I had just finished a draft of the informal talk I was scheduled to give at Nature in London when I heard that our flight had been canceled. I’m very disappointed because getting to talk with Nature folks about what the Web is doing to knowledge is a pretty great opportunity for me to learn from very thoughtful people on the front line. Also, I was looking forward to seeing my friend Timo Hannay there. Not to mention some unNatural folks we were looking forward to having a meal with. Anyway, this is what I planned on saying in my brief conversation-opener.
I was going to begin with laying out the issue that Too Big to Know seems to be addressing these days: Now that — thanks to the Web — we can’t know anything without simultaneously knowing that there is waaaaay too much for us to ever know, knowledge and knowing are changing. The old strategy of reducing knowledge to what our medium (paper) can handle is being replaced by new strategies appropriate for the inclusive nature of knowledge in a medium built out of links. (Links are about including more and more; books are about excluding everything except what really really counts.)
After a lot of failed outlines for the talk, I had decided on narrowing my focus (oh, the irony of having to narrow one’s focus in a talk about the extravagance of knowledge!) to two changes to the nature of expertise and knowledge, both based on the assumption/presumption that expertise is becoming networked and is thus taking on properties of networks.
First, transparency (although that probably isn’t the best word to sum up this point). I wanted to say something broad and vague about a change from thinking of knowledge as a reflection of the world, known to be true because the method that derived it is repeatable. (This applies to scientific knowledge, but I was going to be talking to Nature after all.) Of course, few experiments are actually repeated; if they all were, we’d cut the pace of science in half. But, designing an experiment as if it were to be repeated creates a useful methodology for scientific work. We live in a post-Bacon world, however. After Watson and Crick, after Kuhn, after philosophers such as Latour, we no longer think of science as merely a neutral mirror, invisible in itself. Now the Web is changing the topology of science. Science will still use repeatable methodologies, but authority is increasingly coming from the social world in which the work is embedded. Indeed, we can now see how the work is appropriated by others, which used to be pretty much a black box. We can thus see the value of the work, whereas before much of that value was hidden. We can also see distressingly how works are misappropriated and rejected by their culture. This is a type of transparency to and fro: From the scientific work to the world, and forward from the work into the culture. This is a 180 degree turn from the old regime that viewed authority as a stopping point for inquiry; links are continuations, not stopping points.
Second, I was going to point to networked knowledge taking on the Net’s embrace of differences: nothing goes uncontroverted on the Net. On the Net, every statement has an equal and opposite reaction. Something like that. There are some good consequences of this. Lots more views get aired. We are filling out the ecology of knowledge, with well-vetted bastions such as Nature, to unvetted bastions like Arxive.org. But we also don’t really know what to do with the fact of difference. Some groups rule out of discourse those who disagree too fundamentally. In fact, we all do, and I can see the sense in that; do we have to include Creationists in every evolutionary science conference? But denying the legitimacy of difference also has a cost. We don’t have the metaphysics and possibly the genetic neural set-up to deal with fundamental differences. So, I don’t know what comes of this.
But now I don’t have to because Odin blew up a mountain in Iceland and my trip to London has been scrubbed.
(I’m blithe about the volcano because I basically have no discretionary Internet access, so I’m just assuming there weren’t any deaths or major destruction caused by the eruption. I do realize that some things are more important than my travel plans.)