Too Big to Know – David Weinberger, Keynote Speaker, Content Management Strategies 2016
“The Internet makes us stupid.” If you view the Internet as an “unedited mash of rumor, gossips, and lies,” then you might agree with the provocative statement with which Harvard Professor David Weinberger opens with in the Prologue of Too Big to Know. At the same time, he argues, libraries are making their collections available to readers everywhere, the news media are more public than ever, and scientists are publishing vast amounts of data online, making valuable information available everywhere to everyone.
As a technical communicator, you know that information about the products you write about is being published on the Internet by your customers. Information that you thought was safely sequestered behind a firewall somehow makes its way online. Customers want to comment on your content and the comments of other customers. The knowledge your company thought was its private domain is now the property of the network. And that change, which is becoming increasingly apparent, is, Weinberger insists, for the good.
Today, if someone wants to know something, he or she goes online. If we want people to know something that we’ve developed, we put it online. We don’t print and mail it. We don’t put it in a library or a journal. We make it available to everyone who might find it interesting, or useful, or worthy of rebuttal.
Traditionally, the knowledge we accumulated about how a product worked and how someone could use it to accomplish a job was relegated to paper. In its paper form, that knowledge was restricted to those few who had access to the printed manual or book. The Internet introduced a substitute for paper, the PDF or Portable Document Format, and we enthusiastically adopted it. We could now make the paper store of knowledge available to anyone with computer access.
More recently, we have discovered that the whole book, even in its online form, is not as accessible as people would prefer. They search for information, most often using Google, to find something that answers a question, solves a problem, or enables them to act. They choose videos, blogs, questions and answers, topics extracted from books, and anything else they can easily locate.
If they are sophisticated about evaluating the information they find on the Internet, our customers might prefer some information that has been vetted by the company producing the product. However, in many cases, they find that official information to be less useful and often more difficult to find than the open source of information on the Internet.
The exchange of knowledge through the Internet enables disparate individuals or groups who develop expertise in using a product to share what they have learned. Many years before the Internet existed; we were doing customer site visits for a company that made a desktop publishing system. We found that one of the customers had developed a truly innovative approach to using the product; one that no one in the development team was aware was possible. Yet, their innovation was not shared with other customers. Today, the innovators are able to share their solution easily, and they can garner feedback that will correct or improve or dismiss what they have to say.
Even our move to topic-based authoring may prove interesting in a networked environment. People are able to share topics, email them to one another, or post them on LinkedIn, Facebook, or even Twitter. They can communicate across a network of interest, and they can link a topic to other relevant content. Expertise about our products is now two-way or multi-way rather than a one-way conversation.
Weinberger offers an interesting discussion of the changes that the Internet has made to the way scientists work. It used to be that scientific articles were published only by scientific journals, after a careful review process. As a result, only some science ever got published and the publications almost never included negative results. Now, much science research is published open on the Internet, backed up by access to the actual data.
Weinberger offers an interesting example of the value of networked science. A group of students was given the assignment of finding five different sources for the properties of a chemical. An article in a highly respected journal, Biotechnology at Bioprocess Engineering, published an article citing the solubility of a chemical extract of green tea (EGCG) as 521.7 grams per liter (gpl). It also reported the solubility of caffeine in water as 21.7 gpl. When the students checked the citation, they found an error, basically a typographic error. The solubility of EGCG was reported as 5 gpl. Apparently, the 5 got appended to the 21.7 figure by accident. Even the value, 5 gpl, was called into questions by the students as they followed the chain of citations back through more sources. Here was citizen science at its best, or the knowledge of the crowd correcting an error.
Science is better than ever, as claimed by people like cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, in a New York Times op-ed. Weinberger claims that “the Internet has broadened science and increased its reach.” However, he also points out that people can also decide to immerse themselves in pseudoscience or listen only to the opinions and made up “facts” of the people like the climate-change deniers. It is perfectly easy for the Internet to make someone stupid.
It is possible, however, for us to help make the networking of knowledge smarter rather than stupid. Weinberger suggests five ways:
- Open up access to information. Today, many publications are restricted to subscribers only. Even technical information about products is hidden behind firewalls that make the information difficult to find and use, even for customers.
- Provide the hooks for intelligence. That means providing metadata that helps users find information that is truly useful from information that is not.
- Link everything. As Weinberger says, “linking situates your work within its context, tempting us to learn more.”
- Leave no institutional knowledge behind. Make information available that is now in our libraries and other authoritative resources.
- Teach everyone. Help people learn to use the knowledge on the Internet carefully and effectively, primarily through helping them recognize what is authoritative and what is questionable.
These actions, Weinberger contends, will improve the web, making it a better source of knowledge.