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Four former truths about knowledge

This article appears in the issue January 2006 [Volume 15, Issue 1]


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Traditional knowledge has four properties that are relevant to the change we're going through. Two of those characteristics repeat properties of reality and two repeat properties of political regimes. Put them together, and knowledge not only confers power, it does so in the name of the nature of reality.

First, we've assumed that just as there is one reality, there is one knowledge, the same for all. This has to be the case (we've assumed) because knowledge is a representation of the one true reality. Dispute this and you get called a "relativist" or—worse--a "postmodernist."

Second, we've assumed that just as reality is not ambiguous--it's either one way or another--neither is knowledge. If something isn't clear to us, then we haven't understood it.

Third, because knowledge is as big as reality, no one person can comprehend it. So we need filters. These people decide what is worthy of our time and consideration, based not on their whims and the accidents of their birth but on education, experience and clear thinking. We call them experts and we give them clipboards. They keep bad information away from us and provide us with the very best information.

Fourth, experts achieve their position by working their way up through societal institutions. The people in these institutions are doing their best to be honest and helpful, but organizations inevitably are subject to corrupting influences. Which ones get funded can determine what a society believes, and funding is always granted by people who know less than the experts within the institution: The fate of a DNA research center rests with congresspeople who couldn't tell a polynucleotide from new extra-whitening Tide.

Each of these ancient assumptions about knowledge is crumbling.

First: We've had several thousand years to try to figure out what the one true knowledge is, and it's not going so well. In the United States, we can't even agree that the idea that God designed the universe, even if it's true, is not a scientific theory. We've really only come to consensus on the most boring bits of knowledge: facts. And you have to get to pretty basic facts before you'll get every sane person on the planet to nod her head.

Second: When we try to drive ambiguity out of a system of knowledge, we falsify it in the name of simplicity. The universe is analog, messy, complex and subject to many interpretations. At this point, we would be smarter in many domains if we'd allow some ambiguity back in.

Third: Obviously we continue to need experts. But, we also now need millions of non-experts, especially when it comes to filtering information. For example, newspapers filter the news. But inevitably they don't know exactly what I'm interested in. Nor do they precisely represent my point of view, although some do more than others. So, on the Net we filter the news for one another, pointing out items of interest and contextualizing them: "There's a great article in The Guardian today about the ridiculousness of the idea of intellectual property" or "You should read this op-ed in the Washington Post, although watch out for the last paragraph where she suddenly gets it all wrong. Here's why ... "

Fourth, we don't know what will happen to knowledge-based institutions now that expertise is distributed and does not necessarily require certification by those institutions. The old ways of maintaining order in a discipline--reward the mainstreamers, kick out the renegades--fail on the Net. I'm not saying the Net's ways of rewarding and punishing are better, but they are different and change the power relationships. From newspapers, to encyclopedias, to politics, to publishers of music and books, the only thing we know is that these institutions are undergoing drastic change.

But where's the surprise in that? Knowledge is changing right before our eyes ...


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