According to Weinberger, things have changed because knowledge is no longer found just in books but also on the Net, where it is linked into complex configurations that defy the weight of authority. Apparently anything goes on the Internet and Weinberger seem to revel in it as he celebrates our new age without traditional knowledge: “Welcome to the life of knowledge once it has been taken down from its shelf. It is misquoted, degraded, enhanced, incorporated, passed around through a thousand degrees of misunderstanding, and assimilated to the point of invisibility.” Knowledge, which used to be part of a pyramid that included data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, has become unknowable and impossible to master, Weinberger argues. He finds the shapelessness of knowledge reinvigorating, although he notes that this has unfortunately deprived knowledge of its foundations.
Weinberger’s argument is far-reaching: He claims that the very nature of knowledge is different because of the Internet. His rather jazzy subtitle draws the outline of the argument: “Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.” Today, knowledge is messy. And it’s so complexly linked that the human brain can no longer fully comprehend it. “Knowledge now is the unshaped web of connections within which expressions of ideas live.” And it’s constantly being revised and debated so that knowledge has become a never-ending process.
I have to object to such a view. Just because any cracked pot (including I suppose possibly me) can post an idiotic opinion or false facts or illogical arguments or bad poetry on the Internet doesn’t mean that knowledge is devoid of truth. If we say that the shape and content of the Internet determines what knowledge is, then we and our core humanity are truly lost. We are doomed to the wise crowd of the lowest common denominator and the smart mob in any random street.
Yes, we live in an age of “Big Data,” where sensors and tracking software record an enormous amount of data points, and yes such vast amounts of data make it easier to go wrong, but that still doesn’t mean there might not be a pattern in the data that could divulge some information. It’s still possible that collecting and analyzing enough information might lead to new insights and real knowledge. And yes, the Internet seems to be capable of holding infinite amounts of data and information. But hasn't knowledge always been an open-ended affair? That’s what Hamlet was trying to tell Horatio when he told him there were “more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And as for the fact that all this information seems hopelessly fragmentary, ninety years ago T.S. Eliot was complaining about the same thing as he wrote in The Waste Land about the mere “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Sure, the Internet may be unfathomable. But so too are the human heart and the human brain.
I find it heartening and enlightening to listen to scientists and artists who grapple with the mysteries of life at the edge of knowledge. The neuroscientist and researcher David Eagleman explained it well in a recent interview on NPR: “We’re always looking for patterns. . . . I’ve spent my life in science. . . . It is the single most useful pursuit that we have in terms of trying to figuring out what is going on in the world. . . . But at some point the pier of science comes to an end and we’re standing at the end of the pier and looking at uncharted waters that go for as far as the eye can see. Most of what we’re surrounded with is mystery and what one comes to understand in a life of science is the vastness of our ignorance.”
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t go back to his lab in the morning.