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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 30, 2010

'Short Input' to International Monitoring Conference, September 30, 2010

It is interesting that Fritz Bohle immediately characterized the dilemma between 'stability and flexibilization' as ‘management of uncertainty', and focused on the idea of science having as an enterprise the reduction of uncertainty. The reality is that, as he said, the uncertainties resist elimination. I will consider why this is.

Johannes Sauer writes, "In order to protect and extend Germany's capacity for innovation and competitiveness, the extension and organisation of learning cultures are of major significance within the process of transforming the industrial society into a knowledge society."

Unstated in this assertion, and in assertions like it, is that the nature of ‘knowledge' itself is changing as society changes. So we should not interpret the phrase ‘knowledge society' from our comfortable definitions of knowledge.

The fourth dilemma outlined in the International Monitoring discussion paper  "describes the demand of individuals, organizations, networks and societies for safety of current and planability of future processes." It is possible that the depiction of society as a ‘knowledge society' offers for some this safety and stability.

If knowledge is derived to any significant degree from experience, however, then as new technologies, social structures, and innovation are generating an increasing number of novel and unexpected experiences, the continuous state of knowledge itself is one of change, as what we know adapts to what we have experienced.

Consider he concept of ‘knowledge processing', from the opening keynote – this treats knowledge as though it is some kind of resource or raw material, like iron or coal, that will be transferred, reformed, processed. This is a traditionalist perspective of knowledge, which is no longer appropriate today.

Where there is structural complexity and process complexity, there is also epistemic complexity. Fully realized, a state of total knowledge is indistinguishable from total  complexity, or chaos. That which is ‘static' or even ‘dynamic' is nothing more than an interpretation, a pattern recognized and indeed imposed on the world.

They say knowledge is power. But in fact, power is knowledge. The only order in the world is that which is imposed, by those in power. In order to understand the changing nature and role of knowledge, we need to understand the changing nature of power. As we have evolved historically, from the power of the monarchy, to the power of the corporation, to something (which lies still in the future) a more decentralized power, so also knowledge evolves from a single, centralist concept, to the pluralism of corporatism, to the chaos of individualism.

In a chaotic environment, knowledge is nothing more than pattern recognition.

The challenge of commonality where there is no static underlying essence to unite us.

Mike Bullard, Canadian comedian, on the secret to stand-up comedy
-    first, you establish something in common with the audience
-    then you bring them around to your point of view
-    then you get them to laugh at themselves

The point is – the joke doesn't first exist in the teller, and then appear in the listener. The joke exists entirely in the listener. The teller possesses only the mechanics of joke production, but not the actual humour. The comedian laughing at the audience is completely different from the audience laughing at themselves.

Knowledge works the same way.

The proposition from the keynote was, only companies that are unique are competitive. But knowledge is found in the recipient, not the company, which contains only the mechanism for knowledge production. If the company must be unique to achieve value, it must at the same time find a point of commonality in order to realize that value. That point of intersection is the critical point of innovation.

Management-union, social partnership, shared values – are artifacts of the older perspective.

Thinking of industry – manufacturing – the factory vs the artisan vs the individual… the industrial age created tools that could be wielded only by masses of individuals working in concert. But the post-industrial age has resized tools again. "The value of a tool in a man's hand has to be re-valuated."

The ‘tools' of knowledge are the same.

The success of, say, electricity was based not on uniqueness but on commonality. The current that was sent was accessible, via a point of interaction, to every person in the world (the challenge to consumer power lies in this same point). But the semantics of electricity – the use to which it was put – was unique and determined by the individual.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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