[iDC] Everything is Misc - extracts and intro

Myron Turner mturner at cc.umanitoba.ca
Mon Jul 9 00:01:25 EDT 2007

I found the excerpts from David Weinberger's book interesting.  But I 
had the feeling that he tended at times to conflate information with 
knowledge.  David uses information to mean "information technology",  
i.e. search engines, databases, on-line catalogs (usually databases), 
collections of hyperlinks (del.icio.us, iTunes, bookmark collections), 
and the kinds of categorization technologies that enable the filtering 
of this data.  True, this is a kind of "knowledge", vastly more fluid 
and provocative than, say, the old library catalog with its yellowing, 
dog-eared cards and so much quicker than browsing the stacks and 
specialist bibliographies, which together once made up our information 
technology.  But one would never confuse the "information" in the card 
catalog with what it pointed to, and this is what I sometimes find in 
David's analysis.  For instance, he quotes the disdainful remark about 
Wikipedia made by Robert McHenry, former editor of  Britannica.  I 
(unfortunately) happen to be a rather uncritical user of Wikipeda.  
Unlike me, McHenry is a critical reader. He is not talking about 
information technology, how we get to Wikipedia, but about the content 
of the articles that appear in Wikipeda.  Just because I think something 
is junk doesn't mean I am intimidated by overabundance of choice.

Information is not in itself ambiguous, or contradictory.  Information 
is just that, information.  What it points to, that may be contradictory 
or ambiguous.  I haven't read David's book and have only the passages 
quoted in the posting.  So I'm not sure who the "we" are in the 
paragraphs below.  When I was a young graduate student,  50 years ago, 
it was already a salutary part of our intellectual culture that science, 
like the arts, also had a need for metaphors to imagine the 
contradictions of the invisible.  My PBS knowledge of contemporary 
physics tells me that this is even more true today and quite readily 
acknowledged by physicists.  There will always be people who can't live 
in contradiction and prefer answers to be embedded in absolutes.   So, 
it would be interesting to know who these "we" are.  I suspect that 
David is writing against a backdrop of  absolutist socio-political 
culture in the U.S.  But perhaps there is also a culture of cynicism in 
the corporate world that, given his background, David is aware of and 
that leads to the dissing of uncomfortable contradictions.  That would 
make for interesting reading.

There is also a question of the neutrality of digital information 
technology.   As Lawrence Lessig put it, "Code is Law":  "In 
cyberspace," he writes,  "we must understand how code regulates--how the 
software and hardware that make cyberspace what it is regulate 
cyberspace as it is."   It is true that information on the Internet 
seems to come at us in a miscellaneous fashion.  But information 
technology is not neutral and unfiltered.  We are all very dependent on 
Google, but Google's search results are not really miscellaneous but 
filtered through constantly changing tweaks to its algorithms.  Because 
of the vast spaces of the Internet and the multiplicity of information 
sources, we may experience the Internet as miscellaneous.  Nevertheless, 
we are now in other hands than those of  the intellectual elites of the 
past.  These new, digital corporate hands may appear less coercive and 
intrusive than those earlier hands, but are they as well intentioned? 

Thank you for the stimulating topic,

Myron Turner

David Weinberger wrote:
> 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 pseudo-intellectual 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% certain whether the Nile or the Amazon
> is the longest river, we 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. 

> Robert McHenry, a former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica,
> summed up his analysis of Wikipedia:
>      "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."
> If these experts of the second order sound a bit hysterical, it is
> understandable. The change they're facing from the miscellaneous is deep
> and real. Authorities have long filtered and organized information for
> us, protecting us from what isn't worth our time and helping us find
> what we need to give our beliefs a sturdy foundation. But, with the
> miscellaneous, it’s all available to us, unfiltered. 


Myron Turner

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