Skip to main content

What Boston suspects taught you

By David Weinberger, Special to CNN
updated 7:56 PM EDT, Fri April 19, 2013
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
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT