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, $25.99, 231 pages)
What we have here is a situation that’s either really simple or overwhelmingly complex. This reviewer isn’t so sure of what to make of David Weinberger’s history and background survey of the Internet. Weinberger’s credentials are impeccable. He is a senior researcher at the Harvard University Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. Perhaps it’s his professional training that had led to a penchant for sequencing, numbering and setting forth the pros and cons of an issue.
The book begins with the background of how, over the past few centuries, man has considered knowledge to be facts gathered by elite scholars and used these facts as the basis of a broad acceptance of scientific principles and general information. Prior to the ubiquity of the Internet, small numbers of experts who were organized into scholarly associations that, along with the publishing industry, controlled access to knowledge. The limits of peer review and publishing kept this information under tight control.
We have given up the idea that there is a single, knowable organization of the Universe, a Book of Nature that we’ll ever be able to read together or that will settle bar fights like the Guinness Book of World Records.
Weinberger readily offers his own take on the new use of knowledge by everyone and his uncle. We know that the growing number of online communities provides ample opportunities for anyone with an opinion to broadcast it all over the world. He argues that specialized communities on the Internet are becoming insular in much the same way past experts operated within the walls of academia, literally echo chambers. Of course there is a glaring difference between the past scholarly cliques and today’s echo chambers because anyone with a laptop and access to WiFi can appear to be an expert.
On the Net, everyone is potentially an expert in something – it all depends on the questions being asked.
Too Big to Know sometimes bends back on itself with examples. The premise of the book may be a bit overworked. The target audience for this book is not clear to this reviewer. Perhaps it might be someone of an indeterminate age who is inquisitive about knowledge.
This survey book may be the answer to a question that no one was asking.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.