Monday, May 26, 2014

Reflections: Too Big to Know

Ever since reading a A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell, I have had a fascination with why and how people can disagree so vehemently about issues.  The world is a complicated place, sure, but how is it that with all of our knowledge, all of our data, and all of our analysis, we can still come to so disparate conclusions?  David Weinberger's Too Big to Know provides some fascinating insights into this phenomenon and into others.  His book is well written, informative, and probably quite prescient.

The main thrust of the book is a discussion about how the very nature of knowledge is changing.  We don't have our "guardians" of knowledge like we used to.  Experts aren't the experts of yesteryear anymore.  Libraries and librarians don't fulfill the same role they used to.  The foundations of what we considered knowledge or truth is being eroded if not totally replaced by something far more squishier in its definition and application.  Knowledge, like data and information, due to the internet, has been democratized.  So what does that mean for us?  Are we smarter now because we have so much more?  Or are we dumber because we don't know how to manage this new frontier of information?  Such questions, along with other incredibly tantalizing ones, are posited and discussed in Too Big to Know.  It's a great book to discuss since it provides such meaty material.

The book's brevity is a great asset since it effectively avoids too much repetition and belaboring of any one point.  It's very readable, very interesting, and well worth any reader's time who has any interest at all about how societies manage knowledge and determine truth.  Perhaps one of the ironies of the book is that any conclusions it does come to is immediately thrown into question based simply on the title of the book.  One additional topic the book could have benefited from was discussing the problem of determining what knowledge is the most valuable to know, if we can.  It's a little too pessimistic to say the world is too complicated to ever know what we need to when one can make educated, reasonable, and informed decisions on what to learn and what not to. 

I highly recommend Too Big to Know.  The book outlines some wonderfully complicated problems while making them enjoyable enough to ponder without making the reader feel forlorn.  I credit David Weinberger for bringing such an important issue into the public square of debate in such a positive and interesting way.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: A Conflict of Visions
What You Don't Know is the Reason

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Reflections: The Worst Hard Time

I love history.  Reading about the events and people of the past is almost always stimulating, enlightening, and enjoyable.  Sometimes, however, it's terrifying.  The Worst Hard Time, the 2006 National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction, tells the story of the Dust Bowl and those who stayed behind in a broken land.

Timothy Egan, the book's author, focuses on the people who were the most directly affected by the Dust Bowl but also on the causes of it.  You'll find the normal problems associated with American western expansion, such as Native American expulsion, but you'll also find an interesting conflict between ranchers and farmers, misplaced government incentive, and dubious claims from investment seeking, over-eager real estate agents.  But it's the people who came to parts of Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska that deserve our greatest attention for their story is the most interesting and the most horrific.

Egan does a fine job of expressing the desperation that farmers felt during the Dust Bowl.  True, unrestrained and undisciplined agriculture led to the most punishing effects of the Dust Bowl, but that doesn't make the people's suffering any less painful.  The Worst Hard Time is a hard book to read at times.  It's an unblinking magnification of the worst aspects of the Dust Bowl.  Combining its impact with the terrible consequences of the Great Depression, one can't help but wonder how anyone survived it at all or even why they would want to.  It's also a testament to how resilient people can be and how attached they can become to the place they call home, even when home is a nightmare.

The Worst Hard Time is a book to give you nightmares; at least, it did for me.  The Great Depression was bad enough, but the farmers and ranchers of the mid-west not only fought against the effects of an economic disaster but also a natural one.  It's a truly harrowing story.  I'll never forget the book or the story it tells."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Lessons of History
Reflections: The Prince of Frogtown
Her Name is Scout