Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Arent the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room 1st Edition
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Marc Benioff, chairman, CEO salesforce.com, bestselling author of Behind the Cloud
“Led by the Internet, knowledge is now social, mobile, and open. Weinberger shows how to unlock the benefits.”
About the Author
- Publisher : Basic Books; 1st edition (January 3, 2012)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0465021425
- ISBN-13 : 978-0465021420
- Reading age : 18 years and up
- Grade level : 11 and up
- Item Weight : 15.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 6.5 x 1 x 9.75 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #749,955 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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According to Weinberger, most of us tend to think that there are certain individuals — called experts — who are knowledgeable about a certain topic and actually possess knowledge of it. Their knowledge and expertise is thought to be derived from their ability to correctly interpret facts, often through some theoretical lens. Today, like facts, experts too have become ubiquitous. It seems we are actually drowning in a world with too many experts and too many facts, or at least an inability to pick out the true experts and the important facts.
Most of us are appalled, for instance, when we hear the facts about how many people are living in poverty in the United States. However, these facts can be misleading and most people don’t have enough time to think critically about the facts that are hurled at them every day. There might in fact be “X” amount of people living in poverty in the United States, but did you know that someone with a net-worth north of one million dollars can technically be living in poverty? How the government defines poverty is very different than the connotation that many of us have of that word. The amount of income you have is the sole factor used to determine if one is “living in poverty,” but this bit of information seldom accompanies the facts about how many people are “living in poverty.”
I recently posed a question on Facebook asking my subscribers if a fact could be false. To my surprise, there was much disagreement over this seemingly simple question. Weinberger reminds us that facts were once thought to be the antidote to disagreement, but it seems that the more facts are available to us, the more disagreements we seem to have, even if they are meta-factual.
It’s unquestionable that today’s digitally literate class of people have more facts at their fingertips than they know what to do with. Is this, however, leading us any closer to Truth? Well, not necessarily. This is because not all facts are created equal, and not all facts are necessarily true. Facts are statements about objective reality that we believe are true. However, while a fact can be false, truth is such regardless of our interpretation of it — we can know facts, but we can’t necessarily know Truth.
In the book, Weinberger draws an important distinction between classic facts and networked facts. The late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.” What he meant by that was that facts (what Weinberger calls classic facts) were thought to give us a way of settling our disagreements. Networked facts, however, open up into a network of disagreement depending on the context in which they are interpreted. “We have more facts than ever before,” writes Weinberger, “so we can see more convincingly than ever before that facts are not doing the job we hired them for.” This seems to be true even amongst people who use a similar framework and methodology for arriving at their beliefs (e.g., scientists).
One of Weinberger’s central arguments is that the Digital Revolution has allowed us to create a new understanding of what knowledge is and where it resides. Essentially, he claims that the age of experts is over, the facts are no longer the facts (in the classical sense), and knowledge actually resides in our networks. While this is an interesting idea, I’m not sure it’s entirely true.
Knowledge is a strange thing since it depends on the human mind in order to exist. I have a stack of books sitting on my desk, but I don’t point to them and say there is a stack of knowledge sitting on my desk. I simply don’t yet know if there is any knowledge to be gleaned from those books. For this reason, I don’t think knowledge can exist on networks either. Knowledge requires human cognition in order to exist, which means that it only exists in experience, thus giving it this strange ephemeral characteristic. I cannot unload my knowledge and store it anywhere, then retrieve it at a later date. It simply ceases to exist outside of my ability to cognize it.
Knowledge, Weinberger argues, exists in the networks we create, free of cultural and theoretical interpretations. It seems that he is expanding on an idea from Marshall McLuhan, who famously said, “The medium is the message.” Is it possible, then, that knowledge is the medium? The way I interpret his argument, Weinberger seems to be claiming that the medium also shapes what counts as knowledge. Or, as he himself puts it, “transform the medium by which we develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge, and we transform knowledge.” This definition of knowledge is, however, problematic if one agrees that knowledge can only exist in the mind of a human (or comparable) being. To imply that a unified body of knowledge exists “out there” in some objective way and that human cognition isn’t necessary for it to exist undermines any value the term has historically had. Ultimately, I don’t agree with Weinberger’s McLuhanesque interpretation that knowledge has this protean characteristic.
