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by Stephen Downes
April 23, 2008

Is Knowledge Paradoxical?
I'm still really sick today, so I'll keep this newsletter short. This item links to an ongoing discussion on the ActKM mailing list between Dave Snowden and his critics on the nature of knowledge and (therefore) knowledge management.

Personally, I don't think that the critic - Joe Firestone - is really getting what Snowden is saying. Snowden, for example, says "If you think in categories, then the world is presented in categories or a failure to categorize." Firestone responds with a long list of categories used by Snowden in his criticism. But that scarcely establishes that categories exist! Much less that Snowden is talking about them (think about it: if I talk about unicorns, does that establish that they exist? No. Nor am I in fact talking about unicorns when I am "talking about unicorns" (because unicorns don't exist) - the words misrepresent what I am representing.

*sniffle* *sniffle*

Let me explain. Two statements are (crucially) true:

1. Language represents less than what we know. This is what people like Polanyi meant when they said that some knowledge (personal knowledge) is ineffable. It quite literally cannot be expressed in words. It is, said Polanyi, a knowing how rather than a knowing that. I have sometimes tried to characterize this knowledge as resulting from a process of recognition.

2. Language represents more than we can know. When Chomsky talked about the "poverty of the stimulus", he assumed that knowledge expressed things that we could not know, and therefore must be innate. But it's not innate - rather, our language misleads us. We simply don't know it. What don't we know? Well, a variety of things - but specifically, causal generalizations, laws of natures, infinities, universals, and (most saliently) categories.

Categories? Yes. Traditionally, a category is defined as a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. So if you identify something that violates a condition - an x that is not P - you have undermined the category. Pundits throw categories back and forth at each other, trying to find exceptions, and thereby find the Nature of the World.

But categtories - even the things that seem really certain - are not like that. They are, as Wittgenstein said, 'family resemblances'. They are produced not by identification of necessary and sufficient conditions, but by (a computational process of) clustering. This is important, because (a) clusters are recognized, they are not inherent in nature, and (b) clusters change membership depending on what properties (vectors) are salient, from the point of view of the observer.

So you may say, but a cat is still a cat. But what constitutes a cat - at which point does a cat cease to be a cat? If it is dead, is it a cat? If it is dismembered, is it a cat? If a cat's head is sewn onto a dog's body, is it still a cat? If the cat's DNA is altered, is it still a cat? It all depends on what you think is important about being a cat - and that, my friends, is a property of the observer, not the cat.

All of our knowledge is like that. All of our knowledge is a 'zeroing in' on a fuzzy probability space, a space that shifts every time we shift out point of view ( a 'strange attractor', to use the jargon). If we think we have more precise - or more universal - knowledge than that, it's an accident of language, not evidence of some special ability on our own part. It's not that we can't know that things are true or false, it's that "truth" and "falsehood" are properties of sentences, and don't really apply here. To know (to paraphrase Hume very loosely) is to 'not be able to recognize as not P'. Or in the words of Mark Pilgrim, "I know I'm a writer because I can't not write."


What does this even matter to me? Well, it's like the old lady said: it's clusters all the way down. The way we currently structure classes, the way we currently organize subjects, the way we currently manage collaborations and companies, are all on the model of causal generalizations, laws of natures, infinities, universals, and (most saliently) categories. The 'groups versus networks' is logically isomorphic with the current discussion. Our own representation of ourselves is - quite literally - "people of the word."

Well. Words are a wonderful facet, and I would never want to do without them. But we are, both internally and externally, much more complex, much more interesting, much more beautiful than mere words can describe. Maybe, when you're sick, even if it's just a cold, you see this.

Thanks for yoru patience, and it's back to the usual newsletter tomorrow. Joe Firestone, All Life Is Problem Solving, April 23, 2008 [Link] [Tags: , , , , ] [Comment]

The Cool Kids Are Edublogging
Joanne Jacobs introduces two new edubloggers, Jay P. Greene's Blog and The Education Optimists, by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Liam Goldrick. Meanwhile, in possibly unrelated news, a group called EDin08, whose stated goal, as Tim Stahmer says, "is to generate some discussion about education issues among candidates for office (and push other agendas)," has asked a number of edubloggers to attend their Education Blogger Summit. The luncheon speaker was Newt Gingrich. Joanne Jacobs, Weblog, April 23, 2008 [Link] [Tags: , ] [Comment]

Tragedy of the Commons
David Jakes attacking Twitter will probably get some reaction in the blogosphere, so I include it here for easy reference. Best part of the read is the first comment (of 38, as of the last count) comment, by artichoke, citing Ivan Illich: "I hope that the parallel now becomes clear. Just as the commons of space are vulnerable, and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic, so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modem means of communication." As I fight with almost overwhelming amounts of spam this week, I cannot help but agree. David Jakes, The Strength of Weak Ties, April 23, 2008 [Link] [Tags: , , ] [Comment]

From the Anointed Few to the Collective Many
Longish article that outlines the changes web 2.0 is bringing to management. "It's clear that change is upon us. Through a combination of technological evolution and a continuing cultural shift toward individual empowerment, the web has become a platform that now enables and relies on the empowerment of the individual, the collective wisdom or intelligence of the crowd, the ability to create and foster social connections online, and the ability of everyday consumers to become producers of content." I agree - but this change will not be swift, will not be won without a fight, and is not inevitable. Dave Wilkins, Learning Circuits, April 23, 2008 [Link] [Tags: none] [Comment]

The Battle for the Soul of OLPC: Learning Vs. Laptops
The thing with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is that it has always been a blend of two separate ambitions: one, to put a piece of computer hardware into every child's hands, and the other, to run software on that machine most ideally suited to learning, which in practice meant the development of Sugar, the Linux-based operating system. As a result of unknown pressures, these two objectives are splitting apart now - you can see it happening on the OLPC discussion list.

Update: Nicholas Negroponte has just written to the OLPC Community News list stating that the project maintains its commitment to Sugar. "We are scaling Sugar up, not down... Sugar is a very good idea, less than perfectly executed... Sugar needs a wider basis, to run on more Linux platforms and to run under Windows." Wayan Vota, One Laptop Per Child News, April 23, 2008 [Link] [Tags: , , , ] [Comment]

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Copyright 2008 Stephen Downes

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