David Weinberger in “the smartest room in the house”


The start of our David Weinberger conversation, with Mary McGrath, in Bob Doyle’s studio, 2003

I take it as self-evident that the truth about being human is that we’re always interpreting; and we’re disagreeing with other people’s interpretations. And that’s both the bane and the greatest joy of life. That’s what knowledge is.

David Weinberger in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Harvard Law School, February 17, 2012.

David Weinberger has made it his job to deal with the Internet as a philosophical event — as a radical turn in human understanding of understanding itself. Our conversations began a decade ago, between The Cluetrain Manifesto (1999) and his own sparkling treatise Small Pieces Loosely Joined (2002), which promised that the new information hardware and software would change everything. His new book Too Big to Know is an occasion here for a Ten Year Report on the Digital Age and how it has dismantled old taxonomies of learning, old hierarchies of expertise.

We’re talking about why (paraphrasing his subtitle) on finding “the smartest person in the room,” our first instinct is to look for a smarter room. We’re talking about how “knowledge” (conceived as libraries of information, even wisdom, like our old dining-room Book of Knowledge) got re-imagined as fluid, accessible galaxies of often contentious conversation. We’re talking about a Top 10 list of sites that make his point: Wikipedia, of course, but also Reddit, a favorite of his, and Chowhound, a favorite of mine. Also: Jazz on the Tube, a search tool for lost-and-found jazz videos; Trip Advisor; and Nate Silver’s hard-core political site 538, now part of the New York Times coverage online.

Arxiv.org turns out to be the site that reveals David Weinberger’s argument most significantly. It’s a scientific research journal I’d never read before — a serious but wide-open site, as David Weinberger explains, where “any scientist of any standing can post any thing.” It’s a site, furthermore, that made major news just recently about the speed of light.

“That’s where these findings are posted. Very responsible scientists. And over the course of a couple of months, over 80 other papers were posted there in response and it spread out immediately across the web, in posts and tweets – the whole ecology jumped in. And as a result, the ecology of knowledge got filled out far more than it ever could be before… First of all, it shows how you scale knowledge. Had this gone through the peer-review process to get published in an important journal – which this paper certainly would have in the old days – had they chosen that route, it would have taken a year, a year and a half… The old idea that we have the peer-review process to protect us so that we only got good science – well, yeah, it does that – but it also restricted science so severely that it couldn’t work as quickly or as broadly as we want it too… The knowledge lives in that network. The pieces are connected and arguing with one another – not agreeing – and that’s where the knowledge is not only developed, but that’s where in any real sense knowledge lives. And it has value because it includes not just the original paper but all of the responses to it, all of which are different from, and in many cases disagree with that original paper. Knowledge lives in networks; these networks have value because of the differences and disagreements among the pieces — which is an inversion of how knowledge used to work.”

David Weinberger on how the new knowledge networks of Arxiv.org invert the old models of scientific discussion.

We’re speaking also of gaps in the transformation — gaps, as it seems to me, in empathy, “wisdom” and the applied power of the new information. In the potentially universal “social web,” we can all feel the tendency to “stay local,” not to leap boundaries. I’m wondering if we’ll ever look to the Web for anything like the pleasures of deep reading. And I’m complaining that the Web is a political tool of uncertain utility. The SOPA restrictions on Internet freedoms died in the Congress as soon as Internet took notice and rose up against it. On the other hand, the glib (and to my mind insane) rationales we read for a US and/or Israeli preemptive attack on Iran have not been confronted in any systematic way by the “wisdom of crowds” online around the world.

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