Tearing Down Skyscrapers for Interstate Highways

In reading the second half of Too Big to Know, one very important message shone bright – that the nature of science is changing, and so, our outlets for science must change with it. I believe that, with the formation of the scientific internet, that major scientific print publications must switch to the web or be left behind.

I believe such a dramatic shift must occur for three main reasons – firstly, that such a change would quicken the publication process, and thus the scientific process, significantly; secondly, that such a medium would allow for a bi-directional flow of information, thus improving the speed of discussion, iteration, and scientific advancement; and finally, that such a change would allow researchers and scientists to harness the massive untapped potential of amateur scholars.

Currently, research and publication is severely hindered by the speed of print. Whereas an article could be published instantly on the internet, a print publication can take multitudes longer. Victor Henning, creator of Mendeley, an online publication sharing platform, aptly states the problem in saying “if I’m writing a paper today it takes a year to get it peer reviewed and another year to get it published”. The fact that it takes two years in order for modern information to get to its consumers makes the entire process prohibitively expensive in terms of progress. Conversely, Mendeley, as previously mentioned, allows for immediate publication and discussion – a huge perk to the scientific community, as shown by its “450,000 registered users and 33 million articles” a mere twenty months after its conception.

However, as if the fact that this information gets to the populace immediately weren’t enough, an online publishing platform would also allow for immediate fact-checking, criticism, and further progress. This is fantastic, because it allows for immediate feedback and development, as opposed to the long and arduous process of print publication. As witnessed in Deolalikar’s proof of P = NP, “within two days, Delolalikar’s paper suffered the fate of prior attempts … both armchair and professional math pundits proceeded to tear it apart in comments sections and subsequent blgo posts, finding major flaws.” Had Delolalikar’s paper been published via print, not only would it have taken years to enter the public sphere, but upon entry, it would have taken years further in order for a formal response to be published. Rather, we skip these four plus years of peer review and bureaucracy, and instead directly enter the meat of the matter.

But wait, there’s more! This process also allows for immediate and organic collaboration with hundreds, if not thousands, of interested scholars. While they may be amateurs, the probing minds of this horde strictly outperform the handful of brilliant minds belonging to peers and colleagues. While these amateurs may not be breaking any new ground or establishing any new theories, this teeming mass is more than happy to fact-check every last detail. Albeit with a slightly disappointed connotation, Weinberg puts it succintly: “These amateurs are not tearing down the wall of credentials within which the scientific community lives. They are extending the apparatus of science.” It would be foolish to let such a powerful resource go to waste.

I made a city metaphor in previous blog posts, describing the science of old as a city built tall and narrow, and the internet as one built flat and wide. To return to that metaphor, this shift would be the equivalent of taking a tower-top restaurant with elevators slow to rise, and swapping it out with a huge drive-through on an even bigger highway. Sure, it’s a little less fancy, but the tradeoff in throughput makes it more than worth it.

Close and Distant Reading

In the history of humankind, there’s only been a very brief span in which individuals could be well-read enough to be familiar with every book written; this happened so long ago that the concept today seems completely ridiculous and laughable. Since that time, we have constantly struggled with which books to read in our limited time, a distinctly human condition.

However, in the past 30 years or so, we’ve made a new advancement, in our ability to aggregate and analyze huge quantities of books. This art of “distant reading” allows for understanding to be drawn from millions of books at once, but brings forth another dilemma.: do we read a hundred books closely, or a million books distantly? It’s a difficult question to answer, but I’ll do my best to briefly explore it in the next 500 words.

I view the distinction between close and distant reading similarly to how Ramsay views searching and browsing: the former allows one to witness and experience a single piece, to get truly intimate with it and understand it, while the latter provides much needed structure and context, allowing one to know where to place and how to interpret the information of the former.

When I think of close reading, I think of reading in the classical sense – reading by candlelight, with notes scrawled in the margin, reading until your eyes are weary and your thoughts grow dim, falling in love with a book, or perhaps not, and trudging through it anyway, to see the road less traveled. As to be expected from its multi-millenia reign, close reading has plenty of merits: it captures a first-person interpretation of the period, it holds near-limitless qualitative depth, and it’s a ton of fun (an often underrated quality).

However, close reading doesn’t come without drawbacks – without either some existing knowledge or research done during reading, it’s pretty hard to pinpoint what inspired this piece, and harder still to know the piece’s impact after its creation. Drawing inter-piece and cross-cultural parallels becomes significantly harder, without an understanding of the material at hand, and even then, requires very precise knowledge to do it well.

Of course, this is a rather narrow interpretation of close reading, basically limiting the act of “close reading” to what happens between the covers of the book, with the existing knowledge and expected research that goes into the analysis considered separate actions – this is for good reason, which will hopefully make sense in a second.

And so we come to distant reading – the antithesis, in which a book is never touched and a story never weaved, all for the tradeoff of “reading” books thousands of times faster than humanly possible. It’s wickedly efficient, and takes all the cons of close reading pretty easily in stride, but at what cost? A purely distant reader, with their brilliant understanding of historical context, cultural parallels, and far-reaching effects, never knows the amazement of exploring a world, the excitement of talking it over with a friend, the satisfaction of closing a book. They entirely remove the human element of reading, making it a cold, calculating, exacting science.

This too comes with drawbacks – despite being automated by computers, even algorithms have biases and interpretations, but with the unfortunate scientific weight to be “non-debatable.” However, that’s a discussion for another day

With their pros and cons so conveniently complementary, I can only believe that reading is done best with a combination of the two strategies. Understanding the structure, and appreciating the art. Browsing the library, while finding the book.

Post 1

Knowledge is taking on the shape of the Net—that is, the Internet. Of all the different communication networks we’ve built for ourselves, with all their many shapes—the history of communication networks includes rings, hubs-and-spokes, stars, and more—the Net is the messiest. That gives it a crucial feature: It works at every scale.

Of course, the Net can scale that large only because it doesn’t have edges within which knowledge has to squeeze. No edges mean no shape. And no shape means that networked knowledge lacks what we have long taken to be essential to the structure of knowledge: a foundation

I really enjoy this quote not only because it rather concisely breaks down the structure of the internet, but also because it breaks down the previous notions of what knowledge needed. It personally makes me want to explore further into how knowledge is shaped by its medium – specifically how the knowledge on the internet was shaped back in a time when it wasn’t limitless. Of course, in it’s origin, the internet was a place of academia, and as its space grew, so did decrease its (exclusive) filtration (as opposed to forward filtration).

In a wild tangent, I found the difference between books and the internet to be very similar to the differences in the growth of cities. For example NYC and OKC – both need to house huge populations, but the former, in its limited space, chose to build up, while the latter, with its limitless land, began its urban sprawl outwards.

The reason I find the dawn of the internet so fascinating is because it’s akin to a city that starts with very limited space, but as time progresses, begins to rapidly gain land – a situation that I don’t think exists in the real world (although, of course, if it does, please let me know). As this course progresses and we understand further how knowledge as a whole has been affected by internet and technology, I look forward to expanding this ridiculous metaphor.