Originally published on July 18, 2018
This is the 27th article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management, and my 200th LinkedIn article. David is a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. He has been a philosophy professor, journalist, strategic marketing consultant to high tech companies, Internet entrepreneur, advisor to several presidential campaigns, and a Franklin Fellow at the US State Department.
For four years, David was the co-director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, focusing on the future of libraries. Prior to that, he was a gag writer for the comic strip Inside Woody Allen, a college professor, and a marketing consultant and executive at several high-tech companies.
From the earliest days of the Web, David has been a pioneering thought leader about the Internet’s effect on our lives, our businesses, and most of all on our ideas. He has contributed in a remarkably wide range of fields, from marketing to libraries to politics to journalism, and more. And he has contributed in a remarkably wide range of ways:
- author of books that have made a difference; a writer for journals from Wired, Scientific American, and Harvard Business Review to TV Guide
- acclaimed keynote speaker around the world
- strategic marketing VP and consultant
- Internet advisor to presidential campaigns
- early social networking entrepreneur
- co-director of a groundbreaking library innovation lab
- researcher at the Harvard Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy
- researcher at the US State Department as a Franklin Fellow
- passionate advocate for an open Internet
- University of Toronto, Ph.D., Philosophy, 1979 — Doctoral dissertation: “Heidegger’s Ontology of das Ding (things)”
- Bucknell University: Bachelor’s degree, Meaning, i.e., philosophy and religion, 1973
- The Rise, Fall, and Possible Rise of Open News Platforms: The Twisty Path towards a Net Ecosystem That Makes News More Discoverable, Reusable, and Relevant
- Why Blogging Still Matters
- The Internet That Was (and Still Could Be)
- So Sayeth Google
- Getting straight about common carriers and Title II
- Dissolution of Metadata
- Everything is Miscellaneous
- The Dream of the Semantic Web
- The virtue and vice of audio
10. The Atlantic
- Semantic Web
- Taxonomies and Tags: From Trees to Piles of Leaves
- Podcast posts
- Video Posts
- The Wikipedia Style
- Wikipedia is too hard: A suggestion
- Skepticism About Stories
- Yochai Benkler: The Wealth of Networks
David as Quoted by Me
The Cluetrain Manifesto
“Nothing can be effectively controlled, in the long run, from the top of a hierarchy– or from any one perspective. People are basically trustworthy. Only workplaces that give their members the chance to learn and add value through their work will succeed in the long run.”
“The ability to act on knowledge is power. Most people in most organizations do not have the ability to act on the knowledge they possess.”
David Weinberger wrote in The Problem with the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy:
The emphasis in all these cases is on knowledge being “actionable” because of the business context, and on knowledge being a refinement of information because that’s how we extracted value from data. That may be a useful way of thinking about the value of information, but it’s pretty far from what knowledge has been during its 2,500 year history. Throughout that period, Plato’s definition has basically held: Knowledge is the set of beliefs that are true and that we are justified in believing.
Indeed, we’ve thought that knowledge is not a mere agglomeration of true beliefs but that it reflects the systematic and even organic nature of the universe. The pieces go together and make something true and beautiful. More, knowledge has been the distinctly human project, the exercise of the highest and defining capabilities of humans, a fulfillment of our nature, a transgenerational treasure that it is each person’s duty and honor to enhance.
What’s greater than knowledge?, in which David states:
I’ve long been irked by the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom pyramid that is so often casually embraced as if its truth were obvious. I disagree with its implication that knowledge is a filtering down of information. I disagree even more that wisdom is a filtering of knowledge. But perhaps most irksome to me is its leaving understanding out of the picture entirely.
David previously wrote about The Problem with the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy:
But knowledge is not a result merely of filtering or algorithms. It results from a far more complex process that is social, goal-driven, contextual, and culturally-bound. We get to knowledge — especially ‘actionable’ knowledge — by having desires and curiosity, through plotting and play, by being wrong more often than right, by talking with others and forming social bonds, by applying methods and then backing away from them, by calculation and serendipity, by rationality and intuition, by institutional processes and social roles. Most important in this regard, where the decisions are tough and knowledge is hard to come by, knowledge is not determined by information, for it is the knowing process that first decides which information is relevant, and how it is to be used.
The real problem with the DIKW pyramid is that it’s a pyramid. The image that knowledge (much less wisdom) results from applying finer-grained filters at each level, paints the wrong picture. That view is natural to the Information Age which has been all about filtering noise, reducing the flow to what is clean, clear and manageable. Knowledge is more creative, messier, harder won, and far more discontinuous.
