The Life of Knowledge

A Reflection on Too Big To Know by David Weinberger

The Life of Knowledge: A Reflection on Too Big To Know by David Weinberger

The room is the smartest person, according to David Weinberger in ‘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’. Of course, once you being to understand what he means by the room, your whole concept of information, knowledge and expertise are restructured, as it should be in the world of interconnectedness.

The room is the smartest person, so it goes. However, the room is not exactly a room, and the room is made of networks not walls, and the network is made up of people not conduit. The room is made up of people who, in the new structure of knowledge, become individually insignificant. Rather, they gain significance as a whole in the new organization of knowledge: networks, which make up the body of information, or data. The knowledge is in the network of information (people) itself, the culmination of expertise and knowledge (people) that inhabit the room, which is the very structure of the room. It is in this network where information is transformed into what Skip Walter refers to as “actionable” knowledge which is simply information that is used for a purpose and therefore has significance (3).

The smartest room, this network of knowledge, exists on the internet, in social connections. These networks have developed as places of associations between “lots of people who are different from one another [where they are] not only finding expertise but also generating it” (57). This environment has taken the shape of knowledge, previously linear in nature, and transformed it into not just a circular form, but various forms involving symbiotic relationships.

Structure and Process of Knowledge Itself

Previous to Too Big To Know the idea that knowledge has a shape was, personally, a foreign concept. Weinberger manages to describe how the shape of knowledge has evolved from linear structure – such as one direction information like that presented in books – to a multi-directional web of information in which the seeker can discover information and knowledge in any number of ways as well as add to it (100).

Despite this new structure of knowledge it has a life which is akin to the life of the old linear knowledge in that it has the same old problems and can be “misquoted, degraded, enhanced, incorporated, passed around through a thousand degrees of misunderstanding, and assimilated to the point of invisibility” (110). Only previously, the editorial nature of knowledge and expertise prior to the Net was that of privilege, whereas now the editorial nature provided by networks is in the hands of the masses. Expertise has multiple voices thanks to the new structure, and that doesn’t always have positive implications (67).

It is in the hands of the masses that expertise on any one topic can have an array of implications. It is that trait where the network gets its diversity, where it “[…] enables a type of expertise just about impossible to actualize before the Internet existed” and gains “value only because that network contains many different types of people” (55). The variety is not just in the mere connections of countless people through the network, it is the variety of ways in which they think and what they know (56).

The issue in the network is in the sifting of the large mass of knowledge created by it, to moderate it to a point of usefulness. It calls for a new method of filtering which is now done through methods of influence through social networks. Weinberg says this can be disruptive, especially when it comes to authority of knowledge where it is transferred from experts to people we know (10) – theoretically people who have no valid authority. When information and knowledge is shifted from central “authorities” to an array of influences, both in our social networks as well as the expanded networks connected to them, we are bombarded with fragmented information. This fragmented information shapes perceptions and attitudes. This information may be outside the scope of new authoritarian social networks who never the less are granted authority over the information transformed into knowledge. In this way the information is not so much reduced by filtering as it is should be, but it is compounded; this form of filtering “increase[s] information and reveal[s] the whole deep sea” (13). Weinberger says this mass of information “has consequences” (10), and he proceeds with outlining many of the pros and cons of this new “anything goes” nature of information generation and dissemination.

The Cons in the Pros

Perhaps one of the most interesting concepts Weinberger presented as a pro to the network is a new take on diversity, which is the cornerstone of the “smartest room” in question. The proposal is that the concept of diversity is growing away from that of an ethnic or racial structure, to that of a diversity of backgrounds, education levels, economic levels and experiences that flow through all, regardless of religion, gender, sexual orientation or racial identity. This slow-growing concept, particularly in business, is an idea outside of the popular rhetoric of what traditional diversity is and means.

The kind of diversity Weinberg discusses works by creating a range of new perspectives with heuristic implications which in the workplace presents as innovation and creativity. This form of diversity builds on new ways of seeing and doing and battles against the group-think, which leads to mediocrity (77). This new understanding of diversity can be seen as having potentially ill effects if adopted to broadly, such as the reversal of anti-discrimination legislation. However, for the purposed of the network it can be a positive revolutionary force, as well as a carrying negative attributes.

As Weinberger is sure to point out at various steps, the revolutionary nature of networks does not mean they are all universally smart, or even that the network is universally used. As he points out, referencing the work of researchers Eszter Hargittai and Danah Boyd, “social class, age, and subculture affects [s] how we use the [network] and what it means to us (173). To further illustrate the psychological pitfalls of the usefulness of the network (i.e. the internet), Weinberger states that “for those who have no interest in intellectual rigor, or who lack curiosity […] the Net may well be an environment that degrades knowledge” (91). In these ways the diversity of global society does not translate directly to the diversity of “the room”.

When diversity is functioning properly in the network of “the room” knowledge is built vis-à-vis shared expertise. When done on a mass scale, cognition “quickly migrate[s] to these networks of experts” (62). However, though “knowledge has always been social” in much this way, and the theory goes that we are “smarter when together” the fact is that this isn’t always the case with networked knowledge (51). Now that authority of knowledge is in the hands of the masses, Weinberg makes a claim that the lack of a privileged position introduces the worry that “we will be lost in a swirl of contradictory ideas” (90-91). It is difficult not to see how this plays out in everyday dissemination of information on the net. As Weinberger says, in some cases the network is dumber (67) for its mass cognitive blend, creating misrepresentations (66) and having an isolating effect on information (63).

