Networked facts are the new black

January 4, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

Facts are so last century. In the Internet-dominated world, networked facts have pretty much taken over. The old-fashioned view of the fact is that it is an irreducible atom of knowledge. The way information is organised on the Web means that everything is connected and it is only as a result of the links between elements of information that facts come into being.

The way information is organised on the Web means that everything is connected and it is only as a result of the links between elements of information that facts come into being.  

This is one of the points that David Weinberger puts across in his new book, Too Big to Know, launched yesterday in the US (not out in the UK til 19th January). Weinberger calls these configurations of linked data, in which two ideas are connected by a relationship, ‘triples’. In an interview given to Thomas Rogers for Salon, Weinberger elaborates:

OK, so, if the triple is “Edmonton is in Canada,” ideally each of those should link to some other spot on the Web that explains exactly which Edmonton, because there’s probably more than one, along with which Canada (though there’s probably only one). And “is in” is a very ambiguous statement, so you would point to some vocabulary that defines it for geography. Each of these little facts is designed not only to be linked up by computers, but in itself consists of links. It’s a very different idea than that facts are bricks that lay a firm foundation. The old metaphor for knowledge was architectural and archaeological: foundations, bricks. Now we have clouds.

Now, I think I get this, and when we think about the ubiquity of the hyperlink, it’s pretty clear that Weinberger is absolutely right. But, even before the Internet, information was still linked, and it was still necessary to reference one idea in order to construct a basis for another. Aristotle, Darwin and Newton all did it. It was just a slower process. You had to have located and read the relevant source, be it a book, paper or article and access to these things was far more restricted than it is now. But, the basic principle was the same. I think it’s reasonable to say that Weinberger’s point about metaphors rings true not because of a fundamental shift in what facts are, but rather that the Internet age has speeded everything up and made access to data (almost) universally accessible.

Of course, I may be missing the point, particularly given that I’ve not read Weinberger’s book, but am instead responding to some bits and pieces I’ve read about it online.

Our burgeoning taste for punchy, sound-bitten data is obvious – if you can’t express an important idea in 140 characters, you’ll struggle to be listened to in some circles.

The title of the book, Too Big To Know, implies that the volume of information we now have access to could be leading to a kind of overload, and there is a genuinely important (and unanswered) question about the impact of this on our brains. Are we getting cleverer or stupider as a result? Our burgeoning taste for punchy, sound-bitten data is obvious – if you can’t express an important idea in 140 characters, you’ll struggle to be listened to in some circles. Indeed, this review of Weinberger’s book on Inc.com is designed to give you the top line messages in about the time it takes to write a tweet. And, this very blog post indicates that I’m clearly as much as sucker for this as anyone.

Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that Weinberger expresses some important ideas, not least that it isn’t individual cleverness that really matters, but the collective cleverness of the networks in which we operate. In his interview for Salon he says:

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  • JC

    It sounds very interesting, but not at all a new idea. Without reading the book it sounds hard to be precise, but it sounds very similar to holism in epistemology and the philosophy of science, which has been explored by loads of books and articles already, e.g. the philosopher Quine. This would be in contrast to foundationalism – the idea that, like building a wall, we know certain basic facts to be true and build everything else onto these. In holism, by contrast, every fact or statement relies on the other facts or statements for its meaning, and each is open to revision subject to new evidence, etc. 

    So, rather than being a new idea of how we think about facts, it’s probably more interesting to think about how the internet may (or may not) change the way we build up information to form our knowledge about various subjects. – so a sort of sociology of knowledge for the information age. If he does that in his book, it sounds interesting. Based on this post, though, I’m sceptical. It’s not rare for authors to ignore all the trial and error and exploring of arguments that’s gone before, trying to reinvent the wheel and coming out with a hexagon at best.