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Too Big To Know - Book Review

1 January 2013
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

The book "Too Big To Know" by David Weinberger 2011 presents a fresh outlook on the nature of knowledge, compelled by the limitless proliferation of information. The argument posits that traditional facts are no longer the norm, experts are omnipresent, and wisdom resides collectively rather than within any singular individual. The book delves into profound inquiries, providing an intricate framework where knowledge is perceived as an infinite network.



The book explores the following themes:

Knowledge:

  • Existing Paradigm

  • Novel Concept

Meanings:

  • Networked Expertise

  • Collaborative

  • Literature

  • Scientific Endeavors

  • Leadership and Decision-Making

What's Next?

  • Navigation and Direction


In its concluding remarks, the book suggests that knowledge aligns with the justified true belief, as articulated by Plateau. However, it challenges the prevailing notion by proposing that it may contain more belief and less justified truth than commonly assumed. The book offers a rejuvenated perspective that undeniably stimulates further contemplation—highly recommended!


Knowledge:

Existing Paradigm

When discussing knowledge spanning from the era of Plateau to the contemporary period, we allude to concepts that we are justified in believing to be true beliefs. Additional knowledge is constructed upon foundational assumptions (paradigms), shaping a knowledge pyramid. Initially, knowledge focused on essences and principles, but our comprehension expanded to encompass facts as time progressed. [In the current era, amid the delineation between data, information, and knowledge, many define knowledge as information for action – a perspective that does not contradict the original definition – M.L.]



The challenge within the present landscape lies in today's world's overwhelming volume of information and knowledge. The surplus of information and knowledge, primarily via the Internet, presents challenges:

  1. Accessing all the knowledge we seek is impractical. Filters no longer function effectively at this scale. Additionally, links accompanying information and knowledge can act as filters but may also unveil additional information and knowledge (potentially including misinformation).

  2. Alongside "good" and "quality" knowledge, low-quality knowledge is abundant accompanying desired information. Many things are published without thorough examination.

  3. For nearly every idea, claim, piece of information, or knowledge found on the Internet, an opposing viewpoint contradicting it is readily available (and not necessarily incorrect). Every idea can find supporting knowledge on the network, leading to contradictory conclusions. This raises a critical question: if there is opposing knowledge for (almost) every piece of information, what does knowledge indeed mean?


Novel Concept

The new conceptualization of knowledge diverges in the following ways:

  1. Knowledge is not structured as a pyramid based on fundamental assumptions. Instead, it is envisioned as a network without ends or edges, facilitating continuous exploration into deeper layers. Facts also form a network of interconnected information about the knowledge built upon them.

  2. The correctness of knowledge is contingent on context and influenced by culture. Our knowledge and experiences represent our interpretation of reality, shaped by social and cultural factors. There is no inherently more correct position, as various interpretations rely on different cultural contexts. Each context, culturally dependent, establishes its defaults.

  3. Proper citation is essential when constructing knowledge on the web, anchored in prior knowledge (facts). This practice enables users to navigate to another layer within the knowledge network. Quoting/linking also facilitates the creation of meaning and context relevant to the knowledge.


Features of knowledge include:

  • Knowledge is a subset of our beliefs (according to Plateau's original definition). Not everything we believe qualifies as knowledge; instead, it comprises truths we find compelling enough to think are accurate reflections of the world


However:

  • There is no singular pantheon of knowledge

  • Not all knowledge can be contained in books, minds, or even the entire web


Regarding the network:

  • The network allows for the generation of more ideas than an individual can develop alone

  • It enables knowledge development within contexts and, when conducted correctly, between different contexts, fostering further evolution of knowledge.


Meanings:

Networked Expertise

Naturally, when knowledge is conceptualized as a network, a substantial portion of that knowledge finds representation on the Internet. Knowledge can naturally evolve on the Internet, and the concept of crowd wisdom exemplifies this, elucidating the development of knowledge on the Internet—a process unattainable at an individual level. Internet features that facilitate knowledge development include:

  1. Connectivity: The Internet links many people, constituting the largest connected crowd known. It encompasses numerous subgroups with diverse specialties and specialists.

  2. Diversity: Mere quantity is insufficient; diversity in people and opinions is crucial. Various perspectives, especially those from outside the group, significantly contribute to forming new knowledge.

  3. Interconnected Groups: The Internet is not merely a collection of discrete nodes but a network of people, pages, and tools with relationships and connectivity.

  4. Accumulation: The Internet is an aggregate where knowledge, individuals, and pages accumulate without displacing each other.

  5. Adaptability: The Internet accommodates groups of different sizes, from individuals publishing blogs to small teams, larger groups, or even masses. This adaptability sets it apart from other channels typically suited for specific magnitudes.


