have somehow changed. The problem is that most of them aren’t interesting. Sorting the interesting and pragmatically useful facts from the fluff is a chore that requires more than mere networking, it requires understanding of the kind practiced by librarians.
As a final example, Weinberger makes a big deal of the changing importance of expertise–how the democratic Web seemingly gives everyone equal voice and therefore equal value. He writes, the Internet’s “massiveness alone gives rise to new possibilities for expertise–that is, for groups of unrelated people to collectively figure something out, or to be a knowledge resource about a topic far too big for any individual expert” (p. 52). And, you know, crowdsourcing of the kind practiced by projects like Galaxy Zoo or Wikipedia really is a wonderful thing. Distributing research across thousands (or even millions) of individuals is one of the greatest achievements of the Internet. Of course, if you know anything about the Oxford English Dictionary or the Longitudinal Prize, it’s certainly not a new idea; the Internet just sped things up, it didn’t change the meaning of knowledge or expertise. By analogy, we wouldn’t say that parallel processing changed the nature of computer processors, it just allowed a new technique with new advantages. Librarians get this. In social epistemology, we study the role of expertise in knowledge creation. In reference and instruction, we teach strategies for identifying expertise. We have a robust and coherent account of how we should and should not evaluate information, whether it is from one or one million sources. It’s the information that matters, not necessarily who provided it or how many people were involved in speeding up the discovery process.
…and the smartest person in the room is the room.
So, by all means read Too Big to Know; it raises important questions that need to be discussed in the Internet Age. Just don’t put much stock in Weinberger’s analysis; it’s inconsistent, incoherent, and purely rhetorical. Instead, read the book as a librarian. As librarians, we’ve been discussing these issues for centuries and we have robust and pragmatically useful means for answering them. Remember, we’re not about “books”, we never have been: we’re about information. Maybe Too Big to Know is a good reminder of that. If the Internet has changed anything, it has changed the scope of our mission and the importance of our craft. And both for the better.
EDIT: For a more philosophically robust and coherent take on knowledge creation in the Internet Age, take a look at Michael Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012).