My Scholarly Book Review

David Weinberger’s intriguingly titled: Too Big To Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That The Facts Aren’t Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, And The Smartest Person In The Room Is The Room is a 231 page paperback (also available as an e-book) published in 2011 by Basic Books, New York, ISBN: 9780465085965 (Weinberger D. , 2011).

This relatively recent publication includes many brief commentaries such as those provided within it (Weinberger D. , 2011, pp. i-vi).  Few reviews are locatable, mostly popular, and some formal – detailing contents without evaluation (Kirkus Reviews, 2012). It received two international awards in 2012, details of which are retrievable from the author’s blog (Weinberger D. , 2009). A brief quote from John Seely Brown proclaims that the work is a true tour-de-force (Weinberger D. , 2011, cover). With such enticing recommendations, expectations are raised that the discourse that follows will fulfil the academic needs of a scholar of Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation by meeting the following criteria:

  • provoking deep thinking about the content,
  • broadening educational perspectives,
  • engaging the reader in debate,
  • encouraging or enabling practical change in an educational setting.

Weinberger’s prologue outlines his underlying contention that there is a crisis of knowledge in terms of volume, quality, context and sub-text (Weinberger D. , 2011, pp. vii – xiv). It contains a barrage of questions: “How wide is the inevitable gap between our perfect theories and their mechanical imperfection? …How much does accuracy matter? What are the positive aspects of the fallibility of human knowledge? (Weinberger D. , 2011, pp. vii-viii). This frenetic flurry of questions is followed by more perplexing queries relating to what knowledge actually is and postulating that there is no longer any authority deciding what constitutes “knowledge” and what does not. These questions are given lengthy rather than deep consideration throughout the remaining pages and enabling some deep and educationally meaningful thinking.

The impact of the Prologue’s fourteen pages is almost overwhelming.  The overall premise for this work: “The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it” is superficial as the network obviously joins the people not the room itself. At this stage Weinberger is meeting the criterion of engaging the reader in debate to some extent, but in a frustrating rather than captivating or enlightening manner.

Weinberger proceeds by establishing today’s information ecology in comparison to that of the past. He uses unnecessarily lengthy segments to prove this point. The first two chapters, “Knowledge Overload” and “Bottomless Knowledge”, assess a number of aspects of traditional mediums of reporting and recording knowledge (Weinberger D. , 2011, pp. 1-43). It takes ten pages to develop the premise that there is too much knowledge for humans to know. This is indisputable, and widely reported by other authors over the last two decades (Starkey, 2011, p. 21). Lack of elaboration in relation to: “filters are crucial content. …they reveal the whole deep sea” is disappointing (Weinberger D. , 2011, pp. 11-13). An author involved with ShelfLife and LibraryCloud should have elaborated further (Harvard University, 2012).

To prove his point about bodies of knowledge in the past differing from those in the present, Weinberger compares the painstaking investigative work of Charles Darwin to the website hunch.com (now part of ebay): (Hunch.com – This Website Helps You Make Decisions, 2007).  Comparing the incomparable, he comes up with such points of difference as: Darwin’s work is hard won and finite in topic, while Hunch is fast and fun (asking twelve questions per minute) and purposefully unconstrained (Weinberger D. , 2011, pp. 31-35).

“An Introduction to the Rest of the Book” provides more detailed elaborations on “The Body of Knowledge”, (Weinberger D. , 2011, p. 43). While this may broaden educational perspectives to some extent, a scholar of information and communication technologies does not encounter conceptually new material. Never-the-less there is academic value in continuing to read.

“The Expertise of Clouds”, and “A Marketplace of Echoes?” broaden the discussion into the new spaces and connections that The Internet allows (Weinberger D. , 2011, pp. 47-93). Weinberger offers some interesting insights into the dynamics of, and changes to methods of working, sharing and saving knowledge. This becomes thought-provoking when the danger of echo chambers is raised and elaborated on throughout the rest of the book. (Weinberger D. , 2011, pp. 81-)

Echo chambers develop when like-minded people always work together, therefore limiting their own knowledge. This consequently diminishes overall contributions to the world’s knowledge banks; an idea worthy of consideration. Avoiding echo chambers should be considered as an underlying principle by educators developing curriculum in the twenty first century. Their relevance to creating and performing collaborative tasks cannot be overlooked. This is one aspect of this work that meets the criteria of provoking deep thinking and encouraging practical educational change.

There is a more effective commentary on echo chambers in Rewire, Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, written by Weinberger’s colleague, Zuckerman (Zuckerman, 2013, pp. 260-262).  In addition, this information is transmitted within three pages than Weinberger’s twenty four.

Comparatively, these Harvard professional collaborators, present opposite views. Weinberger presents issues and concerns, focusing on the problematic. Where Weinberger’s book spends many pages detailing problems from all angles and giving many ad hoc examples, Zuckerman focuses on recommending actions that result in positive outcomes, explaining when and where these solutions have worked. Zuckerman utilises an optimistic and solution based approach, far more valuable in broadening educational perspectives and potentially improving teaching and learning.

“Long Form, Web Form” gives an interesting comparison of the structure that books force knowledge into, compared to the shapelessness of the Internet. This is engaging, and covers an aspect of information that seems to be obvious once the chapter is read, but which may be novel for graduates of book-based education (Weinberger D. , 2011, pp. 93-104). In a section sub-titled Book-Shaped Thought, the author is forced by his own arguments to justify his choice of format for this work. (Weinberger D. , 2011, p. 101). He acknowledges his own hypocrisy, then apologises, citing his age (sixty), generation (one “that takes the publication of a book as an achievement”), “book publishers still pay advances”, and “the privilege of holding the floor for … 70,000 words” as his excuses (Weinberger D. , 2011, p. 97). This levity permits a view of Weinberger’s sense of humour and encourages perseverance in reading. It also challenges the paradigms of current educational methodology.

