I just finished reading1 David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous and I find it to be a pretty engaging description of how the state of knowledge evolved with time, and now it has given me a chance to write down some thoughts.
The basic gist of the book is that knowledge is no longer tied to the physical (e.g. books), which used to limit how one went about organizing and finding it (e.g. Dewey decimal system). Now we can attach as much metadata as our hearts desire, which technology helps us sift through to help us find what we want. Instead of each book having a particular place, as in a warehouse, or a relative position (alphabetical within a subject), an individual leaf of information lives on a multitude of trees simultaneously, and the trees themselves are dynamically created and rearranged for each user on the fly.
The first few chapters focused on how knowledge has been historically organized over the centuries. I did skim through a few of the middle chapters, it seemed to be pretty straightforward commentary on the digital lives most of us now lead – user created content, social tags and lists, auto-recommendation, etc. Some over-simplified, in that sometimes unavoidable awkwardness that comes out of describing something neat and complex yet obvious to those leading digital lives. It was refreshing to read about the downsides of scientific publications like Nature and Science (e.g. good science isn’t enough2 to publish because of how few articles get in, the research has to be “sexy”) and how the new comer PLoS One aims to correct these shortcomings. Because this was just the topic that was discussed at the Neuroscience retreat last year (in a lecture about the then-upcoming PLoS One), scientists care about this stuff and it comes back every so often.
Although I never considered it myself, I totally got it when Danae started her Master of Library Science. I would argue that more than anything else, what we’re producing most of in the world today is information. Perhaps capture and disseminate is a more appropriate description. Information, by itself, is agnostic to how it gets used (or abused). But the Cliff Stoll-ian side of me says that we should be weary of the exponentially growing amount of information, and not just for the obvious Big Brother / privacy reasons (e.g. “Plate reader draws objections of ACLU“).
The non-obvious threat of information is that we’re drowning in it (my claim). Here I’m glad Weinberger mentions Cass Sunstein’s book Republic.com3, the basic thesis of which4 is that with more and more information out there, we can all end up listening, watching, and reading only that which reinforces our world view – drowning out everything else without even having to plug up our ears and going “LALALALALA”, but by finding podcasts, channels, and blogs where others are doing the “LALALALALA” for us.
In many ways, this leads to huge portions of the population nonsensically parroting something like “Evolution is just a theory” to one another. Scientific theories both explain observed phenomena (why living organisms share so much of their DNA) and make predictions about future observations (my niece’s hair color based on that of her parents, or maybe one you don’t hear about so often: regular use of antibacterial soap might be a bad idea, placing evolutionary pressure on the bacteria to evolve immunity to the soap). Moreover simpler or more elegant, straightforward theories are preferred (aka Occam’s Razor). Which is why Intelligent Design is on par with Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, not science. But this has been better described in other places and elsewhere (suggestions welcome). The point is that I’m worried that there’s no way anyone get through to the people that end up isolating themselves in their own feedback loops. I worry that not enough people engage enough to think on their own. Technology can’t fix this problem. No amount of metadata will ever be enough5.
In this entry, I’ve linked to Wikipedia a few times, and while I agree it should not be regularly used for primary research, I also welcome the explicit uncertainty inherent in a publicly editable wiki, as it reflects the tentative nature of information, and I think we should be somewhat skeptical about a great deal. I have also been recommended, though I have not yet read Manuel Castells’ The Internet Galaxy, though perhaps it is more topical for a future post I’ve been brewing for a while. Has anyone read it? …Anyway, this is my first pass at processing this stuff, hope it’s not too scatterbrained6.