Knowledge Has a New Shape, and It’s Not the Book

Too Big to Know

One of the most interesting chapters in Too Big To Know is David Weinberger’s discussion of long and short form content. I found the chapter particularly relevant because just the other day, I published a 3,700 word post and had a reader comment that the length — for a blog post — was heinous. I’m not saying the commenter was out of place to object to such length online, since I too sigh at long posts, but her objection leads into something rather fascinating.

In Too Big To Know, Weinberger makes a new claim about the origins and containers of knowledge. Traditionally, we hold up the book format as the ideal container for knowledge. The book excels as a way to produce long-form thought, so why shouldn’t we look to books as the ultimate source of wisdom, achievement, intelligence, and knowledge? To this, Weinberger argues, “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).

In other words, knowledge seems only to fit so well in a book because the book has shaped the way we come to know things. The rock makes the same hole that it fits into. Similarly, the book format influences the way knowledge is produced, so of course the book seems like such as apt container for what it has produced.

But knowledge wasn’t meant to take the shape of a book. Knowledge is only esteemed in the book format because books were how knowledge has been packaged for so long. Knowledge can take many shapes, and there are plenty reasons why the book shape doesn’t suit knowledge very well.

Instead of books, Weinberger argues that the network, or the web, is a much better container for knowledge. “Knowledge is now a property of the network,” he writes (xiii).

I agree. The network is a much better shape for knowledge. Books are a dying format. I don’t lament the demise of books as a container for knowledge. Here are more than 20 reasons, according to Weinberger,  why the network works as a better vehicle for knowledge than the book.

When Writing Books, You *Imagine* Hypothetical Objections. In the Network, You address Real Objections

When you sit down to write a book, you usually do so in isolation. In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin imagines objections his hypothetical readers will have. Rather than imagining what objections an envisioned reader might have, wouldn’t it be better to actually address real reader objections that take place in the form of comments, critical posts linking to your post, and other feedback? In the network, you don’t have to play guessing games about counter arguments. You address real counterarguments from real readers.

With Books, You Have a Single Voice. In the Network, You Interact with Multiple Voices.

The book format doesn’t allow readers to comment in visible ways. The reader may make notes in the margins, but these notes are rarely seen by anyone other than the reader who made them. In the network, comments from readers are shared with other readers and the author. The comments offer new perspectives, insights, and other feedback that can increase the value of the original article. Often times, the comments on articles are more interesting than the articles themselves.

With Books, the Writer’s Influence Is Vague. In the Network, You Can See the Impact an Author Has.

When you read a book, it’s hard to know what impact the writing has had. If a book is a bestseller or has won an award, it tells you a bit about its influence. But largely you can’t tell what others have thought of the book. Online, you can judge whether the book made a splash or an uproar. You can see how many people tweeted or shared a post. You can look at the number of comments and links to the post. You can see whether the author’s ideas are celebrated or attacked. This engagement allows you to better evaluate the content.

Books Follow a Perhaps Artificially Sequential Order. In Contrast, the Network Better Models the Non-linear Cloud of Ideas.

Books force authors to move in a sequential order, writing page 1 and then page 2, page 3, and so on. However, knowledge is messier than this. There are a lot of tangents, side discussions, footnotes, parallels, retrograde motions, related questions, tangents, asides, verticals, and other angles to thought that don’t necessarily move in a sequential order.

The network allows for all of these related discussions to fire simultaneously. The network is more of a cloud of thought, with a lot of ideas connecting in different ways. This non-linearity better represents the reality of knowledge.  In contrast, the book often ignores these side routes as it continues down an artificial sequence of thought.

Once Published, Books Are Static. In Contrast, the Network Keeps Pace with Changes.

Once you finish and publish a book, you usually don’t change it much. You might come out with a new edition every few years, but that’s it. In contrast, the network keeps better pace with what’s happening now. You can update content that’s inaccurate. You can revise online articles if you realize you’re mistaken about certain ideas. You can delete or change or write new articles.

