Reading recommendation: The Internet of Us

With summer fast approaching, here’s a book suggestion!

I just finished The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data. It offers an interesting commentary on how people interact with information and big data.

Author Michael Patrick Lynch takes a philosophical approach to issues in the information age.  He writes about the difference between knowing and understanding. Have you ever been concerned about big data’s focus on the “what,” rather than the “why?” And how people say that sometimes the “what” is enough for understanding trends? Lynch recognizes this concern. He points out issues with this practice of only considering what is happening, of looking at correlations only.

Lynch asserts that three aspects compose big data:

  1. the volume of data,
  2. analysis of that data,
  3. and uses of that data by big companies.

He also discusses the dangers of decreased privacy owing to the creation of data through our activities and the use of it by companies.

Data analysis is impossible without context, according to Lynch. This point feeds his conclusion that knowing how parts connect with the whole is key to being a responsible “knower.” People need to see how information that they find online fits with their broader knowledge and the world. Seeing this bigger picture allows them to be creative. As he writes:

…our digital form of life tends to put more stock in some kinds of knowing than others. Google-knowing has become so fast, easy and productive that it tends to swamp the value of other ways of knowing like understanding. And that leads to our subtly devaluing these other ways of knowing without our even noticing that we are doing so–which in turn can mean we lose motivation to know in these ways, to think that the data just speaks for itself. And that’s a problem–in the same way that our love affair with the automobile can be a problem. It leads us to overvalue one way to get to where we want to go, and as a result we lose sight of the fact that we can reach our destinations in other ways–ways that have significant value all their own. (p. 179-80)

The Internet of Us shows both the pros and cons of technology and big data. It is not an anti-technology book. Instead, Lynch raises awareness of modern practices. Lynch’s distinction between knowing by searching online and actually developing skills is something that’d we’d all do well to remember. For those of you who are looking for inspiration — and points to make when students wonder why they have to learn something when they can just find the information online — this book is for you!


Source: Lynch, Michael Patrick. The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016.

Image: “Photo of Holloways Beach, QLD, Australia” by Alexander Khimushin, on Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.