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Who cares about knowledge?

This article appears in the issue February 2012 [Volume 21, Issue 2]


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I don't make predictions except when they're already true. So, here's one: The concept of knowledge is on its way out.

We'll continue to use the word. And some people will continue to pursue old-fashioned knowledge. But the basic idea of what it means to know something is changing.

Knowledge in the old-fashioned sense of the word consisted of true beliefs we had good reason to believe. Over the course of millennia, the criteria for "good reason to believe" ratcheted up. The very best knowledge became what we could deduce logically, so that if we knew the premises were true, the conclusion could not possibly be wrong.

We cared about this because we believed that the essential trait that makes us human is that we have rational minds, and thus knowing the world was the human essence and destiny. Further, we came to believe that in knowing the world we were unearthing the order that the universe's Creator imparted. Knowing was holy.

The Internet happened

Now most of that understanding of knowledge has dropped away. This was one of the most important movements of the 20th century and it happened in multiple fields.

Science realized what it learned depended on the questions it was asking, the instruments it was using and even the ambitions of its practitioners. Philosophy realized that thought could not be fully separated from the vagaries of language. Even religion (well, many of them) realized it had to accommodate the existence of different systems of belief.

And then the Internet happened. It became incredibly easy to look up agreed upon facts. It became impossible to avoid the fact that people disagree about everything. And the institutional structures that gave rise to knowledge began to fall away, because it turns out those structures were based on the limitations of knowledge's old media.

So, here's what I think the concept of knowledge is losing:

We used to think knowledge was rare and special. Now there's so much of it that there's no library big enough to hold it.

The pace accelerates

We used to think knowledge was absolutely distinct from what wasn't knowledge. Now we often don't see much reason to separate it. Or, more exactly, we recognize that we're not going to agree about where to draw the lines, and that there's value in having access to the full range, even though some of it may be contested. For example, arXiv.org publishes scientific papers before they have been peer reviewed. This makes available some papers that peer reviewers would rule out but that turn out to have value. It also enables science to move at a far faster pace, as with the results that suggested that neutrinos can move faster than light, a controversy that played out on the Web in a matter of weeks, rather than in the years it would have taken if it were occurring via peer reviewed paper journals.

We used to think knowledge was orderly. Now we'd rather pile up all the knowledge and look for shapes and relationships. But I think it goes deeper than that. We used to think that knowledge was orderly because the world is orderly. Now I think we're coming to the conclusion that the world is actually messier than we thought. I don't mean just at the level of quantum indeterminacy. Take historical knowledge. What would it mean to know what caused the Korean War? Even if we could remove all the false beliefs and all the prejudices, so many factors were at play that there literally is no single answer possible. It's too complex, so our knowledge of it should be complex as well.

We used to think knowledge was settled. Now we are seeing that it really never is. How could it be if the world is itself so messy and complex?

Special realm vs. web

And we used to think that knowledge was a species of content: beliefs that are true and that we are justified in believing. Our picture of knowledge was a library containing many, many books, each of which contains knowledge about its topic. It was a special realm, with high standards for admittance. Now knowledge seems more like a web of ideas, facts and opinions, but that web is not an indifferent container. Rather, it's a web because the pieces are hyperlinked together, and the hyperlinks each express some human interest. The Web is not a web of content. It is a Web of human interests, disagreements and enthusiasms. If knowledge is not primarily what's in books any more, but is what is on the Web, then knowledge is more than mere content, just as the Web itself is.

There are realms in which the old idea of knowledge will prosper. Good. We need those realms. And the term will continue to be used, although perhaps more in the way that the knowledge management field uses it, as a type of information that is considered to have special value. But even there, I think, the notion of knowledge as content as opposed to knowledge as a network is going to come under serious pressure. Knowledge is becoming a very old-fashioned term.


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