In agile software environments, creating print versions of manuals is almost a joke, since the software changes monthly. Readers who print guides and store them on their shelves are dooming themselves to outdated instructions. Given how rapidly technology changes, it’s hard to see how books can be the ideal container for knowledge. Books are too static, inflexible, and stiff to match the constantly changing nature of technology.

Books Can Have a False Sense of Completion, But the Network Keeps the Discussion Open.

When you get to the end of a book, the writer needs to wrap the discussion up with a sense of completion or resolution. But that’s only because the author can’t go on writing forever. There’s an expected end, and to force that end, the writer may pull together some thoughts in a seemingly clever way to end the book. But really, the whole path from point A to point Z — the writer’s journey to completion — is often carefully constructed by the writer, who may purposely avoid counterarguments and assumptions that would otherwise derail the sense of completion.

On the network, you don’t have limitations about length, so you don’t need to force an artificial conclusion to meet page constraint requirements. And you can’t construct an artificial trail from point A to point Z that sidesteps the danger zones and attacks, because readers will point them out and confront you about them. The conversation can continue and often does continue, remaining open and free to go in the direction it wants rather than closing on a last page.

Books Rely on Experts to Interpret Facts. The Network Links to the Raw Data for Interpretation.

Books constrain the author to filter and summarize the information from reports, studies, and other raw-data sources. We rely on authorities to give us the correct interpretation of information. The expert can’t include this raw data in the book due to limitations of paper and cost.

The odd thing is, when you start looking at the source data, you often realize that it can be interpreted in a number of ways. Multiple authors may selectively pull from the same study to support different arguments.

On the network, you can link directly to the sources and let curious readers gather more information and make their own conclusions. Opening up your argument to raw information provides a more objective, transparent rendering of the information — one that is more accountable to the information rather than reliant on one’s authority.

While books incline the masses to rely on the interpretations of the intellectual elite who have access to the information, the net usually links to raw data and in so doing allows every one to decide for him or herself whether the facts match the interpretation. In this model, knowledge will probably be more accurate.

Books Are Easily Misplaced and Hard to Find. Information on the Network Is a Keystroke Away.

Books are easily misplaced. You may have read a book ten years ago and placed it on a shelf, but in what room, what shelf? Do you still even have the book? Books as containers for knowledge are difficult to retrieve, especially when you have not just a few books, but hundreds or thousands of books. Not only are books hard to retrieve, but if you’ve ever moved, you realize how much space books take up in your home and what a hassle they are to store, display, and organize.

In contrast, knowledge online is much faster to retrieve. A simple search immediately brings up the result. And all the information doesn’t take up any space at all. Any place you can access the Internet, the information is readily present.

Books Supposedly Do Well at Long-Form Thought, But They Trap Writers in Artificial, Self-Built Logical Constructs.

The strongest argument for books is that books allow for long-form thought — unlike the net, which focuses on short-form content. Remember that I mentioned how one reader called my 3,700 blog post heinous. I’d hate to see her reaction to a 37,000 word blog post. If we put knowledge on the net, are we trapped in short-form thought? Weinberger acknowledges Nicholas Carr’s arguments in The Shallows about how Google is making us “stupid.” Carr laments the move away from long-form thought that books typically encourage.

Weinberger’s response is that the book-writing process isn’t better at getting deep thought than an approach on the net. He says the book format isn’t wide enough to allow for deep thought. More specifically, in the this brief video, he says, “Having lots of minds attacking an idea produces a sort of depth that tracing a single thread from page one to page 300, from A to Z, can’t match. Long-form thought [book writing] is not wide enough. It just isn’t. It’s too focused and narrow, and too careful.”

To put it more plainly, here’s the problem in writing a book. To write a book, the author usually removes him or herself from the hustle and bustle around him. Think of Thoreau secluding to his cabin in the woods. There, the writer slips into a solitary interiorizing while he or she thinks deeply about a topic, imagining possible objections, following his or her own path of logic from point A to point Z.

