from David Weinberger, 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, 2014.

Knowledge has always occurred within a context developed through some form of network and maintained through some form of links. On the Origin of Species may not be footnoted, but it points to objections raised by others, and was written by a man embedded in a social network of colleagues and opponents. Modern printed works of scholarship footnote everything they can, in part to authenticate ideas but increasingly to avoid transgressions in an insane economy of micro-ownership of ideas.

When knowledge was communicated and preserved on paper, it had to work around the fact that connected ideas were expressed in a disconnected medium. You knew that few people would track down the works referenced in your footnotes, so you had to pull into your text as much of the referenced work as you needed (begging the permission of the jealous god Copyright). You therefore became the spokesperson for others in your network of knowledge. You would do your best to be fair, but you knew that you were reducing your fellow scholar to the excerpt you chose. You had no alternative. It's not as if you could fit that other book inside your book.

Now you can. You will still include the relevant passage from the referenced--linked--work, but you will do so aware that your reader can instantly check it and read more than you've included. Links erode authorial control.

Links also change the basic topology of knowledge. People will continue to write long works because complex knowledge needs time to develop, just as any narrative does. But readers are being trained by the linked Net to see any piece that develops an idea as living within a connected, traversable web.

We know that every topic stretches beyond its covers because we see links penetrating pages a thousand times a day.

Links are subverting not just knowledge as a system of stopping points but also the credentialing mechanism that supported that system. Credentials will continue to count, especially when the topic is important and capable of being reliably settled--for example, advice about diabetic diets versus opinions about comfortable shoes. In the appropriate cases, we can only hope that our children and fellow citizens will pay attention to credentials. But even where credentials count for much, the credentialed works exist in a network where recommendations and the opinions of others also count for something. For one thing, you probably got to the credentialed site through recommendations from uncredentialed pages.

We created knowledge as a system of stopping points both because that's what paper enabled and because it's a highly efficient strategy. Our sources in the paper-based ecology may turn out to be less trustworthy than we'd hoped--anyone know the real solubility of EGCG, hmm?--but with no stopping points we wouldn't get anywhere. The linked infrastructure we've built for ourselves also provides stopping points, but with an implicit statement that there's more there. The last word is now never the last word.

Thus, the links that we all encounter in every encounter with the Web thoroughly transform the shape of knowledge, the role of authorities and credentials, and the reasons and places we allow our inquiries to stop.



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