Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The New Nature of Knowledge

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 20, 2009

Originally posted on Half an Hour, March 20, 2009.

I have written on various occasions in the past that the nature of knowledge is changing, a premise that is directly addressed - and challenged - by Tony Bates in his blog post, Does technology change the nature of knowledge?

I want to go through his post more or less point by point, not to be annoying, but as necessary in order to unravel a thread of reasoning that, I would argue, leads him astray.

Because, right from the beginning, I think, Bates has an idea that there are different types of writing, and different types of knowledge. He writes, "I should warn you that this is probably not a particularly suitable topic for a blog - an academic paper might be more appropriate to do the subject full justice."

One must ask, right off the bat, what he can mean by that. Because certainly it is not the placement of the body of reasoning into a printed paper and journal-bound form that renders it more appropriate. No, there is a supposition that the type of writing in an "academic paper" is a different type of writing from what he is offering here.

In what way? This begins to be a bit more difficult to pin down. Certainly it is not a matter of references or scholarly ability: Bates's article is filled with both. He is current on the academic literature - much more so than I - and covers his subject with an easy facility. At most, one can suppose it is some matter of the process of academic writing, then? The matter of reviewing and editing? Ah, but no; Bates's blog post could easily fit unedited into almost any journal one cares to name, unless it is a point in principle (and this I have seen) that he reference a particular body of literature that he is not covering here.

To Bates's argument, therefore, I must post this first challenge, that there ios nothing in principle that distinguishes the content of a blog post from that of an academic article. The same content may very well be presented in either, and the difference lies only in how that content is treated: subject to secret review and editing in the one case, and open scrutiny in the other.

Ah - but then, one argues, his case is made: that there is no distinction between knowledge of the past and knowledge of today. No, this is not established: only that the distinction is not one between academic and non-academic writing. The barbarians are not at the gates; they arise from within as well as without.

Bates next captures very nicely the nature of the new sort of knowledge with some asute citation from relevant works in academia: Jane Gilbert, citing Manuel Castells, writes, "knowledge is not an object but a series of networks and flows…the new knowledge is a process not a product…it is produced not in the minds of individuals but in the interactions between people," and Jean-Froncois Lyotard, "the traditional idea that acquiring knowledge trains the mind would become obsolete, as would the idea of knowledge as a set of universal truths. Instead, there will be many truths, many knowledges and many forms of reason."

We see the result, that "the boundaries between traditional disciplines are dissolving, traditional methods of representing knowledge (books, academic papers, and so on) are becoming less important, and the role of traditional academics or experts are undergoing major change," in the graphs that represent the state of knowledge today:

These are points that have been captured in a wide body of writings, from Gibson's depiction of Cyberspace to the perceptron of the 1950s and the connectionist literature of the 1980s to populist works such as Rushkoff's Cyberia and the widely popular Cluetrain Manifesto. It is hard to know where this account originates; everybody (including the academics) as as though they have discovered it for the first time.

What is important is not who came up with the theory (because we know that what I will say is that the theory is emergent from the works of numerous writers) but rather what the salient points are of the theory. From the work just cited, we can identify three major points (and those who care to look will find those points repeated throughout my own writing):
  1. knowledge is not an object, but a series of flows; it is a process, not a product
  2. it is produced not in the minds of people but in the interactions between people
  3. the idea of acquiring knowledge, as a series of truths, is obsolete
These point to a conception of knowledge dramatically from the Cartesian foundation or the Platonic form, a conception of knowledge that challenges even the Aristotlean categpry and the Newtonian law of nature. In particular, what seems to me to be relevant, is that the knowledge thus produced is:
  1. non-propositional, that is, not sharp, definite, precise, expressible in language
  2. non-discrete, that is, not located in any given place or instantiated in any particular form
  3. non-objective, that is, independent of any given perspective, point of view, or experience
We can discuss - and many people have discussed, from people as varied as Wittgenstein and Derrida - how such knowledge assembles (as in a cluster or probability space), flows, inhabits, propoagates, and the rest. I will refer to salient features of this type of knowledge in what follows; let's leave the account of it for now.

Bates identifies a singular feature of knowledge as discussed by Gilbert, Castells and Lyotard: "All these authors agree that the ‘new’ knowledge in the knowledge society is about the commercialisation or commodification of knowledge."

We get to this conclusion through an odd route: "'it is defined not through what it is, but through what it can do.’ (Gilbert, p.35). ‘The capacity to own, buy and sell knowledge has contributed, in major ways, to the development of the new, knowledge-based societies.’ (p.39)"

This is an oblique reference to what might be called a functional definition of knowledge, one that has its roots in the philosophical school of functionalism, "what makes something a mental state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part, and this in turn perhaps derived from the Wittgensteinian doctrine of "meaning as use".

But functionalism is very distinct from commercialism, and it is a great leap to infer from a 'definition' of knowledge based on "what you can do" to an assessment of knowledge as a "commodification" - a turn, indeed, that turns the new definition of knowledge on its head, and returns it to the status of object, and in particular, a medium of exchange. The retreat from some account of functionalism, which is more or less accurate, to one of commercialism, is an unjustified turn, and one which should not be accepted without significant dispute.

