Skip to main content

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.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT