What is knowledge? And, in a world of information overload, how do we know how to know? Also, is the Internet making us smarter or stupider? These are the questions David Weinberger addresses in 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.
When Weinberger writes that “the smartest person in the room is the room,” the room represents the internet and the analogy is to groups of users collaborating to share information on the Web. This, Weinberger argues, has changed the shape of knowledge, which used to be defined by the printed opinions of experts, bound by the limits of the page. But now, through linking knowledge and allowing diverse groups of people to participate, including amateurs as well as experts, the internet has made knowledge shapeless and limitless.
Is this a good thing? Ultimately, Weinberger thinks it is, but it means that we must learn how to know in this new vista of endless information, how to filter what we learn so that we do not become overwhelmed by the information overload.
Writing in a clear, thoughtful and very readable way, Weinberger sets forth both the perils of “echo chambers,” in which users seek only those sites which reinforce what they already believe, and the importance of disagreement in reaching new truths and expanding our knowledge. He provides examples from science, education, and government of the strides made in these fields by collaborative projects that bring together experts and amateurs to do what one or a handful of professionals might never be able to accomplish. The impact of “smart mobs” and “wise crowds” is examined with many examples.
There have been plenty of articles and books written about the negative effects of the internet on users. There are those who say that it is impairing our ability to remember and eroding our attention span. That is why this book focuses on finding solutions to the way we handle this new way of learning and knowing. Ultimately, whether the internet is making us smarter or stupider depends on us and how we use it.
Certainly, Too Big to Know is an important book for anyone who uses the internet, which is nearly everyone, and who is concerned about the nature of learning and knowing. It is also fascinating and thought-provoking. Weinberger’s style makes it a quick read that is never boring or pedantic. If you are looking for a guide to how to best benefit from the knowledge available at your fingertips, this guide is a great place to start.