Posts Tagged ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’

More on Knowledge & Weinberger

May 7, 2009

I’ve been thinking more about David Weinberger’s ideas of knowledge and how it is formed and communicated. (I’ve discussed Weinberger earlier; see sort-of-review and on knowledge, and an excerpt from his book.) Weinberger seem convinced that the emergence of the internet, and particularly user oriented knowledge bases such as Wikipedia, will change the shape of knowledge: We need to adapt to the new shape of knowledge (see the excerpt).

First of all, what is knowledge, and how is it formed (not shaped; created)? I don’t have the answer to those questions, and they require more space and time than what I intend to spend: There is an entire philosophical branch devoted to knowledge and its structure; it’s called epistemology. (And I don’t know much about it, so what is to follow is amateur epistemology; consider yourself warned.)

My first thought is that there are two types of knowledge: personal knowledge and external knowledge. The personal kind of knowledge is basically the content of your brain, and consist of both external knowledge and memories of experiences. Memories of experiences form skills, for example; a type of knowledge that is not external. External knowledge is knowledge as recorded in books, on film, and so on. (External is probably a terrible word, but I could not come up with a better one; suggestions?) Weinberger is primarily concerned with external knowledge, and so is epistemology as far as I understand.

I described external knowledge as recorded knowlegde, and that is important. Knowledge on the internet is recorded in some form, mostly in writing. When it is recorded, it is communicated. Communication is crucial to knowledge. If I’m not wrong, Weinberger touches upon the importance of communication somewhere in his book. My point is that it is extremely hard to communicate knowledge. Anyone who has tried to put an idea down in writing knows how hard it is. Knowledge is often complicated and involved with other knowledge, which makes it harder. Bad writing is unclear; my personal opinion is that much of the writing on Wikipedia is not particularly good. I’m not certain that millions of anonymous editors can make it better. Weinberger argues that when people stop editing an article on Wikipedia, it constitutes the knowledge ‘we’ agree on. Agreement does not necessarily imply clearly written prose. To the contrary, it may be easier to agree on something fluffy and unclear, which may even mean different things to different people.

Who are ‘we’, by the way? If I’m not mistaken, only about every sixth person has daily access to the internet in the world today. How many of those who do have access devote time to edit articles on Wikipedia? The fact that certain kinds of people may be more interested in Wikipedia can lead to bias. The fact that a lot of smart people never contribute to Wikipedia leads to incompleteness.

Finally, Weinberger underscores the problem of statements which may constitute knowledge to some, but not to others. I don’t see how Wikipedia can solve that: In the end, there is only one article on each topic. It may be broad and change through time, but I simply don’t believe one source can ever be enough.

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Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger

May 4, 2009

It’s been a while since I finished ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ by David Weinberger, and I’ve been planning to put down some thoughts on it. It’s an interesting book; it forced me to think about stuff in new and different ways than before. I don’t always agree with Weinberger, though.

The book is about how the web and its new ways of organizing and connecting things changes how we think, how we work, how knowledge forms, and, ultimately, us. That last point, how the web 2.o (which is a fancy buzzword for web pages and appliances letting its users contribute in different ways) changes us is actually never discussed in the book, but it certainly is understood and implied in Weinberger’s grandiose views. After all, how we think is a part of who and what we are.

Weinberger main topic is order. There are three orders: The first order is the order of physical things, like how books are lined up on shelves in a library. The second order is the catalogue order. A catalogue typically refers to a physical order; it is still physical, but one can make several catalogs of the same physical order. Weinberger’s prime example is the card catalog of libraries. The third order of order is the digital order, where there is no limit to the number of possible orderings. The digital order frees itself from physical reality, and in it, everything can be connected and related to everything else: Everything is miscellaneous.

‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ is, naturally, the topic of numerous blog entries and online discussions. For example, I stumbled across the blog ‘Experiencing Information’ by James Kalbach, and he has some interesting thoughs on Weinberger’s book. In one post, he discusses an analogy between Weinbergers three orders of order and Karl Popper’s theory of reality: I was unaware of Popperian cosmology, but the analogy is striking. In another post, he critizises Weinberger’s use of the library card catalogue as example and illustration of how backward the second (and first) order is. Instead, he suggests that the real topic of interest is the Time of Information in the third order, and not the order itself:

I agree with Weinberger that the third order of organization the web affords is different, but not because other means of accessing books (just to stick with that example) don’t exist. That vision was already there in the paper world.

There are indexes that provide access to Bach cantatas by the first line of text, for instance. Same for poetry. And then there are the countless literature guides in just about any discipline and sub-discipline.

So what the web really changes is:
a.) Who is doing the organizing. Now it’s everyone instead of information professionals
b.) The time it takes to create new lists of access points to books, to then find those list, and to use them effectively.

The Time of Information in the third order, then, is the real thing to focus on.

