Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Rethinking Knowledge

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Too Big To Know by David Weinberger certainly does give a person something to think about. If the book title doesn’t intrigue you, move on to the subtitle:

Rethinking Knowledge
Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts,
Experts Are Everywhere,
and the Smartest Person in the Room
Is the Room

 I think entire college course could be dedicated to the subtitle alone.

Speaking of colleges, specifically universities, it makes sense Weinberger is the person to write a book about how the Internet has impacted our knowledge since he is a Senior Researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for the Internet & Society.  He knows what he is talking about when it comes to the Internet and how it is shaping our thinking, and that’s what this book is all about: how  the Internet is reshaping our thinking.

From the inside book flap:

We used to know how to know.  We got our answers from books or experts.  We’d nail down the facts and move on.  But in the Internet age, knowledge has moved onto networks.  There’s more knowledge than ever, of course, but its different. (emphasis added)

It is different.  It’s instant.  And we all know from downing ramen, micro meals, and breakfast in a glass, that instant is not better–it’s quicker, yes, but overall it lacks something in the quality aspect of satisfaction.

Let’s wind up the Victrola, please….Back in my day (yada yada).  But it’s true, back in school, you know prior to the ’80s and desktop computers and Internet access, a student had to GO to the library and look up information in almanacs, encyclopedias, and in expert-crafted tomes of knowledge.  I don’t think our school library even owns an encyclopedia set anymore.  Librarian: Just go look it up on the computer.  In fact, I think the school library has become a computer lab adorned with fiction, since the non-fiction is ignored and passed over for the Internet click instead.

After reading Weinberger’s book I feel my long held opinion is validated: we are becoming stupider. I tell my students all the time how our brain is a muscle.  If we don’t exercise our muscles they atrophy.  I know my brain is getting flabby.  One example is my lack of data bank of memorized phone numbers.  Why should I when I can speed dial?  Yet, before I rant about the overkill of technology and how it is breeding a stupider instead of brainer society let me let Weinberger point out his thoughts:

page xii (even before he starts the book)
The Internet is an unedited mash of rumor, gossips, and lies.  It splinters our attention and spells the end of reflective, long-form thought…Everyone with any stupid idea has a megaphone as big as that of educated, trained people. We form “echo chambers” online and actually encounter fewer challenges to our thinking than we did during the broadcast era.  Google is degrading our memories.  Google is making us stupid.  The Internet loves fervid, cult-driven amateurs and drives professionals out of business.

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Before we pack up our Macs, trade in our iPhones, and blast Microsoft and totally castigate technology, let’s step back, take a breath and rethink knowledge. Here is the big question: how much do we need to know?  This is what Weinberger explores throughout his book.

In Chapter Nine he brings up the million dollar question: Are the changes in knowledge good or bad?  I dunno–are they?  All I know is what I learned and most of my learning has come from reading, not from zipping and schlipping and sedgwaying my way across the knowledge-littered frontier of cyber space.  I feel drained and mentally fatigued after I have spent an hour kibitzing on the computer.  Kind of like eating a bag of Cheetos when I should have been eating a salad but didn’t want to take the time to create something nutritious.  The analogy tie is that although Cheetos could be considered food it doesn’t have a lasting effect when it comes to nourishment; it’s not at all like savoring a lovely garden salad laden with veggies and topped with sunflower seeds.  Seeking information via the Internet for me, most of the time, is eating a bag of Cheetos.  I keep eating, but I’m still hungry even after the bag is done.  Books are salad in that the bulk goes down and stays down and feeds the body (lettuce and pages–it works).

All I can say is the whole “Is the Internet enlivening or depriving our brains” question brings me back to the short story By the Waters of Babylon”  Do you know the passage I’m alluding to? The one where the protagonist looks around at the remains of the once great society and wonders, “Did they eat their knowledge too fast?”

It makes me wonder–are we eating our knowledge too fast?


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4 thoughts on “Rethinking Knowledge

  1. Very familiar with the Babylon passage (it helps to teach sophomores). I don’t know if we’re really eating our knowledge too fast if we’re not really digesting it. But I do feel that having all of this technology on hand has made me not as likely to remember something. I think it might be the equivalent of dumbing-down equalizer that might be seen in “Harrison Bergeron” where people are unable to remember what they were thinking.

    • The “Harrison Bergeron” reference is another example of the past giving a wink to the future. Information overload. A sign of the times? Or I wonder if it’s time we look at the signs around us?
      Thanks for your insights

  2. The internet has muddled our understanding of the difference between data, information, and knowledge. Data is simply a collection of unorganized and unverified facts – and most of what we find on the internet is just that: data. There is no meaning to that data until we apply knowledge to the data to organize and understand that data. Unfortunately because we have so much data available to us we think we have all the knowledge we need. It turns out what we are missing is the information needed to understand the meaning/context of the data.

  3. I think you have presented the current conundrum of our times. Thanks for the thought-provoking reply.

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