[iDC] Everything is Misc - extracts and intro

David Weinberger dweinberger at gmail.com
Mon Jul 9 08:22:16 EDT 2007

Myron, thanks for the prodding to be clearer.

I think in the book I'm moderately careful to separate information and 
knowledge. Although I haven't checked all my references (which would 
require rereading my book, which I dread), I think I reserve 
"information" generally for the stuff that computers handle. I've found 
it very difficult in the past to define the modern meaning of 
"information," but in general I think of it as having been reduced and 
shaped to make it manageable by software. The prototype of information 
in this sense is what comes out of a database management system, e.g., 
28% of men who bought Pampers also bought beer. [Bogus factoid!] (I 
don't think of information as "pointing," the way you do, unless I'm 
misunderstanding your understanding of me.)

"Knowledge" I use in a vaguely traditional (Western) sense. It's 
justified true belief, or what that becomes in the course of that 
philosophical tradition. In the section you quote below, I am definitely 
talking about the traditional view of knowledge, not information.

The question of the "we" is a damn good one. Assuming a "we" who turns 
out to be a strawperson is a serious danger when writing a book that 
addresses generally held beliefs. The problem is that beliefs are never 
generally held. I am hoping the reader recognizes her own beliefs in my 
characterization -- "Yes, there is one knowledge, just as there's only 
one reality" -- so I can proceed to undercut those beliefs. If she 
doesn't recognize my initial characterization of knowledge, I have 
little recourse.

-- David W.

David Weinberger
Fellow, Harvard Berkman Center
blog: www.JohoTheBlog.com
book: www.EverythingIsMiscellaneous.com
mail: self at evident.com

Myron Turner wrote:
> 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. 

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