Fortunately “Too Much Science” does not labour the points as much as much as his early chapters. For example, it includes another aspect of Darwin’s work, but this time it fits into a page (Weinberger D. , 2011, p. 153).  Weinberger also addresses his claim, that “the smartest person in the room is the room” (a point which should contain the obvious qualifier that the room needs to be networked) (Weinberger D. , 2011, p. title). The “final product of Science is now neither final, nor a product. It is the network itself – the seamless connection of scientists, data, methodologies, hypotheses, theories, facts, speculations, instruments, readings, ambitions, controversies, schools of thought, textbooks, faculties, collaborations, and disagreements that used to struggle to print a relative handful of articles in a relative handful of journals” (Weinberger D. , 2011, p. 156).

Specific suggestions, which may be appropriate to educational practice, occur in the final two chapters. The mysteriously titled “Where the Rubber Hits the Node” (Weinberger D. , 2011, pp. 159-171) presents the benefits of hyper-connectivity, referring to the examples of West Point (Weinberger D. , 2011, p. 161) and Wikipedia (Weinberger D. , 2011, p. 163).  Seven benefits of networking are strongly made on the basis of these two institutions’ work (Weinberger D. , 2011, pp. 169-170). These are potentially adaptable to teaching, thereby meeting another of the criterion of an educational researcher.

Finally, in the acknowledgements, there is another glimpse of the nature of the author. “All mistakes and errors are solely the responsibility of Wikipedia”; another example of humour from an author whose background is in philosophy (Weinberger D. , 2011, p. 167).

This book adds little that is new in relation to the role of the web, as Aitkenhead (2010) cited in Gonzalez’ chapter states: “Is the Internet a good thing or a bad thing?” We are done with all that. It’s just a thing (Gonzalez, 2013, p. 20). Neither does it add much innovative perspective to “Ideas about ‘knowledge’ [which] appear to be changing from something that is found in the heads of individuals or in books to something that is not fixed, is debatable, accessible through a range of media and created through networks, connections and collaboration (Bereiter, 2002; Gilbert, 2005; Siemens, 2004)” (Starkey, 2011, p. 21). Weinberger does outline some strategies for adoption, but only in the closing pages of the last few chapters, and not readily adaptable for education.

While small in size, this title encompasses a topic potentially as massive as it is long. Despite using too many words in so many chapters to make his contentions, Weinberger’s book, at times, meets the criteria for provoking deep educational thought. There are a few occasions when a broadening of educational perspective occurs, and there is some potential for practical changes to educational practice.  Many of his statements cause reflection and some lead to deep educational thinking.

This book is, however, too esoteric in style and wide ranging in content to be highly recommended. It provides minimal original material to the debates about our information-rich world, and, ironically, uses a very long-form manner of writing in which to do so. The style of writing does not flow as easily as many of the other books on this type of topic. The would have been more suitably presented as a blog, allowing hyperlinks to replace multiple pages of unnecessary information, and enabling debate to occur as points are raised. Cynically, and somewhat paradoxically, investigating many of the recommendations provided with this book, it seems that Weinberger could also be accused of working in echo chambers.

References

Gonzalez, F. (2013). Knowledge Banking for a   Hyperconnected Society. In How Internet is Changing Our lives (pp.   12-36). OpenMind. Retrieved April 7, 2014, from https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/book/19-key-essays-on-how-internet-is-changing-our-lives/

Harvard University. (2012). Retrieved April 10,   2014, from The Harvard Library Innovation Page: http://librarylab.law.harvard.edu/

Hunch.com – This Website Helps You Make Decisions. (2007). Retrieved March 30, 2014, from   KillerStartups : http://www.killerstartups.com/web20/hunch-com-this-website-helps-you-make-decisions/

Kirkus Reviews. (2012, January). Weinberger, David:   Too Big To Know. Expanded Academic ASAP. Retrieved April 9, 2014, from   http://www.kirkusreviews.com/

Starkey, L. (2011). Evaluating Learning in the 21st   Century: a Digital Age Learning Matrix. Technology, Pedagogy and Education(20:1),   19-39. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1475939X.2011.554021

Weinberger, D. (2009, December 27). Too Big To   Know But Not Too Big to Blog About. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from Too   Big To Know But Not Too Big to Blog About: http://www.toobigtoknow.com/

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too Big To Know:   Rethinking Knowledge Now That The Facts Aren’t Facts, Experts Are Everywhere,   And The Smartest Person In The Room Is The Room. New York, New York,   United States Of America: Basic Books.

Zuckerman, E. (2013). Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans   in the Age of Connection. New York, New York, United States of America:   W.W.Norton & Company Inc.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “My Scholarly Book Review

  1. Liz Eckert

    An interesting read. I can see why the grade, reads more like a critical book review to me than a scholarly review but there are elements leaning more towards the scholarly review. But having read you review, I have a feeling I’ll be passing on this book.

    Like

  2. msimkin

    I think there are 2 areas where I let myself down:
    1. I didn’t apply the criteria I outlined specifically to the review, but referred to them as I discussed the book chronologically. (It was herd to know how much to cite from the book – given the need to provide evidence of having read it).
    2. I didn’t refer to readings from the modules so much as a range of other sources – and possibly not enough of them.
    Interesting learning experience all round though.

    Like

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