David Weinberger
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The State of Knowledge

November 05, 2021

As a world-recognized leader in The Having of Opinions and the holder of a Ph.D. in Never Being Wrong, which was, ironically, awarded by mistake, I know you are eager to hear my thoughts on the current state of knowledge, an address I give four times a century.

Ahem, ahem, pardon me while I take a sip of this rare water imported directly from the Mountain of Self-Importance. Ah, that’s better.

Ladies, gentlemen, and non-binary friends, I am pleased to say that the state of knowledge is stronger than it has ever been in human history. And, also far worse in important ways.

The openness of knowledge

The quantity of knowledge is clearly greater than ever. We know the inner secrets of things that just a few years ago we didn’t know had secrets. Science advances ever faster, exploring domains ever further from us in distance, size, and type. But beyond that, knowledge is now held together by a web of unimaginable size and openness. Click, click, click and you’re in the middle of an argument about quantum absurdities that are nevertheless real, or about Algeria’s politics, Nabokov’s butterflies, or Justin Bieber’s early haircuts. There is almost no knowledge that you can’t explore through miniscule clicks of your index finger. The web is a magic map that will take us wherever we want to go with the smallest exertion imaginable.

Access to all that knowledge has scaled up faster than even the early web optimists imagined. Do you remember that there was a time when Wikipedia seemed implausible? But there is, of course, a price to pay—for knowledge is available at this scale because there are no hurdles to posting information. Without editors or curators, we are left to decide on the reliability of what we encounter. For the past 25 years we’ve seen what happens when crowds fill in the void left by authorities.

The socializing of knowledge

And what we’ve seen is that it works pretty well. For one thing, the previous authorities lived within a comfortable, old white boy network that for 2,500 years has been an instrument of power. Now, we hear so many different voices offering so many perspectives from so many cultures and life experiences.

Of course, such a deep and complicated transition has caused some chaos, in part because those whose power and privilege are being overthrown are fighting back in desperation.

At the same time, we have firmly and irrevocably confirmed that we are an incredibly curious species. There is nothing so drab that it can’t turn around and show us just how fascinating it actually is. That is one of the greatest lessons of the web. And we have definitively shown that we now consider knowledge to be a public good. The new norm is for us to learn in public and to share what we have learned.

But because everything has its shadow, we also see a failure to distinguish seeking knowledge and trying to be interesting. Knowing now occurs in an attention economy in which one succeeds by having a “take” on everything—disposable blurbs that lack the commitment implicit in even an opinion. Takes can be amusing, and no harm done, but they become an affliction when they lead us away from thought and knowledge.

Where knowledge is going

But the socializing of knowledge isn’t the full story these days. Machine learning is not only making predictions that are more accurate and helpful than what our old ways of knowing could manage; it’s also showing us a new way of thinking about knowledge. Where once we exalted general principles and laws as the stuff of the highest knowledge, machine learning is showing us that constellations of particulars are the stones against which principles and laws bark their shins. Yes, the laws we’ve discovered are true and real, useful and beautiful. But machine learning often makes better predictions without laws than we can with them. It derives knowledge from the world of details and dust too fine and complex for general laws.

So, if we look at what we know, the sorts of questions we ask, who gets to ask those questions, and at our rich, full, and often self-contradictory encounters in our new networked medium, the state of knowledge is epochally good. At the same time, knowledge is perhaps existentially threatened by our failure to come up with a follow-on to an authority that would let us occasionally settle our differences and act in unison.

In the annals of history, these years will be looked back on as the beginning of the greatest burst of knowing in all the days of the West—a change in what we know, how we know it, who gets to know it, and what knowledge gives us.

I look forward to reporting to you again on this topic in 2046, when I will be 90 and the most pressing question I will be considering is likely to be: Did you see where I left my glasses? I could have sworn I put them right here on my desk.