In a recent essay in The Atlantic Nicholas Carr posed the question: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” His inquiry spawned a fury of questions pertaining to our intelligence and the Net. Although Weinberger has high hopes for what the Net can do for us, he isn’t necessarily overly optimistic either. In fact, he claims that it’s “incontestable that this is a great time to be stupid” too. The debate over whether the Internet makes us smarter or dumber seems silly to me, though. I cannot help but conclude that it makes some people smarter and some people dumber — it all depends on how it is used. Most of us (myself included) naturally like to conjugate in our digital echo chambers and rant about things we think we know (I suspect this is why my provocative “Who Wants to Maintain Clocks?” essay stirred up some controversy — most RS readers don’t usually hear these things in their echo chambers).
Weinberger also argues that having too much information isn’t a problem, but actually a good thing. Again, I disagree. In support of this claim, he piggybacks off of Clay Shirky, who tells us that the ills of information overload are simply filtering problems. I, however, don’t see filtering as a panacea because filtering still requires the valuable commodity of time. At some point, we have to spend more time filtering than we do learning. An aphorism by Nassim Taleb comes to mind: “To bankrupt a fool, give him information.”
Overall, Weinberger does a nice job of discussing the nature of knowledge in the Digital Age, even though I disagree with one of his main points that knowledge exists in a new networked milieu. The book is excellent in the sense that it encourages us to think deeply about the messy nature of epistemology — yes, that’s an opinion and not a fact!
In 1967 twelve academic philosophers formed the "Heidegger Circle" as a closed study group for the German 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger. This group had all the advantages of a closed circle: productive work could be done using basic commonly agreed to assumptions, with information exchanged quite probably accurate and ideas advanced well considered. The members were experts on Heidegger. Yet the fact that it was a closed circle insulated them from criticism outside the circle and outsider information that could have helped them to develop and clarify their thinking on a notoriously difficult writer. Well with the Internet the circle became a 4,000 member group that included people who did not really know what they were talking about and could "grind important topics down to dust." Yet the larger group also collectively knew more than the closed circle, challenged older and often incorrect assumptions, and developed new areas of study of this philosopher.
So is this book worth reading? Well it depends on whether or not you want to know what knowledge has become in the age of the Internet and the theories that Weinberger contends explain the transformation of knowledge into a network based phenomenon. The book is an insightful piece of work that will profoundly influence such esoteric subjects as systems thinking and knowledge management.
The book's premise is that the way we have approached knowledge is an unhelpful hangover from a world of scarcity. The filtering mechanisms we use to whittle the world's information down to the very most authoritative knowledge have far more to do with the limited supply of paper and shelf space than the way that knowledge works in the real world. Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Weinberger argues that accepting the inevitability of information overload, and developing mechanisms to filter forward the most relevant, is the only productive way of engaging with the world.
In a Too Big to Know world, curation is replaced by an unbounded network of links: links from assertions to the facts that support them to the sources for those facts. And also, links to the assertions' counterarguments and their networks of facts. He explores the implications of abundant knowledge in in many disciplines: policymaking, science, books, and leadership, to name a few.
As a Knowledge-Centered Support (KCS) advocate, the idea of moving from scarcity to abundance, and from authority to relevance, is satisfying and nearly self-evident...in knowledge bases. And "the world's knowledge is doubling every X years" is a familiar theme. Still, applying these same big ideas to the wider world is unsettling. I'm looking forward to reading this again next year after a little soak time.
Top reviews from other countries
Weinberger is no doubt right that the formulation, communication and nature of knowledge is presently being transformed by the internet through the radical `networking of knowledge'. Knowledge, he argues, `is now a property of the network', altering its shape and nature, wherein `[t]he smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it.' Knowledge is framed not as `a library but a playlist'. In an engaging narrative, he contends that the networking of knowledge leads inevitably to knowledge without a firm foundation (networks do not have bases); an elimination of gatekeeping and filtering; and an erosion of the value of tokens of credibility, authority and reputation; thus leading to a flattening and democratisation of knowledge production and sharing.
