David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know: Ideas, Expertise, and Knowledge

Since knowledge is the playing field for trainer-teacher-learners, an entire book exploring the theme of knowledge is a much appreciated gift for us.

David Weinberger’s gift—Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room—is everything we’ve come to expect from him: engaging, thought-provoking, introspective, and even gently self-effacing.

As we consider the bodies of knowledge we must assimilate in the course of preparing learning opportunities for others, we gain a lot through Weinberger’s ruminations on the nature of knowledge at a time when knowledge is far from defined solely by what is between the covers of books or peer-reviewed journals. It “is becoming a property of the network, rather than of individuals who know things, of objects that contain knowledge, and of the traditional institutions that facilitate knowledge,” he writes (p. 182).

This is placing us in a “crisis of knowledge,” he maintains. We have to face the fact that the “Internet simply doesn’t have what it takes to create a body of knowledge: No editors and curators who get to decide what is in or out. No agreed-upon walls to let us know that knowledge begins here, while outside uncertainty reigns—at least none that everyone accepts. There is little to none of the permanence, stability, and community fealty that a body of knowledge requires and implies. The Internet is what you get when everyone is a curator and everything is linked” (p. 45) and yet that is where many of us currently turn for knowledge.

We can’t read Weinberger’s book without thinking of how often we are faced with the challenge of trying to distill large amounts of information into the all-too-short learning opportunities we are asked to design and deliver. We can’t, furthermore, proceed with designing and delivering those learning opportunities without acknowledging the diverse sources of information and range of differing opinions available to us. Which is why a book-length exploration like Too Big to Know offers such a valuable opportunity to pull ourselves away from the day-to-day challenges we face, reflect a bit upon those challenges, and look for ways to make some sense of all we are encountering so we can help our learners do the same.

It’s not as if we haven’t been down this road before (and won’t need to go there again). Weinberger, in fact, acknowledges traveling a path followed by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Weinberger, like Carr, writes a book that in some ways argues against the continuing existence of books as containers for our most highly valued knowledge—then acknowledges the irony of putting his knowledge into a book.

“I am aware that it is at best ironic, and at worst hypocritical, that I have written a long-form book, available only on paper (or on paper’s disconnected electronic simulacrum), that is arguing for the strengths of networks over books. My apology is of the unfortunate sort that does not justify the action so much as humiliate the perpetrator, ” he says (pp. 96-97).

And this frank admission—like a similar one from Carr—is part of the reason why we would be making a huge mistake by laughing at the discomfort he has created for himself instead of diving into this thoughtful exploration of the state of Knowledge with a capital K (p. 44) in a world where print and online resources continue to dynamically exist side by side.

“Long-form writing is by no means unnecessary or ‘dead,’” he acknowledges. “But the fact that it is improved by being placed into the Net’s web of connections means it is being dethroned by that web as the single best way to assemble ideas” (p. 116).

And having read Too Big to Know, we stand closer to assimilating those ideas—for ourselves as well as to the benefit of the learners we so often strive to serve.

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