The Difference Between Online Knowledge and Truly Open Knowledge

Liberation from the bounds of books and libraries doesn't mean freedom from the constraints of corporate power and culture. A response to David Weinberger's Too Big to Know.


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, the simultaneously fascinating and frustrating book by Berkman Center senior researcher David Weinberger, there is a wonderful moment where the mechanisms of "fact-building" are laid bare.

"It's 1983. You want to know the population of Pittsburgh, so instead of waiting six years for the web to be invented, you head to the library," Weinberger begins.

What follows next is the elaboration of the deeply material processes through which even seemingly simple facts are assembled -- from the decision made by you, the curious researcher, to look the answer up in an almanac in a public library, all the way back to the public agencies, research funding mechanisms, and publishing-industry processes that allowed the population of the greater Pittsburgh metropolitan area to be certified as 2,219,000 souls. This story provides us a key insight into the nature of facts: they are constructed, yes, but they are not simply constructed out of thin air, and they are certainly not constructed out of words or digital links. Money and materials, documents and discourse, all go into making facts "facts." In the words of Michael Fortun, an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, facts are made, but they are not made up.

I wish there were more episodes like the Pittsburgh almanac story in Too Big to Know. Instead, Weinberger often retreats into a philosophical stance that overemphasizes the power of media technology to reshape the basic epistemological structures of the social world. This theoretical starting point -- which we might describe as a kind of Heideggarian McLuhanism -- ultimately dematerializes and dehistoricizes our notions of what it means to say that a fact is "networked." And this tendency, which I would call a tendency to see networks as coterminous with "the Internet," largely evacuates any understanding of digital power from Weinberger's analysis.

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Just to be clear right from the start: there is no doubt that Too Big to Know is a smart, readable book. All too often the academic response to readable, obviously mass-market oriented books like Weinberger's is to pick nits, helpfully pointing out entire scholarly bodies of evidence that the author missed and using this lack of grounding in the literature as an excuse to toss the entire exercise out the window. Sometimes such criticism is justified, other times, it is less so. In this case, at least, readability is far from a sign of shallow thinking. There are probably hard-edged sociological reasons behind Weinberger's accessible argumentative style, but there is little doubt that he knows his stuff. Indeed, one of the failings of Too Big to Know may be that the book tries to do too much, rather than too little.

Nevertheless, if Too Big To Know is a multi-course meal, it is an ultimately unsatisfying one. Its primary flaw is its open indebtedness to a particular vision of both Heidegger and McLuhan. These commitments are central to nearly all of Weinberger's writings, from The Cluetrain Manifesto onward, and as such, it's doubtful that such an open disagreement on intellectual first principles can be easily bridged. Nevertheless, Weinberger's commitments need not be ours, and there are particularly important reasons why we might wish to avoid them.

The renaissance of Marshall McLuhan in the era of the Web is disappointing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its rather dull obviousness. There is little surprise that the quotable, evidence-free, technology-obsessed Canadian English professor would thrive in a technology-obsessed era where pithy quotes about the deep meaning of digital devices too often stands in for evidence. McLuhan, of course, was the master theorist of the medium; beyond the over-used "medium is the message," McLuhan's major insight was to argue that socio-technological systems -- such as the media -- operate on a grand scale, largely independent of the day-to-day interest us mere mortals might have in their actual content. McLuhan's primary flaw, on the other hand, was to decouple this understanding of socio-technical system from any relationship to economics, politics, or society. As leading communications theorist James Carey put it, "McLuhan sees the principal effect [of communication technology] as impacting sensory organization and thought. McLuhan has much to say about perception and thought but little to say about institutions."

German philosopher Martin Heidegger is less quoted in Silicon Valley than Marshall McLuhan, and not just because he was a Nazi. McLuhan and Heidegger are equally poor writers, but whereas McLuhan's inscrutable prose has led to him being more read than he ought to be, unintelligibility has had the opposite outcome for Heidegger. A dazzlingly complex philosopher -- probably the greatest of the 20th century -- the most important aspect of Heidegger's thought for our purposes is his understanding that human beings (or rather "Dasein," "being-in-the-world") are always thrown into a particular context, existing within already existing language structures and pre-determined meanings. In other words, the world is like the web, and we, Dasein, live inside the links.

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Too Big to Know thus amounts to a fairly straightforward marriage of the Canadian mystic to the gnomic German philosopher. The digitization of 21st-century media, Weinberger argues, leads not to the creation of a "global village" but rather to a new understanding of what knowledge is, to a change in the basic epistemology governing the universe. And this McLuhanesque transformation, in turn, reveals the general truth of the Heideggarian vision. Knowledge qua knowledge, Weinberger claims, is increasingly enmeshed in webs of discourse: culture-dependent and theory-free.

