Now We Have Clouds

Salon has an interview up  with David Weinberger, a scholar at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society and the author of To Big to Know.  Weinberger believes that the Internet is revolutionizing knowledge by creating the “networked fact”:

“Over the past couple hundred years, we’ve had this idea that knowledge is composed of facts about the world, and together we are engaged in this multigenerational enterprise of gathering facts and posting them, and ultimately we’ll have a complete picture of the world. That view of facts as the irreducible atoms of knowledge has some benefit, but we’re seeing a different type of fact emerge on the Net as well. Traditional facts are still there. Facts are facts. But we’re seeing organizations of all sorts releasing their data, their facts, onto the Web as huge clouds of triples [another word for linked data]. They’re a connection of two ideas through some relationship — that’s why they’re called triples — but not only can they be linked together by computers, they themselves consist of links. Each of the elements of a linked atom is a pointer to some resource that disambiguates it and explains what it is.”

Okay, got that? Underwhelmed? You must not be understanding the import of the shift from “traditional facts” to “triples”. Let’s try this again with a concrete illustration:

“OK, so, if the triple is “Edmonton is in Canada,” ideally each of those should link to some other spot on the Web that explains exactly which Edmonton, because there’s probably more than one, along with which Canada (though there’s probably only one). And “is in” is a very ambiguous statement [Clinton nods], so you would point to some vocabulary that defines it for geography. Each of these little facts is designed not only to be linked up by computers, but it itself consists of links. It’s a very different idea than that facts are bricks that lay a firm foundation. The old metaphor for knowledge was architectural and archaeological: foundations, bricks. Now we have clouds.”

Okay, got it? Now we have clouds! Clouds … they’re here. We have them, now.

I really thought I was missing something until I came across Evgeny Morozov’s review of Weinberger’s book. Morozov is also unimpressed. He reminds us that Weinberger’s claims are not exactly original. Lyotard already made similar claims in his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition. I would add that among the easier to digest elements in the work of the late Gilles Deleuze was the idea that knowledge was structured like a rhizome rather than a tree. (It is unclear whether he ever said, “Now we have rhizomes.”)

Moreover, Morozov is enough of a stickler for traditional facts to point out that what we mean by knowledge depends a great deal on our epistemic context. In his view, Weinberger’s thesis falters because he speaks of knowledge and facts as abstractions and fails to distinguish between contexts in which the truthfulness of “knowledge” counts and contexts in which it does not.

Judging from certain comments in the interview, Morozov seems on target when he claims that “Weinberger wants to be the Marshall McLuhan of knowledge management.” Here is Weinberger on knowledge and its medium:

“With the new medium of knowledge — the Internet — knowledge not only takes on properties of that medium but also lives at the level of the network. So rather than simply trying to cultivate smart people, we also need to be looking above the level of the individual to the network in which he or she is embedded to see where knowledge lives.”

It’s somewhat unfair to ask for too much depth in an interview format, but I’d be hard pressed to unpack anything meaningful out of those sentences. When McLuhan comes off as vague and gnomic you have the sense that you’re not getting something deep; in this case I have the sense that there is not much to get. A little later on Weinberger offers this further reflection:

In 1988, Russell Ackoff, an organizational theorist, proposed a pyramid that has become really standard in many business environments. You have data at the bottom, then information, and then knowledge — and then at the top, wisdom, as if wisdom is the reduced set of knowledge. The idea is in line with our traditional idea of knowledge, which is based on the idea that there’s too much to know, there’s more than can fit into any skull, so we need to come up with strategies to deal with it. And that pyramid is the information age’s elaboration of this. In every step you get quality and value by reducing what was at lower steps, but we’ve had a reductive sense of knowledge for about 2,500 years.

Again, after reading that a time or two, I’m still not sure what the point is. But I do know that Ackoff did not come up with that schema. In his mid-1930s composition, “Choruses from ‘The Rock'”, TS Eliot wrote,

“Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Now that makes sense.

One last point, it is not a reduction that is entailed by the movement from data to information to knowledge and then wisdom. It is an enhancement based on the progressive derivation and application of meaning. This is a very different activity than the gradual reduction of a vast field of data to a more manageable set and it is an activity that cannot be abstracted to some nebulous realm above individuals. It lives concretely in embodied and embedded experience.

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Update: Perhaps the interview format did not suit Mr. Weinberger. In fairness, here is an edited excerpt from the book at The Atlantic that at least has the virtue of making sense: “To Know, But Not Understand.”

3 thoughts on “Now We Have Clouds

  1. I like Weinberger, but had the same reaction to what I have read about “Too Big to Know.” Wisdom comes from depth, and depth is not found up in the cloud. Thanks for the excellent post Mike!

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