David Weinberger explains the nature of the web

by Andreas Koller

„Too Big to Know“: in his talk at NEXT Berlin David Weinberger explains the shift from traditional knowledge to networked knowledge through the change from disconnected media like books to linked media like the internet. He adresses the question why the old institutions of knowledge crashed at the touch of a hyperlink.

A book cannot be changed. It is a settled, disconnected medium. With the invention of a new punctuation mark, the link, the whole structure of knowledge has changed, says Weinberger. The medium causes knowledge to adapt itself to that medium.

„When the medium of knowledge is paper,
then knowledge takes on the properties of paper.“
(David Weinberger at 4:10)

Traditional knowledge is curated, settled, scarce, discrete and orderly.

The new networked knowledge is inclusive, unsettled, overwhelming, linked and messy.

In the „old days“ of science, credit was only given when you publish. This enforced a publishing rhythm which science followed. The system of peer reviews does not scale and while there are benefits to it, it holds up knowledge. Today, however, any scientist can publish anything at any stage. There are no peer reviews, no editorial process, but platforms like arXiv changed the game, and they are embedded in a set of social tools. A whole „ecosystem of understanding“ has exploded around this scientific content, leading to a web of knowledge with „unprecedented value because of the extent of differences and disagreements.“

In software development, regarded by Weinberger as the „fastest, most effective ecosystem for rapid learning that ever existed“, a bottom-up approach ensures that competitors share their knowledge to benefit the public. While there used to be one right way to do things, one order in the universe, where everything has a single place, these views today seem „medieval“ (22:00). Now, it is a „hopeless mess“, a list of random tags, unfinished and imperfect, but „incredibly useful“. We benefit from overloading images with tags for example, which he explains extensively.

„Messiness is how you scale meaning.“ (27:00)

This goes along with the idea of big data, where the sheer amount of data, which is imperfect and unprecise, can lead to valuable insights by recognising patterns (as explained in the book „Big Data“ by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier).

Finally, Weinberger warns to see the internet as a medium:

„The internet is not a medium.
We are the medium of the internet.“

A medium is that through which a message passes, like a telegraph wire. To think of the internet as a distribution media is „thoroughly and 100% wrong, and you will crash and burn and you will look like an idiot“, if you forget that the people moving the messages are the medium.

We have seen in the last 15 years that knowledge is always social, knowledge is always an expression of what matters to us.

Why did the old institutions of knowledge crash at the touch of a hyperlink? Weinberger doesn’t have an answer, but the internet shares the attributes of knowledge: it is unbounded and messy (see above), it is accepting diversity and the fallability of knowledge itself. This is a better reflection of the world and also these attributes define what it means to be human. And that’s „the key why our old institutions of knowledge fell over“.

Watch more talks by Weinberger.

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