Book Review: Too Big to Know, by David Weinberger

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Mark Baker, Analecta Communications Inc.

Like many people in the profession, I have a list of books I think every technical communicator should read. The funny thing about my list is that none of the books is about technical communication.

At the top of the list is David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous, and if you haven’t read it, stop right now and get a copy. Read it thoroughly and understand its message about how power has shifted from authors to readers. Then take a deep breath, come back, and we can talk.

Other titles on the list include Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, Lean Software Development by Mary and Tom Poppendieck, The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, Frank Palmer’s Grammar (if you can find a copy), andThe Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam.

I’ve recently added a new title to the list, and it is by David Weinberger again. It is about the web and its title is Too Big to Know. It isn’t about technical communication either, but what it has to say about the changes the web has brought to scientific publishing should make us all fundamentally rethink how technical communication will work in the future.

What sets Weinberger apart from the common or garden web pundit is that he doesn’t speculate about what may happen in the future; he shows you what has already happened and makes you wonder why you didn’t see it yourself.

His thesis in Too Big to Know is that the web is changing the concept of expertise and what it means to know. Our concept of what knowledge is, what it means to know, and the role of authority in defining knowledge, he argues, is shaped by the nature of paper technology.

Because of the economics of paper, facts were relatively rare and gem-like because there wasn’t room for a whole lot of them. Because of the physics of paper, once a fact was printed, it stayed there on the page, uncontradicted, at least on that page. The limitations of paper made facts look far more manageable than they seem now that we see them linked into our unlimited network.

The web, Weinberger argues, breaks down the knowledge silos created artificially by the nature of paper.

Books focus on specific topics because they have to fit between covers. So, in a book-based world, knowledge looks like something that divides into measurable domains. On the Net, topics don’t divide up neatly. They connect messily.

Books thus fostered a culture which saw knowledge as the domain of experts speaking fixed truths:

Expertise’s value was the certainty of its conclusions. Books get to speak once. After they are published, it’s expensive for the authors to change their minds. So, books try to nail things down. But because the multitude of people on the Internet are different in their interests and abilities, a network of experts is of many minds about just about everything. The value of a network of experts can be in opening things up, not simply coming to unshakable conclusions.

Weinberger’s list of the characteristics of knowledge in the age of paper sounds eerily like a description of technical communication as it is commonly practiced today. The parentheses are mine to show the correlation with technical communication:

  • Expertise is topic based (he is talking here about knowledge as a collection of discrete facts, like topics in a CMS)
  • Expertise value was the certainty of its conclusions (multiple rounds of review to ensure accuracy)
  • Expertise was often opaque (technical communication suppresses the why to focus on minimalist instruction)
  • Expertise was one-way (manuals are delivered to the user; not much flows back the other way)
  • Experts were a special class (we love our SMEs)
  • Expertise preferred to speak with a single voice (everyone must adhere to the corporate style guide)

All this has been challenged, on the tech pubs front, by the rising importance of user-generated content, by content produced by a wide variety of staff outside the tech pubs department, much of it flowing to the customer through back channels and other channels not governed by tech pubs, and by the increasing move of corporations to engage directly with their customers via social media. As Weinberger comments, “expertise is moving from being a property of individual experts to becoming a property of the Net.”

Moving communications to the net is not merely a change of media, therefore, but a change in the nature of expertise and of our understanding of knowledge itself. Weinberger illustrates this with an extensive review of that change in science and scientific publishing that has already come about as a result of the Net. He begins by looking at the many years that Darwin spent compiling the evidence and arguments what went into The Origin of Species before publishing any of his results or ideas. Publication was a great event in the history of a scientific idea.

Once a work has gone through that temporal portal and is published, credit and the accompanying authority are bestowed upon the author.

The problem with this model, as Weinberger explains, is that it suppresses much of the data on which the conclusions were based, and in particular it keeps from public view all of the data on failed experiments, all the things that didn’t work. These records of what didn’t work are in fact valuable data, expensive to produce and capable of guiding future researchers. Opening up the full data on which a conclusion is based also opens up the data for examination by others and to the possible refinement of refutation of conclusions.

But the issue is not simply one of making data available after publication has occurred. Opening up the data of day to day experiments—so called “open notebook” science—allows the participation of the whole scientific community in analyzing and forming conclusions based on the evolving data. This participation can be of enormous benefit to science, but it undermines the whole system of scientific credit as it existed in the age of paper:

The continuous now of science means that it will sometimes be harder to know exactly who discovered what, because discovery itself will result from a public collaboration that some of the collaborators many not even be aware of.

Individual scientists may not like losing this coin of authority, but science is undoubtedly better for it.

The value of Too Big to Know for technical communicators is that it can help us grasp that the move to the web is not about having a new place to publish. It is about engaging with the continuous now of technical communications on the web. Technical writers may not like losing the coin of authority either, but the continuous now of technical communication on the web is not something that the world is waiting for us to create, but something that already exists, that thrives, and that is rapidly picking our pockets for whatever coin of authority we may still retain.

In my recent piece on Techwhirl, I argued that we need a new doctrine of technical communication that, among other things, is centered on conversations rather than publications. Weinberger’s Too Big to Know can provide tech writers with an understanding not of what the web may become, but of what it already is. That understanding will be critical. Our move to the web should be about something rather than just another place to publish.

David Weinberger
Too Big To Know
2012, New York, NY
Basic Books
ISBN: 0465021425

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