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The Difference Between Online Knowledge and Truly Open Knowledge. In the era of the Internet facts are not bricks but networks

    
                                                             Image: Library of Congress

“Knowledge is not a result merely of filtering or algorithms. It results from a far more complex process that is social, goal-driven, contextual, and culturally-bound. We get to knowledge — especially “actionable” knowledge — by having desires and curiosity, through plotting and play, by being wrong more often than right, by talking with others and forming social bonds, by applying methods and then backing away from them, by calculation and serendipity, by rationality and intuition, by institutional processes and social roles. Most important in this regard, where the decisions are tough and knowledge is hard to come by, knowledge is not determined by information, for it is the knowing process that first decides which information is relevant, and how it is to be used.”

David Weinberger, The Problem with the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy, Harvard Business Review, Feb 2, 2010.

"The digitization of 21st-century media, Weinberger argues, leads not to the creation of a “global village" but rather to a new understanding of what knowledge is, to a change in the basic epistemology governing the universe. And this McLuhanesque transformation, in turn, reveals the general truth of the Heideggarian vision. Knowledge qua knowledge, Weinberger claims, is increasingly enmeshed in webs of discourse: culture-dependent and theory-free.

The causal force lying behind this massive sea change is, of course, the internet. Google search results — “9,560,000 results for ‘Heidegger’ in .71 seconds”) — taunt you with the realization that there are still another 950,000-odd pages of results to get through before you reach the end. The existence of hyperlinks is enough to convince even the most stubborn positivist that there is always another side to the story. And on the web, fringe believers can always find each other and marinate in their own illusions. The “web world” is too big to ever know. There is always another link. In the era of the Internet, Weinberger argues, facts are not bricks. They are networks. (…)

The most important aspect of Heidegger’s thought for our purposes is his understanding that human beings (or rather “Dasein,” “being-in-the-world”) are always thrown into a particular context, existing within already existing language structures and pre-determined meanings. In other words, the world is like the web, and we, Dasein, live inside the links. (…)

If our starting point is that all knowledge is networked, and always has been, then we are in a far better point to start talking about what makes today’s epistemological infastructure different from the infrastrucure in 1983. But we are also in a position to ask: if all knowledge was networked knowledge, even in 1983, than how did we not behave as if it was so? How did humanity carry on? Why did civilization not collapse into a morass of post-modern chaos? Weinberger’s answer is, once again, McLuhanesque. It was the medium in which knowledge was contained that created the difference. Stable borders around knowledge were built by books.

I would posit a different answer: if knowledge has always been networked knowledge, than facts have never had stable containers. Most of the time, though, we more or less act as if they do. Within philosophical subfield known as Actor-Network Theory (ANT) this “acting-as-if-stability-existed” is referred to as “black boxing.” One of the black boxes around knowledge might very well be the book. But black boxes can also include algorithms, census bureaus, libraries, laboratories, and news rooms. Black boxes emerge out of actually-existing knowledge networks, stabilize for a time, and unravel, and our goal as thinkers and scholars ought to be understanding how these nodes emerge and disappear. In other words, understanding changes to knowledge in this way leaves us far more sensitive to the operations of power than does the notoriously power-free perspective of Marshall McLuhan. (…)

Why don’t I care that the Google results page goes on towards infinity? If we avoid Marshall McLuhan’s easy answers to these complex questions, and retain the core of Heidegger’s brilliant insights while also adding a hefty dose of ontology to his largely immaterial philosophy, we might begin to understand the real operations of digital knowledge/power in a networked age.

Weinberger, however, does not care about power, and more or less admits this himself in a brilliant essay 2008 on the distinction between digital realists, utopians, and dystopians. Digital utopians, a group in which he includes himself, “point to the ways in which the Web has changed some of the basic assumptions about how we live together, removing old obstacles and enabling shiny new possibilities.” The realists, on the other hand, are rather dull: They argue that “the Web hasn’t had nearly as much effect as the utopians and dystopians proclaim. The Web carries with it certain possibilities and limitations, but (the realists say) not many more than other major communications medium.” Politically speaking, digital utopianism tantalizes us with the promise of what might be, and pushes us to do better. The political problem with the realist position, Weinberger argues, is that it “is … [a] decision that leans toward supporting the status quo because what-is is more knowable than what might be.”

The realist position, however, is not necessarily a position of quietude. Done well, digital realism can sensitize us to the fact that all networked knowledge systems eventually become brick walls, that these brick walls are maintained through technological, political, cultural, economic, and organizational forms of power. Our job, as thinkers and teachers, is not to stand back and claim that the all bricks have crumbled. Rather, our job is to understand how the wall gets built, and how we might try to build it differently.”

C.W. Anderson, Ph.D, an assistant professor in the Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island (CUNY), researcher at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, The Difference Between Online Knowledge and Truly Open Knowledge, The Atlantic, Feb 3, 2012.

