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Knowledge Has Always Been Networked

Here is a rather scathing review of David Weinberger’s 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.

The renaissance of Marshall McLuhan in the era of the Web is disappointing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its rather dull obviousness. There is little surprise that the quotable, evidence-free, technology-obsessed Canadian English professor would thrive in a technology-obsessed era where pithy quotes about the deep meaning of digital devices too often stands in for evidence. McLuhan, of course, was the master theorist of the medium; beyond the over-used “medium is the message,” McLuhan’s major insight was to argue that socio-technological systems — such as the media — operate on a grand scale, largely independent of the day-to-day interest us mere mortals might have in their actual content. McLuhan’s primary flaw, on the other hand, was to decouple this understanding of socio-technical system from any relationship to economics, politics, or society. As leading communications theorist James Carey put it, “McLuhan sees the principal effect [of communication technology] as impacting sensory organization and thought. McLuhan has much to say about perception and thought but little to say about institutions.”

German philosopher Martin Heidegger is less quoted in Silicon Valley than Marshall McLuhan, and not just because he was a Nazi. McLuhan and Heidegger are equally poor writers, but whereas McLuhan’s inscrutable prose has led to him being more read than he ought to be, unintelligibility has had the opposite outcome for Heidegger. A dazzlingly complex philosopher — probably the greatest of the 20th century — the most important aspect of Heidegger’s thought for our purposes is his understanding that human beings (or rather “Dasein,” “being-in-the-world”) are always thrown into a particular context, existing within already existing language structures and pre-determined meanings. In other words, the world is like the web, and we, Dasein, live inside the links.