I’ve put Chapter 1 aside for two whole days after several weeks of compulsive daily writing and unwriting (usually in the other order). In the meantime I read Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia. I had skimmed it a couple of years ago, but this time I went through it more slowly because his caveats about group deliberation are important.
Infotopia follows up on his 2001 Republic.com, which famously worries about the formation of online “echo chambers” on the Net that causes people to become more extreme and less open in their views. Infotopia asks whether and how groups of people can learn and make good decisions. While Sunstein professes to be optimistic, the book reads pretty much like a catalog of how groups make themselves stupider. Worse, the book is evidence-based. There are a lot of studies that support him.
So, it’s directly relevant to the book I’m writing. I will undoubtedly draw upon it for both its warnings and its advice. The advice in fact seems to be to recognize what groups are good at and what they’re not, and to make sure diversity is encouraged and rewarded. (I am oversimplifying, of course.) No argument from me on those points!
I found the book useful for a couple of other reasons, too.
First, overall the book warns that deliberation is not always the best way to get to truth. Sunstein knows that he’s here arguing against deeply held Enlightenment beliefs and against some of the notions that founded this country.
Second, underneath that is a notion of knowledge that I think is being challenged; it’s the task of my book to try to figure out what that challenge actually is and what it does to our idea/ideal of knowledge. I hereby freely admit that I don’t have a good sense of what I’m driving at. But, I think the difference is between thinking (a) there is a realm of fixed and true knowledge (even if deliberation is not always the best tool for uncovering it); and (b) knowledge is always in contention and is never settled.
Now, let me add the qualifiers to that last point, because they are so broad that they may well obviate the point entirely. There is clearly a realm of facts about which one can be simply right or wrong. If that’s all we me mean by knowledge, then (a) is correct. But, if so, then knowledge isn’t nearly as elevated as we’ve thought it is. It’s just facts. As we go up a level from facts (and facts about facts may still be facts, so this is a confusing way of putting it), issues are more contentious and more important. I don’t know if we want to call that contentious realm “knowledge” in any sense, nor do I care very much. The picture of the world is different no matter what you call it: Either (a) the contention is an inferior, preparatory state that has value because knowledge emerges it, or (b) the contention is the normal, natural and inevitable condition of us humans, out of which some facty knowledge occasionally precipitates and becomes commoditized.
Or, in the terms that I have using when I think about this for myself, knowledge squeezes differences out, while networked knowledge works by including differences.
By the way, Sunstein also concludes that group deliberation works best if it includes differences. But his idea of working best is that it drives out differences and settles the issue. I am suggesting that knowledge includes differences. I’m just not sure that I’m right, that it’s an interesting point, or that it actually means anything at all.
I had the whole book plotted out carefully, but the first chapter changed things. So, I’m trying to figure out what goes in the next chapter. I think I have a rough idea now. I think I have to explain what it means to say that knowledge is becoming a property of networks, which means showing how traditional knowledge arises from the printed medium. Then I think I have to talk about what this does to experts and expertise. Which actually is fairly close to my original outline. Well what do you know!
I’m working on figuring out how to open the chapter. I have an idea but I have to review some notes first…