Networks are subject to forming insulation from criticism and outside points of view, resulting in echo chambers (63). According to Weinberger, citing the work of Cass Sunstein, this type of insulated echo chamber can lead to the breeding of extremism (83). In the network, extremism birthed from isolation is counter intuitive to the positive creative nature found in the aforementioned diversity, a nature which promotes a more objective view than those of static ideologies. This problem is at the root of what Cass Sunstein calls “information cascades [where] false and harmful ideas […] gain velocity [and credibility by how easily] and frequently they are forwarded”, passed on, or shared (117). One not need be in the network of the internet long to recognize this outcome is not only real, but persistent.

To further the point in his parlay of cons of the network, Weinberger reflects on the work of techno-dystopian Nicholas Carr, who says that what the internet is doing is changing our cognitive processes for the worst. While on some level this may be an accurate perception for some, it is highly technodeterministic, as Weinberger confers, to conclude that “technology causes us to use and understand it in particular ways” (173). The idea that technology acts upon us, causes as if by force, and not the other way around, has implications regarding ideas of free will and control in relation to the technological world.

Other problems with information and knowledge transference in the network arise in interpretation, which, as Weinberger advises, is always subjective. Knowledge, in all of its structures, lives in the connection of life (119); and while it is accessible to all, sans the network in previous generations, it “shows itself to use depending on our starting point, viewpoint, and inescapably human sense of what matters to us” (180) and “all knowledge and experience is an interpretation” (89).

Interpretation is essential to the transference of knowledge, but in “real events are experienced by individual minds that strive to create an accurate inner representation which is then expressed in words presented to others” (112) and creates a world in which they approach their understanding “from a particular standpoint (113). As Weinberger states, “our experience is always from a point of view, looking at some features and not others” (89), experiences of which there are countless ways in which to interpret everything (90). These experiences must contain context in order to be made sense of (90). Each frame of context carries the standpoints of the past with it which impacts the effectiveness of how we convey information and knowledge, as well as how we interpret it.

Importance and the Culture of Knowledge

Being left to figure out what is important about the evolving structure of knowledge, with its mass contribution of variable information from multiple standpoints, it is not hard to recognize the fatigue that transpires through the overload of the system. Even more are the implications on how to navigate what is available and come to terms with the death of authoritative knowledge. Understanding how to navigate these new structures and processes of knowledge is important, and are subject to a culture of their own which is “guided by implicit rules and expectations” and become important to aspects of social structure (90). The underlying fact is that knowledge is essential to the process of creating identity and culture, to understanding the world and ourselves (4).

With a network of connectedness that inhabits many parts of the globe, bringing together a plethora of ideas, theories, and beliefs, “information overload [arises] as a cultural condition (9).

The information provided isn’t necessarily essential, and the overload feeds the insecurity of our own knowledge and instincts. For example, Weinberger briefly remarks on child raising experts who dispense “skill […] often with just a few cogent mottos” (49). The consumption of books such as these types of boiled down common-sense guides to life illustrates the insecurity of our own knowledge, authentic knowledge passed down generation after generation, basic instinctual knowledge. When we erroneously put into the hands of the masses the authority on basic knowledge, it threatens the authentic self. With any number of experts available we often forget that within us is our own knowledge. For this reason “learning to evaluate knowledge claims” and developing critical-thinking skills becomes more essential than ever before (192). Unfortunately it often seems that critical thinking skills fall by the wayside as those who consume knowledge, dispensed from those who have been afforded authority on the grounds of nothing, neglect their own instinctual knowledge.

So What, Now What

With all of the cons, Weinberger still notes that “a net richer in metadata [information] is richer in more usable and useful knowledge” (188). Despite the range of expertise and useful knowledge created in the diversity of the network, he acknowledges that “we are going to disagree about everything”, attributing it to the very nature of diversity which inhabits the network of information and knowledge (87). The fact that our perceptions, beliefs, ideas and attitudes are individually shaped by so many different voices means each of us approaches the same knowledge set with different ways of viewing it. However, this can be recognized as nothing new; humanity has have never really agreed on anything. If it had agreed on anything, things would have remained the same throughout history. No revolutions, no loss of attributes deemed essential by some and inconsequential by others – no growth or change.

Perhaps the networked world in which we now live in, in which everybody projects their voice into the abyss of knowledge and expertise, has simply been magnified by the network. Perhaps it was always like this, but through this new structure of knowledge, in the amplified connectedness of society, we now see how disconnected we really can be on various subjects such as those of human rights, politics, gender, religion, and any number of other less essential topics. Alas, Weinberger’s “pragmatic truth” sums it up, “what we have in common is not knowledge about which we agree but a shared world about which we will always disagree” (182).

Throughout the book Weinberger probes how media, communication and information shapes and influences culture and the implications the new structure of knowledge has for the future. The topics laid before you were merely highlights and musings as there is neither time nor space to plumb the depths of his text for the purpose of this reflection. The best way to conclude is with Weinberger’s own utopian aspirations of the potential for “the smartest room”, optimistic and hopeful, that “…perhaps our hyperlinked infrastructure will give us a self-understanding that makes it easier for our curiosity and compassion to overcome our self-centered fears.” (193).