His arguments with regards to filtering forward and credibility, however, overstate the case that there is a flattening and democratisation of information. Yes, search engines do provide links to all relevant pages rather than filtering out, but in filtering forward they order and weight the material. That ordering pushes those searching towards certain kinds of sites; often ones owned by corporations and institutions. Indeed, the internet is inhabited by the bastions of traditional media, such as publishers, newspapers, radio and television, and they are still dominant sources of news and analysis which continue to work by filtering out. And whilst there is a move to open access, much valuable knowledge still exists behind pay walls - whether that is on the internet or in traditional media, such as the Weinberger's book. Indeed, data and data analytics are massive, multi-billion dollar industries, and that is unlikely to change any time soon, even with the opening up of some data and information. The push towards open access has been accompanied by attempts to extend and tighten intellectual property regimes, and there is an on-going tussle between public good and private profit (though both are increasingly networked). Moreover, hierarchies of credibility, authority and reputation are re-established on the internet, not erased; most often on along the usual institutional lines. As a result without some form of credibility and authority, individuals can post material on their own pages, but readership will be much smaller than on institutional sites where it is penned by authors who have forms of cultural capital established through the usual institutional channels. Further, the means of sharing maybe more democratic (assuming you have the resources, literacy and time to be online and post material), but the distribution of attraction, influence and power have not been made even and equal. This suggests that far from the traditional pyramid of knowledge being reconfigured into a network, the situation is more complex.
This is not to say that the internet is not changing how knowledge is produced, shared and debated, it most certainly is. Rather, knowledge will continue to display a certain lumpiness rather than flattening. To a degree this is illustrated by the self-acknowledged irony and hypocrisy evident in the medium Weinberger uses to communicate his thesis - a traditionally published book that has closed, paid access, is protected by copyright as opposed to having a creative commons license (he strongly advocates open access and open licensing), is not interlinked beyond tradition references, and seeks to claim authority and credibility through the gatekeeping and investment of a publisher and his institutional affiliation at Harvard. We might be entering a new phase in the nature of knowledge, and Weinberger undoubtedly raises some important questions to ponder, but he undermines his own argument through the very choice of medium it is made through.
Nevertheless this is an interesting and thought-provoking book, written in an engaging and easy-to-follow style.
Well, no. In this lovely book, Weinberger argues strongly that our conception of knowledge has been blinkered by those very gatekeepers, curators and formats. Books, which he dubs “long-form thinking”, have their problems: they are one-way (author to reader), and closed format (material chosen and packaged into book-length form, implying that is all there is to be siad on the subject). It is only because we are so used to books that we don’t see their disadvantages and limitations very clearly. (And Weinberger is conscious of the irony of making this argument in book form.)
He examines the current state of this “knowledge messiness”, taking the argument a whole stage further than the information messiness covered in his previous long-form work, Everything is Miscellaneous.
The web allows conversations, hyper-linked non-linear presentation, and an unbounded, “bottomless”, format. It allows diversity: anyone can contribute, not just those previously allowed by the gatekeepers. This openness has its benefits, particularly allowing “networked knowledge”, bringing many eyes, viewpoints and skills to bear. It also has its downsides: it allows fools, and trolls, and confusion, and crud. But then Sturgeon’s law applies to books, too.
Weinberger carefully dissects these issues, showing where, when and how web-based knowledge can be superior to book-based. Books have helped hide the fact that knowledge really is messy, and that even when we have access to it, we will often not come to agreement. The rise of the messy web is not to be lamented, as having destroyed the clean, calm, long-form presentation of books; it should be celebrated for exposing the fundamental messiness of reality, and exploited to help us navigate that messiness. He finishes off with a discussion of how to help ensure the web can provide the best support for messy networked knowledge: open access, metadata, links, and, of course, education.