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.

The really hard part is that there is no good way for a knowledge network to be sure that a disruption isn't a breakthrough. That is an eternal human predicament.

You write that objectivity, as a goal or even a possibility, has "fallen out of favor in our culture," so much so "that in 1996 the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics dropped it as an official value." You go on to say that our disillusionment with objectivity began long before the arrival of the Internet and, with it, networked knowledge. What have been the effects of the network on how we think about objectivity and facts? What values are taking objectivity's place?

Our distrust of objectivity predates the Internet. Indeed, much of what's happening to knowledge was prefigured by the postmodernists (just about none of whom accept that label). But it makes a huge difference that now the dominant (or soon to be dominant) medium is free of the old limitations. And the postmodernists could not have predicted the linked and open nature of the Net.

At its most stringent, objectivity is, as the press critic Jay Rosen calls it, borrowing a phrase from the philosopher Thomas Nagel, "the view from nowhere." Seeing the world as if a person with no point of view were looking at it is a weird and unnatural idea. We humans can only see things from a point of view, and we can only understand things by appropriating them into our already-existing context. (I am told there's the possibility through Eastern disciplines of seeing things without starting from a situated self, but I don't know enough about that to have an opinion.)

In fact, the idea of objectivity arose in response to the limitations of paper, as did so much of our traditional Western idea of knowledge. Paper is a disconnected medium. So, when you write a news story, you have to encapsulate something quite complex in just a relatively small rectangle of print. You know that the reader has no easy way to check what you're saying, or to explore further on her own; to do so, she'll have to put down the paper, go to a local library, and start combing through texts that are less current than the newspaper in which your article appears. The reporter was the one mediator of the world the reader would encounter, so the report had to avoid the mediator's point of view and try to reflect all sides of contentious issues. Objectivity arose to address the disconnected nature of paper.

Our new medium is, of course, wildly connective. Now we can explore beyond the news rectangle just by clicking. There is no longer an imperative to squeeze the world into small, self-contained boxes. Hyperlinks remove the limitations that objectivity was invented to address.

Hyperlinks also enable readers to understand -- and thus perhaps discount -- the writer's point of view, which is often a better way of getting past the writer's prejudices than asking the writer to write as if she or he had none. This, of course, inverts the old model that assumed that if we knew about the journalist's personal opinions, her or his work would be less credible. Now we often think that the work becomes more credible if the author is straightforward about his or her standpoint. That's the sense in which transparency is the new objectivity.

There is still value in trying to recognize how one's own standpoint and assumptions distort one's vision of the world; emotional and conceptual empathy are of continuing importance because they are how we embody the truth that we share a world with others to home that world matters differently. But we are coming to accept that we can't really get a view from nowhere, and if we could, we would have no idea what we're looking at.

In the excerpt we ran from your book earlier this week, you explain how today's data-driven science is producing knowledge - if you can call it that - that computers can understand but humans cannot. This, you imply, is somehow less satisfying than the Eureka moment of a Kepler, a Darwin, or an Einstein. Yet, this knowledge may be more reflective of the realities of biology or physics than something that humans could intuit. What do you make of that tension -- between the kind of knowledge that humans desire and the kind that accurately reflects the world?

I don't know if it's by culture or biology that we feel joy when a simple order is revealed behind a mangled confusion. That Aha! moment is like the punchline of a great joke or the final turn in a well-wrought narrative. We love it. And I don't think we'll ever lose it. (But what do I know?) It's just that the understanding that results in a sudden recognition of simplicity is not sufficient for a world as big and complex as ours.

Our new ability to know the world at a scale never before imaginable may not bring us our old type of understanding, but understanding and knowledge are not motivated only by the desire to feel that sudden gasp of insight. The opposite and ancient motive is to feel the breath of awe in the face of the almighty unknowability of our universe. A knowing that recognizes its object is so vast that it outstrips understanding makes us more capable of awe.

And, bonus question: Who would win in a fight, Clay Shirky or Nicholas Carr?

Carr would land some shallow punches, but then everbody would join with Shirky. So, no contest.

Cheap puns aside, my heart's with Shirky, although I liked Carr's The Shallows. It raises an important question, and pushes it hard. Further, when most people say that the Internet is making people stupid, they exempt themselves: it's those other people -- the ones I disagree with -- who are being made stupid. Carr on the other hand applies the critique to himself. He says he wants his old brain back.

Another reason I like The Shallows: It provides a rare and clear example of actual technodeterminism, a charge usually leveled against Shirky and his ilk. (I pride myself in being ilked with Shirky.) Technodeterminism is the claim that technology by itself has predictable, determinant effects on people or culture. Usually, in my opinion, the charge is a strawman argument, for the Shirky Ilk doesn't think that the effect of technology is independent of the factors that shape social and cultural reactions. Differences in culture, class, education, psychology, and personal history all affect how someone reacts to any technology. Of course. But with that limitation strongly in mind, we still need to be able to discuss how a technology is affecting a culture in general. Generalizations can be a vehicle of truth, so long as they are understood to be only generally true.

If I didn't believe that, I couldn't have written Too Big to Know, for it is about the effect of the Internet on knowledge. I'm careful to scope it only to traditional Western knowledge, and avoiding technodeterminism is a topic within the book itself. But, there is a seeming irony -- or, worse, a self-contradiction -- in my railing against knowledge as a reduction of the buzzing, blooming confusion of the world in a book that, for example, tries to give a "history of facts" in one brief chapter. But it's only an irony if you think I'm condemning any form of general statement. I'm not. Knowledge will always find patterns that apply across particulars. (The equating of knowledge with universals is a different matter.) In fact, I'm Hegelian about this: The new knowledge continues to find generalities that connect individual instances, but because the new ecosystem is hyperlinked, we can go from the generalities back to the individual cases. And those generalizations are themselves linked into a system of difference and disagreement.

In any case, Carr's book is admirably, straightforwardly technodeterminist: mere interaction with the Internet rewires our brains and diminishes our capacity for important forms of thought. Carr may be right, he may be wrong, he may have his values right or inside out, but he in any case at last gives the anti-technodeterminists a target that is not made out of straw. As a Shirky Ilkist, I enjoy that the clearest target for the anti-technodeterminists is a pessimist about the Net, rather than the Shirkian optimists who otherwise are so often the targets of their ilk.