Monthly Archives: July 2014

Too Big to Know by David Weinberger

Too Big To KnowToo 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

2012. Basic Books. Hardcover. 231 pages.


David Weinberger was a keynote speaker at a conference I attended earlier this year. I had picked up this book beforehand, as a way of being uber-prepared for this last-minute-approved professional development opportunity. In Too Big to Know, Weinberger briefly examines how technology is shaping the way we create knowledge.

Some years ago, I read Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch, though I think he is better known for his book The Shallows. Weinberger’s book is in the same topical vicinity as those, but Weinberger is not a subscriber to technodeterminism. He doesn’t believe that technology leads to only one outcome.

Weinberger describes the “old” paradigm of knowledge creation as “knowing-by-reducing”: we winnow information until it’s more manageable, with the byproduct of excluding ideas along the way. Today, we are exchanging this “filter-out” process for a “filter forward” process. Some information is still selectively pushed forward, but unlike in the past, we are still able to access what didn’t make it through the filter. People can see the filter and interrogate it.

I think the most interesting chapter for readers is chapter 6, “Long Form, Web Form”. In it, Weinberger challenges the idealization of published books as the true form of knowledge. A few choice quotes:

If you’re writing a book, you have to have a conversation with yourself about possible objections because books are a disconnected, nonconversational, one-way medium. We have had to resort to this sort of play-acting not because that’s how thought should work but because books fix thoughts on paper. (p. 95)

Books do not express the nature of knowledge. They express the nature of knowledge committed to paper cut into pages without regard for the edges of ideas, bound together, printed in mass quantities, and distributed, all within boundaries set by an economic system. (p. 100)

Weinberger references Jay Rosen’s Pressthink blog as an example of long-form’s possible future direction. He points out the benefits of this approach: arguments get their natural length; because of comments / interaction with readers, the argument becomes more responsive; ideas get to the public faster, and the author’s authority becomes “right-sized.” The disadvantages of this approach are that the readers’ voices may function as noise; some arguments actually do work better when presented all at once; and a published book is still a “traditional token of expertise and achievement.”

Weinberger doesn’t forget that he is presenting these ideas in a published book:

Not only is the irony / hypocrisy of this book inescapable, it is so familiar in this time of transition that I wish someone would write a boilerplate paragraph that all authors of nonpessimistic books about the Internet could just insert and be done with. (p. 97)

My other favorite chapter in this book was Chapter 7 “Too Much Science”, where Weinberger describes how this new paradigm of conveying knowledge affects the scientific community. He quotes the (recently deceased) Jean-Claude Bradley, a chemist who supported Open Science initiatives, and who said “trust should have no part in science.” The book argues that we should be able to dig into the data and see commentaries from amateurs and experts. Weinberger points out that “scientific journals rarely published research with negative results” but that kind of research is still very important information for the community. Research scientists need to know what didn’t work, as well as what did work.

In the last chapter of Too Big to Know, Weinberger offers five strategies for navigating this time of transition:

1. Open up access – have a policy of “including everything and filtering afterward.”

2. Provide hooks for intelligence. (This would be metadata, and specifically Linked Data. Incidentally this is where my job intersects Weinberger’s ideas.)

3. Link Everything (show your work)

4. Leave no institutional knowledge behind.

5. Teach everyone – people should learn how to evaluate knowledge claims.

The chapters I glossed over were also interesting, though I found the first few chapters covered arguments and ideas I’d previously encountered. It was Weinberger’s discussion of books and scientific knowledge that I found most thought-provoking. I liked that Weinberger saw both the pros and cons of knowledge’s new direction, and wasn’t a doomsayer or an indiscriminate cheerleader. His keynote speech had a great sense of humor and that shows in the book as well, though in lesser degree.

I realize that this post is more a summary of the book than a proper review, but it’s the kind of book where I feel more like sharing its ideas than writing about my reaction to them.

I’ll close with another quote:

Welcome to the life of knowledge once it has been taken down from its shelf. It is misquoted, degraded, enhanced, incorporated, passed around through a thousand degrees of misunderstanding, and assimilated to the point of invisibility. It was ever so. Now we can see it happening. (p. 110)

Excerpt from another review:

Kira J. Baker-Doyle, PhD – “What I realized as I was reading was that this was not Weinberger’s best form, and in fact, he was writing it as if it was in the form he prefers – “web form.” In a blog format, these chapters would be full of links that I would have fun jumping around and exploring. Yet in “long form,” some examples seemed unnecessary.”

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Today’s Post is brought to you by the letter . . .

I picked up the following meme from Frances at Nonsuch Book, but it was actually started by Simon at Stuck in a Book. Basically Frances randomly assigned me a letter, and I have to pick my favorite book, author, song, film, and object beginning with that letter. I got the letter ‘A’. So this is my stab at it:

Favorite book:


And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

I don’t have any ‘A’ books that fall into my close-to-my-heart inner circle of favorites, but And the Band Played On is probably the worthiest of the ‘A’ books I have read. It details the course of the AIDS epidemic in the US from 1980 to 1985. It’s a passionate book and had a strong emotional impact on me.

