What the Internet Means for How We Think About the World


Weinberger-Too Big.jpgIn this time of easy access to information, experts, and news, the last thing you would expect is that we are in the midst of a crisis in knowledge. But sometimes it seems that we, in fact, are, says Internet theorist David Weinberger.

How's that? Weinberger says that on the day he sat down to write the prologue to his new book, Too Big to Know, three of the six front-page New York Times stories -- about topics as diverse as the Gulf oil spill, John Updike's archive, and soccer players who fake injury -- could have carried the subhead, "Knowledge in Crisis!" On the face of it, these stories do not seem to be about knowledge in any way, or even to be connected at all. But Weinberger says that at their core these stories are all about questions of how we store, organize, find, and apply knowledge -- questions that are changing rapidly as knowledge is increasingly stored not in paper or people's minds, but online.

I asked Weinberger a few questions about his new book, how the Internet is changing knowledge, and, in turn, how it is changing us.

In your book, you argue that we are in a new age of "networked knowledge," meaning that knowledge -- ideas, information, wisdom even -- has broken out of its physical confines (the pages of a book or the mind of a person) and now exists in a hyperconnected online state. You say that this new structure "feels more natural because the old ideals of knowledge were never realistic." In what ways does it feel more natural? What were these old ideals of knowledge and in what ways were they unnatural?

We've known for a long time that there was more going on in the world than our libraries could contain or our media could show us. We've known that experts are not as reliable as they often were made out to be. We've known that world is less ready and able to come to rational agreement than we'd been promised. We've known much of our codified knowledge is less than perfectly unreliable. We've known that the topical domains into which we divide knowledge so we can master them are not nearly as separate as their shelves in the library indicate. We've known that we're little creatures in a universe vast beyond our ability to exaggerate.

Yet the short version of the history of knowledge goes something like: Plato defines knowledge as justified true belief. We then gradually increase the criteria of justification until knowledge has to pass a very high bar indeed. Knowledge comes to be that which we can know with certainty, what is settled and beyond reasonable dispute. Yet, there is one basic fact about us human beings: We are profoundly fallible. We've known since the dawn of civilization that we basically get everything wrong and then die. The demand for certainty and clarity placed on creatures who recognize their own uncertainty is, in some sense, unnatural.

I think the Net generation is beginning to see knowledge in a way that is closer to the truth about knowledge -- a truth we've long known but couldn't instantiate. My generation, and the many generations before mine, have thought about knowledge as being the collected set of trusted content, typically expressed in libraries full of books. Our tradition has taken the trans-generational project of building this Library of Knowledge book by book as our God-given task as humans. Yet, for the coming generation, knowing looks less like capturing truths in books than engaging in never-settled networks of discussion and argument. That social activity -- collaborative and contentious, often at the same time -- is a more accurate reflection of our condition as imperfect social creatures trying to understand a world that is too big and too complex for even the biggest-headed expert.

This new topology of knowledge reflects the topology of the Net. The Net (and especially the Web) is constructed quite literally out of links, each of which expresses some human interest. If I link to a site, it's because I think it matters in some way, and I want it to matter that way to you. The result is a World Wide Web with billions of pages and probably trillions of links that is a direct reflection of what matters to us humans, for better or worse. The knowledge networks that live in this new ecosystem share in that property; they are built out of, and reflect, human interest. Like our collective interests, the Web and the knowledge that resides there is at odds and linked in conversation. That's why the Internet, for all its weirdness, feels so familiar and comfortable to so many of us. And that's the sense in which I think networked knowledge is more "natural."

One of the central metaphors in your book is that the smartest person in the room is no longer a person but the room itself. But, you caution, this also means that if the room -- the network -- is stupid, we ourselves will be made more stupid. You write that "our task is to learn how to build smart rooms." What features would a smart room have? What are features of the network as it is now that you find worrisome?

I'll start with the negative.

The big worry is that when we're given lots of choices of what to read (or view, etc.), we'll tend to read that with which we already agree. This further confirms our current beliefs, and perhaps results in our moving to further extremes. This is called the "echo chamber" argument, and it is most famously associated with Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor currently in the Obama White House.

Assessing the danger posed by echo chambers is very difficult. All I'll say here is that we should assume it's a real danger, and we should work against it as parents, teachers, citizens, and participants on the Web.

But, I think we should not let the very real dangers posed by echo chambers blind us to the degree to which we need sameness in order just to have a conversation that advances our thinking. The speakers need to share a language, have a deep set of assumptions and norms in common, have the same goal for the conversation -- are you passing time, trying to make a friend, trying to make a deal, etc. -- and have a topic that they're both interested in. While too much sameness can lead to an echo chamber, a conversation cannot happen without a Costco-size shopping cart of samenesses.

So, to make a smart room -- a knowledge network -- you have to have just enough diversity. And it has to be the right type of diversity. Scott Page in The Difference says that a group needs a diversity of perspectives and skill sets if it is going to be smarter than the smartest person in it. It also clearly needs a set of coping skills, norms, and procedures that enable it to deal with diversity productively. For example, let's say you're on a mailing list that's talking about how to bake the perfect cheesecake, and someone enters who wants to talk about how cheesecake will clog your arteries, how it diverts precious resources from those in need, and how it relies upon agricultural techniques that are killing the planet. Those are three reasonable objections to making cheesecake, and your list may want to pursue them. But it may not. It may want to stick with figuring out how to make tastier cheesecakes. It will therefore need some norms that say how off-topic a thread can become and what happens to offenders. It may also adopt a forking technique that is very helpful online: those who want to talk about the morality of cheesecake have plenty of space on the Net where they can have that discussion while the cheesecake recipe thread continues. Many such environments benefit from having moderators. Many use some form of peer filtering to vote comments up, down, or away. Whatever the techniques, if a knowledge network is to be smarter than its members, it needs to incorporate enough diversity and the right types of diversity, and it needs ways to deal sensitively when that diversity threatens to disrupt it.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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