These conditions enable knowledge development that none of the experts involved would likely have developed independently. As Weinberger aptly says, "The smartest person in the room is the room itself" (Too Big To Know - page 64).


It's worth noting that traditionally, experts conversed within their fields, and knowledge was limited to a particular domain, valued for its conclusions, and essentially one-way due to publishing norms. Experts operated separately from the general public, and disagreements were often discouraged. The size and power of the digital network are transforming these dynamics, ushering in new forms of knowledge. Expertise becomes broad, multidirectional, and multidimensional on the web, where disagreements and partially verified knowledge abound, leading to surprising or unsurprising advancements in knowledge development.


Collaborative

Online sharing may seem straightforward, but its nuances surpass initial appearances. As highlighted in a previous chapter, the flourishing of knowledge on the web necessitates both a diversity of individuals and a moderation of opinions. However, contrary to expectations, individuals tend to connect with those who share similar opinions and perspectives. This prompts a crucial question: Does the network genuinely facilitate knowledge-sharing among those with different opinions, or does it create subgroups of individuals with uniform views where the network and group serve as an echo chamber reinforcing their opinions?


While some contend that the network tends to radicalize and segregate people based on opinions, studies indicate otherwise. Individuals who visit specific sites exhibit a higher tendency, compared to an average person, to explore sites with views contrary to those initially encountered. Nevertheless, a threshold exists beyond which familiarity persists, but meaningful dialogue becomes challenging. Excessive uniformity does not contribute positively. Determining the border is subjective, but several principles aid in understanding the appropriate level of variance:

  1. Nature of the Problem: The complexity of the problem determines the need for variance. Simple issues may require only one perspective, while complex problems benefit from diverse viewpoints.

  2. Perspectives and Heuristics: Varied perspectives and approaches are essential in addressing challenges.

  3. Shared Goal and Honesty: Diversity should align with a shared goal, whether exploring a problem or solving a difficulty. Honest communication and a desire for dialogue are crucial.

  4. Moderation: A moderator ensures civil discourse, facilitates communication despite differences, and ensures progress in the discussion. The moderator is responsible for filtering and separating sub-topics that could skew the debate if necessary.


The current discourse exhibits some variation, but there is considerable room for improvement in diversity-related skills. Embracing more diversity can propel the development of our knowledge far beyond the boundaries we currently encounter.


Literature

Though appearing "innovative" to us, books are often perceived as somewhat outdated. They are tailored to a specific date, and by the time they are printed and distributed, they may no longer be considered innovative. However, it is crucial not to underestimate the value of books. Books, in general, and any form of "long writing," possess advantages that are lacking in online platforms:

  1. Sequential Conveyance of Ideas: A book presents ideas from start to finish in the author's carefully crafted order.

  2. Comprehensive Information: Books include all relevant information that supports the presented ideas.

  3. Processed and Complete Ideas: An author thoroughly processes and perfects an idea before committing it to writing and publication.


In contrast, the Internet lacks these advantages. Online content tends to be short, concise, and sometimes incomplete. However, online writing offers its own set of advantages:

  1. Appropriate Length: Each idea can be described in its suitable length without the constraints of editorial requirements.

  2. Practical and Interactive: Ideas are practical and linked to real-world situations. Readers can comment, question, and engage in discussions.

  3. Disorder in Presentation: Ideas are presented disorderly, resembling the disorder inherent in real-life connections between subjects.

  4. Continuous Engagement: There are fewer reasons for readers to leave in the middle of reading. Challenges and difficulties are presented as part of the discourse, providing real-time responses.

  5. Timely Publication: Ideas are published close to the time of their development.

  6. Influence on the World: Ideas can significantly impact the surrounding world due to their immediacy.

  7. Emotional and Intellectual Engagement: Readers are more emotionally and intellectually involved, especially when participating in discussions.

  8. Recognition for Good Writing: Writers receive credit based on the quality of their work, as opposed to the past when the mere publication of a book was considered credit.

  9. Enhanced Communication: Readers and writers can communicate through links to various websites and information sheets created from and integrated into the text, adding depth to content and affinity.


While the list of benefits of online writing may be longer, there is undoubtedly still a place for books and their readers. However, online reading is on the rise, potentially at the expense of traditional books.


Scientific Endeavors

How does the evolving perception of knowledge impact science, and is there a valid reason for such an influence? Ostensibly, the answer may be no, but in reality, the effects are substantial. Science, rooted in facts and their analysis, undergoes several transformations due to the evolving concept of new knowledge:

  1. Vast Network of Knowledge: The expansive network contains abundant knowledge that surpasses individual cognitive capacities. With the ability to store, calculate, and share extensive information, the web becomes a repository that exceeds the human brain's capacity. Computers aid in modeling based on this wealth of knowledge.

