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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

by David Weinberger

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Information overload? No worries!   (2013-06-24)


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by kmcdouall

Weinberger dazzles us with examples of how the structure of knowledge and means of knowing are changing with the rapid growth of digital networks in all our institutions. He details how tools such as crowdsourcing, open access repositories, and aggregators are exponentially increasing the amount of information we have access to. There has always been an abundance of information, but our traditional paper-based system of disseminating it has put time-tested filters in place. Weinberger describes how networked knowledge on the Internet discards these filters and creates new ones, but filters that do not exclude, but filter information forward. The cornucopia of information is there in its abundance, with ever-expanding links stretching in all directions. 

This can, of course, create problems. To name a big one, we now know that the Enlightenment ideal of perfect knowledge is an illusion. “Try to use facts to ground an argument, and you’ll find links to those who disagree with you all the way down to the ground. Our new medium of knowledge is shredding our old optimism that we could all agree on facts and, having done so, could all agree on conclusions. Indeed, we have to wonder if that old optimism was based on the limitations inherent in paper publishing: We thought we were building an unshaken house based on the foundation of facts simply because the clamorous disagreement had no public voice.” (p. 41)

Two weaknesses can be identified with this work. One is a tendency to repetitiveness. Weinberger's points are important, and he wants to make sure they stick. This leads him to repeat them many times, in different contexts. Secondly, he largely bypasses concerns over potential social dangers of the new inter-connectivity. When truth isn't protected by our traditional guardian filters, can anything become "true" if referenced often enough on the Web? How much control can be exerted by entrenched political/economic powers to make sure that the preferred version of truth is disseminated?

Read this along with Nicholas Carr ("The Shallows") and Jaron Lanier ("You Are Not a Gadget") for a triangulated view of the new frontiers of knowledge.

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