I was delighted to see that David Weinberger will be speaking at ALA this June. I enjoyed reading his most recent 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, which does a good job of sketching out the implications of networked knowledge. He uses the format of the book—a linear long-form argument, broken into chapters, building sequentially up to a conclusion—to describe how things no longer work the way they did when much of our knowledge was published on paper. It wears its academic garb lightly (Weinberger’s PhD is in philosophy and currently he hangs his hat at Harvard’s Berkman Center), mixing history, technology, science, and popular culture in an immensely readable, thought-provoking form.
Yet as I read the book I kept saying to myself “wait, knowledge has always been networked.” I’m old enough to remember life before the Internet, when it took a magnifying glass to make out the coded entries on the tissue-paper pages of the Science Citation Index. In those days I was reading Kenneth Bruffee and Thomas Kuhn and thinking about how we construct our understanding of the world, not through the accretion of facts assembled like bricks on a firm foundation, but through social networks.
Old-school social networks
The oldest publication on my CV is a 1990 article in RQ titled “Teaching Research as a Social Act.” I can’t link to it because it’s nowhere online, but it was an argument that collaborative learning was a pedagogically useful way to help students see all knowledge as an ongoing conversation. Perhaps because it was my first foray into writing for the professional literature, I can remember how I did the research for it. It was nothing like the research process we were teaching students back then—not nearly so systematic or tool-based. I got the germ of an idea in 1987 when I attended a retreat for new faculty, where a colleague in the English department talked about collaborative learning methods and mentioned the work of Ken Bruffee. Reading Bruffee led me to several writers on the sociology of knowledge. A few months into the job, I audited a history of science course, finding in quantum mechanics a confirmation of something that was beginning to take shape for me: that nothing is certain, that not everything is knowable, though we can make a pretty good guess based on probabilities and designing clever experiments. That took me to Thomas Kuhn’s description of how ideas, tempered in the tension between what we’re sure we already know and what is newly discovered, can sometimes test our foundations to the point where everything we thought was true is overthrown.
I didn’t search any indexes or abstracts for authoritative sources. I didn’t use any specialized encyclopedias. I only used the catalog to locate books I had discovered by other means. At the time I was working on the article, Tim Berners-Lee was just drafting a proposal for software project that later became the World Wide Web, but I did my research by following links and finding connections. Though the links were slower, the process was not significantly different than what I do today (or than what author Steven Johnson believes is enabled and unique to online networks).
Students then and now
The year that article was published, I began a project to interview undergraduates who had successfully completed a research assignment and learned their processes also bore little resemblance to librarians’ advice. They didn’t have that much trouble finding sources; they had trouble finding a focus for their research and knowing enough about an unfamiliar topic to see where the interesting questions lurked. They were seeking patterns rather than looking for nuggets of prepackaged truth produced by experts.
They were building authority from scratch and looking for scholars whose publications could help them. Sources weren’t truth; they were people with ideas. I repeated the interviews ten years later, after the library had gone through a tremendous shift from paper to digital tools, and found students described their processes in ways almost identical to students whose research was entirely paper-based.
The postmodern Internet
None of this probably would surprise David Weinberger. He points out that postmodern thought predates the Internet, or as he puts it, existed “before the Internet showed us the Postmodernists were right.” But what the new networking does to knowledge is provide opportunities for it to be bigger, more public, more open to visible disagreement, and better able to take advantage of collaboration on a massive scale.
In describing how this has affected science, he shows how knowledge can thrive in the absence of certainty and established authority. As he puts it, “the Net’s rebooting of science has revealed that the old ways were more broken than we thought. In a phrase: Science had been a type of publishing and now is becoming a network.”
Scientists never thought their work was done just because it was published. But the record was found in the publications. Today it’s possible to see it happening in real time, to do it at a larger scale, and to see it spill out and link to other kinds of knowledge. Weinberger writes,
Knowledge is not something that gets pumped out of the system as its product. The hyperlinking of science not only links knowledge back to its sources. It also links knowledge into the human contexts and processes that produced it and use it, debate it, and make sense of it. The final product of networked science is not knowledge embodied in self-standing publications. Indeed, the final product of science is now neither final nor a product. It is the network itself—the seamless connection of scientists, data, methodologies, hypotheses, theories, facts, speculations, instruments, readings, ambitions, controversies, schools of thought, textbooks, faculties, collaborations, and disagreements that used to struggle to print a relative handful of articles in a relative handful of journals.
Filtering, not finding
Ever since reading this book, I have been wondering whether we have been thinking about information literacy the wrong way. Just as I was dissatisfied with advice commonly given students about how to conduct research back in 1990, wanting instead to help them figure out how to enter ongoing conversations, today I’m dissatisfied with a model that starts with articulating a need that we satisfy by finding and using sources. I wonder if we should focus less on how to find and more on how to filter. Though we give a nod to evaluating sources, we tend to start with finding them, and that’s backward. We need to help students understand the vast web of meaning in the making and develop ways to shape their own ideas about what parts to pay attention to. They need to know not just how to find finished information but how to grasp meaning as its made and how to participate in its making.
Though this is much more valuable than how to coax articles out of databases that will be closed to them as soon as they graduate, it’s hard to pull off because too often students face tight deadlines and are convinced by their professors that the knowledge that counts is found in finished and formal scholarly articles. I had a frustrating time this week helping students explore databases, which seem like supremely clumsy boutique shopping sites for products that are each sold separately, detached from the network that produced them.
For next week, these students are reading Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay, “As We May Think.” The hypothetical Memex machine he described was one in which texts would be linked by researchers through their own trails of association that could be shared and curated. What he envisioned looks more like the Internet than the intellectual property showrooms that libraries have turned into. It’s more like the future of knowledge that Weinberger sketches out, one in which knowledge is abundant, linked, public, unresolved, and permission-free. Instead libraries provide the appearance of abundance with a barely-functional network in which most of the links are broken by design.
Perhaps we should stop spending so much time trying to help students learn about knowledge as a type of publishing. That concept of knowledge is much too small.