Understanding: David Weinberger — To Know, but Not Understand
“Marketing still makes it harder to talk.
- We were right the first time: Markets are conversations.
- A conversation isn’t your business tugging at our sleeve to shill a product we don’t want to hear about.
- If we want to know the truth about your products, we’ll find out from one another.
- You’re welcome to join our conversation, but only if you tell us who you work for, and if you can speak for yourself and as yourself.
- Don’t worry: we’ll tell you when we’re in the market for something. In our own way. Not yours. Trust us: this will be good for you.
- Ads that sound human but come from your marketing department’s irritable bowels, stain the fabric of the Web.”
- The best way to start — Business Blogs: A Practical Guide
- Try it out. What can it hurt?
- Write about what matters to you
- The more links the merrier
- Write quickly and hit the “post” button. It’s liberating
Ensuring Future Access to History by David Weinberger
As early as the 1940s, archivists were talking about machine-readable records. The debates and experiments have been going on for many decades. One early approach was to declare that electronic records were not archives, because the archives couldn’t deal with them. (Archivists and records managers have always been at odds, he says, because RM is about retention schedules, i.e., deleting records.) Over time, archivists came up to speed. By 2000, some were dealing with electronic records. In 2010, many do, but many do not. There is a continuing debate.
There are three languages we need: Legal, Records Management, and IT. How do we make the old ways work in the new? We need both new filtering techniques, but also traditional notions of appraisal.
Articles by Others
- Quotations by David Gurteen
- Challenging The Notion Of Knowledge interview by TallyFox
- An interview with David Weinberger by Alistair Craven
- David Weinberger KMWorld Keynote: Too Big to Know by Mary Abraham
- David Weinberger keynote address at KMWorld 2012: facilitating knowledge sharing by Sandra Haimila
- Machine Learning Challenges will be Explored in Data Summit 2018 Keynote interview by Joyce Wells
- Why Networked Knowledge Makes Us Smarter Than Before interview by Alison Head
- What Is the Future of Knowledge in the Internet Age? interview by Michael Moyer
- Advice to marketers from The Cluetrain Manifesto interview by Michael Krigsman and Vala Afshar
- Presidential Campaigns interview by Mother Jones
September 2001: Preparing for Conversations with David Weinberger — K-Biz’s Most Entertaining Thinker Explores What Makes Smart Companies (and People) Smart
Dr. Weinberger began his “career” in the late ’70s teaching philosophy at New Jersey’s Stockton State College for five years. During this time he maintained his steady freelance writing of humor, reviews and intellectual and academic articles, publishing in places as diverse as The New York Times, Smithsonian, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazineand TV Guide.
In 1985, after being denied tenure because the tenure quota was filled, and after an enthusiastic but well-mannered student demonstration in his support, he became a junior marketing guy at Interleaf, at that point an innovative start-up with new ideas on how to create and structure documents. At Interleaf he helped launch the industry’s first document management system and its first electronic document publishing system, years ahead of the Web. He left Interleaf after eight years, as VP of Strategic Marketing.
He founded the one-person strategic marketing company, Evident Marketing, in 1994 and within two years counted among his clients a wide variety of companies, including RR Donnelly, Sun Microsystems, Esther Dyson’s Release 1.0 and CSC Index.
In late 1995, he joined Open Text as VP of Strategic Marketing because he saw an opportunity to help shape the way intranets are used. As part of the senior management team, Dr. Weinberger helped Open Text move from one of the first Web search engine companies (the engine behind Yahoo!) to market- and thought- leadership in Web-based collaborative software.
After helping to take Open Text public in 1996, Dr. Weinberger returned to consulting, writing and speaking, helping to found a couple of dot-coms, and serving on industry and company boards. In 2000, Perseus published The Cluetrain Manifesto which became a national best-seller.
Background articles: What Makes a Company (or Person) Smart
1. Stories are Fractal Interests; That’s Why We Like OJ and Monica
OJ. Monica. Elian. The Election. It’s like global warming. After a while, you think that these hot spots aren’t happening entirely randomly. But for whatever reason they’re happening, and no matter what else they’re doing to our national psyche as they replace issues with personalities, these maelstroms bear witness to some fundamental facts about the mystery of human attention.
These storms share some characteristics. First, they go on longer than anyone expects, and they maintain the public’s interest surprisingly well. Second, they get obsessive about details — the minute-by-minute timetable of OJ’s movements, Bill’s Christmas list for Monica, and, of course, the birdwatcher’s guide to chads. Third, they’re about people. Sometimes they’re about more than that, little things like who’ll be president, but without the faces of Bush and Gore we’d be left with legal arguments about Florida laws we never knew existed and the entire event would be lacking the requisite show biz pizzazz.
