I’m currently reading Too Big to Know by David Weinberger. The general premise of the book is that the world of knowledge has expanded beyond our ability to deal with it the way we have been dealing with it for the past few centuries. This, of course, is a drastic oversimplification of the premise but it is fairly close. He “blames” much of our current predicament on the transition from paper to digital formats in that paper shaped how we organized and consumed knowledge so much that it dictated our thought processes.
What is resonating with me currently is the chapter on science – in particular the way that the science community has recognized value in research. The current model is that scientists do research. They write dense articles about that research that are submitted to journals. Editorial boards of these journals sift through all of the submitted articles, reject most and publish those few that they deem to be the most important. The rest are either not published or are picked up by “lesser” journals. The material that makes it through the filters is deemed to be “of quality.” This model is slowly shifting as the open access movement is saying that the vast majority of the articles that are rejected by the top journals are still great science that people need to read, and often it is the failures in research are what lead to the greatest discoveries or are of the greatest use to others. There are publicly accessible digital collections of research like the Public Library of Science which, at some levels, will publish nearly any article as long as it is good research. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking or by “important” scientists, it simply has to be science.
I couldn’t help but think about the parallels with the music industry in the way that a pop tune gets to market. In the music industry, executives at recording companies who are experts in what sells, decide which songs and which artists are “quality.” Many songs and artists are rejected by the big labels that may still have a strong local or regional following. Often these artists have more interest or talent than those that make it big. With the reduction of the cost of recording and distribution, independent artists are able to record and distribute their own music, without an executive deciding if they should or not. Nobody decides for the artist whether they have “the look” to be a star, whether their sound is “current” or if there is any market for them at all. They rent or buy a decent microphone, bring their instrument(s) and much of the rest of their “gear” can be found on many consumer grade computers. Distribution can be through social media. There doesn’t have to be mass pressing of CDs and the problems associated with storing and moving a physical product.
What both of these scenarios have in common is that the arbiter of quality no longer resides in an ivory (or corporate) tower. Those that get to choose what is good and what is bad for them are the end users – the scientists and the listeners. This makes life so much better and so much worse. What’s great is that anybody can contribute to the great body of “the literature” whether it be academic, music or any creative endeavour. The Nobel awarded botanist can be found in the same public science database as that crazy neighbour from down the street who has discovered a new and rare form of fungus growing in his back yard and has the chops to write about what he’s discovered. What sucks is that anybody can contribute and the Nobel awarded botanist’s work might be next to the article written by your crazy neighbour who spends more time “tasting” those mushrooms than studying them scientifically.
This whole process puts the onus on the individual consumer to put in the effort to determine what is good and what is not. The days are going where ones turns on the radio on a Saturday morning to find out what the top-ten albums of the week are. While the fact that certain recordings outsold other recordings this week does indicate that there is a certain group of artists that have caught the attention of a significant number of listeners, what is the best new recording for me, is not likely the best one for you. The most groundbreaking research in a field may not be the most relevant to the work that you are doing and while interesting, it is not the most important in your eyes.
So, we have this growing body of work in all areas of human creation that is more readily accessible by more people than ever before. It is hard to sift through and hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. But, for the critical consumer, and the creative producer, the opportunities abound.
If you enjoyed this post, I would encourage you to read Too Big to Know and Everything is Miscellaneous, both by David Weinberger. Whether you end up agreeing with his point of view or not, the concepts that he addresses are well worth spending the time thinking about.