Writing alone, the writer can construct reality in a way that accommodates the logical movement to the end the writer desires. The whole experience can be a bit of an artificial and insulated. The writer’s logic moves so well in the world the writer constructs for the logic. It’s like Weinberger’s rock analogy: the rock seems to fit so well in the hole in the ground that it made.

On the net, you aren’t walled off from others in the same way. You aren’t writing in an artificial construct, letting your own thoughts and logic map their way to the end you want. Instead, you’re interacting in a bazaar of ideas, responding and debating and countering and re-analyzing. You have to make your arguments to real people, not to a blank page that never talks back. You can’t manipulate your environment to more easily move to point Z. You can’t easily close the argument with a nifty quotation or reminder of your starting point. Discussions are often open-ended.

In sum, Weinberger says books as a vehicle for long-form thought “aren’t wide enough for deep thinking.” With one author charting the course, the result isn’t as good as a group of people battling out an idea.

These ideas are more or less what Weinberger argues as far as the limitations of books as a form for knowledge. As he explains the limitations of the book, he has to get around the fact that he’s writing in the very format he condemns. What’s his excuse? Weinberger says that many of his ideas started out online and proceeded through rigor of the network, with readers commenting and scrutinizing and giving feedback to his ideas. He also mentions that publishers give advances for books, that he is of an older generation, and that a book is still considered an achievement.

I want to add about a dozen reasons of my own to Weinberger’s argument against the book format, but I’ll do so in another post.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Mark Baker

    Tom, I’m a huge Weinberger fan, as you know, but I think there is still a role for the book that he does not touch on, and which would, I think, provide adequate justification for his own work in that format.

    The Web can indeed develop thought that is both wide and deep better than the book, but the book still has a role to play, I believe, in recapitulating the ideas that have been developed in the Web (or, before the Web, in the agora, the salon, or the coffee shop). More on that here:

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks for your comment, Mark. I think you make a valid point. Information on the web can be chaotic, poorly organized, and scattered. One finds information after bouncing around from site to site. The recapitulation of ideas in a book might be a good way to let readers consume information in a logical, soothing, and comprehensible way.

      As long as you let your ideas cook on the web a bit before recapitulating them in the book, you’ll probably reap the advantages of the net that Weinberger describes.

      Something in me still longs to see books in an online form, though. Why not publish your book as a series of chapters online? I guess the whole sales element gets a bit problematic with that model.

      • Mark Baker

        I did think that the experiment that Sarah O’Keefe and Alan Pringle did in writing Content Strategy 101 online ( was interesting,and I considered taking that approach. In the end, though, I couldn’t figure out how that would work vis-a-vis the blog.

        But in the end, books don’t work well on the Web. I think that ideas must be born and grow in the agora, and my blog, as well as the several other places I discuss these issues is the agora in which the idea has been discussed and critiqued and expanded upon.

        But we, as human beings, still need at times to retreat to the desert and ponder all that has been done and said in the agora. That need, I think, exists both for the writer and the reader. It does not mean that what begins in the agora ends in the desert. The ideas that form in the desert, through contemplation on what has occurred in the agora, must be taken back to the agora, and the process must repeat.

        The book is not a destination, therefore, but a milepost, or perhaps even a temporary lodging place along the journey. Call it a concession, if you like, to our limitations, to the fact that we tire, sometimes, of the hubbub or the agora. The room is smarter that any of the people in the room, and sometimes we can’t keep up with the room and we need a pause to reflect and to integrate.

        It is the agora, not the desert, which is fruitful, but we, in our weakness, must sometimes retreat to the desert to ponder. That is what the book is for.

        • Tom Johnson

          Mark, I like how you put this, noting the interplay between the agora and the desert. (Nice analogies, by the way!) I think you’re right. The net’s chaotic, scattered, and non-linear nature can be jarring. One bounces from site to site, gathering nuggets here and there. While that kind of non-linear movement works fine for small questions (like, what are the symptoms of a stress fracture in the foot?), the non-linearity becomes somewhat maddening for any lengthy reading or for larger questions (such as, how does one organize content in a way that’s meaningful?).

