Friday, 20 June 2014

book review: Too Big to Know

David Weinberger.
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.
Basic Books. 2011

Knowledge used to be gatekeepered, curated and preserved in serious books. Now we have the Web, and all its diverse chaotic formats and voices. Overload! Crisis! Catastrophe!

Well, no. In this lovely book, Weinberger argues strongly that our conception of knowledge has been blinkered by those very gatekeepers, curators and formats. Books, which he dubs “long-form thinking”, have their problems: they are one-way (author to reader), and closed format (material chosen and packaged into book-length form, implying that is all there is to be siad on the subject). It is only because we are so used to books that we don’t see their disadvantages and limitations very clearly. (And Weinberger is conscious of the irony of making this argument in book form.)

He examines the current state of this “knowledge messiness”, taking the argument a whole stage further than the information messiness covered in his previous long-form work.

The web allows conversations, hyper-linked non-linear presentation, and an unbounded, “bottomless”, format. It allows diversity: anyone can contribute, not just those previously allowed by the gatekeepers. This openness has its benefits, particularly allowing “networked knowledge”, bringing many eyes, viewpoints and skills to bear. It also has its downsides: it allows fools, and trolls, and confusion, and crud. But then Sturgeon’s law applies to books, too.

Weinberger carefully dissects these issues, showing where, when and how web-based knowledge can be superior to book-based. Books have helped hide the fact that knowledge really is messy, and that even when we have access to it, we will often not come to agreement. The rise of the messy web is not to be lamented, as having destroyed the clean, calm, long-form presentation of books; it should be celebrated for exposing the fundamental messiness of reality, and exploited to help us navigate that messiness. He finishes off with a discussion of how to help ensure the web can provide the best support for messy networked knowledge: open access, metadata, links, and, of course, education.

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