  2. Flattening of Hierarchies: The internet diminishes distinctions between experts and amateurs, allowing for mutual awareness and knowledge exchange. This facilitates the diffusion of ideas between different domains, positively impacting the open web and the scientific community. The blurring boundaries encourage beneficial cross-pollination of ideas.

  3. Open Access Journals: While some traditional journals remain closed, open-access publications on the internet are accessible to anyone. This openness allows for the disseminating of old knowledge and information, and the possibility of purchasing individual articles increases circulation.

  4. Expanded Filters: Open journals, in particular, adopt more inclusive filters, permitting a broader range of scientific ideas to be published. This approach ensures academic rigor in writing while not limiting publications solely to groundbreaking innovations.

  5. Embracing Disagreements: Science is becoming more tolerant of disagreements; unlike the past, where a pyramid concept and extensive filtering aimed for a "single truth," contemporary science accommodates divergent opinions. Disputes within the scientific community and with the public outside its confines are acknowledged and addressed.

  6. Enhanced Referencing through Links: The world of science benefits from an increased ability to establish connections. Digital links enable researchers to deepen their understanding of the network, expand their research during reading, and contribute to further knowledge development based on linked content.


Weinberger advocates for the prompt publication of research knowledge, acknowledging associated challenges. Early publication facilitates knowledge sharing, allows scientists to learn from unsuccessful experiments, and raises questions about ownership rights for intermediate products. Additionally, the concept that facts are no longer absolute poses challenges for research significance and scientific writing. The book leaves an essential question unanswered: In a world where facts and ideas can be selectively chosen to support claims, is research meaningful, and how should scientific writing adapt to this paradigm shift?


Leadership and Decision-Making

It is widely acknowledged that perceptions of leadership are undergoing significant changes in the 21st century. Leaders are now deemed successful when the groups they lead thrive, and their success is intricately tied to the group's success. In this new era, especially with knowledge workers, managers must rely on a different knowledge base than in the past, and their authority is constrained. In contrast to the traditional pyramid decision-making structure, where decisions were centralized at the top, the contemporary approach emphasizes network decision-making involving people or adopting democratic principles reminiscent of social media. Network decisions exhibit the following characteristics:

  1. Flexible Flow of Decisions: The ability to move decisions up and down the organizational hierarchy at various levels.

  2. Enhanced Decision Quality: Particularly beneficial in situations requiring extensive local knowledge from diverse sources.

  3. Increased Motivation: The involvement of individuals in the decision-making process enhances their motivation as they become partners in the process.

  4. Optimal Use of Local Knowledge: Efficient utilization of local knowledge across the organization to inform decision-making.

  5. Accurate Representation of Employee Perspectives: Facilitation of employees' attitudes, fostering "good citizenship" and loyalty to the organization.

  6. Resilience and Flexibility: The absence of dependence on a single individual ensures resilience and adaptability.

  7. Suitability for a Knowledge-Rich Environment: Particularly relevant in a world inundated with vast amounts of knowledge where many decisions are simply impossible to make using any other method.


Furthermore, a decision functions as a node in the broader knowledge network. While relying on existing knowledge, it also serves as a foundation for further consolidation to support future decisions.


What's Next?

Navigation and Direction

How should one navigate in a world where knowledge operates as a network? Below are five key insights from Weinberger on the recommended actions in the new knowledge network:

  1. Embrace Maximum Openness and Accessibility:

    a. Extend beyond journals; openness should permeate the climate and conduct

    b. Greater openness facilitates an expansive knowledge network, offering opportunities for increased collaboration and linking to additional sources

  2. Augment with Meta Data:

    a. Accompany content with metadata (tags) to provide context (Semantic Web)

    b. Creating links that direct to locations indicating the context of knowledge aids in understanding

  3. Foster Link Creation:

    a. A higher quantity of links transforms knowledge from isolated nodes into a robust network

    b. Increased linking enables movement between layers, promoting deeper comprehension of knowledge

  4. Incorporate All Knowledge Pillars:

    a. While building a forward-looking network of knowledge, it is equally important to recognize and leverage existing academic knowledge developed within institutional confines

    b. The meshing process should encompass the wealth of knowledge previously built by various institutions

  5. Mastering Network Usage:

    a. Operating the network may be straightforward, but instructing individuals on practical usage requires resources

    b. Investment in reading, navigating between layers, and writing while addressing all mentioned components is crucial

    c. By lowering barriers, the network enables broader participation in the "celebration of knowledge," and education on this model is imperative.


In Summary:

Our knowledge forms an infrastructure of limitless links on the web. Whether this brings us closer to or distances us from the truth remains to be determined. Nevertheless, understanding the knowledge network undoubtedly brings us closer to unraveling the truth about knowledge itself.


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