Archive for December, 2011

[2b2] What information overload looks like

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[2b2k] Is HuffPo killing the news?

Mathew Ingram has a provocative post at Gigaom defending HuffingtonPost and its ilk from the charge that they over-aggregate news to the point of thievery. I’m not completely convinced by Mathew’s argument, but that’s because I’m not completely convinced by any argument about this.

It’s a very confusing issue if you think of it from the point of view of who owns what. So, take the best of cases, in which HuffPo aggregates from several sources and attributes the reportage appropriately. It’s important to take a best case since we’ll all agree that if HuffPo lifts an article en toto without attribution, it’s simple plagiarism. But that doesn’t tell us if the best cases are also plagiarisms. To make it juicier, assume that in one of these best cases, HuffPo relies heavily on one particular source article. It’s still not a slam dunk case of theft because in this example HuffPo is doing what we teach every school child to do: If you use a source, attribute it.

But, HuffPo isn’t a schoolchild. It’s a business. It’s making money from those aggregations. Ok, but we are fine in general with people selling works that aggregate and attribute. Non-fiction publishing houses that routinely sell books that have lots of footnotes are not thieves. And, as Mathew points out, HuffPo (in its best cases) is adding value to the sources it aggregates.

But, HuffPo’s policy even in its best case can enable it to serve as a substitute for the newspapers it’s aggregating. It thus may be harming the sources its using.

And here we get to what I think is the most important question. If you think about the issue in terms of theft, you’re thrown into a moral morass where the metaphors don’t work reliably. Worse, you may well mix in legal considerations that are not only hard to apply, but that we may not want to apply given the new-ness (itself arguable) of the situation.

But, I find that I am somewhat less conflicted about this if I think about it terms of what direction we’d like to nudge our world. For example, when it comes to copyright I find it helpful to keep in mind that a world full of music and musicians is better than a world in which music is rationed. When it comes to news aggregation, many of us will agree that a world in which news is aggregated and linked widely through the ecosystem is better than one in which you—yes, you, since a rule against HuffPo aggregating sources wouldn’t apply just to HuffPo— have to refrain from citing a source for fear that you’ll cross some arbitrary limit. We are a healthier society if we are aggregating, re-aggregating, contextualizing, re-using, evaluating, and linking to as many sources as we want.

Now, beginning by thinking where we want the world to be —which, by the way, is what this country’s Founders did when they put copyright into the Constitution in the first place: “to promote the progress of science and useful arts”—is useful but limited, because to get the desired situation in which we can aggregate with abandon, we need the original journalistic sources to survive. If HuffPo and its ilk genuinely are substituting for newspapers economically, then it seems we can’t get to where we want without limiting the right to aggregate.

And that’s why I’m conflicted. I don’t believe that even if all rights to aggregate were removed (which no one is proposing), newspapers would bounce back. At this point, I’d guess that the Net generation is primarily interested in news mainly insofar as its woven together and woven into the larger fabric. Traditional reportage is becoming valued more as an ingredient than a finished product. It’s the aggregators—the HuffingtonPosts of the world, but also the millions of bloggers, tweeters and retweeters, Facebook likers and Google plus-ers, redditors and slashdotters, BoingBoings and Ars Technicas— who are spreading the news by adding value to it. News now only moves if we’re interested enough in it to pass it along. So, I don’t know how to solve journalism’s deep problems with its business models, but I can’t imagine that limiting the circulation of ideas will help, since in this case, the circulatory flow is what’s keeping the heart beating.

 


[A few minutes later] Mathew has also posted what reads like a companion piece, about how Amazon’s Kindle Singles are supporting journalism.

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Kirkus review: “wise and witty” + ” “razor-sharp”

Kirkus Reviews is one of the most important sources for the book trade, so I’m extra special glad they like it.

Razor-sharp analysis of the state of knowledge in the age of computer networking.

Weinberger (Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, 2007, etc.), a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Institute for Internet and Society, argues that the collaborative, hyperlinked, instant nature of the Internet has fundamentally altered the way humans relate with knowledge. In the Gutenberg age, because of the finite nature of the book, limited by both its number of pages and the number of copies that could be printed, knowledge was necessarily ordered and hierarchical. The author added pieces to the collective store of knowledge, while publishers, editors, librarians and the community of scholars decided for the common good what was and was not important to know. The Internet has radically upended that hierarchy and knocked down the walls of the knowledge store. In 1989, pundits worried that with 1,000 books published in the world every day, people were suffering from information overload. That was small potatoes, it turns out. In 2008, Weinberger writes, Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes, “a number so large that we have to do research just to understand it.” The author suggests that we make peace with this overwhelming state of affairs, and it seems many of us already have. The democratizing of knowledge is not without its dangers. Bad information has equal access to the common well with good information, and is just as viral. But crowdsourced and refereed resources like Wikipedia give Weinberger hope. The difference between the old style of knowing and the new one is embodied in the differences between a set of encyclopedias and Google. One can fit on a shelf; the other is uncontainable, essentially “an infrastructure of connection.”

