A new book about knowledge in the Internet age reveals an important lesson about being a good man.
Fans of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a giant supercomputer crunches data for several million years to answer the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything—and comes up only with the cryptic number 42—might find something familiar in the following story:
Hod Lipson and Michael Schmidt at Cornell University designed the Eureqa computer program to find equations that make sense of large quantities of data that have stumped mere humans… Dr. Gurol Suel at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center used Eureqa to try to figure out what causes fluctuations among all of the thousands of different elements of a single bacterium. After chewing over the brickyard of data that Suel had given it, Eureqa came out with two equations that expressed constants within the cell. Suel had his answer. He just doesn’t understand it and doesn’t think any person could.
This real life version of Hitchhiker is retold in 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). Weinberger, who works at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet & Society, disagrees with all the other writers who say the internet is making us stupider. Instead he makes the subtler philosophical point that it only seems that way because “knowledge” itself, in the age of the Internet, is fundamentally changing.
You might wonder what this has to do with men, or being good, or anything else. I’ll get to that in a minute. First a quick and necessary summary of Weinberger’s argument: knowledge is different today because it used to come from books and now comes from the Internet. (Or, “the Net,” as it’s written throughout—though I thought that was a Sandra Bullock movie.)
Book learnin’ gave us knowledge that was more permanent, says Weinberger, because books have a physical presence that the internet lacks; books also gave us knowledge that was more selective, because they’re expensive to produce and publishers don’t want them filled with unnecessary pages or mistakes; and finally, book knowledge was more curated, because writing a well-researched book is hard and requires a certain level of expertise. On the Internet, however, we have limitless space, for free or something near it, and anyone can contribute. As a result, knowledge is no longer a stable thing printed on a page, it’s a constantly evolving aspect of a constantly growing network.
In fact, according to Weinberger, nowadays knowledge is the network, and vice versa. This impressive-sounding but ultimately pretty vague idea, enshrined right there in the title, is what Weinberger returns to again and again. Knowledge equals network. Network equals knowledge. Brave new world, etc.
This is where the good men stuff comes in. Because, actually, I think Weinberger misses the point a bit: knowledge isn’t suddenly becoming a network; it was always a network. It’s just that the network used to consist entirely of rich old white men, and the reason it seems so much more evident now is that it’s sagging from its efforts to include everyone else.
And part of the reason it’s struggling is that not everybody in the network is willing to be inclusive. I’m not talking about explicit, intentional discrimination, here, though certainly that’s part of it. The bigger problem is the way people unconsciously think about knowledge, or the network, or reality, or whatever you want to call it. Knowledge used to seem stable and efficient because everyone in the network came from the same background, more or less, and unspoken, mutual trust and goodwill abounded. Knowledge worked because everyone felt like they were on the same side. Now it doesn’t, because it’s hard to even pretend that might be true.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be that hard—to pretend we’re on the same side or to actually start being on the same side. Most of the problems with knowledge these days, whether the editing wars on Wikipedia or the disinformation in politics or the underlying unwillingness to accepts others’ points of view, could be avoided if we all stopped and said to ourselves: hey. We’re human beings, right? We share the same planet. We all just want to have happy lives. So aren’t we, actually, on the same side after all?
That might sound naïve, and I’m not suggesting we blindly trust everyone and everything contributing to the growing network of knowledge—much though those Nigerian bankers who are always emailing me might appreciate it. But if we all stopped worrying about who’s “right” about healthcare, or the economy, or all those other nebulous areas of knowledge, then the real problems would be a lot easier to spot.
In short, if we all stopped trying to win the argument about whether the answer was really 42, we could start being more inclusive in evaluating who has real and valuable insight to offer—to start listening to people with different and challenging viewpoints. And then, finally, together, we could start figuring out the all-important question.