David Weinberger, currently a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and co-director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, has written widely about the impact of the Internet on knowledge and culture. After co-authoring the influential Cluetrain Manifesto, he went on to explore the social nature of the web in Small Pieces Loosely Joined and Everything is Miscellaneous. He will be speaking at the American Library Association annual conference on Saturday, June 23. Barbara Fister, academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College and Library Journal Academic Newswire columnist, had a chance to ask him a few questions about his new book, Too Big to Know.
Barbara Fister: You point out that the idea that knowledge is “too big to know” is not new, but it has become more obvious lately. In fact, you use the word “crisis” when describing the communal sense of being overwhelmed by so much information coming to us in new ways. What are some of the qualities of networked knowledge apart from sheer abundance that are changing the nature of knowledge itself?
David Weinberger: Paper-based knowledge was so efficient because it constituted a system of stopping points: you consulted the expert or the book, got your answer, and then could move on. Of course, you could always challenge the expert’s claim, but the power of the system was that usually you didn’t have to. Knowledge’s new medium is hyperlinked. It’s a system of temptations to continue rather than a set of stopping points.
Paper-based knowledge succeeded when it settled matters, that is, when it drove out difference. It drove it underground, marginalized it, made it invisible. But networks only have value when there is disagreement and difference, and as networks, those differences are now linked. We’re seeing interesting and important developments in how we can live together with disagreement, now that the Web is showing us that we’re not going to achieve the old idea that facts and reason can bring us together. Some of these new techniques are so basic that we overlook them. For example, the Net gives us enough space to fork arguments that have driven a discussion down a path that only a few people want to follow. The rise of namespaces is also quite fascinating. For example, the Encyclopedia of Life didn’t feel it had to come up with a single, Linnaean taxonomy of all organisms. Instead, it lets scientists search using whatever names and taxonomies of organisms they prefer. The discussion can continue without having to resolve those differences. Think how irresponsible that would have seemed until quite recently in our history, when the task of knowledge was to uncover the one true order of the universe.
Of course, the old authorities have lost the inevitability that the paper medium conferred on them. In a hyperlinked world, an authority is just the last page you choose to click on because you have an answer that satisfies you.
BF: To approach this question a bit differently, you posit that the room is smarter than the smartest guy in the room. But didn’t Newton make a similar point when he said he stood on the shoulders of giants? How are digital networks fundamentally different from pre-computer knowledge networks?
DW: Newton’s metaphor assumes giants and assumes shoulders: a canon of great people (giants) who provide a stable platform (shoulders) upon which we can build. I don’t think we’re moving entirely away from that view of how knowledge works, but there is less agreement about who’s a giant and less sure footing on those shoulders.
But it is certainly true that we’ve always known socially. After all, there was the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. But that early network of knowers was different in every regard from what we have now: from rich white men to everyone, from private mailings to public discourse, from the speed of horses and sails to the speed of typing, from the improvement of individual minds to building an ecology of knowledge, from sameness to global difference. Not that there’s anything wrong with a group of people communicating amongst themselves about ideas; we need that, and we have it in spades in mailing lists, gated forums, and so many other new ways. But even those walled webs occur within the context of the open Web.
BF: Among the qualities of networked knowledge, you include “permission-free,” an issue that has been in the news recently. Three bills (the Research Works Act, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act—legislation designed to enforce and extend the existing permissions system and the businesses that depend on it) were rejected after widespread public protest. As an alternative to preserving the status quo, what advice would you give existing industries about how to add value and generate revenue in a permission-free network?
DW: There’s no guarantee that the existing industries should continue to exist – if they’re not structured to provide value in this radically new ecology.
So, the question is what genuine value can they provide without reducing the value of the overall ecology. For example, academic journals filter submitted articles, which is a genuine value. But if the price of that filtering is that the accepted works – the ones that have the most value – are made available only to privileged groups, then the social cost of supporting that model is too high, in my opinion. Fortunately, the open access movement has arisen to give us a way to route around the attempt to provide value by creating an artificial scarcity.
For book publishers, O’Reilly provides a hopeful model, although it would be hard to reproduce the right-at-every-step course that publisher has taken. O’Reilly has been alert to providing information the way its readers want it, and has built a loyal community to a large degree by being a genuine – and generous – member of that community. [O’Reilly Media, a publisher of books about the Internet and open source software, allows its customers to own rather than license O’Reilly ebooks, which are provided in five DRM-free formats and with unlimited printing options.
BF: A huge issue for researchers and for the libraries that support them is the need to find new sustainable ways to share knowledge and shift the prestige currently claimed by closed-access publishers to these new open networks. Some disciplines are further along than others, but meanwhile libraries are increasingly devoting their resources to unsustainable forms of publication because of the lock publishers hold on prestige and the resistance of most researchers to embracing open access. Many scholarly societies are implicated in maintaining these locks because their revenue streams also depend on monetizing publications. What will it take for scholars to put more value on access than on publishing the traditional way? Are we near a tipping point?
DW: I don’t know anything you don’t, Barbara. The reward system is still bound up in the artificial scarcity imposed by traditional publishers because of the usual human and institutional reasons. I can imagine a couple of tipping points, though. Someday, a university is going to deny tenure to some outstanding star of the Internet because she hasn’t published in the traditional closed-access journals. But she will be a mainstay of multiple knowledge networks, someone recognized as a hugely talented and generous contributor. Another possible tipping point might be a very slow tip: we have a generation of scholars growing up who consider publishing in closed-access journals a type of selfishness. Someday they’ll be on the tenure committees.
BF: Public libraries, which were established in large part for educational purposes, can’t afford to subscribe to expensive journals or specialized databases and are scrambling just to keep up with providing books and films that their patrons want–while the industries that produce those books and films are increasingly leery of letting libraries share their digital wares. How should public libraries go about promoting a “permission-free” network when most of the public demand they face is for access to commercial products? Can the public library retain its value if scholarship becomes free online but popular culture–access to which many taxpayers believe is the library’s chief purpose–remains toll-gated?
DW: Well, if scholarly works becomes free and the content creators (and the Congress they’ve bought) refuse to let libraries lend for-pay work, then there’s no content left for libraries is there? That’s sort of by definition, no? But I’d be surprised if we didn’t figure out some way to let libraries lend for-pay content for free; there’s not only tremendous demand for that, it is part of a long tradition that we have tied into our democratic ideals.
But we obviously do need to be thinking about how libraries can participate in the permission-free linked ecology beyond providing free content. I don’t have any ideas that you haven’t heard from others. I am a bit enamored of the idea, however, that librarians could help us with one of the most worrisome problems with networked knowledge: the echo chamber. That is, if we have such easy access to so much material, we will (the fear goes) only read that with which we already agree, thus closing our minds and moving to extremes. I think the situation is far more complicated than that, but I agree that the tendency to stick within what we know is real. Librarians traditionally served the vital role of pointing users toward trustworthy, authoritative sources. We need them to continue doing that, but I’m wondering whether their emphasis might change as they point us toward differences and disagreements, unsettling our knowledge even as they let us know what the best settlements are.
BF: Anything else librarians should be thinking about?
DW: I think that one of the ways forward for libraries in the digital age is to make available to the net everything that libraries and librarians know. There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge and metadata unique to libraries: information about works, about the usage of works, research guides, how works cluster, and the deeply creative understanding librarians have both of domains and of how to pursue ideas. It’d be a disaster for culture if that were lost in the rush onto the Net…and it’d be a proof of the continuing value of libraries and librarians if they were all available, ready to be integrated into knowledge’s new medium: the living web.