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

by Tom Johnson on Dec 12, 2012
categories: findability technical-writing

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.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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