Wednesday, May 7, 2008

David Weinberger: The New Shape of Knowledge

Keynote Speaker David Weinberger

“The New Shape of Knowledge” 11:00am-12:00pm

David Weinberger is something of a pioneer in understanding and explaining the internet. He is a frequent contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Here is a link to some of the stories on NPR

I also included a link to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University where David is currently a Fellow. Here you can find a bio and links to some of his works

I feel obligated to note that David was a comedy writer for Woody Allen, and he was also a humor columnist for a daily newspaper. Who ever thought librarians and humor don’t mix. I always thought humor and librarianship go well together, and my suspicions are being confirmed at this conference! Humor lovers unite!

David Weinberger is probably best known for the book he coauthored, “Cluetrain Manifesto,” which explained to business what the internet was really about. Check out this link with info and chapters from the book Just keep scrolling down for further explanation, and a chance to read the entire book online for free.

David began discussing the New Yorker article on digitization and is discontents. We are in an age of abundance—an abundance of crap. We are getting pretty good at dealing with the amazing amount of crap available. There is also a large amount of good stuff that is available.


Our natural inclination to manage and cluster objects and ideas is inherent in everyday life. We put spices together in the cabinet, pair fruits together on the counter, and meats in the fridge. We “lump and split” with our laundry—socks together, sweaters in one spot, etc. That is the way the world works—completely binary. We have this idea that there is a single way to organize things which is limiting thinking.

Entropy—A Philosophy of Change

This limited type of thinking is inherent in newspapers by privileging stories in a limited space on the front page. But in the age of information we are moving from the physical to another level of ordering known as digital. In time just about everything will be digitized. The stuff that is digitized it will 99% of the time be the first resort for information, including archives. This includes a rethinking of classification, known today as tagging. This is true through layers of linking. Just link to any blog and try to “follow the trail.” We have so many layers of metadata in our digital world that creates a huge mess; however, this mess, David argues, is a virtue.


This is obvious in our search online at a library. Searching for Herman Melville will yield multiple data points, which is linked to a number of resources. The linking creates the metadata which accesses many data points. We no longer deal with one source of information, one piece of data, or a simple order. We are, David reminds us, moving from simple to complex order.

Unowned Order

The new order means that we get to manage the way we order information. We don’t need to make decisions for others based on our ordering. Instead, we can include everything. This can be overwhelming, but it gives people more options. We can manage the incredible amount of information by tagging. There will no doubt be other ways to manage the information.

Library of Congress--flickr

This reordering is making its way into the now fledgling(?) Library of Congress. LOC put tons of photos on flickr with some metadata—not a lot, but enough. There was an enormous amount of tagging and posts that discussed the organization of the photos being shared online. Comments and tagging contribute to the reorganization of material on the web. This also becomes a learning environment. People posting ask questions and engage others in what they see. The dialogue becomes a rather abstract exercise in epistemology, or what we know, and how we know what we know. This rationalization and questioning is on display in the interactive approach online. There is a re-evaluative process online.


This re-evaluation process is evident in Wikipedia where contributors share ideas and open discussion about information that is posted through comments and challenges in acknowledging human fallibility, reorganizing notions of dialogue. We don’t see posts disputing the verity of an article in the New York Times or the Boston Globe. Fallibility is exposed in Wikipedia.

Reconsidering Knowledge

Knowledge, or notions of knowledge, is refashioned in the “mess” of the information age. Our knowledge is not necessarily changing, but the process is. Maybe we are in an age of process, or an age of transition. Whatever it is, it sure beats the Dark Ages (so I hear from someone who was there), and I am certainly enjoying the process whatever happens with knowledge. And David says it will take at least a generation to work through this new knowledge.

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