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June 2, 2013

[2b2k] Knowledge in its natural state

I gave a 20 minute talk at the Wired Next Fest in Milan on June 1, 2013. Because I needed to keep the talk to its allotted time and because it was being simultaneously translated into Italian, I wrote it out and gave a copy to the translators. Inevitably, I veered from the script a bit, but not all that much. What follows is the script with the veerings that I can remember. The paragraph breaks track to the slide changes

(I began by thanking the festival, and my progressive Italian publisher, Codice Edizioni Codice are pragmatic idealists and have been fantastic to work with.)

Knowledge seems to fit so perfectly into books. But to marvel at how well Knowledge fits into books…

… is to marvel at how well each rock fits into its hole in the ground. Knowledge fits books because we’ve shaped knowledge around books and paper.

And knowledge has taken on the properties of books and paper. Like books, knowledge is ordered and orderly. It is bounded, just as books stretch from cover to cover. It is the product of an individual mind that then is filtered. It is kept private and we’re not responsible for it until it’s published. Once published, it cannot be undone. It creates a privileged class of experts, like the privileged books that are chosen to be published and then chosen to be in a library

Released from the bounds of paper, knowledge takes on the shape of its new medium, the Internet. It takes on the properties of its new medium just it had taken on the properties of its old paper medium. It’s my argument today that networked knowledge assumes a more natural shape. Here are some of the properties of new, networked knowledge

1. First, because it’s a network, it’s linked.

2. These links have no natural stopping point for your travels. If anything, the network gives you temptations to continue, not stopping points.

3. And, like the Net, it’s too big for any one head, Michael Nielsen, the author of Reinventing Discovery, uses the discovery of the Higgs Boson as an example. That discovery required gigantic networks of equipment and vast networks of people. There is no one person who understands everything about the system that proved that that particle exists. That knowledge lives in the system, in the network.

4. Like the net, networked knowledge is in perpetual disagreement. There is nothing about which everyone agrees. We like to believe this is a temporary state, but after thousands of years of recorded history, we can now see for sure that we are never going to agree about anything. The hope for networked knoweldge is that we’re learning to disagree more fruitfully, in a linked environment

5. And, as the Internet makes very clear, we are fallible creatures. We get everything wrong. So, networked knowledge becomes more credible when it acknowledges fallibility. This is very different from the old paper based authorities who saw fallibility as a challenge to their authority.

6. Finally, knowledge is taking on the humor of the Internet. We’re on the Internet voluntarily and freed of the constrictions of paper, it turns out that we like being with one another. Even when the topic is serious like this topic at Reddit [a discussion of a physics headline], within a few comments, we’re making jokes. And then going back to the serious topic. Paper squeezed the humor out of knowledge. But that’s unnatural.

These properties of networked knowledge are also properties of the Network. But they’re also properties that are more human and more natural than the properties of traditional knowledge.

But there’s one problem:

There is no such thing as natural knowledge. Knowledge is a construct. Our medium may have changed, but we haven’t, at least so it seems. And so we’re not free to reinvent knowledge any way we’d like. Significant problems based on human tendencies are emerging. I’ll point to four quick problem areas.

First, We see the old patterns of concentration of power reemerge on the Net. Some sites have an enormous number of viewers, but the vast majority of sites have very few. [Slide shows Clay Shirky’s Power Law distribution chart, and a photo of Clay]

Albert-László Barabási has shown that this type of clustering is typical of networks even in nature, and it is certainly true of the Internet

Second, on the Internet, without paper to anchor it, knowledge often loses its context. A tweet…

Slips free into the wild…

It gets retweeted and perhaps loses its author

And then gets retweeted and lose its meaning. And now it circulates as fact. [My example was a tweet about the government not allowing us to sell body parts morphing into a tweet about the government selling body parts. I made it up.]

Third, the Internet provides an incentive to overstate.

Fourth, even though the Net contains lots of different sorts of people and ideas and thus should be making us more open in our beliefs…

… we tend to hang out with people who are like us. It’s a natural human thing to prefer people “like us,” or “people we’re comfortable with.” And this leads to confirmation bias — our existing beliefs get reinforced — and possibly to polarization, in which our beliefs become more extreme.

This is known as the echo chamber problem, and it’s a real problem. I personally think it’s been overstated, but it is definitely there.

