Fascinating discussion with the Berkman Book Club about the current rough draft of Chapter 4 of Too Big to Know. The Book Club consists of five of us (more or less) who are writing books. I hadn’t offered up a manuscript for discussion in a long time because I am a coward, but today was my day, so over the weekend I sent out copies of my current chapter.

Chapter 4 is supposed to be an “up” chapter — the Club thinks it is an enormous downer, “the book’s heart of darkness,” as one member put it — since Chapter 3 leaves the reader with the thought that not even facts provide a bedrock we can reliably use to come to agreement. We are never all going to agree on anything. Chapter 4 is about this neverending disagreement. Section 1 says that despite all our happy head-nodding about the value of diversity, we generally need much less diversity than we think. Too much diversity and we can’t make any progress. Too little and we fall into groupthink. So, section 1 gives four little rules for getting just enough diversity into a group. Section 2 deals with the Cass Sunstein echo chamber argument that says that despite the availability of diverse opinions on the Net, we tend to cluster with folks with whom we already agree, and we become more convinced of our own rightness. Section 3 says we get so stuck on the echo chamber argument because we are very confused about knowledge. We can see the old Enlightenment idea that reasoned conversation will lead us to truth get crushed on and by the Internet. We have at least 50 years of thinkers who have denied that Enlightenment idea (yes, we can trace this back much further if we want), and I point to five post modernist ideas that we can use going forward. The Net makes visible and unavoidable that the post modernists were right.

Then it’s on to two chapters that look at how concrete disciplines are dealing with the change in knowledge.

The Book Club gave me tons of useful criticism. Some of the most helpful dealt with issues of structure and the use of examples that are too internal to the chapter to be worth explaining here. But a few big points emerged that I will note.

Ethan saw a symmetry in the overall outline of the book that I had not noticed. Chapter 1 is about the old model of knowledge. Chapter 2 is about the networked model (via networked expertise). Chapter 3 undermines Chapter 1 by saying that the old model was about putting in stopping points for inquiry, but there are no stopping points, not even facts. Chapter 4 undermines Chapter 2’s assumption that networking experts makes the collective smarter. Chapters 5 and the rest are about how we manage in the rather dismal knowledge landscape that I’ve sketched.

Jason Kaufman thinks I’m giving the Net too much credit. Knowledge was shifting before the Net came along. And even in the Age of the Net, we still make bone-headed decisions, e.g., invading Iraq to get rid of the WMDs. Yes. I need to make clearer that the Net is making clearer, and instantiating, changes underway for a couple of generations already. E.g., although I think I’m clear enough about post modernism pre-dating the Net’s change, the push for diversity and for inter-disciplinary studies are quite pre-Net. As for the fact that we still make bad decisions: On the one hand, I hope to point to things we can do to make better decisions thanks to the Net, and, on the other hand, I think much of the importance of the change has to do with how we understand the nature of knowledge. Does that have an effect on how we do research, evaluate claims, and make decisions? I think it does, but perhaps not as much as some would claim. But, I won’t know what I think until I’ve gone through the next two chapters.

The group also pretty thoroughly missed the point of Section One of Chapter 4, which I thought was the straightforward section. I intended it to be an argument against our unthought enthusiasm for diversity: We need less of it than we generally think, and it needs to be of the right type (a diversity of ways of thinking and of problem-solving tools, not of racial/ethnic/gender identity for their own sakes). The Club found my use of the term “diversity” confusing. But I think that’s just poor writing on my part, and can be fixed by writing well instead of badly.

They also didn’t like my reliance on examples that come out of the policy realm. I will put in some non-policy examples so that it doesn’t seem to be a chapter about rhetoric rather than about knowledge.

There were plenty more comments and ideas. I need some time to digest and then to rewrite. Thank you Book Club!

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