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The changing nature of knowledge

This article appears in the issue February 2012 [Volume 21, Issue 2]
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David Weinberger recently talked with Hugh McKellar, editor in chief of KMWorld, about how the new knowledge-networked knowledge-will forever change the way we understand everything.  Weinberger is the author of the seminal new book, 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.

Q.  Hugh McKellar: Tell us why knowledge is changing.

A.  David Weinberger: Knowledge in the West has traditionally meant "knowing" something in the grand order of things. We've assumed that when we know something, it's settled; traditionally, it was only when it became settled that it counted as knowledge. We've assumed that Western knowledge at its highest form is a logical chain, like pieces of a puzzle that snap together, that all fit perfectly, and that one piece leads to another-you settle something, you nail it down, and it's part of a platform and that can be built upon.

Q.  HM: So how is technology changing this?

A.  DW: Knowledge lived in books for thousands of years. That was the vehicle of knowledge, that's how we communicated it, and that's how we preserved it. The Internet is playing those roles now. Sometimes you go to a book, but that's increasingly rare and will become even more so. The Net is so different from paper books!

Knowledge came from the need to winnow opinions. The ancient Greeks, for example, had to figure out which of the many opinions that were being expressed about state policy were true. Thus, knowledge actually started out as a winnowing of mere opinion from that which can be known to be true.

Hence, knowledge has always been more rare than opinion. But that's also a characteristic of the paper medium, because paper's expensive and very few people get to write books, and they have to go through the winnowing process. Knowledge began to look like a connected series of ideas that lead you along a path because that's the way books work; books are sequential simply because of the bindings.

Even the concept of expertise comes from the nature of books. We learned to master a world that's always been too big to know by breaking off brain-size chunks and enabling people to master those chunks. But the system of knowledge that evolved based on paper is a system of stopping points. If you have a question, you can consult the expert or the expert's book and get an answer, and that was it. You can go ahead and learn the next thing, instead of having to repeat the experiment, or whatever. And if you don't know whether you can trust the expert, you can ask for the expert's credentials. The credentialing system is also a way of providing a stopping point. Credentials let experts be stopping points of knowledge.

Q.  HM: And that's a very efficient system ...

A.  DW: It's enormously efficient. We can make progress, we can build on what we know, but there is also a set of disadvantages that come from this system of knowledge. Because you cannot usually jump out of a book and get to its source or to the corroboration from another book, authors have had to put everything the reader needs into the confines of a single book on that topic. So knowledge started to take on that shape, broken up into topics and told in intellectual narratives that have a start and a finish, and the path between the start and the finish is the length of a book. All of that changes when knowledge gets a new medium.

Q.  HM: We've had other media we've used to communicate knowledge—everything from tele-graphs and telephones to smoke signals. Why didn't they have the same effect on knowledge? It's all information. 

A.  DW: Knowledge had a really special hold on our culture for a long time. It's been directly connected to the human task; it's what makes us different from animals. For roughly a couple thousand years, our divine task has been to try to reveal the world's order, the order that God created. I know we don't talk that way any more generally, but for a few thousand years or so, we did. That's why libraries look like churches, like temples. That's been our task: to know our world, to do it in this cross-generational slow aggregation of hard-won pieces of knowledge that fit together and help us see the puzzle that is the world ... to see the order of the world.

Written words, books, always came out of a social environment and refer to a social environment; they talk about other books, other authors, other ideas. While ideas and knowledge always existed within a social setting, the medium of knowledge has been quite non-social, non-connected.

Q.  HM: Why is it so different now?

A.  DW: Now we have this connected medium—this hyperlinked medium—where it's insanely easy to go from one work to another. In prior ages, this would be on the order of the magic map that you touch and you go to where you touch. Because hyperlinks create networks of the sort that we now have, the nature of knowledge is changing as well. Just as it took on properties of paper, it's now taking on the properties of the Internet. Rather than having to reduce ideas to what fits in the book or even into the largest library, the Net is now expanding beyond imagining. We don't have to filter out the way we used to; we instead link. We may make ideas more prominent than others by providing links to them, but all the other ideas are now completely accessible in a way that the manuscripts that did not make it through the publishing process are not. We obviously have not just way more material that we can access, that material is all linked. The filtering process is wildly different than what it used to be.

The value of a web of ideas comes from the differences among the participants in that web. If everybody's saying the same thing, there's negative value in networking them. This gives us an idea that knowledge contains difference, rather than knowledge being that from which all disagreement has been driven, that which has been settled once and for all. I think that in many fields we're finding knowledge to exist in networks that contain disagreement and difference. This is not an entirely new idea, for sure. In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about Lincoln's cabinet, this is shown quite clearly. A group of people who disagree is wiser than any of the single people in it. This idea is not new but we now have an environment — a medium of knowledge-that makes it manifest; it's the norm. The medium only has value as far as it contains disagreement. That's a very different idea of expertise—expertise consists of a web of people who disagree—than the old idea of expert advice.

I think there's still value in the old long form way of writing, even though one of my chapters is exclusively about the problems with long form. There seems to me still room for an author to craft a work primarily alone, stick the pieces together, to try to do some basic cabinet making, where you sand pieces down, try to make them fit seamlessly; there's still value in that craft.

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