What would explain it? I would suggest by the fact that networks of knowledge resemble networks of commerce, that there is a similarity between the 'emergent knowledge' and 'the invisible hand of the marketplace', through to the overt endorsement of market logic we see in writers such as Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. But one should not read into the advocacy of a network theory of knowledge (as we have been describing) anything like a market theory of economics, at least (crucially) not to the degree of mistaking a descriptive interpretation with a causal agent.

Return to the definition of knowledge above. It is not an object (or objective), it is not discrete, it is not a causal agent. It is emergent, which means that it exists only by virtue of a process of recognition, as a matter of subjective interpretation. Mistaking a perception of value with 'value' as an objective driver is a classic mistake of market economics (in my view) and certainly a significant misinterpretation of network theories of knowledge.

But Bates has taken that road wholeheartedly: "I have no argument with the point of view that knowledge is the driver of most modern economies, and that this represents a major shift from the ‘old’ industrial economy, where natural resources (coal, oil, iron), machinery and cheap manual labour were the predominant drivers. I do though challenge the idea that knowledge itself has undergone radical changes."

Let us be clear about the view of knowledge that Bates has explicitly endorsed: one in which knowledge has causal efficacy, one where it is a "driver", more similar to objects (like coal or iron) than ephemera (like attitudes and expectations).

Bates then sets up what we have to uncharitably (but regretfully) call the straw man. Skipping the story, we can read: "in education academic knowledge has always been more highly valued in education than ‘everyday’ knowledge. However, in the ‘real’ world, all kinds of knowledge are valued, depending on the context. Thus while values regarding what constitutes ‘important’ knowledge may be changing, this does not mean that knowledge itself is changing."

To be more charitably, what we have here (I would say) is Bates distinguishing between the two types of knowledge according to the different types of uses to which they are put. This has the merit of being consistent with a form of functionalism, and at the same time allowing two different 'types' of knowledge to be (essentially) the same, but applied in different endeavours.

This, though, nonetheless commits two errors:

- first of all, while endorsing a functionalist definition of knowledge, it assumes an as yet undefended essentialist definition of knowledge (because, if functionalism were true, then two items of knowledge which were put to different uses would in fact be two types of knowledge, since function defines typology).

- second, the depiction of knowledge that I have been calling the network account of knowledge is not simply a functionalist theory of knowledge; it has an entirely different ontology in which the former objects, however defined, no longer exist, and something that is non-discrete and non-localized and non-specific is postulated as performing the function we formerly ascribed (mistakenly) to some sort of discrete entity.

Anyhow, having made the distinction between 'academic' and 'commercial' knowledge, Bates will (with reference to Gilbert) expand on the definition of 'academic' knowledge as "‘authoritative, objective, and universal knowledge. It is abstract, rigorous, timeless - and difficult. It is knowledge that goes beyond the here and now knowledge of everyday experience to a higher plane of understanding…..In contrast, applied knowledge is practical knowledge that is produced by putting academic knowledge into practice. It is gained through experience, by trying things out until they work in real-world situations.’"

In fact, this conflates two distinct types of knowledge:
  1. knowledge that is academic, and
  2. knowledge that is abstract, rigorous, timeless
No doubt there are many academics who would will that academic knowledge be abstract, rigorous and timeless, but in fact the argument is that no knowledge has these properties - we thought it did in the past, but this has in fact changed, and is not longer believed to be the case.

This is an important distinction to make because, first, the properties of being abstract, rigorous and timeless characterize what might be called common, practical, or 'folk' knowledge as much as the ever did academic knowledge, and second, what constitutes 'academic' knowledge is (as we see from the diagram near the head of this post) less and less abstract, rigorous and timeless.

This is what makes it possible to claim that the definition of academic knowledge is "too narrow" - much of what is represented as academic knowledge - "engineering, medicine, law, business" - apply academic knowledge, and academic knowledge (at least when well formulated) is "built on experience, traditional crafts, trail-and-error, and quality improvement through continuous minor change built on front-line worker experience."

There was, in the past, no significant distinction between 'academic' knowledge and 'practical' knowledge except where it was applied: and we could see 'abstract, rigorous, timeless' knowledge equally well in the church service, the farmer's field, or the grandmother's advice on weather. Knowledge was, in all cases, timeless wisdom. Such knowledge was power whether applied to engineering feats or to winning at three card brag.

Bates next considers the applicability of academic knowledge. It's a bit difficult to work with the argument now, since we are at such a fundamental divide, but let's consider the proposition: "my other quibble is that ‘academic knowledge’ is implicitly seen in these arguments as not relevant to the knowledge society - it is only applied knowledge now that matters. However - and this is the critical point - it has been the explosion in academic knowledge that has formed the basis of the knowledge society."

This goes to the point that academic knowledge can be used in a practical - even commercial - context, and therefore must not be distinct even functionally. The purpose to which we formerly ascribed only practical knowledge is found to result from academic knowledge (almost to the point of exclusivity): "It was academic development in sciences, medicine and engineering that led to the development of the Internet, biotechnology, digital financial services, computer software and telecommunication, etc. Indeed, it is no co-incidence that those countries most advanced in knowledge-based industries were those that have the highest participation rates in university education."