Favorite author:

Jane Austen – I don’t love all of her books, but her mastery at writing comedy of manners is what makes her a favorite author of mine. I have come to her defense a couple of times, actually, when people have dismissed her as being too romantic and too “girly” for them to even try to read one of her books.

Favorite Song:

“Amado Mio” – Pink Martini

This is the song that turned me into a Pink Martini fan. I heard it while living with my sister and her husband one summer – I was unemployed and there was a heat wave, but I actually look back at that time fondly, so I associate this song with the best memories of that summer.

Favorite Movie: Amelie

Amelie poster

I love the colors, the music, and the joy of this film. This is one of my favorite scenes:

Favorite Object: Apples.

I couldn’t think of a non-food object that was something I would call favorite. We had apple trees on our property while growing up, and I remember picking them, sorting them, helping to make applesauce and apple butter. They aren’t my favorite fruit, but I consider them a kind of family fruit. My dad enjoys growing them and at one time, my ancestors made their living off of them. My mom makes a wonderful apple pie. There’s a homey-ness about them that I like. (But don’t get a Red Delicious apple anywhere near me. Those things are terrible.)



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Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Bab a Sub Deb

1916. A. L. Burt Company. Hardcover. 350 pages (not the same edition as shown above)

Recommended by: Aarti at Booklust


This was the book chosen randomly by the Classics Spin. I was to finish the book before July 1st, which I did – I just have been slow to post a review!

Bab: A Sub-Deb is a light, humorous read that consists of five parts/chapters, each describing a new misadventure in the life of the naive, spoiled, funny Barbara Archibald, called Bab. Bab is 17 and not yet “out” in society which frustrates her to no end, as her barely older sister gets to enjoy parties and outings with the opposite sex. Thus, Bab is a sub-debutante, or sub-deb. There – that is the title explained!

Each of the five parts is framed as either a school essay or diary entry, complete with atrocious spelling. That is a stylistic feature some readers may not tolerate, but I found it mostly endearing. Another aspect that may deter some readers: Bab is often self-centered, is sometimes disparaging of her friends and almost always of her sister and mother. But within that characterization are the identifiable strains of common teenage concerns: desire to be treated as an adult; curiosity about romance and love; high ideals. We know and Rinehart knows that Bab is quite silly, and the joke is almost always on her, but she’s also evolving as a person, especially in the last story.

For me, I enjoyed the first, fourth and fifth chapters the best. The misadventures in the second and third stories felt repetitive, and Bab was not as charming there as she was in the other three stories. That is where my pace slowed down. In the fourth story, she buys a car and I liked that while she was bad driver, she became quite adept at changing a flat tire. The fifth story was my favorite. On a train ride from school to home, Bab’s newly awakened patriotism stirs her to ask a young male passenger if he is going to enlist (the book was written and set during World War I). He says that he already has, and then criticizes coddled society girls who “can’t even walk , but they talk about helping in the War.” Bab takes this to heart and rallies her female friends to form the Girls’ Aviation Corp – “but to be known generally as the G. A. C. as because of Spies and so on we must be as secret as possable.” The end of that story, and of the book, is genuinely sweet and so I finished the book feeling rather fond of it.

Here is an excerpt from the first story. In an effort to be taken seriously as an adult, Bab has just implied to her mother and sister that she has a beau:

“I’m perfectly mad about him,” I said. “And he’s crazy about me.”

“I’d like very much to know,” Sis said, as she stood up and stared at me, “how much you are making up and how much is true.”

None the less, I saw that she was terrafied. The family Kitten, to speak in allegory, had become a Lion and showed its clause.

When she had gone out I tried to think of some one to hang a love affair to. But there seemed to be nobody. They knew perfectly well that the dancing master had one eye and three children, and that the clergyman at school was elderly, with two wives. One dead.

I searched my Past, but it was blameless. It was empty and bare, and as I looked back and saw how little there had been in it but imbibing wisdom and playing basket-ball and tennis, and typhoid fever when I was fourteen and almost having to have my head shaved, a great wave of bitterness agatated me.

“Never again,” I observed to myself with firmness. “Never again, if I have to invent a member of the Other Sex.”

The book is available through Project Gutenberg.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Booklust – “The best thing about Bab is that she balances so well between being a very realistic, overly dramatic teenager and being one of the funniest and most endearing narrators you’ve ever encountered.  I generally hate ditzy girls in books because they are so overblown and ridiculous.  But I love Bab”

Howling Frog Reviews – “I laughed so much while reading this; I’m sure I’ll go back and read it again often.  I kept reading bits out loud to whoever was nearest.” [And I see that this review picked the same excerpt as I did.]

Redeeming Qualities – “No one really wants to read a book that’s misspelled all the way through. I mean, if you’re Daisy Ashford and you’re, like, eight, it’s excusable.”


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