So there are four problems with networked knowledge. Not one of them is new. Each has a analog from before the Net.

  1. The loss of context has always been with us. Most of what we believe we believe because we believe it, not because of evidence. At its best we call it, in English, common sense. But history has shown us that common sense can include absurdities and lead to great injustices.

  2. Yes, the Net is not a flat, totally equal place. But it is far less centralized than the old media were, where only a handful of people were allowed to broadcast their ideas and to choose which ideas were broadcast.

  3. Certainly the Internet tends towards overstatement. But we have had mass media that have been built on running over-stated headlines. This newspaper [Weekly World News] is a humor paper, but it’s hard to distinguish from serious broadcast news.

  4. And speaking of Fox, yes, on the Internet we can simply stick with ideas that we already agree with, and get more confirmed in our beliefs. But that too is nothing new. The old media actually were able to put us into even more tightly controlled echo chambers. We are more likely to run into opposing ideas — and even just to recognize that there are opposing ideas — on the Net than in a rightwing or leftwing newspaper.

It’s not simply that all the old problems with knowledge have reemerged. Rather, they’ve re-emerged in an environment that offers new and sometimes quite substantial ways around them.

  1. For example, if something loses its context, we can search for that context. And links often add context.

  2. And, yes, the Net forms hubs, but as Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson have pointed out, the Net also lets a long tail form, so that voices that in the past simply could not have been heard, now can be. And the activity in that long tail surpasses the attention paid to the head of the tail.

  3. Yes, we often tend to overstate things on the Net, but we also have a set of quite powerful tools for pushing back. We review our reviews. We have sites like the well-regarded American site,, that will tell you if some Internet rumor is true. Snopes is highly reliable. Then we have all of the ways we talk with one another on the Net, evaluating the truth of what we’ve read there.

  4. And, the echo chamber is a real danger, but we also have on the Net the occasional fulfillment of our old ideal of being able to have honest, respectful conversations with people with whom we fundamentally disagree. These examples are from Reddit, but there are others.

So, yes, there are problems of knowledge that persist even when our technology of knowledge changes. That’s because these are not technical problems so much as human problems…

…and thus require human solutions. And the fundamental solution is that we need to become more self-aware about knowledge.

Our old technology — paper — gave us an idea of knowledge that said that knowledge comes from experts who are filtered, printed, and then it’s settled, because that’s how books work. Our new technology shows us we are complicit in knowing. In order to let knowledge get as big as our new medium allows, we have to recognize that knowledge comes from all of us (including experts), it is to be linked, shared, discussed, argued about, made fun of, and is never finished and done. It is thoroughly ours – something we build together, not a product manufactured by unknown experts and delivered to us as if it were more than merely human.

The required human solution therefore is to accept our human responsibility for knowledge, to embrace and improve the technology that gives knowledge to us –- for example, by embracing Open Access and the culture of linking and of the Net, and to be explicit about these values.

Becoming explicit is vital because our old medium of knowledge did its best to hide the human qualities of knowledge. Our new medium makes that responsibility inescapable. With the crumbling of the paper authorities, it bcomes more urgent than ever that we assume personal and social responsibility for what we know.

Knowing is an unnatural act. If we can remember that –- remember the human role in knowing — we now have the tools and connections that will enable even everyday knowledge to scale to a dimension envisioned in the past only by the mad and the God-inspired.

Thank you.


May 31, 2013

An Internet cathedral?

It took six centuries to complete the incredible Duomo in Milan. In the past fifteen years, we’ve built some amazing things on the Net by using the Net’s ability to scale laterally: Lots of people collaborating for a short period of time.

08372 - Milan - Duomo
(cc) xiquinho @

So, imagine we set out to do something with a longer time frame. What could we build together if we gave ourselves say 100 years?

I’ve posed this at Reddit.

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July 15, 2008

On the road

I’m in Milan for an afternoon, and then in Madrid for some part of a day, and then home. Blogging may be lighter than usual.

I’ve been in Milan several times before. Every time I see it, it seems like a different city. I’m not sure if it’s seasonal, because of the accidents of the parts of town I see, or one of the great pleasures of a failing memory. But, my, what a beautiful city it was this afternoon! [Tags: ]