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Editor's Notes: In a World Without Undisputed Experts, Who Decides What's Really True?

August 27, 2012
by Mark Hagland
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Pondering two contemporary books on knowledge and authority brings to mind some very vexing issues in our contemporary society

The moment I saw David Weinberger’s 2011 book at the public library, I was hooked, and knew I had to read it. Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room, is exactly the kind of (yes, lengthy!) title that grabs me about a non-fiction book these days. What’s more, Weinberger’s credentials, as articulated on the book’s back flap, spoke to me as well, as Weinberger is a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for the Internet & Society, and the author of a few other books, including Everything Is Miscellaneous, an intriguing look at the present state of "miscellany" in today’s digital world.

Too Big to Know is even more provocative, and offers some keen insights into a basic problem in today’s Internet-driven society: how do we even decide who’s an expert, and what’s a fact? It can all get very complicated very fast. What’s really mind-blowing is to combine some of the key ideas in Too Big with some of the quite profound issues brought up by Robert Bly in his groundbreaking 1996 book, The Sibling Society, which essentially argued that contemporary western society has thrown off the shackles of the old sociologically based hierarchical cultural system that automatically handed supreme cultural, economic, and political power to wealthy older white men of property; it has instead morphed into a no-one’s-boss society in which everyone is a kind of "sibling," with the downside of the democratization of society being that there is ultimately no universally accepted higher authority to turn to anymore to resolve really difficult societal issues, particularly ones around knowledge, information, and truth.

This complicated, vexing situation once again brings to my mind my college friend Linda, about whose desire to go backwards in time to a "simpler" era I’ve written about in the past. I have to say, in this context, Linda’s core emotional impulse—a shrinking from this almost unbelievably complex world, with its dizzying pace of cultural and technological change—is quite understandable. I’ll also add here that Linda once worked for the Encyclopedia Britannica for a short while, and has in the past lamented how terrible it is, from her standpoint, that people are turning to Wikipedia and other reference sources that haven’t gone through the rigorous fact-checking that EB once engaged in. That is a point well-taken. Indeed, Weinberger actually addresses the issue of "authority" at the world’s most-used online reference source, writing that, "Over the years, Wikipedia has developed a set of policies and processes that enable the community—the network—to make and amend decisions," though ultimately, someone does sometimes have to do final arbitration of certain issues, and that task in the end sometimes falls to co-founder Jimmy Wales, reluctant as he is to exercise that power.

Yet that is the world we’re living in now, and it’s one with both great opportunities and challenges embedded in its decision-making processes. CIOs, CMIOs, and other healthcare IT leaders are faced constantly now with "too big to know" types of questions, as they strive to help lead our healthcare system forward into the new healthcare that we all know needs to get birthed, and soon. As discussed in this month’s cover story on population health, we’re moving into areas in which there simply is no manual to turn to as our industry’s leaders innovate forward. It will take some courage and personal leadership to navigate forward in this emerging world—but think of the rewards for doing so. Well, you’ll be able to read about them online very soon, won’t you?