Leaving aside the question of whether these advances were in fact developed in academia or through some process we might call the academic method, let me focus on the question of the nature of these advances. Did, in all these developments - the internet, biotechnology, and the rest - did academic contribute abstract, rigorous and timeless knowledge? Certainly, there was some point at which it did. Newton's three laws were classical instances of such. The laws of thermodynamics equally so. And even in the last century, Einstein contributed to the paradigm with E=mc[2]. But recently?

I would argue - and this is a matter for empirical investigation - that the research paradigm based on "abstract, rigorous, timeless" knowledge has stalled, and that what researchers have in fact been harvesting over the last few decades is something much more like network knowledge, as I have described it above. This is a distinct form of knowledge that is not based on simple causality, laws of nature, objective perspectives, and the rest. It is (in the words of Polanyi) tacit and ineffable.

The internet is a classic example. While there are protocols, no law governs how computers interact - this is strictly a matter of agreement and individual choice. In biotechnology scientists are looking at systems and networks in everything from immunology to ecology. Financial services proves to be based on, well, Ponzi schemes rather than anything that might be called 'timeless'. And telecommunications are based on laws that have been known for decades, depending more and more on protocol and agreement, rather than natural law, for improvements.

Indeed, the sorts of knowledge that Bates identifies as important resemble more and more dynamic, interpretive, chaotic types of phenomena - our capacity to, as Rushkoff said, not navigate or surf through a dynamic information field, as though it were a gigantic wave (or office block parking garage), rather than an attempt to capture and hold:"it is not just knowledge - both pure and applied - that is important," he says, "but also IT literacy, skills associated with lifelong learning, and attitudes/ethics and social behaviour." But the point is: these are types of knowledge - they are, indeed, the new literacy, 21st century literacy.

The problem is, Bates hasn't let go of the old account of knowledge, the one with abstract, rigorous and timeless truths, knowledge based on objects, the acquisition of content. He writes, "My point is that it is not sufficient just to teach academic content (applied or not)." No, it is not sufficient to teach this type of (old-style) knowledge. It is (arguably) not even necessary. Because what we want are the new skills, based on the new more formless type of knowledge, skills that allow people to et by when nothing is abstract, rigorous, timeless: "the ability to know how to find, analyse, organise and apply information/content within their professional and personal activities, to take responsibility for their own learning, and to be flexible and adaptable in developing new knowledge and skills."

But Bates doesn't admit of this; he explicitly rejects it. "These skills and attitudes may also be seen as knowledge, although I would prefer to distinguish between knowledge and education, and I would see these changes more as changes in education. What is changing then is not necessarily knowledge itself, but our views on what educators need to do to ‘deliver’ knowledge in ways that better serve the needs of society."

This may be the case if, as he suggests, we are simply facing an explosion of new knowledge. But while we are seeing an explosion of content, our stock of abstract, rigorous and timeless truths remains constant - indeed, arguably, it has been on the decline, as we realize more and more tht the laws and principles of nature that we took for granted were at best approximations of reality and at worst projections of our own thoughts, values and beliefs on nature (how else does one explain an economic system based on the infinite expansion of capital?).

What we are experiencing a proliferation of is points of view, and with each iteration of points of view it becomes apparent that the former world in which there was only one (authoritative, lawlike and Catholic) point of view is more and more misrepresentative. The new form of knowledge is a recognition that the propositions in our content, no matter how apparently abstract, rigorous and timeless, are in fact not knowledge, but merely more sea through which we must navigate.

This is why we must change our educational system, indeed, even as Bates says, "moving away from a focus on teaching content, and instead on creating learning environments that enable learners to develop skills and networks within their area of study." Because, contra Bates, content is not still crucial (more, more accurately, no particular bit of content is crucial) and academic values that propel enquiry toward abstract, rigorous and timeless truths are not only obsolete, they are dangerous.

Indeed, I would argue even that what might (again) be called 'academic method' is itself under siege. Bates writes, "we need to sustain the elements of academic knowledge, such as rigor, abstraction and generalization, empirical evidence, and rationalism." But these very principles misconstrue what it means to reason - the practices of abstraction and generalization, for example, ought to be understood not as mechanisms for finding more truth (as the old inductivist interpretations made out) but are rather ad hoc means of creating less (but more manageable) truth.

The very forms of reason and enquiry employed in the classroom must change. Instead of seeking facts and underlying principles, students need to be able to recognize patterns and use things in novel ways. Instead of systematic methodical enquiry, such as might be characterized by Hempel's Deductive-Nomological method, students need to learn active and participative forms of enquiry. instead of deference to authority, students need to embrace diversity and recognize (and live with) multiple perspectives and points of view.

I think that there is a new type of knowledge, that we recognize it - and are forced to recognize it - only because new technologies have enabled many perspectives, many points of view, to be expressed, to interact, to forge new realities, and that this form of knowledge is emerged from our cooperative interactions with each other, and not found in the doctrines or dictates of any one of us.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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