Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review of Too Big to Know by David Weinberger (2011, Basic Books)

In Too Big to Know, David Weinberger (2011) develops a materialist argument with regards to the relationship between the medium and nature of communication, arguing: ‘[t]ransform the medium by which we develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge, and we transform knowledge.’  Such arguments have been made by others, such as Kittler in his book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, where he sets out how each of these technologies transformed knowledge production and changed how people relate to and interact with knowledge.  Of course, it’s not just technologies that shape the creation of knowledge, but social and cultural milieu with, for example, the notion of authorship and readership shifting over time in response to political transformations such as the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Weinberger is no doubt right that the formulation, communication and nature of knowledge is presently being transformed by the internet through the radical ‘networking of knowledge’.  Knowledge, he argues, ‘is now a property of the network’, altering its shape and nature, wherein ‘[t]he smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it.’ Knowledge is framed not as ‘a library but a playlist’.  In an engaging narrative, he contends that the networking of knowledge leads inevitably to knowledge without a firm foundation (networks do not have bases); an elimination of gatekeeping and filtering; and an erosion of the value of tokens of credibility, authority and reputation; thus leading to a flattening and democratisation of knowledge production and sharing.

His arguments with regards to filtering forward and credibility, however, overstate the case that there is a flattening and democratisation of information.  Yes, search engines do provide links to all relevant pages rather than filtering out, but in filtering forward they order and weight the material.  That ordering pushes those searching towards certain kinds of sites; often ones owned by corporations and institutions.  Indeed, the internet is inhabited by the bastions of traditional media, such as publishers, newspapers, radio and television, and they are still dominant sources of news and analysis which continue to work by filtering out.  And whilst there is a move to open access, much valuable knowledge still exists behind pay walls - whether that is on the internet or in traditional media, such as the Weinberger’s book.  Indeed, data and data analytics are massive, multi-billion dollar industries, and that is unlikely to change any time soon, even with the opening up of some data and information.  The push towards open access has been accompanied by attempts to extend and tighten intellectual property regimes, and there is an on-going tussle between public good and private profit (though both are increasingly networked).  Moreover, hierarchies of credibility, authority and reputation are re-established on the internet, not erased; most often on along the usual institutional lines.  As a result without some form of credibility and authority, individuals can post material on their own pages, but readership will be much smaller than on institutional sites where it is penned by authors who have forms of cultural capital established through the usual institutional channels.  Further, the means of sharing maybe more democratic (assuming you have the resources, literacy and time to be online and post material), but the distribution of attraction, influence and power have not been made even and equal.  This suggests that far from the traditional pyramid of knowledge being reconfigured into a network, the situation is more complex. 

This is not to say that the internet is not changing how knowledge is produced, shared and debated, it most certainly is.  Rather, knowledge will continue to display a certain lumpiness rather than flattening.  To a degree this is illustrated by the self-acknowledged irony and hypocrisy evident in the medium Weinberger uses to communicate his thesis - a traditionally published book that has closed, paid access, is protected by copyright as opposed to having a creative commons license (he strongly advocates open access and open licensing), is not interlinked beyond tradition references, and seeks to claim authority and credibility through the gatekeeping and investment of a publisher and his institutional affiliation at Harvard.  We might be entering a new phase in the nature of knowledge, and Weinberger undoubtedly raises some important questions to ponder, but he undermines his own argument through the very choice of medium it is made through.

Nevertheless this is an interesting and thought-provoking book, written in an engaging and easy-to-follow style.

No comments: