My mother grew up in a little village in Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands. Her family farm was near a canal where she skated with her friends. Today it is rare to have the freezing temperatures for hard ice. My mother says life was simpler in the past. I asked, did it feel that way at the time? She looked at me sharp in the eye. No, no it didn’t. She lived through the depression and Nazi occupation in World War II. It is an illusion that life is more complex today than in the past.
In Too Big to Know, David Weinberger explains how the shape of knowledge has changed. In the past we had traditional knowledge and it was associated with print. Academics would follow a disciplined scholarly process of researching and writing papers and books, the source of classic facts. It seems a nice orderly process, but Weinberger knows this picture oversimplifies things. He attributes the oversimplification to print: “The limitations of paper made facts look far more manageable than they seem now that we see them linked into our unlimited network” (40). Today knowledge is not book-shaped but network-shaped like the web. No longer written by a single expert on one particular subject toward a fixed conclusion, knowledge is more an interactive dialogue of people weaving different subjects together with changeable outcomes.
It is a good thing that our information technology has adapted to better handle the messiness of thought. “To think that knowledge itself is shaped like books is to marvel that a rock fits so well in its hole in the ground” (100). Still, messiness is not itself a virtue. If print makes knowledge seem too tidy, that is also its strength. Chaos is tamed by filtering out distractions and crackpots, fixing reference points to allow for evaluation, distilling knowledge from data, allowing for a period of consensus and informed actions.
Life has always been too big to know. I have written elsewhere how the Dutch immigration shaped a people of the book. Reading the bible provided a focus and refuge amidst the uncertainty and hardships of starting a new life in a strange land. Digital information technologies extend our abilities with the true messiness of life, but networks are still leaky buckets. The fixity of print remains the gold standard for knowledge.