The causal force lying behind this massive sea change is, of course, the internet. Google search results -- "9,560,000 results for 'Heidegger' in .71 seconds") -- taunt you with the realization that there are still another 950,000-odd pages of results to get through before you reach the end. The existence of hyperlinks is enough to convince even the most stubborn positivist that there is always another side to the story. And on the web, fringe believers can always find each other and marinate in their own illusions. The "web world" is too big to ever know. There is always another link. In the era of the Internet, Weinberger argues, facts are not bricks. They are networks.

And yet: as the Pittsburgh almanac example has already shown us, facts have always been networked. What do almanacs, census bureaus, government funding streams, volunteers, the notebooks these volunteers carry, and libraries amount to, if not a network? A particular kind of network, true, but a network nonetheless. What Weinberger does in Too Big to Know is to confuse a shift in network architecture with the onset of networked knowledge per se. Particular questions about the materiality and power arrangements of our emerging networked architecture are dissolved in the digital bath of the world wide web. In his rush to make the Heideggerian point about the contextualization of all knowledge, Weinberger falls back on McLuhan -- a particularly unreliable guide to technological change.

If our starting point is that all knowledge is networked, and always has been, then we are in a far better point to start talking about what makes today's epistemological infastructure different from the infrastrucure in 1983. But we are also in a position to ask: if all knowledge was networked knowledge, even in 1983, than how did we not behave as if it was so? How did humanity carry on? Why did civilization not collapse into a morass of post-modern chaos? Weinberger's answer is, once again, McLuhanesque. It was the medium in which knowledge was contained that created the difference. Stable borders around knowledge were built by books.

I would posit a different answer: if knowledge has always been networked knowledge, than facts have never had stable containers. Most of the time, though, we more or less act as if they do. Within philosophical subfield known as Actor-Network Theory (ANT) this "acting-as-if-stability-existed" is referred to as "black boxing." One of the black boxes around knowledge might very well be the book. But black boxes can also include algorithms, census bureaus, libraries, laboratories, and news rooms. Black boxes emerge out of actually-existing knowledge networks, stabilize for a time, and unravel, and our goal as thinkers and scholars ought to be understanding how these nodes emerge and disappear. In other words, understanding changes to knowledge in this way leaves us far more sensitive to the operations of power than does the notoriously power-free perspective of Marshall McLuhan.

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Now all of this has been rather abstract, so I just want to conclude with a real-life example about the operation of knowledge systems in the 21st century. It is 2012, and I want to know the population of Pittsburgh. I type "population of Pittsburgh" into my Google search box, and up come several answers, including a the Pittsburgh Wikipedia page, "Quick Facts" from the U.S. Census Bureau, and a link-less answer titled "Best Guess" (it tells me the population of the city of Pittsburgh -- not the entire metro area -- is 334,563). In theory, there are pages and pages of links following these top three: but I don't look at them. Something tells me that the first page of the Google results is really all I need.

On the one hand, we can stand back and be amazed at the operation of the Google algorithm, and speculate as to how this digital fact-sorting marks a new era in human thought. On the other hand, we can wonder: "how does Google black box the incredible stream of digital data in order to produce a particular result on a particular page that convinces me, more or less, that the population of Pittsburgh is 334,563? And what about Wikipedia? What are it's fact production processes? How do they work? And most importantly, how do they stabilize, both psychologically and sociologically? Why don't I care that the Google results page goes on towards infinity?" If we avoid Marshall McLuhan's easy answers to these complex questions, and retain the core of Heidegger's brilliant insights while also adding a hefty dose of ontology to his largely immaterial philosophy, we might begin to understand the real operations of digital knowledge/power in a networked age.

Weinberger, however, does not care about power, and more or less admits this himself in a brilliant essay 2008 on the distinction between digital realists, utopians, and dystopians. Digital utopians, a group in which he includes himself, "point to the ways in which the Web has changed some of the basic assumptions about how we live together, removing old obstacles and enabling shiny new possibilities." The realists, on the other hand, are rather dull: They argue that "the Web hasn't had nearly as much effect as the utopians and dystopians proclaim. The Web carries with it certain possibilities and limitations, but (the realists say) not many more than other major communications medium." Politically speaking, digital utopianism tantalizes us with the promise of what might be, and pushes us to do better. The political problem with the realist position, Weinberger argues, is that it "is ... [a] decision that leans toward supporting the status quo because what-is is more knowable than what might be."

The realist position, however, is not necessarily a position of quietude. Done well, digital realism can sensitize us to the fact that all networked knowledge systems eventually become brick walls, that these brick walls are maintained through technological, political, cultural, economic, and organizational forms of power. Our job, as thinkers and teachers, is not to stand back and claim that the all bricks have crumbled. Rather, our job is to understand how the wall gets built, and how we might try to build it differently.

Image: Library of Congress.