David Weinberger Envisions Libraries as Platforms
David Weinberger, in the green room before his talk. Photo by George Eberhart.
Technology consultant and internet philosopher David Weinberger, who currently serves as a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, spoke to ALA attendees June 23 about the explosion of digital knowledge and its consequences. His most recent book, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room (Basic Books, 2012), takes the position that the universe of knowledge is so wide that it can only begin to be comprehended by knowledge networks, aided by the platforms that they reside on.
“The major institutions of knowledge in the West are imploding,” he began. “Print encyclopedias are disappearing, newspapers are getting aggregated,” and the book is no longer a “physical object that contains everything that a reader needs.” Almost with “one touch of a hyperlink,” these cultural dominants began to face serious change two decades or so ago.
Weinberger emphasized that this is not necessarily a bad thing (with the exception of expanding copyright term limits, which are “inhibiting cultural growth” and perhaps stifling a new renaissance of thought). Knowledge has moved onto networks where there is less deletion of data, it’s easier to share and find information, and the computers are getting smarter about handling it all. In essence, he said, networks are a web of nodes where disagreements and differences from the prevailing cloud of expertise are allowed to coexist.
Two platforms that he likes within this “unbounded, unsettled, wildly messy, and connected” web are Reddit and Wikipedia. Weinberger admits the social news network Reddit is an echo chamber (a set of like-minded people who hang out together), but “it’s not a pernicious one” where biases and erroneous beliefs are confirmed. Rather, it listens to opposing viewpoints (despite its admitted biases) and is “confident enough in itself that it can examine radical ideas” and “incorporate the new into its existing set of beliefs.”
Weinberger enthused about the online, collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia, which he claims is “evidence of the power of iteration—it gets better over time because it is a well-structured environment aimed at producing good results.” He added that we trust Wikipedia more “because of the notices of its own failure that it puts on its pages (‘needs additional citations,’ ‘neutrality is disputed,’ etc.). We don’t see that in newspapers, other encyclopedias, or marketing materials.”
Regarding libraries, he challenged the audience to look at them as platforms. “A platform provides resources that lets other people build things,” Weinberger said. In a library, users are the developers. “Libraries host content, metadata, relationships, user-derived content, expertise, and local data,” he added. “In addition, they provide services (preservation, access, publication) as a gateway to knowledge.” Libraries do not draw distinctions between physical and virtual spaces, and their philosophy is to maximize their use. “The full value to any and all users is the goal of a platform.”
Watch George Eberhart's interview with David Weinberger on YouTube.