< The Changing Nature of Knowledge in the Internet Age

Transcript

Friday, February 17, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Our knowledge of the world continually evolves, but one thing seems immutable. Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts. So said Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, laying out the fundamental guarantee of knowledge that facts will ultimately settle our disputes and bring us together, but as knowledge moves onto the Internet, the nature of knowledge is shifting, as well.

David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of the new book 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. He says that the traditional approach to knowledge was to sort out the precious wheat from the worthless chaff.

DAVID WEINBERGER:

Knowledge was highly filtered, so there was a huge conceivable set of things people were saying, opinions being spouted. And knowledge was a tiny percentage of all the things that are said. The facts would be carefully exposed, sometimes at great personal expense, and each of these facts would go together to make this picture of the world as it is.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Darwin took seven years to find one fact?

DAVID WEINBERGER:

Yep.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

The question was whether barnacles are mollusks or crustaceans.

[BROOKE LAUGHING]

And they had been classified as mollusks. Seven years later Darwin nailed it in two volumes that, in fact, they're crustaceans. Now, that's — that's a fact!

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS] And you use the example of the platypus to describe the limitations of the pre-digital approach to knowledge.

DAVID WEINBERGER:

It's actually getting hard for us to remember this, but for millennia the idea of knowledge was to discover what the place of something was in the order of the universe. And so, the platypus didn't fit into the categories that we had already decided were the right ones, because it's sort of a mammal. It's got a beak, it, it lays eggs. It's really — it's not well designed for these categories.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Many thought the platypus was a hoax.

DAVID WEINBERGER:

Even when they — when they saw one, when one was shipped —

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

— in — to England, and it had eggs in it, the belief in these categories was so strong that they looked at it and said this cannot be!

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You say now knowledge is taking a new shape.

DAVID WEINBERGER:

So the system of knowledge that we had developed for ourselves is, in many ways, a system of stopping points because the medium of that knowledge was paper and books, and for all of their glory, the links in 'em don't work; the footnotes are broken. When you go to click on them, they — you don't actually get taken to the next book. So books are a very disconnected medium.

As knowledge goes on to the Internet, knowledge is turning into this huge mass of contradictory connections that you can travel along forever.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

If you inch up your long title, you say "Now that the facts aren't the facts." Isn't that a fundamental problem, that everybody can hold onto their facts and there's never a forum in which they ever can be disproved?

DAVID WEINBERGER:

I am certainly not saying there are no facts. What I'm saying in that little bit of subtitle is the facts aren't the facts. We're not going to agree. And that means that facts are not going to settle the issues we want them to settle.

There's no conceivable additional evidence to convince Americans that our President was not born in Kenya. Yet, a sizeable percentage of Americans continue to believe that. Facts are not going to settle our disputes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You say that at last we have a medium that is big enough for knowledge.

DAVID WEINBERGER:

When you have a medium that is unrestricted in how much it can handle, as the Internet is, we are better able to investigate an idea without stopping points, we're able to get explanations at every level of expertise. You want to know about faster-than-light neutrinos and you don't have any math, you will find some really good explanations. And if you're a physicist, you'll find really good explanations there, as well.

The ecology of knowledge has filled out. The ability of people to engage in discussions and to get additive knowledge and perspectives is orders and orders of magnitude better than it was.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So we can be better and smarter if we want to be. We have the technology. [LAUGHS]

DAVID WEINBERGER:

[LAUGHS] Yeah, because this is an awesome time to be a knowledge-seeker, no better time. But it's also the best time in history to be a complete idiot.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

So the question is how can we make this infrastructure better? Things like supporting open access, putting information out in ways that enable it easily to be found and to hook together with other information, recognizing that knowledge needs to be something that happens in public.

If you look at how software developers learn, if they have a question, a problem with a program they're writing, they will go on the Web and do a search and they will get answers and discussions about answers and the code itself and then improvements of the code.

This is maybe the best rapid learning environment we've ever had in human history. It assumes that learning is something that should be done in public. Other people can find it. You've just made the public a little bit smarter.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What makes this era of knowledge better than the last one?

DAVID WEINBERGER:

Our old idea of knowledge was too —restricted. The world is gigantic. We need knowledge that scales as large as the world. We now have an in - infrastructure that lets us do that, but the nature of knowledge changes dramatically, so that it includes difference and disagreement as a part of knowledge itself. It's something we can all contribute to. It gets better as we do so.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

David, thank you very much.

DAVID WEINBERGER:

Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

David Weinberger's a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of Too Big to Know:  Rethinking Knowledge Now That Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.