An Unexpected Network

Following my critical analysis of Weinberger’s use of the term ‘expert’ in my last post, I now consider his discussion on the fluidity and interactivity of the internet. I find these concepts making a deep impression on me though leading to more mixed conclusions about the nature of books versus the internet than those of Weinberger. The most fascinating part of his discussion begins with his introduction of historian of books, Robert Darnton, who expresses frustration at trying to convey history through the long-form arguments of books and who seeks a nuanced way to hybridize books and digital networks.

Darnton’s statement that books make it difficult “to communicate the fathomlessness of the archives and the bottomlessness of the past,” is a perfect example of the lack of fluidity, of interactivity, and of the possibility of expanding discussions beyond the boundaries of books that Weinberger wishes to investigate in his exploration of the internet (Weinberger 2011, 95). Darnton’s desire to “show how themes criss-cross outside my narrative and extend far beyond boundaries of my book” seems to lead effortlessly to the notion that the internet can solve these difficulties and open up the limitations that books may hold (95). It is possible however, that both Darnton and Weinberger generalize about the nature of books. Are books of poetry and mathematics linear and leading? And alternatively, aren’t many oral narratives linear?

I was intrigued by Darnton’s use of a pyramid metaphor to show how books could be restructured to include some of the positive ‘capabilities’ of the internet (95). His discussion of the pyramid reminded me of discussions in my Comparative Law class regarding the differences between, on the one hand, civil and common law, and on the other, Talmudic law. This discussion led me to remember a very old system that I believe encompasses the positive fluidity and interactivity associated with the internet, yet also makes great use of the bound book.

The use of the pyramid was diametrically opposed in the civil/common and Talmudic strands of legal thought. Civil and common law included absolutes at the base of the pyramid, with few refinements or adjustments, which developed as the pyramid narrowed toward the closed/bounded top. Talmudic law used/uses an inverted pyramid—actually similar, but upside-down—to the one that Darnton describes as a way to structure a book “in layers” in order to open up its possibilities (95).

In the Talmudic pyramid, the bottom was the ‘word’ (of God). It rested on the narrowest part of the pyramid, its pointed tip. Again paralleling Darnton, occurring at the next wider level were clarifications of the torah’s arguments. The top and widest levels of the pyramid would, like Darnton’s widest layer, consider and discuss previous scholarship. This layer was never considered bounded in Talmudic scholarship. A predominant Talmudic ideal is that all discussion related to the ‘word’ is part of the very nature of it and necessary to its understanding. Talmudic discussion, therefore, is intended to be inclusive of differing perspectives and is certainly not consensus building in the strictest sense.

The Talmud then, seems to be an early example of networked knowledge that hybridizes the book with the open discussion ‘capabilities’ of the internet (although men were the only accepted contributors traditionally). As time went on, many of what became considered the most important contributions (through open dialogues where expertise was considered largely through quality of one’s participation—or ‘attempt’ in Latin) were set down in a newly bound volume, but the idea that the discussion was/is never complete remains inherent within Talmudic study.

This circles back to a vital point made by Weinberger. Just because the internet can afford the “possibility of connecting across boundaries, forming expert networks that are smarter than their smartest participants,” doesn’t mean that the possibilities will come to fruition (91). As he says, we must “…want to be smarter” (91). Perhaps my dilemma regarding the internet is less about what it can offer than about what society appears to ask from it.


2 thoughts on “An Unexpected Network”

  1. Hi Melissa,

    Great discussion of the Talmud as an example of networked knowledge. I think the Talmud also might be an example of what Weinberger calls an “echo chamber” (81). This isn’t a bad thing; the Talmudic scholars, while disagreeing on many things, needed a high degree of sameness to even write about Rabbinic law, as Weinberger discusses with other closed networks. The Talmud is kind of like an interest forum that only lets experts in.

    This is interesting to think about. I remember in my philosophy classes as an undergraduate, hearing that all Western philosophy since Descartes should be considered a conversation. But this is hardly an egalitarian network; only educated men could enter until fairly recently. It’s also more linear than, say, the Talmud. Still, when do we start calling something a network, and what exactly does it mean to be participating in a network?


  2. Your idea of the Talmudic pyramid is strikingly similar to an explanation of historical writing I have heard in another class, and in the past. Tiny mentioned the concept of a funnel, similar to an inverted pyramid, to explain writing history in Dr. Quigley’s class. Writing history is wide and full of information at the top of the funnel but as historian formulate their ideas and examine sources, through careful research and interpretation, a concentrated narrative emerges. In the end what comes through the funnel is a product of all the other information refined into a clear historical interpretation.

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