Last week I went to Cal for an afternoon talk by David Weinberger, author of several highly regarded books about the Internet age including The Cluetrain Manifesto and Everything is Miscellaneous. Next month his book Too Big to Know will appear, and in his talk Weinberger presented some of his ideas from that work.
Weinberger's central point is that, thanks to the Web, knowledge is now lateral and associational rather than hierarchical and structured. In an academic setting, hierarchy is asserted via peer review and the desire to appear in prestigious journals. In a library, structure is maintained via classification schemes that attempt to render all aspects of human experience in relation to one another. Thus, the trees and branchings of tools like the Dewey Decimal System or NLM's Medical Subject Headings (MeSH).
The thing is, a user needs to know a lot to make effective use of a classification scheme. In MeSH it is good to know the difference between a major subject heading and subheadings. In Dewey, scholars of Eastern religions must know that there is very little space for Buddhism because Melvil Dewey devoted almost all of the bandwidth for religion to Christianity. This is not to fault poor Melvil--we all harbor assumptions by which we make our way. The point is that these seemingly objective bibliographic instruments are actually highly subjective markers of their place and time. And they make many assumptions about how people should organize and perceive information.
Weinberger gave a good example of this. In a library catalog, to find Moby Dick you need to know either the author (Herman Melville) or the title. If all you know is the opening sentence--"Call me Ishmael."--you are sunk, even though this is one of the most famous sentences in American literature. Online you are liberated from these constraints, and more able to approach the world in your own way. Type "call me Ishmael" amd many representations of Moby Dick appear. The difference between metadata (how cataloging fields are encoded) and data (what the user actually wants to see) is fading. Today it's all data.
As to peer review, Weinberger noted this fall's posting of the important news that neutrinos are faster than light. This news arrived not via a peer reviewed journal article, but posted to ArXiv for all the world to see. Sure, physicists have long embraced ArXiv more than chemists or biologists. Sure, the deeper changes required to the peer review system are political and cultural rather than technological. Weinberger's point was different--that the very ability to conduct online post-publication peer review is a game changer. We no longer have to rely on the vetting mechanisms developed in the pre-Web era. If we choose not to evolve, because of inertia, that's a different matter.
The Web is intentionally chaotic and "loosely joined," to use a Weinbergian phrase. And so the Web's very nature will challenge attempts at order. This could be good or bad, depending on your point of view; the reality is that it's a mixed blessing. But attempts to put the genie back in the bottle--to get people to use classification schemes developed by others when they can finally use their own--seem destined to fail.
I can hear the objections now. What about authority? What about truth? How can librarians possibly do their jobs in a world in which everyone writes their own rules? One answer is that librarians will need to evolve. Weinberger--who is also the co-director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab at Harvard Law School--suggests that librarians could move away from guiding people to particular resources and instead move people toward knowledge networks composed of other people within their communities. I'm hard pressed to see a world in which the glorious stacks at Harvard's libraries remain standing unaltered in 50 years time. So librarians might become people brokers rather than organizers of information objects. Maybe not, it is just one hypothesis. Part of the solution to our future is being unafraid to try new ideas, whether or not they all pan out.
Another answer is that we've been down this road before. Right now I'm reading Simon Garfield's fascinating book Just My Type, about the history of fonts. Soon after Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s type setters and font developers appeared all over Europe--these were the entrepreneurs who brought Gutenberg's invention to life. And before you knew it they were printing these dastardly things called...wait for it...books! Books!! Who needs them when we already have scrolls? Garfield quotes a scribe in 1470s Venice, worried he would soon be out of business because the city is "stuffed with books." Or how about Hieronimo Squarciafico (what a name!), who argued that the "abundance of books makes men less studious." Can you imagine? Today we are despearately trying to get kids to read printed books, precisely because we want them to be studious. But had we lived in Europe in the 1400s books would have been feared as scary interlopers.
Eventually, of course, books became commonplace and modern research libraries--with their cataloging apparatus and copious shelf space--were born. If we are open-minded this time around, suffused with a creative spirit about how best to maneuver in the digital age, libraries will prosper again. This is the whole point of the Harvard Library Lab where Weinberger works...to bring a sense of adventure to the development of the next generation of libraries.
But we will only succeed at this if we're willing to challenge the status quo. As Garrett Hardin argued in "The Tragedy of the Commons," the status quo will forever have an unmerited edge. Hardin was speaking of status quos in the natural sciences, but his point holds more broadly. Here is Hardin, emphasis mine:
"It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the status quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a double standard. Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often defeated when its opponents triumphantly discover a flaw in it. As Kingsley Davis has pointed out (21), worshippers of the status quo sometimes imply that no reform is possible without unanimous agreement, an implication contrary to historical fact. As nearly as I can make out, automatic rejection of proposed reforms is based on one of two unconscious assumptions: (i) that the status quo is perfect; or (ii) that the choice we face is between reform and no action; if the proposed reform is imperfect, we presumably should take no action at all, while we wait for a perfect proposal.
"But we can never do nothing. That which we have done for thousands of years is also action. It also produces evils. Once we are aware that the status quo is action, we can then compare its discoverable advantages and disadvantages with the predicted advantages and disadvantages of the proposed reform, discounting as best we can for our lack of experience. On the basis of such a comparison, we can make a rational decision which will not involve the unworkable assumption that only perfect systems are tolerable."
And yet...I still love print and still treasure the feel of a book in my hand. Part of me, therefore, loves the status quo. But I also love the ability to download books wirelessly to my iPad within seconds; the night I heard Weinberger speak I did just that with the book Reinventing Discovery by Michael Neilsen, a book Weinberger recommended. No waiting for it through the mail, no putting it on hold at the library, no dropping it in my backpack. Just there, right away, right now.
Of couse, I could afford the download. Librarians of now and the future have a HUGE opportunity in making sure that the e-reading market does not become fully commoditized and has a library/community role. But to do this we'll have to let go of some of the practices and focus we developed over centuries of print. We'll have to reshape our sense of purpose and in so doing forge a new (temporary) status quo.
Lastly, the Web is not wonderful in all respects. Weinberger is among a group of thinkers--he cited Clay Shirky, who is another--who run the risk of being branded a digital cheerleader, with little awareness of the darker corners or potentially nefarious uses of the Web. At the talk Weinberger squarely addressed this risk, acknowledging that much of how people use the Web is to watch pornography or to spawn racist, hateful theories. People are base, and the Web makes that more plain than ever.
This is distressing, but until humanity collectively evolves we'll be stuck with it. In the meantime, we should embrace the liberating aspects of the Web, namely its power to gather people together and to let more voices be heard. This is chaotic and confusing, but also wonderful. I am not concerned that the world is too big to know. Instead I'm grateful to be living in the period of history in which I have so many new tools to learn about it. Thanks to David Weinberger for a provocative and inspring talk.