Live-Blogging [email protected]: Nerds Talking to Nerds

Last one! The closing keynote speaker was David Weinberger, author of Too Big to Know. Great speaker on a complex topic. I hope I do him justice here… if anyone else heard and wants to jump in, please do!

Weinberger argues that in the olden days, facts used to be separable bits of knowledge (think: bricks). Now, facts are often released as linked data, which is the exact opposite of a standalone fact (i.e. not a brick). When you put these vast clouds of linked data together, you end up with what we call data commons.

We used to think that facts formed a nice neat picture of the universe. In fact, Western society thought that to know what something was, was to know its place in the universe. This is no more. Facts don’t even bring us to agreement any more. Don’t believe this? Try Googling information on vaccines or the President’s birthplace. No amount of facts will dissuade someone who doesn’t want to believe something. This might be messy, but messiness is how you scale meaning. Messiness is rich and rewarding.

We have different ways of dealing with our differences:

  • See the move towards including everything, rather than come up with the perfect solution that filters and excludes noise
  • Witness the rise of raw data, rather than trying to clean it before releasing. Instead, just put it all forward and offer a disclaimer that it is raw
  • Look at the rise of preprint sites, where scientists can post articles before they go through peer review. Peer review is great, but it doesn’t scale

For the first time in human history, we can truly scale knowledge. We are moving into this period from a time when brick-like facts were scarce, well thought through, and came from experts. This was wonderful, but it didn’t scale. In order to take advantage, we’ll need to give some things up, like being able to filter data in very precise ways. To truly scale, everyone must have a voice. This means “idiots” and “evil people” have a voice, too, but that’s a price we pay for truly scalable knowledge. We’re also challenged by our natural tendency to hang out with people who are pretty much like us, and not use the whole of human knowledge.

Weinberger ended with a plea for keeping the humanity in knowledge, for knowledge is not enough—we also need a good common narrative. We’ll never come to full agreement and, in fact, we need “nerds” talking to “other nerds” in order advance the narrative. People who care about what they are saying will always argue and it is this human element of disagreement that is the greatest strength of knowledge.

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Kitty Wooley

Steve, I can’t thank you enough for doing this post, because I missed his talk. Berkman just posted a video if anybody’s hungry for more. Thanks again.