Too Big To Know

This interview with David Weinberger was conducted by Olaf Kohlbrück, horizont. I helped Olaf to arrange this interview while David was at Petersberger Gespräche at the end of September 2011.

I think it’s a very informative interview and worth reading!


People that are talking about the Cluetrain Manifest mostly just remember the first sentence: Markets are conversations. Does this make you a little bit sad?

No. I am happy that anyone remembers that it was in it. The sentence is a real good one.

For a while it looked like social networks could enforce the dialogue between companies and customers in the spirit of this sentence. But what seems to work best in social networks are funny videos and discount promotions?

I think markets are conversations is right, but it never meant that marketing is conversation. Sometimes this is the right approach, but not every marketing campaign should be a conversation. And when companies do it, it is very hard not to be intrusive. Sometimes marketing through conversations can be embarrassing.


Markets are conversations, but these conversations happen on networks. So there is value of thinking of markets as networks. If you are interested to buy a car, you talk to your networks. So the activity on the internet is a representation of the actual market, of the things people are actually interested in buying and exploring. One of the reasons to talk to this market is, that the conversations are made of shared interests. Every link is en expression of an interest I want to share with others. Therefore the internet is an almost pure expression of human interest. But the old relationship between business and markets is not exactly that of shared interests. You want to buy a car for a lot of different reasons, but the business has one single interest: to sell a car and make money. So there is no alignment between companies and markets. An Agent who enters the conversation with a different set of interests can be difficult and dangerous, because intruding a conversion with a sales pitch is as bothering in networks as it would be in real life. But engaging in a form of advertorial marketing may make sense for a company. Perhaps when they explain their motive and link to further evidence. This is not particular conversational, it is more like a political campaign. This can be usefull, even if it is no conversation.

So Networks are better tool for costumers to organize their influence and to claim their needs?

These instances of concerted consumer action are relatively rare. Far more common is the rapidly spreading information that causes a company to act. You usually don’t have to create participation or to organize to get a company to change its behaviour. Just spreading words about a topic has this effect. It’s the transparency. Even before that, the first thing that the internet did, was to enable the costumer to get better a advise about products from one another than they ever got from the company. If you want to get an answer that is both frank and perhaps specific to your circumstances, the first place to go is the internet and often the last place is the company.

Can this lead to some kind of objectivity?

Objectivity is a difficult word. I would try to stay away from it. We get answer s that are specific to our situation and less influenced by business interests. It does not mean we get objective information.

What else do we get?

Now you can get a mass of information about politics and everything else. Newsreports get contextualized by everybody who has something to say. This changes the power between the massmedia and the audience. This illustrates, by the way, why the internet is not a medium, we are the medium., we are the ones who pass the information. What moves through the medium is what interests us, not what people from broadcasters or somebody else is interested in. Things will not pass through the medium to us unless we think it is interesting. I am not going to send your commercial message until I think it is interesting.

So, journalists are losing their power?

The internet can be an amplifier for a journalist, but the journalist have to earn their transmission through the internet. We will only pass around what interests us. Not all things that interest us come from journalists, sometimes they come from bloggers, stars or managers. If the story has a maximum effect on us, it will be passed around.

How shall we evaluate those information?

Transparency helps us to manage one the basic problems of the internet: context. Somebody posted something, and you know nothing about him. Transparency provides Metadata that we need, in order to weigh – either rationally or emotionally – what someone is saying. So transparency ultimately enables us to see authority with the help of some type of metadata, without having to rely on traditional credential institutions.

On the other hand transparency could transform the Web into a very repressive environment, because everything can be tracked?

People that run early in the internet are already surprised about what they were posting earlier, and our children certainly will be by what they are posting nowadays. Everybody will find something that he believed in the past what will be embarrassing in later years.
This happens, because we cant take that information back. I hope we will become more forgettable. We cant take away the embarrassing photos. When an entire culture finds itself embarrassed its going to change its values. We cannot survive as a culture when we continue to accuse each other of being young.

In Germany there is a very broad debate about data protection and privacy on the Web: Can you understand that the Germans are concerned about a post-privacy world, while mega-corporations like Google, Apple and Facebook collect quantities of information, interpret them, and in the end keep a social power in their hands?

Personal data held by private companies – we should worry about it. I do worry about it, but it is not a simple problem at all. For one thing, we are agreeing to this through out behaviour and almost everybody does. In know that Google, Facebook and Amazon and so far are maintaining records of me. But i get some benefit from their services and recommendations. I have – to some degree – fear what they do with their knowledge, but not enough to stop using their services. Furthermore our sense of privacy and publicness is changing radically – and its a generational thing. This is nothing we can decide by policy, it is something you live with. And its not just the internet. There is more surveillance in the real world. 15 years ago it would have shocked people, nowadays we don’t care very much. If you want to predict where this ends up, it seems like everything is moving towards less privacy – not just online.

You next book will be called “Too Big to Know” you will show how business, science, education, and the government are learning to use networked knowledge to understand more than ever and to make smarter decisions. At first hand that sounds contradicting?

The hypothesis oft the book is that there’s more knowledge than ever and there is always to much know. But we have varity of tactics for reducing and managing the world. And this is changing the nature of knowledge. Its moving from what is inside our head to be a property of networks itself. Knowledge exists on the network and I want to make sure that the network is smart.
Networks can be stupid, networks can make us stupider, if it is a network where everybody agrees and all say the same thing. But networks can make you smarter. Not only because there a people that are smarter than you, but because there can be interesting discussions. So, if knowledge becomes a property of the networks , just as it was a property of books before, one of the most important properties of the networks is, that Networks are connecting the differences. You don’t link to a webpage that is exactly the same as yours, you link to a page that is different in some way. That’s useful.
I give you an example, there a more consulting firms nowadays that are getting hired, not for the report in the end but to give access to a network of very smart people who disagree with one another to some extent. As a business you get pulled in very useful conversations. This is not as comfortable as getting a final answer. It is more holistic and opens you up to more possibilities.

Critics like as the FAZ publisher Frank Schirrmacher fear, that if we outsource the information to the Web, we are outsourcing our memory to the grid. No further need to remember anything?

Humans have always externalized knowledge and conscience. Writing is form of externalization of our memory. That is a good thing, so we can look up fact and figures. Now we have this remarkable tool, that allows us to know much more. Externalizing is how humans progress. This is a part of our species skill, that we are able to use tool. Its hard for me to see any negative aspect in having an always on, always available community-built repository of information, ideas and conversations. If we think with our tools its an evolutionary step.