Annotations | Weinberger, 2011: Too Big to Know

Annotations | Weinberger, 2011

[ NB: “Annotations” are occasional posts that explore selections from my research reading—articles or books—in rhetoric, technical and professional communication, and related fields. ]

Weinberger, D. (2011). 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. New York: Basic Books.

This is a book that, like Clay Shirky’s work, is written for an educated lay audience, but that has tremendous influence for folks in both academe and industry. Unlike some books in this genre, Weinberger’s work carries a learned gravitas that others rarely approach.

I think that, for researchers in Rhetoric and Writing (and related fields), Too Big to Know is one of the most important popular books to emerge in the last decade, for reasons that I’ll explain in more detail below. But the upshot for scholars of writing is this: Weinberger reinforces many of the things that scholars in our field have been saying for years: writing is epistemic; there are multiple ontologies and epistemologies at work in the world; things are messy and complex and always already rhetorically fraught; writing is bigger than books, but written genres carry and instantiate what we call knowledge; knowledge and facts are spatially, temporally, historically, societally, and socially conditioned and thus provisional.

Weinberger’s argument, in a nutshell, is that “knowledge is becoming a property of the network, rather than of individuals who know things, of objects that contain knowledge, and of the traditional institutions that facilitate knowledge” (p. 182). From the Prologue forward, this argument is explored—sometimes tacitly, but often explicitly—through the tension between what can be committed to print, (cf. Updike’s paper trail, p. viii; “book-shaped thought,” p. 96–100) and what the affordances of networked knowledge mean for an exponential expansion of writing work (cf. Chapter 7’s discussion of Mendeley, Open Notebook Science, Eureqa, et al.).

In this post, I’ll hew mainly to Weinberger’s juxtaposition of print-based knowledge making and networked knowledge making.

One of the first moves that Weinberger makes is to question the role of expertise, the notion of accuracy, and the notion of credibility, among other ideas that have become entrenched in Western culture. He asks, “Does there turn out to be a benefit to letting events have blurry edges of ignorance?” (p. ix; cf. Spinuzzi, 2009). The focus on the instantiations of knowledge—primarily written instantiations—is clear from the start: “Transform the medium by which we develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge, and we transform knowledge” (p. ix).

In other words, change the shape and delivery of written communication and you change the shape and understanding of knowledge, facts, expertise, and a host of innumerable ontologies.

A central claim of Weinberger’s initial chapter is this: “Our most basic strategy for understanding a world that far outruns our brain’s capacity has been to filter, winnow, and otherwise reduce it something more manageable” (p. 4). We need to distill abundance and complexity so that we can wrap our arms around it.

The early information age facilitated the sifting and winnowing; our databases distilled essential information into categories and classifications: “our information systems worked only because they so rigorously excluded just about everything” (p. 4; cf. Bowker and Star, 1999). We’ve risen to prominence as a species, he argues, because our filtering systems work so well. But the devil is in the details here: “The real limitation isn’t the capacity of our individual brains but that of the media we have used to get past our brains’ limitations” (p. 5). The medium of knowledge for the last few hundred years or so has been print, and print is constraining in many ways.

A funny thing has happened, though. Despite alarm about information overload hearkening back to at least the 17th century, and despite the exponential overload afforded by the internet, “we have not proportionately suffered from information anxiety, information tremors, or information butterflies-in-the-stomach” (p. 9). Instead, we’ve developed cognitive tools to cope, both algorithmic and social (and usually a combination of the two).

So, he asks, “How has the new overload affected our basic strategy of knowing-by-reducing?” (p. 9). For one thing, filters no longer filter things out; now they filter things forward, which means that whatever is technically invisible due to a filter is still technically available, though it may be buried a few pages below (p. 11). There has always been too much to know, Weinberger argues, but now “we know there’s too much for us to know,” and there are consequences in having that understanding (p. 11).

There is lots of resonance with Bowker and Star (1999) early in the book, including the argument that filters—classification mechanics—are now “particularly crucial content” (p. 13; emphasis added). The implications of emergent forms and understandings of knowledge include a focus on width in addition to depth (“with a big enough population engaged, sufficient width can be its own type of depth”), boundary-free and populist contributions to public knowledge, extra-academic and extra-professional credentials, and unsettled, amorphous knowledge about many previously nailed down “facts” (p. 13–14).

