Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Knowledge and the Internet

What Lies Beneath

"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"
by David Weinberger
Basic Books, $14.29

Karl Popper, a towering figure in 20th century philosophy of science, firmly opposed the view that theories emerge from random observations. Once he even ridiculed a hypothetical scientist “who dedicated his life to natural science, wrote down everything he could observe, and bequeathed his priceless collection of observations to the Royal Society to be used as inductive evidence.” For Popper, “though beetles may profitably be collected, observations may not.”

David Weinberger, the author of “Too Big to Know” and a Harvard researcher, doesn’t mention Popper. But his rejoinder is easy to predict: Popper’s theory of knowledge was conditioned and constrained by the medium he used to develop it. Had Popper stopped worrying about limited paper supply and embraced today’s world of hyperlinks and infinite storage, even the most inconsequential of observations would look like knowledge to him.

Weinberger wants to be the Marshall McLuhan of knowledge management. Where McLuhan claimed that the medium shapes the reception of the message, Weinberger claims that the medium also shapes what counts as knowledge. Or, as he himself puts it, “transform the medium by which we develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge, and we transform knowledge.”

How does this happen? Weinberger argues that on the Internet facts are born “linked,” pointing to other facts and opinions. With time, other entities start linking to them, creating digital traces that can be used to scrutinize and even revise original facts.

On paper, facts look firm and reliable; online, they are always in flux. Furthermore, the Internet, unlike your local library, is infinite. Librarians choose which books to acquire; books that don’t make the cut become invisible. Not so with search engines. What they filter out doesn’t disappear — it stays in the background. New filters, Weinberger claims, don’t “filter out” but “filter forward.”

This triumph of the “networked” and the “hyperlinked” unsettles everything: facts (those who think that Barack Obama was born in Kenya also have facts), books (they are unable to contain “linked” and infinite knowledge) and even knowledge itself (it’s too obsessed with theories and consensus-seeking). Thus, “knowledge has become a network with the characteristics — for better and for worse — of the Net.”

This is an ambitious thesis. It’s also not original. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,” a famous 1979 book by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, makes a similar claim about computerization. “Along with the hegemony of computers comes a certain logic, and therefore a certain set of prescriptions determining which statements are accepted as ‘knowledge statements,’” wrote Lyotard. Weinberger doesn’t mention Lyotard by name but claims that “the Internet showed us that the postmodernists were right.”

Too bad, then, that his argument is ridden with familiar postmodernist fallacies, the chief of which is his lack of discipline in using loaded terms like “knowledge.” This term means different things in philosophy and information science; the truth of a proposition matters in the former but not necessarily in the latter. Likewise, sociologists of knowledge trace the social life of facts, often by studying how and why people come to regard certain claims as “knowledge.” The truth of such claims is often irrelevant.

For epistemologists, however, to say that “S knows that p” three conditions must be met. P must be true; S must believe that p; S must be justified in believing that p. One can’t “know” that “Barack Obama was born in Kenya” because it’s untrue. On the other hand, to “know” that “Barack Obama was born in Hawaii,” one needs to have justification. A copy of his birth certificate would do. The hyperlink nirvana has not rid us of the justification requirement. The Internet may have altered the context in which justification is obtained — one can now link to Obama’s birth certificate — but it hasn’t changed what counts as “knowledge.”

That scientific facts today are no longer persuasive on their own has less to do with our changing attitudes toward knowledge than with our changing attitudes — marked by suspicion of power, expertise and claims to neutrality — toward science as a socio-political enterprise. Postmodernists foresaw some of these changes, but Weinberger overstates their contribution. The sociology of scientific knowledge and science studies played a more consequential role. These two disciplines have posed valid challenges to traditional epistemology, but Weinberger is too impatient to position his argument within that debate, at times invoking claims from both camps but never stating his own theory of truth (thus, he can simultaneously claim that “truth will remain truth” and that “knowledge is becoming ... unthinkable without ... the network that enables it”). Such carelessness stems from Weinberger’s fixation on media and its history, a fixation that comes at the expense of engaging with other fields and disciplines studying the production of knowledge. He may be right that the notion of “objectivity” is dead in journalism. It is, however, very much alive in science.

Many of Weinberger’s other claims fall apart on closer examination. Does Hunch.com, a site that asks users hundreds of questions to predict what movies or books they might like, exemplify “a serious shift in our image of what knowledge looks like”? Hunch.com uses techniques of statistics, data mining and machine learning to turn correlations into recommendations. All of these, of course, are well-established disciplines predating the Internet. For Weinberger, the claim that “75% of people who liked ‘Mad Men’ also liked ‘Breaking Bad’” is revolutionary because, unlike Darwin’s theory of evolution, it is “theory-free.” However, such “theory-free knowledge” has a very long history. Think of census reports, surveys or marketing questionnaires. Yes, people fill in these forms online now. But is this somehow revolutionary?

Weinberger does have an annoying penchant for finding novelty in things simply because they exist online. Thus, he invokes PolitiFact.com — a prominent journalistic project that fact-checks what public figures say — to argue that the Internet is also capable of countering misinformation. What an odd choice: PolitiFact.com, as it happens, is not run from a geek’s basement. It’s run by St. Petersburg Times, a card-carrying member of the old knowledge regime. Yes, it operates online. But the claim that PolitiFact can therefore tell us something about “the Internet” is highly suspicious.

In the end, it’s hard to say what this book is about. Weinberger is too incurious to interrogate the modern state of knowledge or explain which of our current attitudes toward it are driven by the Internet and which by other social dynamics. And it’s certainly not a book about technology: Weinberger distances himself from this topic, and his shallow treatment of online filters suggests it was a wise decision. In the end, perhaps, this might be a book about the prospect of yet another digital revolution — a revolution so vague that no one would blame Weinberger if it fails to materialize.

Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, is the author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom" (PublicAffairs)

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