Puffery and Propaganda

Review:  David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder

Don’t be bamboozled. This book is puffery on the outside and propaganda within.

A booster of Internet-enabled consumer-generated content, Weinberger hails all its new modes—social networks, tagging, folksonomies, wikis, mash-ups etc.—to argue that the Internet enables new bottom-up ways of organizing and creating knowledge. His two theses are irrefutable. First, information is getting chopped into smaller and smaller pieces. Second, the organization of information has escaped physical world constraints and control by experts and their institutions. The net result: any one can now organize information any way one wants to suit one’s own purposes and do so at any time for one’s immediate use. From this potential Weinberger foresees though rose-colored glasses an ever-changing array of “useful, powerful and beautiful ways to make sense of our world.” Excuse me but such a view has huge problems.

As Weinberger points out, the best grouping and sorting of information into knowledge is done by small groups not only online but also offline, as his own examples demonstrate. The Internet brings nothing special to this process. To be sure, the Internet does make it much easier to form groups and very much easier to form groups that include strangers and groups devoted to narrow topics. But a vast increase in quantity does not necessarily yield any improvement in quality, and although Weinberger is always careful to label such an outcome as “potential,” I’ve yet to see any marked change in our ability to make sense of the world.

Nor is the appetite and aptitude for this activity suited to all. As any teacher who ever graded term papers will confirm, the ability to cut-and-paste information and turn it into knowledge is not innate. Even after some schooling, such a rudimentary skill is very far from universal. It is essential for the new occupational stratum of Information Age employees who manipulate words and numbers for their livings, but such “knowledge workers” are not Everyman. Presenting the abilities and interests of this or any other elite as those of everyone is the essence of ideology and shouldn’t fool anyone.

Nor should anyone accept, much less applaud, Weinberger’s cavalier dismissal of discipline and authority. He argues that knowledge should not have any shape and that deciding what to believe is now our burden. His laissez-faire alternative would have John and Jane Doe fend for themselves, finding and creating meaning from and among each other—link by link, tag by tag. Fortunately, this cannot happen because humans can only make sense of things, especially disconnected facts, through the frameworks of our inherited arts and sciences. Nor should it happen. The casual indifference to several millennia of human efforts to make sense of the world only leaves John and Jane in the post-modern void, unarmed and aimless.

There’s a lot to be said in favor of user-generated content but to suggest that the fragmentation of knowledge and the cacophony of cyberspace will improve our ability to make sense and meaning of life is cybertopian bunkum.

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6 thoughts on “Puffery and Propaganda

  1. arturovillarrubia October 21, 2007 / 5:12 pm

    I am troubled by the statemente about “decidign what to belive in now our burden”. We migth get a choice on deciding whom to belive. For a fair and balanced view we can go to Fox or to Indy news or whatever. But surley such a judgment will be grounded on reason. The appeal of an indepent source surley will come from the quality perceived – the depth and the discipline of the analisys- and it rings a bit too judicial for my taste, to talk of burden.
    I have read some strinkingly bizarre comments on the net about a “collective inteligence” manifesting itself in such a way and I do hope that Mr.Weinberg´s book does not indulge in such a fad.

  2. lenellis October 22, 2007 / 5:57 pm

    You are right to be concerned because Weinberger is NOT concerned with “judgment grounded on reason” or the “the depth and discipline of analysis.” He doesn’t challenge them; he just doesn’t address them.

    He focuses instead on a new “type” of knowledge, arguing that peer-to-peer interaction creates “social knowledge” that is largely indifferent to external standards.

    We’re in the black hole, now…Oh, my!

  3. arturovillarrubia October 22, 2007 / 6:34 pm

    Where does he stand regarding tradition and folklore? I don’t think you can have it both ways if truth comes from social interaction then community standards are the voice of truth. Considering that many community standards hold the net highly suspect (and sometimes with reason) I think he may fall into a self-made trap.

  4. lenellis October 22, 2007 / 6:45 pm

    Bravo, Arturo! I think that in Weinberger’s world, community standards would prevail. Perhaps that’s why so many ONLINE groups are so insular and spend so much time talking to themselves. At the same time OFFLINE groups are right to hold the Net suspect because alternative points of view may be voiced and accessed there.

    I guess it’s not black-and-white but Weinberger’s book was so one-sided, I had to say something.

  5. arturovillarrubia October 22, 2007 / 8:13 pm

    Bearing in my mind I have not read the book- and honestly I migth bother only if I find it in paperback- I do think that your point is well taken. “Social knowledge” is no substitute for expertise and an education.Top ut it very bluntly, I do think that Mr.Weinberger would rather go with the opinion of a trusted plumber than look for answers on any wiki ( Not to mention more serious issues like a medical condition)

  6. lenellis October 22, 2007 / 8:29 pm

    Exactly!

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