Ultimately, the internet doesn’t have any discernible edges, which means that it doesn’t have a discernible shape; with no discernible shape, “networked knowledge lacks what we have so long taken to be essential to the structure of knowledge: a foundation” (p. 17).

In the past, we have been good at establishing “stopping points for knowledge” (p. 20); indeed, we still arbitrarily define such stopping points because there is simply too much to know (this is a continual problem in qualitative research: what things do we include and what gets left out? when do we stop observing? how do we know what may be essential and what’s not? cf. Spinuzzi, 2011). We’ve long seen knowledge as built upon firm foundations that allow us to add new pieces that extend the solid base. “But the idea that the house of knowledge is built on a foundation of facts is not itself a fact,” Weinberger argues (p. 23). Instead, “It’s an idea with a history that is now taking a sharp turn” (p. 23).

Networked facts are not the same as non-networked (or traditionally networked) facts: they “exist within a web of links that make them useful and understandable” (p. 39). A data table detailing a stratified sample of census data can link readers to the original dataset with virtually no expense in time or energy to either writer or reader. The new norm, therefore, is “If you’re going to cite the data, you might as well link to it” (p. 39).

But linking has an unintended consequence: it reveals the instability of facts that has always existed, but that has been literally papered over—a “continuos, multi-sided, linked contradiction of every fact changes the nature and role of facts for our culture” (p. 40).

These arguments lead Weinberger toward exploring the tyranny of print culture on our understanding of what constitutes facts and knowledge. The traditional view of facts

was based not in fact but in the paper medium that published facts. Because of the economics of paper, facts were relatively rare and gem-like because there wasn’t room for a whole lot of them. Because of the physics of paper, once a fact was printed, it stayed there on the page, uncontradicted, at least on that page. The limitations of paper made facts look far more manageable that they seem now that we see them linked into our unlimited network. (p. 40)

Ultimately, the role of facts doesn’t go away in our networked world; instead, the internet means that contradictions lurk around every corner, just a click away. For every fact a counter fact, linked symmetrically in dialectical tension.

The internet, Weinberger argues, is too wide open to simply create a body of knowledge by fiat. There is little of the permanence or stability (or “fealty”) that characterized traditional paradigms of print-based knowledge making. “The Internet is what you get when everyone is a curator and everything is linked” (p. 45). But “Traditional knowledge is what you get when paper is its medium” (p. 45). Weinberger explains:

There is nothing mystical about this. For example, if your medium doesn’t easily allow you to correct mistakes, knowledge will tend to be carefully vetted. If it’s expensive to publish, then you will create mechanisms that winnow out contenders. If you’re publishing on paper, you will create centralized locations where you amass books. The property of knowledge as a body of vetted works comes directly from the properties of paper. Traditional knowledge has been an accident of paper. (p. 45)

What happens when the body of knowledge and the mechanisms for knowledge-making are moved from books, brains, and bodies, to bodies, brains, and networks? The bulk of the book takes up the spirit of this question.

Weinberger explores at length our rapidly changing notions of expertise, noting the uncomfortable transition from “expertise modeled on books to expertise modeled on networks” (p. 67). We’re moving from “contained and knowable to linked and unmasterable” (p. 67).

Again, this seems relevant to writing researchers, since the fundamental point of this line of argument is that print culture instantiates a very specific kind of knowledge, and that this kind of knowledge is no longer tenable. This also means that writing, so often seen as contained and finite, bursts the bounds of print culture—spills out of the containers of print culture to many richer forms of work in the world, mediating a multitude of everyday knowledge making activities.

And so now we’re a bundle of contradictions, and these contradictions are a result of the internet’s bustling conflation of ideas, “forcing us to face a tension in our strategy of knowledge that the old medium of knowledge [literally] papered over. We thought that knowledge thrives in a lively ‘marketplace of ideas’ because the constraints of paper-based knowledge kept most of the competing ideas outside our local market” (p. 69). Of course, this is no longer the case, as the internet brings every conceivable contradictory perspective directly into view.

