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February 21, 2012

Joho: Culture is an echo chamber

After a couple of years, I’ve actually published another issue of my old ‘zine. Why so long between issues? Basically, blogging ate my zine.

Here’s the table of contents. The main article is, unsurprisingly, the first one:

Culture is an echo chamber: We all hate echo chambers in which a bunch of yahoos convince one another that they’re right. But, our fear of echo chambers can blind us to their important social role. Just take a look at Reddit.com…

In love with linked data: The Semantic Web requires a lot of engineering. So along comes this scrappy contender that says we ought to just make our data public and see what happens. Brilliant!

Too Big to Know: I worked on a book for a couple of years, and now it’s out. Yay?

Report from the DPLA platform: Surprisingly, I’m interim head of the project building the software platform for the Digital Public Library of America. Here’s what’s going on.

Bogus
Contest: #Stories
If history were written in hashtags.

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January 4, 2010

[2b2k] Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia

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…

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June 10, 2009

[2b2k] Chapter 4 – inappropriately concrete?

Chapter 3 left readers with a problem without resolution. If facts don’t provide as firm a bedrock as we’d thought, then are we left to believe whatever we want? Is there no hope? [Spoiler: No, we’re not free to believe whatever we want.]

Because Chapter 3 was pretty abstract, I want to be sure to address its question in some concrete ways. So, Chapter 4 opens with a brief scene-setter that says that we all love diversity, but when there’s too much, we can’t get anything done. I’m now at the beginning of a section that will give maybe four general rules for “scoping” diversity so that a group has enough internal difference to be smarter than the smartest individual, but not so much that they can’t get past bickering. I plan on following that with a more abstract section that asks whether the Net is making us more open or closed to other people’s ideas. At the moment, I like the idea of beginning with the concrete and moving to the abstract, in large part because I think the abstract question is pretty much impossible to answer.

I can’t tell yet if the chapter structure is going to work. There is so much to say about this topic. And I have a concern that the reader is not expecting the book to take this turn. But I won’t be able to tell that until I have enough distance on the prior chapters to be able to read them with some degree of freshness.

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