David Weinberger on “Knowledge at the End of the Information Age”

I really enjoyed the lecture tonight by Dr. David Weinberger as part of the Bertha Bassam lecture at the University of Toronto’s i-school (Faculty of Information). The lecture was titled “Knowledge at the End of the Information Age.”

SLAW readers will know Weinberger as the author of Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (2007), as discussed previously on SLAW ( ).

Weinberger continued his themes from Everything is Miscellaneous: By starting with the premise that the Internet is both extremely odd at the same as being quite familiar, he documented the transformation of information or knowledge from a top-down controlled product (e.g., a traditional print encyclopedia with a limited number of expert editors controlling the content) to the “messy” and “uncertain” nature of the Internet with its billions of connections and lack of central authority (e.g., Wikipedia). But the Internet and this messiness and uncertainty are by no means a bad thing since the “ecosystem” it represents fosters, for the most part, the types of conversations that we, as fallible people, have (where we agree and disagree but grow as a result of these conversations).

Alas, as I type this post, I realize I am tired and did not take notes so am not doing an adequate summary of the lecture. But that in part proves his point. By admitting my summary may not be perfect there is some transparency governing this post that provides context for the reader to evaluate the reliability of my summary. And since there were a number of SLAWyers and readers of SLAW at the lecture, they are free to comment on my post, add their thoughts or “corrections”, thereby creating a “conversation” that may lead to a better understanding.

Regardless, his commentary on politics was humorous . . . .


  1. I was one of those present, and I did not take notes, so my remarks are also very incomplete.

    Weinberger had some useful observations. He observed that there was a clear difference between the metadata of a library catalogue card and the data in the book catalogued, but that in the web of hyperlinked full texts, data was also metadata. He told of how the Library of Congress had posted some historical photos on Flickr, inviting people to tag and annotate them. Of course, the result was very different than if the photos had been catalogued and classified in the usual library way, or inventoried and described archivally. He also compared the account of philosophy provided by the Macropedia article in the Encyclopedia Britannica to the assemblage of interconnected articles on Wikipedia dealing with philosophy, together with all the quality labels and version tracking that that system allows. And he noted how rapidly there had appeared on Wikipedia a comprehensive account of the life and thought of Sarah Palin. All these phenonmena were worthy of observation and comment. Weinberger also commented on email discussion lists, noting–I think the point is a trite one–how all the participants collectively (he called them the list) were more knowledgable than the most respected individual contributor. There may have been more observations, but those are the ones I recall.

    I knew not to expect rigour when Weinberger made some silly remarks which I can’t quote exactly, using the word “binary” in a pejorative way. Of course he must know that the web would not be possible at all (not even the icons) without binary encodings, or without processors, transmission and storage devices that have been highly engineered so as almost never to confuse a zero with a one. More to the point, any serious analysis of web activity is going to have to involve the rigorous mathematics and binaries of statistics and computer modeling. Along the same lines, Weinberger also spent some time disparaging a rather simple-minded caricature of the idea of knowledge as something that can be acquired. His rather uninspiring (and unelaborated) conclusion was that we needed understanding instead.

    The principal irony of the evening was that the audience members were passive observers of Weinberger’s static Powerpoint presentation. There wasn’t even a question and answer period–not that I would have shared these thoughts in that forum had there been one.

  2. I’m so happy to see this conversation started! I regret the lack of a question-and-answer period as well. I found the talk engaging. Like Ted and John, I didn’t take notes. Which I think makes it interesting to see what stood out for each of us.

    One of the themes that (perhaps unconsciously) weaved its way through the presentation was the difference between the internet and libraries – what Weinberger referred to as “curated collections”. He specifically stated that there is an ongoing need for these collections, which I found reassuring, because early on in the discourse, I wasn’t so sure he saw a value for more permanently recorded information.

    Like John, I was struck by the discussion about data and metadata, and how the distinction between the two is diminished on the internet. Another point that was raised in this part of the talk was that if “everything” is on the ‘net, then filtering should happen at the end of the process, rather than at the beginning. This assumes, of course, that everyone has the time and the skills to filter adequately (which is a whole different conversation). Weinberger neatly avoided the issue by stating at the beginning of his talk that “nobody needs to be taught how to use the internet”. (Funny, I remember spending many hours in the 1990’s showing judges and colleagues at the Federal Court how to use an internet browser and manage e-mail.)

