The Shape of Knowledge? It’s a Mess!

The opening keynote speaker, David Weinberger, posited this morning that the shape of knowledge in today’s web world is inherently “messy” – and that’s a “good thing.” Digitalization changes everything, and what made the real world hard, digital ordering makes easy, said Weinberger.

According to Weinberger, who is a philosopher as well as digerati, we are building a hugely messy web of linked metadata, and knowledge is now constituted by what’s interesting to us, not to an unknown expert or rigid Aristotelian hierarchy of information. Now, user-generated metadata completely flips the role of an expert. It flips the basics from limits and experts and filters to a way of ordering that is inclusive and can handle an formerly overwhelming abundance of information. No longer is there a limit on how much information we can have, and no need to filter it on the way into a system, but only on the way out, and then by a random group of users whose tracking and tagging converge to form knowledge.

Weinberger said knowledge now is defined by:
What: What’s interesting (to us)
How: By talking
Who: Everyone
Where: In global conversations
Why: Because we care

“Knowledge IS the conversation,” Weinberger said, turning upside down the established frame of reference of most of the knowledge workers in the audience.

The provocative Q&A following Weinberger’s remarks displayed the uneasiness of these highly organized info pros. Neil Infield asked, so where do we find or establish authority for information, what do we do now? Weinburger replied by saying that authority must be earned these days, rather than bestowed by institutions, citing newspapers as an example. He dodged another question about how tagging could enhance the information in structured databases (such as those we’ll see in the exhibition this week), and acknowledged to another questioner that academic institutions would be undergoing an awkward transition period. Linda Stoddart, the head of the library at the United Nations asked what would become of libraries and librarians. By now Weinberger was visibly perspiring (perhaps it was just the hot stage lighting), but held to his points that libraries might not go away, but they would have to change, and that librarians who dispensed information would need to become human filters rather than keepers of knowledge.

David Weinberger also keynoted our Buying & Selling eContent conference last spring in Arizona. When I spoke with him before his remarks today, he admitted there “wasn’t much new,” but he did recast his remarks for an info pro audience instead of the publishers and content industry executives who heard him in Scottsdale. Rafat Ali of PaidContent.org podcast that keynote, and you can find it at http://www.paidcontent.org/pc/arch/2005_04_11.shtml. As he did today, Weinberger concluded then that the result of messy knowledge is shaking the authority of institutions, and information owners and users to the core. That was certainly the feeling that emanated from today’s listeners.

For some excellent further thoughts and a counterpoint to Weinberger’s theory of shaping knowledge and conferring authority by user-generated consensus, see Richard Poynter’s blog summary of Steve Arnold’s keynote at October’s Internet Librarian International conference, also held here in London. Arnold was in the audience today, and said that Weinberger presented a "thought-provoking review of social indexing systems."

No matter how you react to what we heard this morning, it was food for thought, and challenges info pros and librarians to become human filters and participate in the conversation!

Nancy Garman
Information Today, Inc.
ngarman@infotoday.com
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