Thursday, November 29, 2012

Interview with David Weinberger

Several months back, I had the pleasure of reading David Weinberger's book, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.  (You can also find it in the Noblenet Library System to borrow, here). Rather than go on and on about the book, which I easily could, I lucked into the chance to interview him for this blog. Following up on his book, I got the opportunity to hear David speak and even the opportunity to interview him.  For more details about David, you can check out his brief bio on the Berman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

Lance:  Let’s start with two fun questions:  Have you looked at your Wikipedia Page?  Have you been tempted to modify it?

David:  Not in years. Of course I'm tempted to modify it. I don't think anyone ever fully agrees with anything anyone ever says about her/him :)  And at one point it said I'm a Canadian, which is factually wrong; someone fixed that eventually.

Lance:  So besides the title, what would be the best tweet-length description of the book?

David:  The Internet is letting us scale up knowledge, which is changing knowledge's nature. #2b2k .  Not very exciting, but under 140 characters.

Lance:  What were some of the surprises or unexpected information/responses you had in composing the book?

David:  Hmm. Writing is how I think and learn, so the fun part is that it's almost all surprising to me. To be specific: I don't know.

Lance:  Do you think copyright law will change?  Do you feel organizations like Creative Commons have it right or is there another uncharted arena with which to explore?

David:  CC works within existing copyright law; it lets you specify a far more useful and human set of terms, without requiring a change to copyright law. It's wonderful. But as most CC'ers would agree, we also need to change the law.

I thought the Republican Study Committee's report on copyright law, issued last Friday and withdrawn on Saturday, was a terrific starting place.

Lance:  You argue that the Net isn’t as much as an echo-chamber as naysayers like to pretend it is.  That is, that people don't easily slip into mob-mentality to validate and encourage their groupthink.  Yet how would your argument apply to something like cyber-bullying, where the same (if not similar) dynamic is at play?

David:  That's not exactly what I meant. Echo chambers are real. But the fear that the Net is nothing but an echo chamber seems to me to be based in part on a misunderstanding of how conversation and understanding work.  Conversation requires a huge amount of agreement over values and beliefs, just as in an echo chamber. But nasty negative echo chambers certainly exist.

Lance:  Though you applaud the multiplicity of knowledge in your book, you also note that there is some knowledge that is or can be clearly wrong (To be honest; I forget if this was specifically in the book or just from your lecture; can’t seem to find the passage, so I’m not sure).  Do you feel society is heading towards a “knowledge cliff” in some capacity?

David:  If the post-cliff position is that we are not able to come to agreement, then we've been over that cliff from the beginning. The Net has made it clear that we're not going to come to agreement, even when the facts are clear. But we are also discovering/inventing ways to deal fruitfully with disagreement. Not always, but sometimes. There is hope, therefore -- not hope that we'll all agree someday, but hope that we may learn to benefit from those disagreements.

Lance: Do you see any leaders (cultural, political, etc) that are working from the vantage point of the innate common ground between different groups/views?  

David: These are what my friend Ethan Zuckerman calls "bridge" figures. He's writing about people interpreting one culture to another, but there are bridge figures across most of our differences. And, not to be too much of a Reddit fanboy, but IAMA's are a forum designed as bridges. As for particular people, well, I'm terrible at that type of recall.

Lance:  You discuss a lot of the positive elements of the Internet, but what bothers/frustrates you the most about the Internet and the new forms of “knowledge”?

David:  Everything, except info overload. I don't buy that we're overloaded. But I am deeply disturbed by the fact that people now can more firmly believe wrong ideas.

Lance:  What advice do you have for those who encounter the Internet with trepidation about the information potentially made available to them?

David:  Grow up. If you want your information spoon-fed by a bunch of white men, get in your time machine and go back 20 years. Otherwise, if you genuinely don't know what to believe on the Internet, find some real-world friends on the Net and find some mainstream authorities on the Net, and listen to them.

Lance:  What do you think will be the characteristics of next phenomenon on the Internet?

David:  We won't know until it happens. It may perhaps have to do with something that we can do at scale that we otherwise couldn't have imagined.

Lance:  You talk about the idea that human brains can't process the depth of knowledge and complexity in the world and on the Internet?  Are we on the path to the singularity?

David:  If "singularity" means being able to transfer consciousness to computers, then no. That dream is based on an unwarranted belief that brains are purely formal, and that anything in that form -- i.e., that has the same relationships among the neurons -- is conscious. That confuses the map with the territory. If "singularity" means we can do amazing things due to exponential growth, then we've been there for 20 years.

Lance:  What challenges does the new information frontier hold for educational institutes big and small?

David:  The focus on educating individuals, learning as a private activity, the emphasis on test-taking, the write-a-report model of learning, the evaluation of individuals, the assumptions about long-form thinking, the reliance on textbooks, the cost of education, the digital divide, the prestige of printed journals...

Lance:  How would educators contend with this new frontier in an effective manner?

David:  We'll know when today's students are the senior teachers. But the most obvious things are: 1. Educate constantly in how to use the Web; 2. Encourage public, social, web-form learning.

Lance:  Besides of course your own book, what recommendations for reading (books, articles, or sites) might you have for an educator trying to get a better grasp around the Internet and its implications for education?

David:  I'm terrible at this. I freeze. I worry about the stuff I forgot. So, I'll just point to Brown and Thomas' A New Culture of Learning.Oh, and Clay Shirky.