The last two decades have completely transformed the way we know. Thanks to the rise of the Internet, information is far more accessible than ever before. It’s more connected to other pieces of information and more open to debate. Organizations — and even governmental projects like Data.gov — are putting more previously inaccessible data on the Web than people in the pre-Internet age could possibly have imagined. But this change raises another, more ominous question: Is this deluge overwhelming our brains?
In his new book, “Too Big to Know,” David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, attempts to answer that question by looking at the ways our newly interconnected society is transforming the media, science and our everyday lives. In an accessible yet profound work, he explains that in our new universe, facts have been replaced by “networked facts” that exist largely in the context of a digital network. As a result, Weinberger believes we have entered a new golden age, one in which technology has finally caught up with humans’ endless curiosity, and one that has the potential to revolutionize a wide swath of occupations and research fields.
Salon spoke to Weinberger over the phone about the rise of the information cloud, the demise of expert knowledge, and why this is the greatest time in human history.
In the book you mention the “smartest guy in the room” metaphor. According to your book, that’s an outdated metaphor. Now it’s the room itself that’s smart.
In the West we’ve pegged knowledge to what fits in books or gets written down. That’s been our medium for preserving and communicating knowledge. Because books are written by individuals, it has often made knowledge seem like the product of individuals, even though everybody has always understood that individuals are working within the social network. With the new medium of knowledge — the Internet — knowledge not only takes on properties of that medium but also lives at the level of the network. So rather than simply trying to cultivate smart people, we also need to be looking above the level of the individual to the network in which he or she is embedded to see where knowledge lives.
Do you think all of these changes are good or bad?
It’s both good and bad. It’s both impossible and unhelpful to ask if it’s making us smarter or stupider. But I am actually very hopeful. Ask anybody who is in any of the traditional knowledge fields, and she or he will very likely tell you that the Internet has made them smarter. They couldn’t do their work without it; they’re doing it better than ever before, they know more; they can find more; they can run down dead ends faster than ever before. In the sciences and humanities, it’s hard to find somebody who claims the Internet is making him or her stupid, even among those who claim the Internet is making us stupid. And I believe this is the greatest time in human history