In Chapter 6: Long Form, Web Form we see perhaps the crux of Weinberger’s arguments about the impact of print culture on knowledge.

He begins by outlining Darwin’s masterwork, noting the brief asides and raised objections that characterize that work—imagined conversations with a objecting reader. Weinberger suggests that we engage in

this sort of play-acting not because that’s how thought should work but because books fix thought on paper. We’ve had to build a long sequence of thoughts, one leading to another, because books put one page after another. Long-form thinking looks the way it does because books shaped it that way. And because books have been knowledge’s medium, we have thought that that’s how knowledge should be shaped. (p. 95)

And we’re off and running!

He argues here that “physical books will no longer be the dominant cultural form of knowledge, if only because the physical book is such a bad fit for the structure of knowledge it’s intended to represent and enable” (p. 96). Parsing Nicholas Carr’s arguments in The Shallows, Weinberger contends that a central question is “how the nature of the book qua book affected the form of its content” (p. 98).

The fact that technology shapes content is not merely metaphorical—it has real, tangible affects, whether your perspective is like Carr’s (the internet is making is stupid) or like Weinberger’s (print culture shapes, instantiates, and naturalizes a specific cultural notion of knowledge that’s not immutable). He argues that “When you sit down to write a book, the bound pages—the boundness, the pageness—make demands of you” (p. 98). Books have beginning points because books have first pages; pages are bound and sequenced, which leads to arguments that are contained and sequenced (p. 98–99).

Weinberger continues:

The physical book’s demands have thus had you reinvent long-form writing. The book develops an idea from start to finish, across many—but not too many—pages. It also has to contain within its covers everything relevant to that idea because there is no easy way for the reader to access the rest of what she might need. You the author determine the sequence of ideas. The book’s physical finality encourages a finality of thought: You don’t finish writing it until you believe you have it done and right. (p. 99)

“The physical nature of books thereby enables and encourages long-form thought,” he argues (p. 99). In a masterful turn of phrase, Weinberger ends this section with the following: “To think that knowledge itself is shaped like books is to marvel that a rock fits so well in its hole in the ground” (p. 100).

And Weinberger is not done examining the relationship between print culture and “natural” understandings of knowledge; his next section is called “The Embarrassment of Books.” Weinberger suggests that the ways our culture often lionizes books “often sounds like the sublimation of an embarrassment about the sudden exposure of that old medium’s weaknesses” (p. 100).

“We have idealized books,” he argues, we have romanticized and even fetishized them (p. 102). The physical properties of books “squeeze ideas onto long, narrow paths that head the reader forward” (p. 103). The “physicality of books tends toward sequence, not divergence”; we’ve “elevated private thought because of the limitations of writing” (p. 103).

Here, I think Weinberger means the limitations of print, since writing unbound is what drives the new forms of knowledge on the web that he juxtaposes against the limitations of print. “The physics of books generally makes writing them a solo project” (p. 103).

Weinberger turns next to new forms of thinking in public, of writing within the context of broader social ecologies (I actually wrote a short article about this!). He uses Jay Rosen’s blog posts and the formidable cross-talk they engender as an example; but he also notes nine advantages to this kind of public writing and thinking:

  1. arguments are as long as they need to be
  2. arguments are responsive and malleable
  3. writing here reflects the actual mess of knowledge-making
  4. readers don’t have to deal with artificial objections or leave an argument early
  5. ideas reach the public, faster
  6. once public, ideas have escape velocity, “so that they can change the world” (p. 107)
  7. readers are potentially more involved
  8. “the author’s authority gets right-sized” (p. 108)
  9. connections, ripples, and traceable after-effects.

But there are disadvantages too, of which Weinberger enumerates five:

  1. readers may foster noise
  2. some arguments are more rhetorically effective when presented together (instead of as a string of blog posts)
  3. commercial opportunities may be diminished
  4. book = credibility, still
  5. a multiplicity of voices means it’s hard to know who to believe and trust.

He notes that one mode needn’t vanquish the other—there’s room for traditional long-form writing alongside emergent forms of networked knowledge making.

