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From Wikimania

This page is part of the Proceedings of Wikimania 2006 (Index of presentations)

What's Happening to Knowledge?

Author David Weinberger
Track Free Knowledge & Access to Information
License GNU Free Documentation License (details)
About the author
David Weinberger, Ph.D. is co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto and the author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined; he writes www.JohoTheBlog. He is a Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society. His work has appeared in many places, from Wired to Harvard Business Review to TV Guide. He is a commentator on NPR and is a columnist for KMWorld and Il Sole 24 ore (Italy's leading financial daily newspaper). As a marketing consultant he has has worked with many companies, large and small. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto. His book Everything Is Miscellaneous about the ways in which the new principles of digital organization are transforming knowledge will be published by Times Books in winter 2007.
The old principles for the organization of knowledge turn out to be based on principles for organizing physical objects; in the digital age we're creating new principles free of the old limitations. This is changing the basic shape of knowledge, from (typically) trees to miscellanized piles. This has consequences for the nature of topics, the role of metadata, and, crucially, the authority of knowledge. In short, the change in the shape of knowledge is also changing its place. Despite the hysteria too often heard, knowledge is not being threatened. We are way too good at generating knowledge, and it is way too important to us as a species. But, much of what we're doing together on the Web is about increasing meaning, not knowledge. That re-frames knowledge -- traditional and Wikipedian -- in ways that are hard to predict but important.


Note: These are my notes-in-progress. Sorry they're a little cryptic. And highly likely to change, especially in response to what happens at Wikimedia. [Revised on Aug 2] - D. Weinberger


  • Too big and grand a topic.
  • Path through it...Why is there such a hubub about Wikipedia?
    • You think you’re doing K, but much of the world thinks you’re mardi gras
      • You think you’re the searchers and the defenders of NPOV - the traditional values
    • Why do the media insist on taking W (falsely) as mob, more committed to social process than to truth?

Seven properties of traditional knowledge

  1. Three-term relationship: knowledge, knower, known
  2. One K
  3. Same for everyone
  4. Same in everyone’s mouth
  5. Not everything is K
  6. Simpler than world
  7. Orderly
  • Order is where beauty meets K
    • Harmony of spheres
      • Mendeleev
  • Look at five of the properties again

1. In our heads: Romantic myth of knower

  • Wikipedia is perceived as mob rule, more committed to social process than to truth
  • We think K can’t be social:
    • Myth of individual genius
  • But:
    • what it takes to know a gnat (= institutional nature of k)
  • Got K driven into our heads:
    • K as a property of belief
    • Where head meets world
    • Hence: mixed up with privileged relation to world

2. Experts

  • Tomato topic - knowledge without knower
  • Expert has to negotiate knowledge
    • Why is that scary?
      • If K is mirror, there’s no negotiating with a mirror

3. Simpler and orderly: Unbound topics

  • Bush’s immigration speech complexified by blogs
  • Who gets to decide what’s important?
    • Social structure built on this
    • Money rests on it
  • Interpenetration of topics
    • Went through fear of alphabetization
      • Mortimer Adler
    • Now past that. Networked topics. Web of topics, based on relationships.
      • Web is already semantic. See it at Wikipedia’s links.
  • Authority and truth
    • Wikipedia’s notices conditioning articles – “This article may not be NPOV,” etc. , medical info
      • Why don’t traditional authorities use them?
        • Prefer authority to truth

4. Bigger than we are: Exactly our size

  • Wikipedia is better representation of human interests and human world than any traditional encyclopedia can be

5. One truth: Commoditization

  • Wikipedia flies in the face of the Web’s multiverse
    • Gets there by reducing knowledge to what can be agreed upon or civilly disagreed about
  • Long tail of editing – life cycle
  • Almanac commoditized facts
  • What’s next? What’s up a level? Meaning
    • How do you know a gnat? Heidegger wanted to know a hammer.
    • Externalizing memory in writing, knowledge in books
    • W as the knowledge moment in something larger
    • Heidegger on meaning
    • Disorderly
    • Meaning, not knowledge
      • We’ll always know
        • Back to gnat
      • For the next hundred years, our task is to build meaning
4Final edit

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