Too big to know

A flight and a night in a hotel have been the perfect opportunity for polishing off David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know. I don’t mean to be as disparaging as this might sound, but it’s the perfect book for business travel. I mean it’s well written, with pithy thoughts, and not over-demanding. Ironically, as the theme of the book is that the web is rendering long-form thinking and writing (ie books) redundant, it would have made a perfect long form online read, or a very long magazine article. The examples are all very nicely done, but the basic idea gets stretched a bit too much.

The basic idea: it’s that we now have this medium that allows us to store knowledge in a different way, outside the confines of pages and minds. As Weinberger puts it in a phrase that’s become quite well known: “the smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room and connects to those outside of it.” (pxiii) His argument is that we need to learn to use the room effectively. One of the most interesting chapters is about the access the network of knowledge gives us to a diversity of perspectives, for more effective decision-making. Weinberger cites one of my favourite books, Scott Page’s The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, on this subject. It’s simple really: people who know different things than you do have more to offer you than people who know the same things because of their similarity to you.

I also very much enjoyed Weinberger’s turn of phrase. For example, talking of post-modernism, he writes that this kind of writing tends to be impenetrably dense “because they are using the fog of language to hide the emptiness of their ideas.” (p89) Hear, hear! Having skewered them effectively, he goes on to give the clearest, concisest and most appealing definition/summary of postmodernism I’ve ever come across. It made me realise that the pomo mistake has been to think their perspectives on discourse exhaust all there is to say, when they are only part of the whole.

Weinberger’s loves books but argues that we should not romanticise them. We think of leather armchairs in cosy libraries, he argues, not crumbling paperbacks coved in dust. I think he needs to check out the bookshelf porn website…but of course have to agree. Of course it must be true that access to the web is changing how we store and access knowledge. I think this must be a good thing; perhaps we lose some memory skills but we gain many, many other things. And anyway, we mustn’t be romantically nostalgic about the shape of memory any more than we are about its storage devices.

The one truly important point, and the one this book ends on, is that access to knowledge is distinct from creating knowledge. No technology can substitute for the slow and painstaking work of Charles Darwin before he published On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. No amount of linking substitutes for investigative journalism. Assuming otherwise is the real danger the ability to access knowledge online poses for us.

Too Big to Know