Too Big to Know - at least by yourself

Too Big to KnowToo Big to KnowI've just finished my copy of David Weinberger's Too Big to Know.  I have been following David for a long time, and I've heard speak* on variations of this topic a number of times, so this book felt very familiar.

The basic theme here is that, while there has always been more knowledge than any one person could know, the networked nature of the world is making that fact stand out like a sore thumb. Previously, knowledge was hidden behind the difficulty of accessing and publishing the knowledge (books, libraries, centers of learning).  Now, of course, knowledge is leaking out all over the place and we have the familiar problem of information overload (or filters that haven't caught up with the new nature of knowledge).

This is a big change from thinking about knowledge belonging to a person (or being embedded in a thing like a book) to knowledge being a property of the network.  No network, no knowledge.  Weinberger makes the point that this has always been the case, but that many of the formal networks which gave their stamp of authority are being challenged by the array of alternate networks that one can find with a simple click of the mouse.

Weinberger starts out the book talking about knowledge and knowledge overload - an expansion on the idea of information overload.  There are some familiar elements in here, and I liked his discussion of the way filters have changed in the digital world.  In the physical world, filters remove things from the stream (you can have only so many books, 8-track cassettes, etc).  In the digital world, you can get to anything, so filters simply change "how many clicks" to get to those things.  Weinberger calls this "filtering forward" rather than "filtering out."

Toward the end of the book, he brings together may of the threads that roam through the book and through his building up of evidence.  An element of this is back to the idea that knowledge is in the network - even for hierarchical organizations where decisions are made at the top and cascaded down.  The effects of that decision ripple out through the networks of people who must interpret and take action as a result of that decision.  "The moment of decision is now explicitly a node in a network from which it arises and through which it pulses" (p. 171).

I also like that he summarizes with some thoughts on making networked knowledge work for us, instead of against us.  1) Open up access. 2) Provide the hooks for intelligence. 3) Link everything. 4) Leave no institutional knowledge behind. and 5) Teach everyone.  All the thoughts are valid, but #5 rings home for me.  We need to teach people what it means for knowledge to be in the network.  How do we do that?  How do we make it happen?  What does it mean for our small network?  This is something I've seen over and over again in the collaboration arena: give people the tools, and they'll just collaborate naturally.  No, they won't. Particularly within organizations where that is a new concept.

Overall, 2B2K an interesting study of knowledge and where the networked world is taking us - to another iteration on what knowledge is.

* In fact, I bought this book about a month ago, when I attended his book talk at David's local Brookline Booksmith.  In his book talk he walked through many of the elements I mention above.  Having seen David talk many times (and read his other books), I could really sense his personality coming through in the book.  One thing he said at some point in the evening was that he wasn't sure that he would write another book.  The whole point of Too Big to Know is that it is becoming harder and harder to "trap" knowledge into the written-and-bound form.

2 Comment(s)

James said:

Good summary, Jack. Thank you for your continued dedication to the topic of knowledge.

Alice said:

I would be careful with your last advice - to teach everyone. The reaction to this I-teach-everyone can be unpredictable.

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