Transcript for David Weinberger on "Too Big to Know"

 

Jim Fleming: But first David Weinberger studies how technology affects ideas.  He's a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  Steve Paulson spoke with him.

 

Steve Paulson: These days an awful lot of people talk about information overload.  Do you think we're actually bombarded by too much information?

 

David Weinberger: In a way, no.  I mean obviously there's so much more information than we could ever, ever, ever, ever get to, but we talk about information overload as a hangover from our old experience of the media.  So there are more places on earth to look at than you'll ever see or types of food to eat than you'll ever eat, and more air to breathe than you'll ever breathe, but we don't think about those as being overload, it's just the way it is. 

 

We don't talk about sight overload or food overload, and I think we're coming to a spot with information that of course there's more information than we'll ever deal with, but that's just the way the world is; and as long as the expectation is removed from us that we will be able to master the world of information, then it ceases to feel like information overload.

 

Paulson: So how would you say access to information now is different than it was, I don't know, maybe 15 years ago?

 

Weinberger: Access to information is transformed.  Fifteen years ago we were primarily in a broadcast era when we got our news based upon, got our information based upon what managed to fit into the tiny little vessels that we had, which seemed large at the time.  It was a library, or a broadcast day, or a newspaper, or a book or an encyclopedia.

 

Britannica had 65,000 articles in its print version and it was considered you know, that was an icon of knowledge.  That was way more than anybody could master.  And Wikipedia has 3.8 million articles in English alone and obviously growing quickly.

 

In the old media there was so little space, so little time, and so that was very jealously guarded and protected by very competent, usually, very competent editors and curators.  And so we had the sense that knowledge fit into that small container.

 

Paulson: Are you using the words knowledge and information to mean more or less the same thing?

 

Weinberger: Generally, I don't, no.  As the terms are used in general, information means the broadest range of stuff that you might learn, whereas knowledge traditionally in the west for 2,500 years has been a set of let's say information or ideas that are both true and that we are justified in believing.  We don't believe in them accidentally or by guessing, but we have good reason to believe them. 

 

That notion of knowledge has been formative in our culture for millennia.  It's been human destiny.  We are the creatures that know our world and it's our human destiny and essence and fulfillment to know our world.  And in the age of the network it is changing its meaning and its importance quite radically.

 

Paulson: Well, that would be worth pursuing then, so what does knowledge mean now that it didn't mean, I don't know, a decade ago before we were so networked?

 

Weinberger: I think we are losing our sense that there is a sort of canon of knowledge that we can pin down, settle and be confident of.  The most important thing that's going on as knowledge takes on the properties of the internet is that it doesn't consist simply of content that's being put out there.  Rather it's content that's in discussion and that is it's linked webs, nodes that are linking to one another, each node deciding what they want to link to, so it's not popped down.  It's totally bottomed up.

 

And knowledge lives in the disagreements that are expressed by the links rather than having the nice, stable, settled, final idea that it's only knowledge when everybody agrees about it.  The most interesting and important knowledge now is on the web and exists in these webs of difference and disagreement.

 

Paulson: You have a fascinating comment in your book.  You say that this emerging web of information is actually a more accurate representation of human life.

 

Weinberger: Yeah, I think that helps explain why we have flocked to the web with so much enthusiasm.  We recognized in our culture that much of what we had been told about knowledge was never really possible for human beings: to settle issues once and for all, to drive out all disagreement, to know our world.  That's a wonderful ideal, it's a noble ideal, but it's not something we ever could do.

 

And so the internet expresses something I think are in fact more human about knowing, that it's a social activity, that it's never settled, that it is always collaborative.  It is so deeply contextual and collaborative that it's open-ended, the topics have no lines around them.

 

And one of the most wonderful things, which is that the world turns out to be way more interesting than anybody ever told us.  We can now explore these ideas following links all the way down to the molecular level of ideas if we want to.  The world turns out to be just way more interesting than the old narrow regime could let on.

 

Paulson: Now we have talked about whether we're suffering from information overload.  You say we are not and in your book you quote internet scholar, Clay Shirky, as saying it's not information overload, it's filter failure.

 

Weinberger: Yeah, so I think Clay Shirky's way of putting it is wonderful, and he's trying to give us a little consolation we should not, if I might paraphrase, we should not freak out about information overload because yeah, we have had that before.  And really all that's going on is that we need to adjust the filters because there's always too much information we're always filtering.

 

And the nature of filters changes in the digital world.  You are a publisher and you're filtering out the manuscripts you're not gonna publish, you throw them away, you send them back, nobody ever sees them again, they're completely inaccessible.  Online, digitally, that's not how filters work.  We don't filter things out, we filter some things forward.  So whatever it is we're featuring in our blog, or tweet or whatever, we're filtering that forward, we're linking to it, but all the other things that we didn't link to are still there, completely accessible and might turn up in the next tweet, or the next Google search or whatever.

 

Paulson: So it sounds like you're saying that to be basically a person who is able to navigate in this new world, a lot of it is knowing which filters to trust.

 

Weinberger: Yes, I mean that's always been the case, right?  So you chose which newspaper you were going to read.  Of course now there are a wider range of filter, many of which are terrible and we shouldn't believe, but they're there.  And some of which are fantastic.  And we have the ability to sort of filter the filters, and filter the filters through the filters.  We have a much more fluid environment.

 

Paulson: But it seem much more complicated than this, I mean sort of at one level, kind of at the obvious level there are which websites do we go to?  Which websites do we trust?  But there's a far more subtle process at work here as well, and that's how we use search engines.  And of course, the vast majority of us use Google, but Google is its own filter.  Most of us probably don't even think about that.  You know, we sort of put the biases are, that are inherent in a search engine.

 

Weinberger: Well, yes, I think the situation is actually getting worse.  When search engines like Google started it didn't impose its own filters directly, so it was using the evidence of what people on the net cared about as the way that it filtered.  So look at how many sites linked to a particular source and how many sites linked to those sites, so the bias that expressed was for the most popular.

 

Now, Google and Bing and others have started taking into account your social network.  Now they know who's in your social network.  The danger though is that we will get a world that is increasingly within one of these filter bubbles as Eli Pariser calls it, we will only see that which is interesting to our friends and people who are like us when I think many of us think there's a civic responsibility to be interested in what's going on outside of our immediate range of knowledge and interests.

 

Paulson: We've talked about how the old credentialed experts don't have as much authority as they used to.  Do we need to redefine who's an expert now?

 

Weinberger: We have already redefined who is an expert.  When you have a question about something, very likely if you Google it or if you put it up on Facebook or whatever, if it's interesting you will engender a conversation, you will Google and find a web of people who are arguing about at this very thing.  That web is itself a type of expert.  Knowledge is something that on the net is something that we care about, we care about enough to click a link or care enough about to engage in.

 

And frequently the knowledge that we care about we care about because it's under discussion; that web of discussion, which can spin out into absurdities and into falsehoods and lies, of course, but when that web of discussion has some value and some merit, that web has more value than the particular, any particular participant's contribution to it.  That's where the expertise is.

 

Fleming: David Weinberger is a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  His latest book is Too Big To Know.

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