When I was younger, I had a junior encyclopedia set. Everything presented in the set was knowledge that was agreed upon by whoever published the set. The books included all of what the authors deemed necessary and excluded everything thought to be unworthy of publication. The information in that set was the truth, and that was end of it.
With the rapid increase in use and popularity of the Internet, the amount of information that is presented as true has grown. Anyone can present their analysis of a subject online. Amateurs can argue for hours with professionals on social media websites on nearly any issue, but they also work together online. Either an amateur or a professional can post their findings online, but now it is up to the reader to analyze the research’s authenticity. This is an issue in online knowledge creation. In Weinberger’s Too Big to Know, he mentions the controversial figure Jenny McCarthy, whose large media presence has been used to convince parents that vaccinations are dangerous and can cause autism in their children. This is not based on anything resembling science, yet many viewers perceive the medical advice from the actress/model McCarthy as knowledge.
Another part of Weinberger’s discourse on open knowledge creation is the idea of public research. There is the example in Chapter 7 of Jean-Claude Bradley’s “UsefulChem,” which was an attempt to document Bradley’s lab’s work and relay the information to the public. This is an important development in the realm of knowledge creation for a few reasons. First, this exercise teaches the public how the research method actually works. An interesting observation that Weinberger makes is that journals rarely publish boring or negative test results, yet most research projects conclude with such results. Second, the exercise alters the traditional temporality of the research results. In the past, time consisted of two parts for the public in reference to a research project: the time before the research results were published, and the time following the publication. With a live experiment like Bradley’s, the public could now follow his research as it went, well before publication of the results. This would allow the public to use Bradley’s findings to theorize for themselves. Having such an open platform could take away credit from those doing the experiments, but more knowledge is being created and science may actually benefit from it. It is an interesting balance that will need examination in the coming years.
Distant and close reading techniques for discovering new information from known texts have their advantages and disadvantages.
Distant reading is a technique that is used to scan large amount of texts for information. This is a technique that is useful when one wants to examine volumes of work over an extended time period. Computer programs can be used to scan thousands of works with millions of words and phrases to spot common trends. This is a large advantage for distant reading. Distant reading can be automated. This method involves less manpower than close reading. More information can be found at a quicker pace.
However, there are complaints that this information is shallow. If a program searched works in a given time period for some specific phrase, the returned works or excerpts from the works may not provide enough context to give adequate information about search terms. There is also the issue of our ever-changing vocabulary. Words do not necessarily have the same meanings as they did in the past.
Close reading examines a smaller amount of texts. Close reading is used to find “hidden” trends or meanings in texts that a method like distant reading might miss. This is a method that is used when examining smaller amounts of text than in distant reading. Currently, close reading is very human dependent. Computers are not currently able to spot some hidden messages or decipher human metaphors. For example, the many hidden meanings in the Shakespeare sonnet that we read in class would likely not have been found by using some computer program to scan the text. The technique of close reading also allows the reader to have context. Again, if a reader knows that he or she is reading a sonnet instead of a historical novel, the reader can look for different trends or meanings. The sonnet may have a specific rhyme scheme or theme that would not be picked up by a text-scanning computer program.
However, as great as close reading sounds, the technique has a cost. This technique takes a lot of time and manpower. The close reading experiment we did in class with the Shakespeare sonnet was great, but we took almost 30 minutes to examine a fourteen line sonnet. Shakespeare himself wrote 154 sonnets. If we were to examine each of these sonnets in the same amount of time, this would take 77 hours. This amount of time, spanning over three days, would be devoted only to the examination of Shakespeare’s sonnets. While Shakespeare was a great poet, and these are probably the highest quality sonnets, these are only a percentage of all sonnets, or poetry for that matter.
In any case, these methods have their advantages and disadvantages. I am not sure if one method is better than the other. Which method being used should depend on the situation. If one wants to examine a lot of information for key words or phrases, distant reading should be used. If one wants to discover new meanings or patterns in a work or group of works, close reading would be the better option. These are both interesting, useful techniques that should be used when each is necessary.
We should be able to start at A and reason our way to Z, in careful, measured steps. This long-form argument is what we’ve taken to be human reasoning at its best.
So, what if the Internet is shortening our attention spans? Suppose we can no longer get from A to B without being distracted by a catch-the-monkey ad or a link to the latest gossip? How we are ever going to think the thoughts that step us well beyond what we already know?
If we’re going to worry about losing long-form thinking, we should be quite clear about what it looks like. One of the greatest of long-form works was published in 1859. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is a single magnificent argument spread out across fifteen chapters.
This passage, from the beginning of Chapter 6 of Too Big to Know, was interesting for a number of reasons. First, Weinberger introduces the phrase long-form thinking. Long-form thinking, as Weinberger describes it, is a logical progression from one assumption to the next in order to arrive at some conclusion. Weinberger suggests that this form of thinking is what humans believe is the best form of human reasoning. This certainly makes sense. Logically moving from one step to another and basing future assumptions on previous steps is the simplest and clearest logic.
The next part that I found interesting was the problem that Weinberger introduces for this section. The middle paragraph poses the question of whether any useful thinking or working can be done when there is so much seemingly useless content accessible on the Internet. This is a valid question. There are ads on nearly every website, which redirect to other websites. Even when avoiding ads, there are countless links found in places like Twitter and Facebook, places that people sometimes only mean to check. Doing research for a class can be derailed very quickly by only a few clicks. It’s an interesting question, and one that Weinberger further addresses later in the chapter.
Finally, the last paragraph brings forth the example of Darwin’s most famous works, On the Origin of Species. Weinberger states that Darwin’s work is a great example of long-form thinking. He continues by listing the contents of the book’s chapters. The summaries of the chapters quickly tell the “story” of the book, in a way that shows how complete of an argument it is. I found this part interesting because by showing one famous work broken down into its core argument, it led me to wonder if there are other works that can be broken down in such a way.