Knowledge and miscellaneous things about it

Since publishing the blog on knowledge translation, I have received a number of questions about what knowledge is, how it is produced, how we save it, and different forms of it. I find them all related and provide a brief summary of them all through reviewing a book. I am warning that this reading might be a little confusing. So be prepared.

The book by David Weinberger is titled, ‘Everything is Miscellaneous: the power of the new digital disorder,’ Through this book review, you will get some information on the potential source of knowledge, history of knowledge accumulation, geography and orders of knowledge, classifications of knowledge, some characteristics of knowledge, and finally social knowledge.

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Source and nature of knowledge

Nature is the source of knowledge, that’s what David argues in his book. He says that humans discover patterns in nature – mostly orderly patterns – leading to believe that nature is orderly and thus should knowledge be orderly too. Mendeleev arranged his table in an order believing in doing justice to nature.

The idea of patterns in nature has become so embedded in our thinking and learning that we have not learned to learn without it. Confusing, eh?

Here is the point. We identified some patterns in nature, but it does not mean that everything in nature is in patterns. Nature can be messy, complex, and without any particular pattern.

By thinking in patterns, we have learned much and produced much knowledge, but we are also missing on the unpatterned and complex side of nature. To discover the complex aspect of nature, we need complex thinking, chaotic thinking to learn and produce a new form of knowledge. It will be discussed towards the end.

History of knowledge accumulation 

Since humans have learned to produce knowledge by the mere process of observation and thinking, and share and reproduce knowledge by socialization and speaking to one another, the biggest revolution in human history has been the creation of the written forms of language, what Weinberger calls ‘alphabetization.’ The alphabetization revolution has allowed humans to accumulate knowledge, leading to formation encyclopedias as the collection of knowledge. The (alphabetized) knowledge has been accumulated on pieces of paper or plastics of films. Made of alphabets, an encyclopedia is arranged in alphabetical order. In other words, alphabets make the content and the order of the knowledge. In the recent times, we have learned to accumulate the alphabetized knowledge in a new way, in bits and digits. Keep that in mind, we will discuss it in details.

Geography of knowledge

Since we have accumulated knowledge on pieces of paper or plastic of films, or let’s say atoms, knowledge existed where the atoms were. A book could exist only where it was put. We could make 1000s of copies of the same book, but all the copies would sit on physical material. With the new way of accumulating knowledge in bits and digits, it can exist anywhere as long as we have the tool access it. Thus, the geography of knowledge changes from being in one place at a time to multiple places at a time.

Orders of knowledge

Based on what I explained above, there are three orders of knowledge. Things (i.e. knowledge on a piece of paper) organized in a specific place is the first order of order, such as silverware into drawers, books on shelves and photos into albums.

The second order is the information about the first order of the things. The catalog of the library which gives information about the whereabouts and content of the book is the metadata – creating a second order.

As the data and information existed on atoms – such as a piece of paper or a plastic film, the first and second orders of information are mainly arrangments of atoms. Again, a physical material can exist only in one place at a single time, so will the information on the material.

The third order of order does not sit on atoms but bits. The digitization of information allows us to access knowledge wherever and whenever we want. The digitization of information into bits is the core of third order which revolutionize almost every aspect of life.

Classification of knowledge

Weinberger defines classification as a fundamental nesting technique that in its most primitive form could be like lumping and splitting. With physical limitation, we have been classifying information like a tree with branches. With digitization we don’t have to classify information like trees but like an unending web of connections. Links and hyperlinks make it possible.

I like this quote from the book, “In the third order of order, a leaf … can hang on different branches for different people and it can change branches for the same person if he decides to look at the subject differently” (p.83).

And this one, “In the third order of order, knowledge doesn’t have a shape” (p.83).

Characteristics of knowledge

The new form of knowledge accumulation changes traditional characteristics of knowledge.

  1. There is not one knowledge; a single information can be traced into many trees of knowledge.
  2. By linking knowledge to all multi-disciplines, knowledge becomes ambiguous, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary.
  3. Knowledge is not controlled by experts. Weinberger (2007) says, “Control has already changed hands, the new rules of the information jungle are in effect, transforming the landscape in which we work, buy, learn, and vote” (p. 106) Therefore, knowledge is controlled by no one and everyone.

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A single article of Wikipedia is linked to almost a couple of dozens of other articles. Similarly, a single Wikipedia article can be found through many other links that one would never think of. That’s why every data is metadata. Here is a quote from Nonaka, “Men should no more search for the truth but justify what they believe in” (Nonaka, 1995). In the world of the web, it is all about justification of your belief and that how many people follow what you say. It is not the hegemony of experts or scientists that are important but the number of people sharing thoughts and ideas.

Here is the surprise, with the tools that we have developed, the new form of knowledge neither exists on atoms nor on digits, but between humans. The new form of knowledge is the social knowledge – the form of knowledge that stays between the nodes of a network.

“For 2,500 years, we have been told that knowing is our species destiny and its calling. Now we can see for ourselves that knowledge isn’t in our heads: it is between us. It emerges from public and social thought, and it stays there, because social knowing, like the global conversations that give rise to it, is never finished” (p.147).

It could be argued that social knowing is a transformation of tacit knowledge or personal knowledge. Regarding tacit knowledge, Weinberger writes, “in fact if I could tell you everything I know about my children it would be a sure sign that our relationship is superficial” (p. 160). It is indicative of the fact that human has much more tacit knowledge that they think they know.

Here are my takeaway messages:

1) The digitization of information has totally changed the status of existence knowledge, knowledge development and the process of knowledge creation.

2) The third order of order has provided the ground for individuals to learn knowledge as they want to rather than as they are wanted to. Weinberger (2007) puts it as, “See for yourself” (p. 202).

3) In the miscellaneous world of digit encoded information, the task of the human mind is to give meaning to knowledge that is accumulated simultaneously as it is created.

4) Knowledge is the most important resource in today’s knowledge societies, and the human brain is the source of it. The human mind needs to process knowledge within and between themselves through socialization, as they automatically externalize the knowledge globally in the form of digit encoded information.

In other words, the web is the knowledge. So keep the conversation going.

Reference:

Nonaka, I. & Takeuchi, H. (1995) The Knowledge-creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. Oxford UP. NY

Weinberger D. (2007) Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. Henri Holt and Cie, USA

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