A witty and wise companion in this new age of information overload.

[2b2k] Kirkus Reviews likes it

Kirkus Reviews is one of the most important sources for the book trade, so I’m extra special glad they like Too Big to Know.

Razor-sharp analysis of the state of knowledge in the age of computer networking.

Weinberger (Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, 2007, etc.), a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Institute for Internet and Society, argues that the collaborative, hyperlinked, instant nature of the Internet has fundamentally altered the way humans relate with knowledge. In the Gutenberg age, because of the finite nature of the book, limited by both its number of pages and the number of copies that could be printed, knowledge was necessarily ordered and hierarchical. The author added pieces to the collective store of knowledge, while publishers, editors, librarians and the community of scholars decided for the common good what was and was not important to know. The Internet has radically upended that hierarchy and knocked down the walls of the knowledge store. In 1989, pundits worried that with 1,000 books published in the world every day, people were suffering from information overload. That was small potatoes, it turns out. In 2008, Weinberger writes, Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes, “a number so large that we have to do research just to understand it.” The author suggests that we make peace with this overwhelming state of affairs, and it seems many of us already have. The democratizing of knowledge is not without its dangers. Bad information has equal access to the common well with good information, and is just as viral. But crowdsourced and refereed resources like Wikipedia give Weinberger hope. The difference between the old style of knowing and the new one is embodied in the differences between a set of encyclopedias and Google. One can fit on a shelf; the other is uncontainable, essentially “an infrastructure of connection.”

A witty and wise companion in this new age of information overload.

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First reviews

Well, it’s that exciting (=nerve-wracking) time when reviews start to come in.

Publishers Weekly has posted its review of Too Big to Know. It’s good, not only in the sense of positive, but also as a brief description of what the book is about:

Weinberger…engagingly examines the production, dissemination, and accessibility of knowledge in the Internet era. The fundamental and pertinent question Weinberger pursues is how the new surplus of knowledge afforded by the Internet affects our “basic strategy of knowing.” This strategy evolved from “book-shaped thought,” a form “in which parts depend upon the parts before it.” Unlike books, however, Weinberger contends that long-form argument on the Internet engages a more dynamic dimension than a static book ever could: it is “put into a network where the discussion around it [...] will violate its pristine logic.” Despite the slight incompatibility to long-form argument, ideas, and knowledge on the Internet are plentiful, hyperlinked, autonomous, open, and, perhaps most importantly, unsettled, making the Internet a forum within which knowledge is not merely accepted; it is contemplated and questioned. While occasionally tending towards the philosophical, Weinberger’s book is full of relevant and thought-provoking, insights that make it a must-read for anyone concerned with knowledge in the digital age.

Inc. Magazine also ran a review of it, by Leigh Buchanan. It’s a brief and accurate summary of the thrust of the book. Thanks, Leigh!

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[2b2k] Publishers Weekly calls 2b2k a “must read”

Publishers Weekly has posted its review of Too Big to Know. It’s good, not only in the sense of positive, but also as a brief description of what the book is about:

Weinberger…engagingly examines the production, dissemination, and accessibility of knowledge in the Internet era. The fundamental and pertinent question Weinberger pursues is how the new surplus of knowledge afforded by the Internet affects our “basic strategy of knowing.” This strategy evolved from “book-shaped thought,” a form “in which parts depend upon the parts before it.” Unlike books, however, Weinberger contends that long-form argument on the Internet engages a more dynamic dimension than a static book ever could: it is “put into a network where the discussion around it [...] will violate its pristine logic.” Despite the slight incompatibility to long-form argument, ideas, and knowledge on the Internet are plentiful, hyperlinked, autonomous, open, and, perhaps most importantly, unsettled, making the Internet a forum within which knowledge is not merely accepted; it is contemplated and questioned. While occasionally tending towards the philosophical, Weinberger’s book is full of relevant and thought-provoking, insights that make it a must-read for anyone concerned with knowledge in the digital age.


Inc. Magazine also ran a review of it, by Leigh Buchanan. It’s a brief and accurate summary of the thrust of the book. Thanks, Leigh!

The book ships on Dec. 13, so I assume it will hit bookstores shortly after that, and will be fulfilled by Amazon very shortly after that.

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[2b2k] Truth, knowledge, and not knowing: A response to “The Internet Ruins Everything”

Quentin Hardy has written up on the NYT Bits blog the talk I gave at UC Berkeley’s School of Information a few days ago, refracting it through his intelligence and interests. It’s a terrific post and I appreciate it. [Later that day: Here's another perspicacious take on the talk, from Marcus Banks.]

I want to amplify the answer I gave to Quentin’s question at the event. And I want to respond to the comments on his post that take me as bemoaning the fate of knowledge in the age of the Net. The post itself captures my enthusiasm about networked knowledge, but the headline of Quentin’s post is “The Internet ruins everything,” which could easily mislead readers. I am overall thrilled about what’s happening to knowledge.