Information isn’t like that. Information consists of well-defined chunks, preferably in a cell in a spreadsheet or database. At least, so it seems.
2. The New Common Sense
By “common sense” I mean the set of values and rules that are so obvious that we don’t even think about them. For example, if your rocking chair has caught a dog’s tail under the runner, you lean forward to free the tail. If someone wants to argue about this — seriously argue — we will think, quite properly, that this person is significantly out of step with our culture.
Now, take our current world, viewed through common sense, and remove space and matter, and thus many of the laws of physics. Change the rules of the world and what was once common sense now makes no sense. That’s why the Web is so puzzling so often. It’s lacking common sense.
Elements of the new common sense include:
- Content ought to be free.
- Strangers are fun.
- We are fallible.
- Be generous with advice.
- Be direct.
- Real genius requires a group.
- Humorlessness is pathological.
- Digressions are essential.
3. Tribal Knowledge and Objective Madness
Here’s how to get yourself fired toot sweet from your job as a marketing VP at a software company. I know because I saw it happen. During your first week, mark your territory by coming in way early one morning and posting enthusiastic, morale-lifting slogans on every floor of the building, including where the developers dwell. These posters should say things like “We’re not all in the Sales Department, but we’re all salespeople,” and “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” The engineers will immediately think you’re ridiculous, and it will only be a matter of time before you’re laughed out of the business.
But why? Truth is not enough. Knowledge is tribal. It has to be relevant to the tribe.
4. Random Knowledge
There’s plenty of knowledge in your company. The problem is telling who has it. The fact that Maria was right about the great Steel Wool crisis of ’93 and the great Marmite crisis of ’97 gives her some credibility when it comes to the current flannel crisis. Second, we listen to those above us in the hierarchy. Not only do they have the authority to tell us what is knowledge and what just sounds like a good idea, but presumably they got there by having a track record like Maria’s.
5. The Question Question
Imagine that everyone in your organization has a head stuffed full of mental content but is unable to express any of it. They can’t explain a thing. They can’t answer a single question. They may be geniuses, but who cares?
So, if merely having knowledge doesn’t help, then what makes a company smart? I’d suggest that it’s what makes a person smart: she’s able to answer questions and — closely related — she has great conversations.
The most interesting questions bring you to answers you hadn’t already thought of (another reason to think that knowledge isn’t a content). Sometimes you get there by thinking. More often, you get there by asking some questions of your own. A conversation ensues. An answer emerges. Now that’s fun, and that’s being smart.
This is, in fact, the origin of philosophy and of dialogue itself. Remember Socrates? His dialogues tried to uncover the truth about a topic by asking questions organically related to one another; they grew out of the previous questions, making his dialogues structured like narratives in which the ending is contained in the beginning, just as the tree is contained in the seed. Truth, biology, nature, essence, storytelling, and questions — this is the right context for talking about knowledge.
Questions are a deep structure in our thought and language and social nature. When we ask a question, we not only express an interest, thus exposing our own passionate natures, but we also have some sense of the type of answer we’re going to receive. At the dessert bar we don’t ask, “What forced you to take the brownie?” and when we ask why our computer hates us, we know we’re making a sort-of joke. As Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” made so clear that it’s seemed obvious ever since, a paradigm shift (the real ones, not the buzzwordy ones imagined by vendors trying to inflate the importance of the fact that their paper collator now collates at 110 pages per minute rather than 95) is characterized by an influx of new questions and new types of questions. For example, when Aristotle asked why a plant grows, he looked for an answer that had to do with intentions and values. Darwin asked the same question differently.
Questions are also primarily social. We may ask ourselves a question the way we may sing in the shower, but first and foremost, a question is something we ask someone else. And rarely is it in a pure question and answer format, like a transaction with a knowledge vending machine. Because of the organic nature of questions, they grow best in the light of conversation. They head us in a direction, and illuminate the way ahead, but they are not deterministic … except when we’re taking exams or responding to our bully of a senior manager when at a meeting he demands snap responses to questions such as “Who are our real competitors?” and “How are we going to get back our market share?”
Real questions, like real conversations, require mutuality and equality. Behind every real question is the preface: “Here’s something neither of us know, but I respect you enough to think that spending time with you will lead us toward an answer neither of us may have anticipated. Let’s surprise one another! Let’s get some sliver of delight while we can!” (Yes, great sex is also a question, not an assertion.)