A key argument that Weinberger makes here is about how others use and misuse knowledge. He asserts that authors have always been “misquoted, degraded, enhanced, incorporated, passed around through a thousand degrees of misunderstanding” (p. 110). The crucial difference is that we can now see it as it happens, and that’s disturbing and potentially disruptive. It brings to the surface practices that were long invisibilized.

And still, we maintain a “picture of knowledge that lets objectivity make sense as a concept” (p. 111). “But objectivity,” he argues, “arose as a public value largely as a way of addressing a limitation of paper as a medium for knowledge” (p. 112).

Paper necessitates stopping points: “Paper is such an inconveniently disconnected medium that it’s important to include everything that the reader needs in order to understand a topic” (p. 113). “Paper-based citations,” therefore, “are like nails: If you wonder why the author made a particular claim, you can see that it’s nailed down by a footnote. Paper-based citations attempt to keep the reader within the article” (p. 113).

On the internet, “hyperlinks are less nails than invitations” (p. 113), leading a reader away from the article, “a visible manifestation of the author giving up any claim to completeness or even sufficiency” (p. 113). The messiness of the web, it’s intertwingularity, “should lead us to wonder if one of the problems with objectivity and long-form argument is that they aren’t a good match to structure the world” (p. 115).

But we still need stopping points, Weinberger argues, and we still need long-form writing; what we need is that long-form writing to be articulated with the web of ideas available on the internet, linked and traversable (p. 116). Trying to determine if the internet is good or bad for us is the wrong question to ask—the problem is far too nuanced and technology is not bound by finite outcomes: “now that ideas are freed of bound pages for their embodiment, it turns out that long-form works were never nearly long enough” (p. 118).

Weinberger’s exploration of emergent forms of science again views scientific knowledge making within the context and constraints of print culture: “In a phrase: Science had been a type of publishing and now it is becoming a network” (p. 152). The publishing model, he contends, has “silently shaped science” (p. 153), has given it a form that we assume to be natural and ordered, but this form is a response to the physics and sociocultural norms of print.

The scientific process, he argues, “could be said to include scientists, hypotheses, equipment, and publishers: Take away any one element, and science would not exist in recognizable form” (p. 153). These are wonderful arguments, and they resonate, I’m sure, with folks in our field who have read Bazerman and Latour, among others.

The system of publishing, then, “has marked the nature of science itself. Science aims at settling matters as far as possible—albeit with admirable humility—in part because it has relied on a medium that prints irrevocably on paper” (p. 154). Due to the physics of print, “science is generally accomplished in article-sized chunks that are relatively self-standing” (p. 154).

Scientific knowledge, therefore, has been “a type of publishing…broken off from its source because it was embodied in a physical thing with a life of its own,” as an article in Nature, for example, with stable boundaries and persistent characteristics (p. 155). But no longer. Today, “the final product of science is now neither final nor a product. It is the network itself,” an interwoven collection of scientists, datasets, methods and methodologies, theories and speculations, amateurs, citizens, publishers and open platforms (p. 156).

As Weinberger’s book comes to a close, he’s still positioning paper against the internet: “When knowledge was communicated and preserved on paper, it had to work around the fact that connected ideas were expressed in a disconnected medium” (p. 177). Authors became spokespeople for networks of knowledge that were tightly constrained by the physics of print.

Hyperlinks, however, “change the basic topology of knowledge” (p. 177). We can see ideas develop and shift on the web, in part because links expose knowledge-making—they surface and often make public conversations that were once invisibilized by the infrastructures of print.

Many of our modern notions of science, objectivity, and knowledge were predicated upon a priori understandings: “We had hoped that knowledge is independent of us. Now we know for sure it is not” (p. 180). This surely sounds familiar to rhetoricians. But before you say “duh! So and so has been saying that for years!” keep this in mind: Weinberger is talking to a popular audience comprised of folks who likely have never heard of our discipline.

He’s greasing the gears of postmodern knowledge-making—of epistemic rhetoric—for us, and he’s doing so masterfully. These arguments, old hat for us, are especially good news for us because of what they do in the world.

Weinberger ends with this salient insight: “We thought that knowledge was scarce, when in fact it was just that our shelves were small” (p. 196). Our new knowledge isn’t a canon, but an “infrastructure of connection” (p. 196).


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