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What Boston suspects taught you

By David Weinberger, Special to CNN
April 19, 2013 -- Updated 2356 GMT (0756 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Weinberger has been laying low in Boston not knowing things all day
  • He says assumptions abounded before suspects were named
  • If new details have surprised us, we learn something about how we think the world works, he says
  • Weinberger: We funnel understanding through our assumptions

Editor's note: David Weinberger is a senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of "Too Big to Know" (Basic Books).

Brookline, Mass. (CNN) -- Like many of us, and especially those of us staying off the streets of Boston, I've been not knowing things all day. That's because I've been watching the mainstream media as well as my favorite social media. It turns out that not knowing something reveals its own kind of truth.

Yesterday, when we didn't have a Suspect No. 1 or No. 2, we each filled in the blanks. We assumed the perpetrators were terrorists, which implies a political motive. I'm going to guess that a vast majority of us assumed that the perpetrators would be male and not very old, because that's what our experience has shown us. We may also have filled in blanks about complexion, religion, and whether we expected them to have accents. These are more likely to show us something about how we think the world works.

David Weinberger
David Weinberger

For example, as Friday has worn on, you probably were not surprised to hear the suspects' friends and neighbors say that they were "quiet" and "nice," because that's what neighbors of mass murderers seem to always say. But I was quite surprised when more and more people came forward effusively praising Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as someone who reveled in diversity, who was always helpful, who worked with the cognitively disabled, who was highly social. Why was I surprised? Because it doesn't fit my pre-built narratives.

It's made me realize that I only have three Mass Murderer Narratives into which I slot the facts about any particular incident. First is the Anti-American: someone who so hates this country that he (and sometimes she) attacks it. Second is the Antisocial: the resentful loner out to take revenge on those who are more popular, or who relishes his or her few minutes of popularity's stand-in, celebrity. Third is the Delusional: someone completely detached from reality. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive.

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But why these three? After all, there are other narratives available by which I could understand these horrific events. For example, some people have narratives that involve people being evil, or about weak mortals being tempted by
Satanic forces, or about brave soldiers fighting the forces of the "New World Order." The narratives that shape our expectations in the absence of actual information can tell us a lot about our most basic understanding of the world.

For example, my three narratives each assume humans are pretty much autonomous, and therefore we have to look inside them to see the reasons they acted -- a set of political beliefs for the Anti-American, impossible social needs for the Antisocial, and totally crazy beliefs for the Delusional. Further, all three of my narratives assume that empathy and social connection are the natural state for humans, so you have to come up with reasons to explain antisocial behavior; there are other narratives that say that humans are fundamentally selfish, so you have to explain altruistic behavior.

Mechanic saw suspect after Boston attack
Radio host: Suspect very good student
Suspects' father: 'Someone framed them'

I am not recommending my narratives. I'm just saying that seeing how you assimilate scraps of information when you don't actually know anything can illuminate the basic riverbeds your understanding runs through. As the evidence drips in, watch which pieces make sense to you, and which ones don't. His family is from Chechnya? If you nod as if you knew it all along, that tells you what narrative you prefer. If you expected to hear that his Facebook page was bitter and depressed, then you again know how you'd like to understand the world.

This inability to maintain blanks in our understanding isn't a failure of understanding so much as it's a consequence of what it means to be conscious creatures. To understand an event is to see it as part of a sequence of related events -- that is, to see it as part of a story. That's what understanding does.

It's perhaps paradoxical that the condition of understanding is also inimical to seeing things in new ways, and often to see them as they actually are. We can at times come to new narratives and new understandings, but it's not easy, it's rare, and it doesn't free us from this basic limitation of thought -- a limitation made clear when we're sitting in front of our screens not knowing.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Weinberger.

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