The Bigger Picture

In David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know, he further discusses the largely disputed topic about having knowledge creation and circulation being based upon networked and open systems. Scientists, and scholars in general, really have no issues coming about with new factual information, but it’s the issue of connecting those newfound facts together. Bernard K. Forscher in his letter, titled “Chaos in the Brickyard,” describes that the issue within the new generation of scientists as one in which they were too preoccupied churning out ‘bricks’ of new information rather than indebting themselves to creating a solid, big picture (124). I could not agree more.

The Internet, in and of itself, is actually extremely hard to navigate because works of academia lie behind defense walls of closed source and open source systems, in which creates a fragmented picture of research based upon a particular topic. Strangely, this is not new to our society. Newton’s method to solve nonlinear equations was believed to be first discovered by Joseph Raphson fifty years before Newton, lost in the abyss of papers published without the advantages of open source accessibility. James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins could not have the Nobel Prize if it were not for Rosalind Franklin’s x-ray diffraction work in the 1950s, yet many history books fail to mention the importance of her work. I am not arguing that such scholars should have removed recognition, but rather I am making the claim that a lot of research goes unnoticed due to the lack of connections to their work and the difficulty of overcoming the impact factor pressure still enforced by academic institutions.

Is there a way to solve such an issue? Not exactly. Particularly, I like the approach of Jean-Claude Bradley, an associate professor of chemistry at Drexel University, who began a blog called “UsefulChem” to document his research with chemical compound reactions against the malaria strain (139). Although it may be difficult to search for it and it may not be dependable upon credibility, I believe it is important to publish research as it is in progress. For diseases that impact populations in poverty or it impacts small populations (visit https://www.rarediseases.org to browse the numerous rare disorders and diseases that lack funding), it is hard to receive grants for research because it is not deemed profitable. Negative results are still results that may eventually lead the way to a cure.

We are now presented the opportunity to crowdsource and work together as a community to answer the many questions that having been plaguing mankind for centuries, yet we are still ruled by a system that demands a price tag for the knowledge presented to the public sphere. Open source information is important, but I am hungry for more. As an academic myself, it is inevitable in the process of research to encounter several sources that require payments or even special permission to use their own research. We undoubtedly have come from a long way in terms of open source accessibility, but there is much more that needs to be done.

 

What Do We Do: Distantly Read a million books or Closely Read a hundred?

“Close Reading,” as I would envision, would be a dissected analysis of a particular work; this particular work may be poetry, a scientific dissertation, or even an illustration. For example, for many years it has been debated what the song “And Your Bird Can Sing” is really about on the Beatles’ 1966 record, Revolver (debatably one of the greatest records of all time, which is besides the point). Is it John Lennon’s musical response to Mick Jagger and his relationship with Marianne Faithfull? A song written simply because the band was stoned with the acclaimed Bob Dylan? No one knows, but still we take the time to analyze their cryptic ballads. Unlike the Beatles, I highly doubt William Shakespeare was writing under the influence of whimsical, eclectic drugs, but I do believe he did not intend for his poetry to be one-dimensional. Closing reading allows you to become an expert and rather than merely taking one message away from that particular work, you may recognize underlying messages that otherwise would be unacknowledged.

Unlike close reading, “Distant Reading,” by definition, would be a much used method by college students that believe the pressures of procrastination brings about the best work (this is false). To defend methods of distant reading, it widens your canon of information. You may not be an expert, like peers who have decided to close read Shakespeare’s sonnets, but you have a general understanding of differences between the sonnets of William Shakespeare, the blank verse poems of Lord Alfred Tennyson, and the lyric structure of John Keats. Similarly, they are all beautiful displays of language, but with distant reading, one may also learn to appreciate the history and the reasoning behind each poets work. Distant reading is commonly associated to “skimming,” an evil word that filters out what isn’t important. Believe it or not, all language is important: distant reading just allows individuals to develop a broader understanding for a particular subject matter.

In my personal opinion, close reading is preferred when evaluating a work(s), but again, distant reading is extremely helpful when time is of the essence. Both methods of reading have their drawbacks, with close reading resembling more a ‘search’ approach and distant reading having a ‘browse’ approach. In Stephen Ramsay’s “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books,” he speaks about looking for books within a bookstore. In a case of distant reading, poetry for example, I would aimlessly wander to the Barnes & Noble wall titled “Poetry.” After discovering such an abundance of literature, I may close a type of poetry I want to learn more about. I have the opportunity to narrow and widen my search as I please. In the end of trolling through the poetry section after consuming three cups of dark roast coffee; I will generally understand poetry as a whole (the differing structures, what a meter is, etc.). Yes, I will sacrifice the small details of why a poem is so legendary. William Shakespeare was known to hint to his other works within his plays, which brought much delight to loyal Shakespearean fans. As a distant reader, I may not understand such clever hints. Then again as a close reader I can divulge in the clever writing of Mister William Shakespeare, but I may miss out of the adventure of Dante and Virgil in the depths of Hell? We are faced with the decision of trying to distantly read a million books, or to closely read one hundred.

Rethinking the Value of Information

“And the fear that keeps us awake at night is not that all this information will cause us to have a mental breakdown, but that we are not getting enough of the information we need” (Weinberger 9).

      In Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970), the encounter of information overload would induce varying levels of anxieties. In today’s world, we have come to accept this baggage. Although with an abundance of hesitation, we as individuals have become just as comfortable in the virtual world, if not more, than the reality remaining outside our desktops. Even being a millennial raised in the dawning of the technological era, it is overwhelmingly apparent that the profusion of readily available information via Internet has created a new pressure amongst eager intellectual beings. With the growing accessibility of a computer, the serenity I find in reading a book is beginning to appear archaic.

We want to be instantaneously knowledgeable, and we are never satisfied with the answer of uncertainty, so there lingers the anxiety of whether or not we are getting enough of the information we need. Weinberger swoops in for the save, and reassures us that this is exactly why we have filters (Algorithmic techniques and social tools). He says, “Algorithmic techniques use the vast memories and processing power of computers to manipulate swirling nebulae of data to find answers. The social tools help us find what’s interesting by using our friends’ choices as guides” (9).

The problem is that we as a society have always agreed that knowledge is power (I don’t disagree), but now without the limitations of publishing, everyone believes his or her ‘expertise’ on subject matter is important to share with the world. We have this newfound pressure to be knowledgeable, and rather than readily admitting we may not be knowledgeable in a particular subject, we use unconventional, lavish language to detour our lack of expertise in the subject, which is normally led by insufficient biases. There is no authority, and it leads us to wonder whether the information we are getting is valuable.