Too Big to Know

Martin De Saulles sees how new ways to share online can lead to quicker knowledge creation

March 15, 2012

The worry that we are being overwhelmed by information is not new. Five hundred years ago, the spread of printing presses led some thinkers to bemoan the mass reproduction of books and the negative impact it was having on learning. The rapid adoption of personal computers and the embedding of the internet in our work and personal lives have given a new generation of naysayers even more to complain about. The technology consulting firm IDC claims that in 2011 1.8 zettabytes (1.8 trillion gigabytes) of information were created and replicated globally - the equivalent of a pile of DVDs stretching to the Moon and back, and growing at such a rate that by 2020 it will be halfway to Mars.

Of course, a lot of these data are the digital exhaust we leave behind as we snap photos and post updates to Facebook and Twitter, and the 200 billion spam emails sent every day. However, there is also gold to be found among the detritus, and, as David Weinberger shows, the digitisation of information is transforming how we work and learn, with profound effects on global economic and social development. The central hypothesis of his wide-ranging but highly readable book is that knowledge is created differently in the emerging digital age than has been the case in the rapidly receding age of paper.

The sheer volume of information we all have to deal with is one factor driving these changes, but more important, according to Weinberger, are the networks linking those engaged in knowledge creation. He cites Wikipedia and Linux as successful examples of distributed information-sharing as well as more recent initiatives such as Mendeley, the collaborative online reference and research network for academics.

Online networks, formal and informal, are accelerating the speed with which information is shared between researchers, making it harder for any individual or single research group to claim ownership of a scientific discovery. At the same time, the criteria by which academics are judged are being tested by the new channels for communication and knowledge sharing. As Weinberger asks: "In a networked knowledge ecology, how does a tenure committee decide how to weigh four peer-reviewed books against 12,045 tweets and 3,754 blog posts?" Traditional academic publishing and the peer-review system that underpins it are not going away any time soon, but established practices are under strain because the demand for near real-time results does not sit well with the long lead times of printed journals.

Speed of publication is not the only challenge for publishers, and Weinberger highlights how digital publishing allows readers to link to the original datasets and perform their own analyses. The traditional publishing model, he argues, disembodies the writing from the research data, which slows others from checking the accuracy of the work or building on the findings. Weinberger believes that knowledge creation is becoming a more visible process, with the publication of draft papers and online discussions leading to greater collaboration. It will be interesting to see how far these changes extend to the private sector where, for commercial reasons, research is more closely guarded. The merits of a more open approach to the innovation process have been argued by a number of researchers, but it will take significant changes to corporate culture before such an approach becomes mainstream.

Nevertheless, Weinberger's broader premise that digital information and the networks over which it flows are leading to new forms of knowledge creation is a reasonable one. The open nature of the internet and the ease with which almost anyone can access and share information through hyperlinks are at the heart of this revolution. The newspaper editors and librarians who traditionally filtered information before it reached us are being replaced by the people we find and follow online. According to Weinberger, this is more than an incremental change because the hyperlink makes previously hidden filtered information just a couple of clicks away. Advances in computing technology are also dealing with the challenge of analysing the tsunami of data flowing from research projects in "big science" areas such as genomics and particle acceleration. Data crunching that a few years ago took months to carry out can now be done in hours. If Weinberger is right, there has never been a better time to be a researcher.

Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now that the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room

By David Weinberger

Basic Books, 256pp, £17.99

ISBN 9780465021420

Published 19 January 2012

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