I would say it is also worth to foucs on who organizes, and who contributes content. Weinberger thinks highly of Wikipedia, for example, where any user can add, change, tag, comment, and link to any material. It sounds chaotic, and it often is. However, over time, stuff tend to settle down. In Weinberger’s view, it’s all fantastic:

[I]magine it is ten years from now. New topics are still being added to Wikipedia an old ones edited, but not at the rate of the early years. The big arguments have mainly been settled. There are continuous small edits polishing the more popular articles, but big changes have become more rare. Wikipedia then constitutes the body of knowledge about which we agree. […] Wikipedia is commoditizing knowledge, continuing a trend that search engines such as Google began. Text-books also present settled knowledge, or at least present it as settled, but the Internet makes knowledge as instantly available as a calculator’s “equals” button [pp. 214-215].

In fairness, Weinberger admits that Wikipedia will never be complete, and there will always be something to argue about. I think there are several reasons to be skeptic towards Wikipedia. Interestingly enough,  Wikipedia itself has a discussion of some of its problems (here), and most of my concerns are in fact covered there.  (I’ve quoted more of Weinberger’s ideas about how the internet changes knowledge in an earlier post.)

Weinberger sees potential value in every link, tag and comment added to the third order. Personally, however, I often find the links distracting. I should just ignore them, of course, but when I click them, it’s not because I don’t think its interesting to me. That is not the point. A thought experiment illustrates the problem: In a hundred years, there may exist articles on Wikipedia, or elsewhere on the web, where every word links to something else. Every word. And, even worse, and we don’t even have to do time travel to experience another problem; the same word may link to different things at different places. (Of course, that can be a strengt as well, but it can certainly be a problem.)

I want to go back to James Kalbach: In a third post he claims that libraries are not as useless as Weinberger seem to think:

Missing from Everything is Miscellaneous, then, is a discussion of the user experience you have while in the stacks of a DDC library. [Dewey Decimal System: A very common classification system used by libraries.] Namely, the books are arranged by subject. If you find one book on Muslims, others around it are likely to be about Muslims too.

And if you think people don’t look left and right when retrieving a book from a shelf, you’re wrong. They do. It’s an important type of information discovery in physical libraries. Let’s say you go to the stacks for a biography of J.S. Bach. You may then see biographies of C.P.E. Bach and J.C. Bach, perhaps whom you didn’t know much about or even existed. That’s an interesting connection you may not have seen online or in a card catalogue.

I love to go to the library, the only problem is that it takes more time than I usually have.

Without going into more detail, I disagree with Weinberger on a lot of issues. I still found the book very interesting; a lot of it is philosophical discussions related to order, knowledge, information, and communication. A particularly interesting discussion is the one on ‘The Span of Meaning’ (p. 169 and onwards). I end this post with a short quote from it:

Meaning‘s own meanings span a range unique in our language. On the one end, a meaning is a simple definition one can look up in a dictionary. At the other end, meaning is the broadest term for what gives value to our lives [p. 169].

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Wikipedia vs. Public Restrooms, and Social Knowledge

April 12, 2009

The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.

The words belong to Robert McHenry, a former editor in chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. I found the quote in David Weinberger’s book ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ (p. 132). The quote is taken from an article McHenry wrote on TechCentralStation.com back in 2004. I’m sure it makes interesting reading. 2004 is five (5!) years ago, however, and a lot has happened since then.

Another skeptic towards Wikipedia is (or, was) Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics; he discovered himself on a list of well-known economists. That was 2005, however, and Dubner’s skepticism has faded (if my memory serves me right, that is; I’m sure he mentioned his newly won trust in Wikipedia somewhere, but I wasn’t able to find it; I need a backward-link seeking tool to find entries linking to the post I link to above, because it was when he mentioned his new view of Wikipedia he linked to the old post with his Wikipedia skepticism I found that; confusing I know, but it’s not important, so just forget about it).

Wikipedia may be great, but it also may be wrong from time to time. To know, you need to find out whether an entry is disputed or not. If it is, I’m sure the relevant discussion page suffices to make sure what is trustworthy and what is not, and eventually what side of the dispute you want to sympathize with. However, if the subject is a bit odd, Wikipedia may be wrong and still not disputed because so few people ever looks up the entry.

So, can Wikipedia be trusted on the big, important entries, but not the small ones? When is an entry big; when is it small? My conclusion is that Wikipedia may be a good starting point, but usually I rely on Wikipedia to take me somewhere else, to ‘real’ sources. Wikipedia doesn’t feel real to me, but it collects threads to a lot of real stuff.

The old rule of not relying on only one source remains. Paradoxically, Wikipedia, which is generated from innumerable sources, needs to be checked towards different sources before one can rely on it.

Weinberger concludes his section containing the McHenry quote with the following sentence:

Knowledge – its content and its organization – is becoming a social act [p.133].

I twisted when I read that. When was knowledge, its content and organization, not social? I’m certain dear Deirdre wrote somewhere (probably in ‘The Rhetoric of Economics’) that research is social; research is supposed to produce science, and if we’re strict about knowledge, it comes from science. Not all kinds of knowledge, for sure, but certainly the kind Weinberger is talking about. Research IS social. It’s not objective; it’s colored by the subjects involved and the social environment they do their research in. What Weinberger tries to tell us, I think, is that more people may take part in the process he calls knowledge (the social act). No initial requirements to participate are necessary, or rather, requirements (I’m thinking education; position; image) doesn’t matter, or matter less. Whether that is a good thing or not, I haven’t yet decided.

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Four Characteristics of Knowledge

April 8, 2009

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.