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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