Workin’ the Net

David Weinberger’s book Too Big to Know is not a history book. The author is a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society—nothing to do with history, at least on the surface. (For a chuckle, check out his webpage at www.evident.com.) Yet Too Big to Know reveals a ton about the way the world works now; especially pertinent to historians are the revelations Weinberger makes about new ways of accessing information and the age-old quest for knowledge, two topics extremely relevant to history.

Did I mention it’s funny? Even the pictures of Weinberger on the internet and on the book’s dustjacket are funny. Certainly a nice break from pondering modernity…

But modernity definitely enters the equation. What’s more modern than the internet? For people like me who have basically grown up with the internet, a thoughtful analysis of the web’s place in how we collect information can tease out things we take for granted. For historians, research is key. What’s the impact on research when most casual questions can be answered in a couple seconds on Google?

Networks are the wave of the future…and the future is now. When you stop and think about the internet, it really is mind-boggling. The sheer amount of information available is staggering. I thought Weinberger brought some interesting things to the surface, especially in his comparison of the old paper-based knowledge systems and the new digital network. Whereas in the past it was the task of the learned to filter knowledge, most noticeably in libraries where a small group of educated people had to decide which books to make available to the public, it is now the case that filters (online) merely bring certain results to the front, leaving the possibility of accessing formerly inaccessible knowledge to a few more clicks or a different search. Anyone can be a part of the network, not just people with credentials who are able to publish their work.

The bad news is that our foundations of knowledge have shifted. There is enough information on the internet to back up or refute pretty much any claim or hypothesis, even facts we have taken in the past to be self-evident. That’s also, in a way, the good news. The internet provides a much more open forum for the transit of knowledge. Often historians are concerned with sources that others may consider unimportant, not worth sharing; in the old libraries, these wouldn’t be available, but now they’re available online.

Weinberger’s discussion in chapter 4 puts things in perspective in a different way. There are distinct advantages to being part of a network. There are many people of all kinds connected now; they can bring new visions to old ideas, even (especially?) those outside their primary field. We can form groups within the network, but also have access to the wider internet world. For historians, used to a tight network of professional peers, the ability to escape that bubble world of academia is exciting. There are a lot of people out there who can add to our understanding of the past through their unique perspectives.

Too Big to Know made me think about something I use every day in a completely different light.

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