Quentin at the event noted that the picture of networked knowledge I’d painted maps closely to postmodern skepticism about the assumption that there are stable, eternal, knowable truths. So, he asked, did we invent the Net as a tool based on those ideas, or did the Net just happen to instantiate them? I replied that the question is too hard, but that it doesn’t much matter that we can’t answer it. I don’t think I did a very good job explaining either part of my answer. (You can hear the entire talk and questions here. The bit about truth starts at 46:36. Quentin’s question begins at 1:03:19.)

It’s such a hard question because it requires us to disentangle media from ideas in a way that the hypothesis of entanglement itself doesn’t allow. Further, the play of media and ideas occurs on so many levels of thought and society, and across so many forms of interaction and influence, that the results are emergent.

It doesn’t matter, though, because even if we understood how it works, we still couldn’t stand apart from the entanglement of media and ideas to judge those ideas independent of our media-mediated involvement with them. We can’t ever get a standpoint that isn’t situated within that entanglement. (Yes, I acknowledge that the idea that ideas are always situated is itself a situated idea. Nothing I can do about that.)

Nevertheless, I should add that almost everything I’ve written in the past fifteen years is about how our new medium (if that’s what the Net is (and it’s not)) affects our ideas, so I obviously find some merit in looking at the particulars of how media shape ideas, even if I don’t have a general theory of how that chaotic dance works.

I can see why Quentin may believe that I have “abandoned the idea of Truth,” even though I don’t think I have. I talked at the I School about the Net being phenomenologically more true to avoid giving the impression that I think our media evolve toward truth the way we used to think (i.e., before Thomas Kuhn) science does. Something more complex is happening than one approximation of truth replacing a prior, less accurate approximation.

And I have to say that this entire topic makes me antsy. I have an awkward, uncertain, unresolved attitude about the nature of truth. The same as many of us. I claim no special insight into this at all. Nevertheless, here goes…

My sense that truth and knowledge are situated in one’s culture, history, language, and personal history comes from Heidegger. I also take from Heidegger my sense of “phenomenological truth,” which takes truth as being the ways the world shows itself to us, rather than as an inner mental representation that accords with an outer reality. This is core to Heidegger and phenomenology. There are many ways in which we enable the world to show itself to us, including science, religion and art. Those ways have their own forms and rules (as per Wittgenstein). They are genuinely ways of knowing the world, not mere “games.” Nor are the truths these engagements reveal “pictures of reality” (to use Quentin’s phrase). They are — and I’m sorry to get all Heideggerian on you again — ways of being in the world. We live them. They are engaged, embodied truths, not mere representations or cognitions.

So, yes, I am among the many who have abandoned the idea of Truth as an inner representation of an outer reality from which we are so essentially detached that some of the greatest philosophers in the West have had to come up with psychotic theories to explain how we can know our world at all. (Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes, you know who I’m talking about.) But I have not abandoned the idea that the world is one way and not another. I have not abandoned the idea that beliefs can seem right but be wrong. I have not abandoned the importance of facts and evidence within many crucial discourses. Nor have I abandoned the idea that it is supremely important to learn how the world is. In fact, I may have said in the talk, and do say (I think) in the book that networked knowledge is becoming more like how scientists have understood knowledge for generations now.

So, for me the choice isn’t between eternal verities that are independent of all lived historial situations and the chaos of no truth at all. We can’t get outside of our situation, but that’s ok because truth and knowledge are only possible within a situation. If the Net’s properties are closer to the truth of our human condition than, say, broadcast’s properties were, that truth of our human condition itself is situated in a particular historical-cultural moment. That does not lift the obligation on us poor humans beings to try to understand, cherish, and engage with our world as truthfully as we possibly can.

But the main thing is, no, I don’t think the Net is ruining everything, and I am (overall) thrilled to see how the Net is transforming knowledge.

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[2b2k] Are mailing lists for the old?

A large French company, Atos, has announced (apparently for the second time) that its employees are forbidden from using email for communicating internally. Apparently email is too full of noise, so employees are required to use social media instead of email. This is such an odd idea that it makes you think it’s been misreported.

It does make me wonder, though, how much of the online world relies upon mailing lists as heavily as I do, and whether this is a generational difference.

I’m on about a dozen active mailing lists, I think, although it’s possible the number is much higher. I’d say about half of those are primary sources for my “professional” interests. There are fields in which most of what I’ve learned has come from mailing lists, some of which I’ve been on for well over ten years. They are how I keep up with news in the field and they are where I hear news interpreted and discussed. The knowledge they provide is far more current, in depth, and interestingly intersected with strong personal interests than any broadcast medium could provide.

But it’s my impression, based on nothing but some random data points, that the kids today don’t much care for mailing lists, just as email itself has become an old-fashioned medium for them. There are plenty of other ways of keeping up with developments in a field one cares about, but do any provide the peculiar mix of thematic consistency, a persistent cast of characters, characters one otherwise would not know, and the ability to thread a discussion over the course of multiple days?

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