I’m reading ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ by David Weinberger, and in it I found the following passage.
Knowledge, we’ve thought, has four characteristics, two of them modeled on properties of reality and two on properties of political regimes.
As we’ve seen, the first characteristic of traditional knowledge is that just as there is one reality, there is one knowledge, the same for all. If two people have contradictory ideas about something factual, we think they can’t both be right. This is because we’ve assumed knowledge is an accurate representation of reality, and the real world cannot be self-contradictory. We treat ideas that dispute this view of knowledge with disdain. We label them “relativism” and imagine them to be the devil’s work, we sneer at them as “postmodern” and assume that it’s just a bunch of French pseudointellectual gibberish, or we say “whatever” as a license to stop thinking.
Second, we’ve assumed that just as reality is not ambiguous, neither is knowledge. If something isn’t clear to us, then we haven’t understood it. We may not be 100 percent certain about whether the Nile or the Amazon is the longest river, but we’re confident one is. Conversely, if there’s no possibility of certainty -“Which tastes better, beets or radishes?” – we say it isn’t a matter of knowledge at all.
Third, because knowledge is as big as reality, no one person can comprehend it. So we need people who will act as filters, using their education, experience, and clear thinking. We call them experts and we give them clipboards. They keep bad information away from us and provide us with the very best information.
Fourth, experts achieve their position by working their way up through social institutions. The people in these institutions are doing their best to be honest and helpful, but until humans achieve divinity, our organizations will inevitably be subject to corrupting influences. Which groups get funded can determine what a society believes, and funding is often granted by people who know less than the experts: The fate of a DNA reserach center may rest with congresspeople who can’t tell a ribosome from a trombone.
The way we’ve organized knowledge has been largely determined by these four properties of knowledge. We’ve tried to settle on a single, comprehensive framework for knowledge, with categories so clear and comprehensive that experts can put each thing in its proper place. Institutions grew to maintain the knowledge framework. Their ability to certify experts and to vouch for knowledge made them powerful and, sometimes, rich. So when the miscellaneous shakes our certainty in the nature of knowledge, more than the future of the [library] card catalog is at stake. Because a [new miscellaneous order] is digital, not physical, we no longer have to agree on a single framework. Things have their places, not a single place. We get to create our own categories, ones that suit our way of thinking. Experts can be helpful, but in the age of the miscellaneous they and their institutions are no longer in charge of our ideas.
These are big changes, but perhaps the most urgent one is this: Over the course of the millennia, we’ve developed sophisticated methods and processes for developing, communicating, and preserving knowledge. We have major institutions – serious contributors to our culture and our economy – devoted to those tasks. We’re good at it. Now we have to invent new ways appropriate to the new shape of knowledge [pp. 100-102].
How about that? I plan to write more about Weinberger’s book in a later post.