The implicit promise of the phrase “knowledge management” is that we’re gonna corral some of them knowledge puppies, rope ’em, brand ’em, and build up our ranch. Yeehah! Now compare that to the implicit promise of a question. No cowboys, no spurs, no whiff of the manure-rich committee meeting in the wind. Just great questions, undiscovered directions, wisdom larger than any one cowpoke can contain, and the miracle of time unfolding the way it only can in great stories and great sex.
Every pleasure in life worth having comes in the form of a question. Doesn’t it?
- Keynote — Once We Know Everything
- Panel: Beyond “Do No Harm” — The Complex Considerations of Ethical AI
- 2012 Keynote: Facilitating Knowledge Sharing
- 2006 The New Shape of Knowledge: Everything Is Miscellaneous
- Libraries as Platforms: Enabling Libraries to Become Community Centers of Meaning
- Libraries and What Matters
- Market Conversations
- Is the Internet Disappointed in Us?
- The Elevator Effect Why Mobile Social Networking Matters
- Everything Is Miscellaneous And the Challenge to Marketing
- Library as Platform
- Between Media and World
- Social Media at the Crossroads
- What is the Net’s Value?
- Get a Clue about David Weinberger: Author, Blogger, Speaker, Fellow, Twitterer, Commentator, Columnist and Willing ‘Word Association’ Player — Susan Bratton
- Jim Storer
- The World has become “Too Big to Know” — Alan November
- Library Innovation Lab
- Rethinking Knowledge — John Wells
1. The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual with Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, and Doc Searls
- A dozen papers you should read in the world of Enterprise 2.0 by Jim McGee — The first, and still best, thinking about the ways that the internet affects markets and marketing
Human beings are information omnivores: we are constantly collecting, labeling, and organizing data. But today, the shift from the physical to the digital is mixing, burning, and ripping our lives apart. In the past, everything had its one place — the physical world demanded it — but now everything has its places: multiple categories, multiple shelves. Simply put, everything is suddenly miscellaneous.
In Everything Is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger charts the new principles of digital order that are remaking business, education, politics, science, and culture. In his rollicking tour of the rise of the miscellaneous, he examines why the Dewey decimal system is stretched to the breaking point, how Rand McNally decides what information not to include in a physical map (and why Google Earth is winning that battle), how Staples stores emulate online shopping to increase sales, why your children’s teachers will stop having them memorize facts, and how the shift to digital music stands as the model for the future in virtually every industry. Finally, he shows how by “going miscellaneous,” anyone can reap rewards from the deluge of information in modern work and life.
Prologue: Information in Space
- The New Order of Order
- Alphabetization and Its Discontents
- The Geography of Knowledge
- Lumps and Splits
- The Laws of the Jungle
- Smart Leaves
- Social Knowing
- What Nothing Says
- Messiness as a Virtue
- The Work of Knowledge
David Weinberger is the most erudite and reflective of the hearty band of webtopians: those who believe that the web brings us varied and untold joys, with little pain. While I’m not at all a member of this tribe, I do believe the webtopians are all worth reading and engaging with. This book is a good case in point. The main argument of Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder is that the various categories by which we organize our understanding of life have been more or less limited by the physical world. With the vast power of modern computing and the various ways the web can be used, we no longer have to use such categories and we can better exercise our imaginations and understanding through the structured miscellaneousness that cyber tools make possible… It’s not perfect. I wish that he had elaborated on some of the points about knowledge. A further discussion of power and politics in the world of categories would have been useful, too — especially as one has a strong sense that these subjects are all bubbling in the author’s mind.
- (Not) Everything is Miscellaneous by Peter Morville
To the librarians. So begins Everything is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger’s mesmerizing new book about organization, authority, and knowledge. I received my advance copy last week and read it in a single day. I found it interesting and inspiring, and I recommend it highly. But, I don’t agree that everything is or will be or should be miscellaneous, and I don’t believe David is entirely fair to librarians, information architects, and other professional organizers.
- How the Web destroys categories, disciplines and hierarchies by Cory Doctorow
David Weinberger’s “Everything is Miscellaneous” is the kind of book that binds together innumerable miscellaneous threads and makes something new, coherent, and incontrovertible out of them. Weinberger’s thesis is this: historically, we’ve divided the world into categories, topics, and hierarchies because physical objects need to be in one place or another, they can’t be in all the places they might belong. Computers and the Internet turn this on its head: because a computer can “put things” in as many categories as they need to be in, because individuals can classify knowledge, tasks, and objects idiosyncratically, the hierarchy is revealed for what it always was, a convenient expedient masquerading as the True Shape of the Universe.