          When a writer has sifted through and battled with others on the net to reach knowledge, it’s helpful for that writer to step back and put the ideas into a logical, linear sequence. Thought may not be that sequential and clean, but would be frustrating to read a book that had a thousand tangents. The effect would be like reading a book that has a ton of footnotes and sidebars. I’ve seen that sort of approach before and get completely annoyed by it.

          By the way, your response spurred some thought in a related direction, something I’m working out in another post. More on that soon.

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Mark, Thanks for putting this into words: “I think there is still a role for the book that he does not touch on, and which would, I think, provide adequate justification for his own work in that format.” That put something to rest for me.

      • Tom Johnson

        There might be a post in store called “in defense of books,” because you’re right, books provide a way of learning and acquiring knowledge that is still valuable.

  • Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Tom, Your full-sentence subheads here give readers who want to skim a great summary of your article, and they help orient your more thorough readers. Everybody wins here. Do you plan to use this technique more?

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks Marcia. I only used the full-sentence subheads because I couldn’t compress them smaller, but maybe I’ll do this more often.

  • Patty Blount

    Tom, loved this post and agree — the book on the web doesn’t work. But I do think the book has it uses — remember the outrage last year when a car manufacturer decided to replace the glove compartment book with a DVD?

    I love the immediacy of the network — got a question, find an answer. But one thing that continues to confound me is that it’s getting harder and harder to both track my progress through an online info repository as well as remember where I’ve last been. I frequently find myself caught in loops. Unless my browser settings changed the color of previously-visited links, I will read halfway through a topic only to sigh in frustration when I finally remember I’ve been here, done that, and it wasn’t what I needed.

    The book’s linear progression from cover to cover tells me immediately how much I’ve read, how much I still have to read. Network-based information has to address this ‘way-finding’ and so far, that’s been left to browsers to manage.

    On your point about long blog posts — I have no objections to 3k or 30k word counts, as long as I know going in. That way, I can decide to read now or save for later. I also agree with another commenter; the sentence-length sub-topics are a great touch.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

    • Tom Johnson

      Patty, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that there is value in having a more linear sequencing of ideas to help one move in an easy-to-follow way through a long subject. We all know how tiring it can be to look for information on the web, getting bounced from site to site. The web works best for quick answers to short questions. But then again, maybe if one breaks the content up into small enough bites, that same logical sequence can work online.

  • Pingback: Moving Between the Agora and the Desert | I'd Rather Be Writing()

  • JC

    In your post, I wanted you to define book. I don’t think you meant literature, but more like a textbook or other nonfiction piece.

  • JC

    I think you should define “book.” It seems to me that you are not talking about literature, but nonfiction or textbooks.

  • Luke Finn

    Geat post, but it’s important to keep in mind that you’re talking about books specifically as containers of knowledge. Books have many other characteristics apart from knowledge, such as style and drama, etc., that would not be enhanced by a network. But where knowledge is the thing, then I agree with your points.

  • Mindy Schaper

    I like books a lot (I find it easier to remember things I read in a book than online, probably because of upbringing), but he brings up great points. Thanks for sharing.

  • John Garison

    Tom (and Mark)

    Interesting that, for years, tech writers have been using tools that force them into a page-chapter-book metaphor – about the worst possible interface to use for writing hypertext. I am looking forward to an authoring tool that has the web as its native format, and provides a visual map metaphor for organizing and linking topics.

    It can’t hurt …


    • tjohnson

      John, thanks for commenting. Can you expand on what you mean by the “visual map metaphor for organizing and linking topics”? I’m currently using Drupal and its book module. The problem is that web platforms like this are cumbersome for writing content. The rich text editors are buggy, so I hand-code the HTML. It’s not very fast. When I change a link, there’s no way to look to see where all the other links are. It’s not ideal, for sure. On the other hand, the search has faceted browsing, the content is on a web interface, and there are a lot more possibilities.