I’ve been working diligently on Chapter Two, titled “Knowledge as Network.” Today, I threw it out and threw out Chapter 1 while I was at it. I’m radically restructing both.
I was 7,500 words into Chapter 2, so this counts as both a possible advance and a setback.
The Chapter 2 I had almost completed began with an anecdote about expertise, then talked about the evolutionary origins of knowledge as a way to know more than can fit into one human brain. Then, onto the development of systematic methods of knowing, starting with Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham. Then on to repeatability as a part of that method, and why repeatability really aims at our not having to repeat experiments; it’s too expensive. Then there was an acknowledgment of the change in our thinking brought about by Thomas Kuhn and then by what’s loosely called post modernism. (Very brief on the latter! It’d be longer if I understood it better.) The key point: Our system of knowledge is about putting in stopping points for inquiry, in part by providing a system that puts in stopping points for our investigation of credentials. The aim of the system is to get you an answer quickly so you can stop searching. The system works. One side effect: it creates experts.
The current draft of Chapter 2 (that is, the draft I’m replacing) then gives a brief history of experts by looking at the rise of think tanks, which correlates with Taylorism and the US progressive movement. I spend a couple of paragraphs on RAND since it gave us our modern picture of The Expert. This then leads to a section on the new networked expertise. That section begins by wondering why Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between hedgehogs and foxes has become so oft-referenced recently. It’s probably because hedgehogism hasn’t worked out so well for us, and because the Net looks like a fox’s dream. But my real point is that both of those approaches use the old strategy of knowledge: faced with a world too big to know, we limit the task either by limiting the field we cover (hedgehogs) or how deep we dig (foxes). At the level of the network, we now have a new type of expertise that transcends the hedgehog-fox distinction. (What’s happening is really quite Hegelian, although I don’t say that in the chapter.)
Then I look briefly at the Challenger Commission as a positive example of how expertise used to work, and contrast that with MITRE’s approach of giving clients access to a network of connected experts, some of whom may disagree. Finally, I ask the reader to hold a physical book in her hands (which she may well be doing while she’s reading this, of course) and consider the basic physical facts about it. I go through these one by one and show the correlation with the old idea of expertise. Change the medium from a book to a network and the properties of expertise should also change. This leads me to the final section of Chapter 2 in which I go through a typology of 6 forms of networked expertise, prefaced by a short discussion attempting to differentiate what I’m talking about from the Wisdom of the Crowd.
That’s what the chapter was. It had problems. It gives the reader another half chapter of history before getting anywhere close to the point. I can’t afford to postpone for yet another 4,000 words why the reader should care about this topic.
Yesterday, it was my turn to present to the little book writers group at the Berkman Center. I didn’t give them the chapters to read since I knew I’d be changing them drastically. After I described the outline of the two chapters, one of the participants — am I allowed to say that it was Ethan Zuckerman? — had the same reaction as my literary agent, who had read the first chapter: Interesting stuff to have gotten out of your system, but it needs to be moved further back. In the course of the conversation, it became clear to me that I need to hit the reader in the face early on with one of the most basic assertions of the book: The old strategy of knowledge has been to manage the overload by limiting what we know, but we are now developing a new strategy in response to the fact that the Net is hugely inclusive.
So, this morning I sat in front of a wide-screen monitor divided into three parts: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Blank Chapter. I copied and pasted and quickly patched together a new Chapter 1. At the moment, it begins with a brief history of the data-information-knowledge-wisdom pyramid and uses that as an example of knowledge’s old strategy of managing overload by reducing it. This lets me get straight to the big, broad point. It proceeds from there, although I’m not sure I have it arranged right. (Maybe I should add back in all the stuff about information overload? Hard to know at the moment.)
I’ve only begun reconstructing Chapter 2. At the moment, I think it will be a history of knowledge with a focus on our culture’s idea that it’s like a building that needs a firm foundation. But that gets at an idea I might want to end the book with, so I’m really not sure at the moment what Chapter 2 should be.
But now it’s time for lunch. Nuking chapters sure builds an appetite in an author!