1/24: David Weinberger: Too Big to Know @ Harvard

(Forgive me, but I appreciate the humor in Too Big to Know at Harvard.)

David Weinberger, an appreciator of librarians and information science and prolific author and thinker on related topics, will speak about his new book Too Big to Know on Tuesday, January 24, most likely somewhere at Harvard University. The Berkman Center’s page indicates the location will be announced the day before the talk to folks who RSVP (via that page).

Their summary of his talk:

We used to know how to know. Get some experts, maybe a methodology, add some criteria and credentials, publish the results, and you get knowledge we can all rely on. But as knowledge is absorbed by our new digital medium, it’s becoming clear that the fundamentals of knowledge are not properties of knowledge but of its old paper medium. Indeed, the basic strategies of knowledge that emerged in the West addressed a basic problem: skulls don’t scale. But the Net does. Now networked knowledge is taking on the properties of its new medium: never being settled, including disagreement within itself, and becoming not a set of stopping points but a web of temptations. Networked knowledge, for all its strengths, has its own set of problems. But, in knowledge’s new nature there is perhaps a hint about why the Net has such surprising transformative power.

Addendum 01/19/12: The location of this RSVP-required talk is Austin North Classroom, Austin Hall, Harvard Law School.

Addendum 1/24: “Unsettling Knowledge” is the title on David’s intro slide. I can’t wait to learn what’s unsettling about it! There’s a webcast link somewhere, probably on Berkman’s site. And David’s offering to sign anything we want him to after the talk. Well, ok, almost anything …

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, not his own facts.” –Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Knowledge can bring us together. There’s only one knowledge. Ultimately, that’s the thing that will get us over our differences. Knowledge is a matter of filtering, winnowing, and perceptions.

Knowledge is bigger than out skulls; and, our skulls don’t scale. We break off a brain-sized chunk of the world and allow experts to know it well. Credentials are a backup system to support experts. Certified answers/belief points are stop signs on the road to knowledge.

Books aren’t good at connecting to other books because of their format. Readers can’t just click and popout out of the book to get knowledge from elsewhere (which hearkens back to what I was reading in Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous earlier today). Books map to knowledge: they match some aspect of the world and often focus on a chunk of knowledge. Once they’re out there, they’re there because of their fixed format, whether their contents are incorrect or not.

Knowledge is picking up properties of the new medium, the Internet, like it gathered properties of books. Weinberger is focusing on four qualities tonight: too much, messy, unstructured, and unsettled.

Too Much

There’s no such thing as information overload, just misconfigured filters. “Information overload” has roots in “sensory overload.” Once information took over the world, people began to relate the two. “Sanity hangs upon avoiding information overload.”

Some marketing research years ago determined a group of housewives got decision fatigue or something like it the more information they had about various products, so marketers diminished what information they provided with their wares for sale.

Sometimes removing/deleting information/knowledge is more expensive than just storing it and doing nothing with it. How many of us have way too many digital pictures stored on a hard drive somewhere we’ll go through someday? Filtering on the way out is often a better approach.


We’re very good at organizing things. To know something for many years also meant knowing its order in the universe. Order is a thing of beauty. Many earlier approaches were that one thing had one place. For physical objects, that still might be true. Someone probably can’t organize an entire CD collection both alphabetically and by genre [though it’s possible to arrange by genre, then alphabet].


For every fact on the Internet, there is an equal and opposite fact.

We don’t agree about anything. People will insist on being wrong.

One way to deal with differences is to tell people to go off and discuss them—something that’s easier on the Internet than in real life, sometimes. (“You two: stop talking at the Thanksgiving table and go to that table over there to work out your differences.”) David uses the platypus/watermole/Ornithorhynchus paradoxus to further illustrate differences.

Some truths come from differences, so yay! for differences. Real conversations often happen between people with real differences who are able to dig down deep into their differences, overlook any bad feelings, and explore those ideas. David just pointed to Yochai Benkler and Ethan Zuckerman as people who have explored differences whose work is worth reading (apparently Ethan has a book coming out).

The long form argument is losing its place at the pinnacle of knowledge. And, yes, David acknowledges the irony of this statement in light of his books. Imagine Darwin’s Origin of Species being posted on the Web, Darwin tweeting along his journey on the Beagle. How different would the world’s reception of his theories and work be? In order to fully, fully, fully understand Darwin and his work and its place in history, we also need to understand the total web in which the book fell: Church of England, Huxley, other evolutionary theories, biology at the time … etc.

Knowledge and information are being desctructured. More places are providing raw data (like data.gov). Having raw data is better in some cases than waiting for an agency to get around to cleaning it up and publishing it. Articles published outside the peer reviewed world are also desctructured. Peer review doesn’t scale well. Less formal peer-to-peer might be better.

But linked data can add some structure while also being destructured. Facts used to look like bricks. Now they’re links. That changes them fundamentally.

[Apparently, I missed his transition into “unsettled.”]

Why are our old knowledge systems that served us so well so fragile?

Knowledge wqs bounded, settled, neat, …

Now, with the Internet, it’s unbounded, overwhelming, unsettled, messy, linked, and of interest. David sees these properties also as being what being human is all about.

Networked knowledge may or may not be truer about the world, but it is truer about knowing.

What we have in common isn’t one knowledge about which we agree, but a shared world about which we disagree. If knowledge is going to offer us a peace, it’s going to be a noisy one.

Three folks are speaking, as well, who were not introduced in context. Professor Blair opens by saying she hopes people find both books by way of the titles being so similar. She indicates the topics are similar, but their vantage points are different. The impulse to save is important. No book is so bad that something good couldn’t come from it. We’re in the age of uninterrupted accumulation. The net doesn’t filter out the way paper production does. Educators proclaiming “Never use Wikipedia!” is not nearly as useful (especially because we know they’re probably using it while no one is looking) as them explaining how to evaluate knowledge and sources and why Wikipedia’s content may be risky.

I missed the name of person #2, but she said she’s focusing on his use of knowledge and how we talks about it. She appreciates his wordplay (which garnered a bit of a snicker from the audience). Is the ‘net making us stupider or smarter? We will only settle some of these questions by living through them.

Ethan Zuckerman, who has apparently moved to MIT since I last chatted with him, praises David for opening up a vast and scary chasm. Ethan doesn’t see it as a happy book, like his other colleagues perceive it. Ethan finds David debunking facts and disassembling knowledge, well, unsettling—just like the talk title promised.

John Palfrey jokes that this topic is too big to cover in 75 minutes and asks permission to go longer, so David can handle a few questions.

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