    I think that the “big thought” I’ll take away from this engaging discourse is the distinction between curated collections and the internet. Looking at information from the global perspective, the web and its tools may well be sufficient to house that chaotic, stream-of-consciousness that is the internet. But for those of use interested in, and charged with the management of organizational memory, we must continue to communicate the need for experts to collect, describe and make retrievable the information which supports the goals of our organisations.

  3. It was fun and amazingly well attended. Note to all speakers – make sure that you check whether your presentation is legible in the room you’re presenting in.

    Where I found his logic totally unconvincing was his straw man caricature of pre-Internet theories of knowledge as essentially positivist, and his promoting the post-Internet theories as being deeply human, since the web can accommodate more uncertainty. He would have had a tough time defending that thesis at the philosophy faculty. His was essentially a very romantic view of the philosophy of knowledge.

    The audience loved it though. Couldn’t stay because it ran over so long – that wasn’t Dr. David Weinberger’s fault. The length of the faculty introduction speeches were interminable since they were completely unrelated to Dr. David Weinberger, who had to start twenty minutes late.

  4. Yes, I was there too, and as it happens, sitting next to Ted and in front of Wendy and John. Weinberger interests me largely because he appears to be against everything I have essentially stood for in my career as a cataloguer and librarian. You know, bibliographic control, classification, information organization, controlled vocabularies, etc. These things don’t seem to factor in when ‘everthing is miscellaneous’. And I have to admit, trying to get my head around organizing the Web, even a tiny piece of the Web, is proving to be rather a daunting prospect (at least when using the bibliographic tools we have at hand).

    As Weinberger pointed out ‘control doesn’t scale’ and ‘experts don’t scale’. Part of me accepts this but another part still wants to try to bring order to this chaos. (What’s that line, law is the index of chaos?) But we’re stymied. Our current systems are based on 19th century notions of organizing finite physical objects and our classification schemes and subject headings were meant to lead us to books in a library. Our bibliographic tools are not really even granular enough to handle organizing smaller finite objects like articles or essays. They really do best when they’re handling things at the book level. So in the ‘digital world’ our metadata doesn’t scale.

    As Weingberger notes, in the digital world data is metadata, or metadata is part of/included in the data itself. He said metadata is what we remember about the something we’re trying to find (or it’s also the possibility that what we think will be part of the data we are seeking). For example, we remember the author’s name and that the book was about cataloguing, or we think of something that will tell us what the library has on this or that aspect of the law. These become our search terms. In a library catalogue an expert has analyzed and extracted the relevant metadata and hopefully the information need will match up with the document sought. Yeah, this works fairly well for books. But take a look around you; any backlog in your library? OK, so let’s add thousands of new documents everyday. He’s right: experts don’t scale.

    So one solution is to include everything, i.e. all the data; and then filter it on the way out at the point of need, i.e. apply the metadata and sift out the nuggets from the miscellaneous everything. Which as Wendy points out, ‘assumes, of course, that everyone has the time and the skills to filter adequately’. But people will just hack away at it, like they always have, until they’ve satisfied themselves that they’ve found what they were after. Bah hierarchies! I guess that’s what I hear him saying? Why must there be only one hierarchy? Or at least, why must there only be the ‘expert’ heirarchy? Can we create/impose an organizational scheme on the data according to our information need at the time? What’s a poor cataloguer to do?

    I enjoyed Weinberger’s presentation: he’s a passionate and entertaining speaker. But I really was disappointed that there was no Q and A. I’m sure that would have been a really interesting conversation!

    Beyond the ‘experts don’t scale’ comment these are some other points that resonated with me that I leave for others to possibly pick up on:
    -there is no plural for knowledge
    -answer to information overload? more information
    -content is connection
    -topics are confining
    -knowledge exists in the conversation, between us
    -transparency is the new objectivity (re: Wikipedia)
    -the Internet reflects our humanism: weird and familiar
    -together we will learn to understand