David Weinberger: ‘I think the Net generation is beginning to see knowledge in a way that is closer to the truth about knowledge’

"I think the Net generation is beginning to see knowledge in a way that is closer to the truth about knowledge — a truth we’ve long known but couldn’t instantiate. My generation, and the many generations before mine, have thought about knowledge as being the collected set of trusted content, typically expressed in libraries full of books. Our tradition has taken the trans-generational project of building this Library of Knowledge book by book as our God-given task as humans. Yet, for the coming generation, knowing looks less like capturing truths in books than engaging in never-settled networks of discussion and argument. That social activity — collaborative and contentious, often at the same time — is a more accurate reflection of our condition as imperfect social creatures trying to understand a world that is too big and too complex for even the biggest-headed expert.

This new topology of knowledge reflects the topology of the Net. The Net (and especially the Web) is constructed quite literally out of links, each of which expresses some human interest. If I link to a site, it’s because I think it matters in some way, and I want it to matter that way to you. The result is a World Wide Web with billions of pages and probably trillions of links that is a direct reflection of what matters to us humans, for better or worse. The knowledge networks that live in this new ecosystem share in that property; they are built out of, and reflect, human interest. Like our collective interests, the Web and the knowledge that resides there is at odds and linked in conversation. That’s why the Internet, for all its weirdness, feels so familiar and comfortable to so many of us. And that’s the sense in which I think networked knowledge is more “natural.” (…)

To make a smart room — a knowledge network — you have to have just enough diversity. And it has to be the right type of diversity. Scott Page in The Difference says that a group needs a diversity of perspectives and skill sets if it is going to be smarter than the smartest person in it. It also clearly needs a set of coping skills, norms, and procedures that enable it to deal with diversity productively. (…)

We humans can only see things from a point of view, and we can only understand things by appropriating them into our already-existing context. (…)

In fact, the idea of objectivity arose in response to the limitations of paper, as did so much of our traditional Western idea of knowledge. Paper is a disconnected medium. So, when you write a news story, you have to encapsulate something quite complex in just a relatively small rectangle of print. You know that the reader has no easy way to check what you’re saying, or to explore further on her own; to do so, she’ll have to put down the paper, go to a local library, and start combing through texts that are less current than the newspaper in which your article appears. The reporter was the one mediator of the world the reader would encounter, so the report had to avoid the mediator’s point of view and try to reflect all sides of contentious issues. Objectivity arose to address the disconnected nature of paper.

Our new medium is, of course, wildly connective. Now we can explore beyond the news rectangle just by clicking. There is no longer an imperative to squeeze the world into small, self-contained boxes. Hyperlinks remove the limitations that objectivity was invented to address.

Hyperlinks also enable readers to understand — and thus perhaps discount — the writer’s point of view, which is often a better way of getting past the writer’s prejudices than asking the writer to write as if she or he had none. This, of course, inverts the old model that assumed that if we knew about the journalist’s personal opinions, her or his work would be less credible. Now we often think that the work becomes more credible if the author is straightforward about his or her standpoint. That’s the sense in which transparency is the new objectivity.

There is still value in trying to recognize how one’s own standpoint and assumptions distort one’s vision of the world; emotional and conceptual empathy are of continuing importance because they are how we embody the truth that we share a world with others to home that world matters differently. But we are coming to accept that we can’t really get a view from nowhere, and if we could, we would have no idea what we’re looking at. (…)

Our new ability to know the world at a scale never before imaginable may not bring us our old type of understanding, but understanding and knowledge are not motivated only by the desire to feel that sudden gasp of insight. The opposite and ancient motive is to feel the breath of awe in the face of the almighty unknowability of our universe. A knowing that recognizes its object is so vast that it outstrips understanding makes us more capable of awe. (…)

Technodeterminism is the claim that technology by itself has predictable, determinant effects on people or culture. (…) We still need to be able to discuss how a technology is affecting a culture in general. Generalizations can be a vehicle of truth, so long as they are understood to be only generally true. (…) The new knowledge continues to find generalities that connect individual instances, but because the new ecosystem is hyperlinked, we can go from the generalities back to the individual cases. And those generalizations are themselves linked into a system of difference and disagreement.”

David Weinberger, Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, American technologist, professional speaker, and commentator, interviewed by Rebecca J. Rosen, What the Internet Means for How We Think About the World, The Atlantic, Jan 5 2012.

See also:

To Know, but Not Understand: David Weinberger on Science and Big Data, The Atlantic, Jan 3, 2012 
When science becomes civic: Connecting Engaged Universities and Learning Communities, University of California, Davis, September 11 - 12, 2001
The Filter Bubble: Eli Pariser on What the Internet Is Hiding From You
A story about the Semantic Web (Web 3.0) (video)
Vannevar Bush on the new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge (1945)
George Lakoff on metaphors, explanatory journalism and the ‘Real Rationality’
The Relativity of Truth - a brief résumé, Lapidarium notes