Interview with David Weinberger

images1According to Wikipedia David Weinberger (born 1950 in New York) is a technologist, professional speaker, and commentator, probably best known as co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto (originally a website, and eventually a book, which has been described as “a primer on Internet marketing”. He just published his new book (may 2007): Everything is Miscellaneous – The Power of the New Digital Disorder. Weinberger’s work focuses on how the Internet is changing human relationships, communication, and society.

A philosopher by training, he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and taught college from 1980-1986. He was a gag writer for the comic strip “Inside Woody Allen” from 1976-1983.[3] He became a marketing consultant and executive at several high-tech companies, and currently serves as a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. He had the title Senior Internet Advisor to Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.

The picture I found on the website of the Berkman Center.What is the difference between a physical thing and information?david1Even though everyone uses the term “information” as if it were obvious what it meant, it’s a technical term that gets used out of context very frequently. So, yes, we know what we mean by “information” when we’re talking about the contents of a database or what you fill into a form when it asks for your name, address, and date. But we’ve taken the term far beyond that. We even think that thinking and experience are based on information. But when we try to figure out what we mean by “information” when used in that sense — when we’re not talking about forms or computers — it turns out that we don’t really have a good definition of it. I suspect that’s because human experience doesn’t really reduce to something as simple as information. We are not computers.

There are metaphysical differences between things and information, but I don’t think that’s what you’re asking about.So, let me try to answer this way: When we take a thing as being a this or a that, we’re performing a basic act of categorization. In Western culture, we’ve long assumed that everything has one real way of being categorized; that’s its “essence.” Over the past few centuries, we’ve moved away from the idea that one of the ways of taking a thing has to be the single, real one. But there are still vestiges of “essentialism” in our thinking. Most importantly, the nature of print publishing has reinforced our essentialist tendencies. Printing takes one view and stamps it in ink on paper. Not a lot of flexibility there. But, in the digital age, it is astoundingly easy to categorize on the fly, and recategorize a minute later. We see just how dependent on our background and projects is the way we take the world.What is going to happen to “information” in the process of sharing, collaboration, workflow …?david1Since I don’t think “information” is a well-formed word in how it’s usually used, I’ll answer in terms of knowledge instead. Ok? Knowledge is becoming social. That doesn’t mean that groups of people can make up whatever they want. Instead, it means that we’re understanding our world by talking about it with others. We do this in a thousand different ways on the Web, from Wikipedia to mailing lists. Of course, we’ve always learned socially, but we’ve told ourselves that knowledge is a “mirror” of nature, so there can only be one right answer. And that’s certainly true for facts. But it isn’t true of the real work of knowing, which is understanding. Human understanding proceeds through conversation. The vast connectedness of the Web is hastening the pace of understanding.How would you describe the dynamics of information in the 2.0-world?david1We’re able to find more faster. We can recombine ideas and information rapidly. We can run down dead ends faster, which is hugely helpful as we try out new ideas. The walls are coming down, so ideas and information can be found and reused. We are moving from an age of scarcity, in which it was difficult to come up with information, to one of abundance. And we’re discovering that in many or most instances, we’re better off surfacing ideas sooner rather than later, so that we can think them through together.How should companies be treating their “information asset” in a 2.0 world?david1We treat assets as things of value that should be protected and held on to. It turns out that often that’s exactly what companies shouldn’t be doing with information. Sometimes information gains far more value by being let loose into the world. For example, the airlines let their fare and schedule information out to be aggregated with the same information from other airlines. As a result, we get sites like Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz that add value to that information by aggregating it. Then we get sites such as Kayak and Farecast that “mash” that information up with yet more information. As more and more information is pulled in and related, it all gets more useful and valuable to end users … and points them back to the airlines. We same the same sort of process in the industries that deal with real estate, books, recordings … Do we have do be afraid of the information overload?david1Generally, no. There’s far more information available than even the direst predictions warned us of fifteen years ago, but we’re doing pretty well. That’s because the solution to the information overload problem turned out to be to generate more information … in particular, to generate lots of information about the information. That’s how we’re able to manage it. We will never be able to keep up with it – that’s what it means to live in an age of abundance – but generally we’ll find what we need.

Of course, we also need to help our children get smart about this. We should be emphasizing “Internet literacy” from an early age. That’s where our children will be getting and developing their ideas. They need to know how to find their way around, how to avoid being fooled, how to build trust relationships …What comes after information? david1If information is the “stuff” of the computer age, then hyperlinks are the stuff of the Web age. Hyperlinks are the opposite of traditional computer information. A traditional computer database has a specified number of fields, each containing simple data. The Web, on the other hand, doesn’t specify what types of links you can have or how many. Unlike a database, the end-user can relate ideas without calling a system administrator. Unlike a database, links are expressed in human language that can be as rich and evocative as you want. And links are social, created by one person to show other people the connections she sees. So, we already have what comes after information: A Web of links.When everything becomes digital, what impact will this have on corporate learning, on corporate culture? david1The questions you ask are too big! I don’t have a short answer to this, so I’ll just list a few points, if that’s ok:

– I don’t know. No one does.

– We’ve already seen serious effects on corporate learning, including learners learning when they want to, and learners learning from other learners. There’s a sense in which much of the Web can be taken as collaborative learning.

– We’ve already seen serious effects on corporate culture, including a democratizing of access and of rhetoric, and an expectation that the walls between departments and customers will come down. (Overall, I think of this as the rise of the “hyperlinked organization,” which, by the way, explains why my blog is www.JohoTheBlog; JOHO stands for Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.)Can the establishment of IT (2.0) change corporate culture (top down approach) or is it necessary that corporate culture has to change before technology unfolds its full values?david1Corporate culture is already changing bottom up. Employees are out on the Web on their own time, if not during work. They are implicitly absorbing the Web’s values: Authority comes from the value of one’s contribution, we can do far more together than we can apart, rapid failure is the best way to succeed, no one will listen to what you say if you’re not saying something interesting, ideas are never done… There is, of course, much that can be done top down to make this transition faster and less painful. And there have been some important innovations created top down — for example, IBM’s “jams” in which everyone in the company is free to engage in a couple of days of open conversation on a strategic topic. But, usually, these changes begin bottom up. How can companies be more efficient/successful in training and educating their employees by using – what is called – informal learning methods?david1There is a role for formal learning, of course. That’s sometimes the best way to convey information and teach skills. But we’ve been learning important lessons about how to learn from one another on the Web. For example, if you answer a question for someone, it’s very helpful to make that question public, especially in a way that makes it easier for the next person to find it. Another example: Bloggers frequently in their posts manifest expertise that helps others identify them as good people to ask questions of. As we learn how to find our way around the Web, we’re also learning how to teach one another what we need to know.

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Some more personal questions (and to be honest I do like the answers;-)

What was you career aspiration at the age of 6?

None.

What is the motto of you life?
I don’t have one.

What is the motto of you work?
I don’t have one.

Short advice for a young web 2.0 entrepreneur?
I don’t have any generic advice. Sorry.

What was the greatest challenge in your career so far?
I don’t think I’ve had a career.

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