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Bodily knowledge

This article appears in the issue May 2002 [Volume 11, Issue 5]


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By David WeinbergerIn the chapter on knowledge in my new book, "Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web)" (yes, that was a plug), I argue that Web-based knowledge is actually closer to an embodied sense than is our normal real world view. That, of course, is weird since our bodies are precisely and emphatically not on the Web; it's so hard to squeeze your shoulders through the cable. Here's I get to my odd conclusion.

For the past couple of thousand of years, our sense of knowledge has gotten thinner and thinner. We have limited knowledge to what can be known with certainty, and "with certainty" has come to mean "can be proven rationally." The result is that true knowledge, real knowledge, tends to be quite narrow in scope and quite boring. For example, you can't by this criterion know with certainty juicy statements such as "God exists and loves us" or even "It's good to be curious." If we can know anything, it will be simple facts like "Water boils at 100C" and "I currently have the sensation of a laptop computer on my lap." Certain but borrrrinnnng.

As knowledge has gotten more narrowly defined, we have searched for it in the realms of logic and math, that is, in what can be known purely with the mind. The body since the ancient Greeks has been recognized as the source of much error: I think Socrates is shorter than Alcibiades but that's because Socrates is further away; I think there are two Socrates in front of me but that's because I've befuddled my brain with alcohol. (Actually, the Greeks wouldn't have thought the brain was involved; Aristotle thought the brain's function was to cool the blood, like a radiator.)

If you want proof of just how anti-body our view of knowledge is, just read Ray Kurzweil's "The Age of the Spiritual Machine." In it he predicts that within the next few decades, we'll have computers with sufficient storage capacity to allow us to "upload" our brain, thus achieving immortality. When the fleshy Ray dies, we'll just fire up the PC version that has a complete record of the state of his neurons shortly before his death. This machine will act, speak and think just like the fleshy Ray. (Douglas Hofstadter raises the same basic possibility in "A Conversation with Einstein's Brain" in "The Mind's I.") Insofar as we think this scenario is plausible, we have bought into the notion that our consciousness--our very who-ness--is independent of our body. Our mind, in this view, is a formal property; implement the same form in a different medium and you have the who-ness of you.

That we find that plausible for an instant is remarkable. It is a deeply silly idea. The notion of an immortal soul doesn't really prepare us for Kurzweil's idea. The immortal soul doesn't have any matter, but it's not merely the formal property of matter, a description of the state of matter. It's its own mysterious type of substance. No, our assumption that we could be instantiated in silicon is new and drives us to an even further extreme of anti-body knowledge-ism.

Now, how does the Web bring us closer to an embodied view of knowledge? Indirectly. If you imagine trying to explain to an unembodied creature from a Star Trek episode what it means to have a body, you'd say things like: Having a body means that we always see the world from one perspective, that we care about what we see because we understand our body is always at risk, that we live through a particular span of history, and that we have desires with peculiar urgency. It seems to me that our participation on the Web at its best is pretty well described in the same terms: We participate as individuals in a particular point in history, with a viewpoint, about things we care about, and with the urgency of desire. Of course we don't have a body on the Web--nor do we have the bodily risk--but the knowledge that we're developing there has the characteristics of embodied creatures.

I told you it was an odd argument.

So, what does this have to do with business and knowledge management? Just the same old thing as always: systems that thin knowledge in order to manage it are serving their consumers a watery gruel that provides little nourishment. Embodied knowledge builds strong companies 12 ways. (I'd tell you what the 12 ways are but I'd be infringing on Wonder Bread's intellectual property rights.) It doesn't matter how many smart sentences you have in your corporate knowledge repository, it's not knowledge until a body takes it up.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" (www.hyperorg.com), e-mail self@evident.com


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