Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On "Paper" and "Network"

"Traditional knowledge is what you get when paper is its medium ... Traditional knowledge has been an accident of paper." So claims David Weinberger in Too big to Know, 45. He intends to show that there "is increasing evidence—that in a networked world knowledge lives not in books or in heads but in the network itself." In other words, the medium of non-traditional knowledge is the network. He also glosses this claim of his as saying that the network "moves knowledge from individual heads to the networking of a group" (Location 863).

It seems to me that Weinberger's conception of "knowledge" is incoherent or at the very least deeply flawed: (i) What does it mean to say that knowledge "lives" anywhere? Is it the kind of thing that can live and needs a place? Or are these attributions misleading metaphors (as I suspect they are).(ii) If "traditional knowledge is just "an accident of paper," then it could not possibly "move" from books or individual heads to the network or "the networking of a group." To generalize the point, if what we call "knowledge" depends essentially on the medium it is to be found in, then a radically new medium should give rise to something that is radically different from anything that has been called "knowledge" up to now.

Weinberger's claim is an overstatement of what he seems to mean, and what he seems to mean is that "knowledge," whatever it may be, depends to a large extent on the medium in which it is expressed. Thus he claims: "Knowledge now lives not just in libraries and museums and academic journals. It lives not just in the skulls of individuals. Our skulls and our institutions are simply not big enough to contain knowledge," immediately mixing the metaphor again and going on to claim that "[k]nowledge is now a property of the network, and the network embraces businesses, governments, media, museums, curated collections, and minds in communication." One may ask: Is knowledge something that lives, is "contained" in something else, and thus can move independently from medium to medium or is it simply a property that some media have? He seems actually to mean something that is closer to the latter: "Transform the medium by which we develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge, and we transform knowledge" (Location 74). In other words, "knowledge" for him seems to be nothing substantive, but rather a quality of things like yellow.

Leaving aside for now the notion what "knowledge" in general could be for him and whether his notion of it is consistent, I want to concentrate on the claim that paper and network present alternatives in a sense relevant for his argument?[1] I do not think they are. It makes sense to ask: "Do you need paper or can you remember it on your own? In a more stilted way: "Will you use the medium of paper or will you just use your brain?" There are other alternatives: bark, wax tablets, papyrus, vellum, iPod, iPad, desktop computer, lipstick on a mirror, knots in a handkerchief, to name only a few. But one alternative does not represent itself: the network. Paper and network are not opposed in the right sort of way. They are different categories and opposing them in the way in which Weinberger opposes them is what used to be called a "category mistake. It is as if someone who visited Oxford University, be shown the colleges and library, only to ask "But where is the University?" The University consists of the colleges and libraries. In the same way, we can say that the network consists of the things networked. Weinberger looks at books and libraries, and asks "But where is the Network?" He does not realize that the network is not an entity to be found among the networked things themselves. And the things that are networked might be texts or files residing ("living"?) on computers, or they might be books and papers that can be found in libraries, or the libraries, or they may even be people that know each other. Footnotes and other references provide some of the most important links between books and papers, letters or e-mails link people.

In other word, the notion of the network is nothing new. It has always been at the root of knowledge. Knowledge always presupposed co-operation, objectivation, and networking. That's what journals, books, and libraries have done in the past, just as they do today. They allow like-minded people to develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge. And the totality of knowledge has been for a long time much more than an individual brain could grasp. Leibniz is said to have been one of the last pansophists. So there is, at least not in the radical sense claimed by Weinberger.

Does this mean that there is no difference between the electronic networks of today and the analog networks of the past? Of course not![2] But these differences are not as interesting or radical as Weinberger suggests. There is not only no need to oppose "traditional knowledge" and "networked knowledge," the opposition of the two makes little sense. One of the reasons people first began to write things down was to be able to "network."[3]

1. I will return to this matter, as Weinberger makes other interesting claims about knowledge.
2. I will discuss this in future posts. One of the differences has, of course, to do with the number of people we can share knowledge with.
3. By the way, the claim that knowledge cannot be reduced to what is found in books or in heads but is more than the sum of its parts is not new either. Nor does this fact make the claim any more true.


-gego- said...

Interesting topic and I would really be interested in your thoughts on my take on this:

I would argue that "information" would be a better term. Information can be contained by any medium, digital or not, whereas a "medium" in this context would be anything that can contain information and is accessible to an intelligent being.

This being can then gain knowledge by the act of accessing, understanding/translating etc. and incorporating information in a way that they can use it and are further able to redistribute without mayor losses due to background noise conciously.

For me knowledge describes exclusively this process - if any organisation/machine etc evolves up to the point where they can do this - I would think they can only achieve this by passing the turing test - they would be beings under this definition.

If this definition of information is used, there seems to me be no controversy but just an elegant continuity.

To forestall the "organisational knowledge" discussion - or shorten it a bit - I think that organisations cannot manage information, just people that know something and are willing to redistribute. As there is value to knowledge in an information society, people will more often deliberately not share information as to keep up their value instead of happily working on their own interchangeability.

-gego- said...

correction: organisations cannot manage knowledge it should read.

Michael Leddy said...

I suppose it’s in DW’s interest to make the network a thing in itself.

Part of what this sense of knowledge seems to miss is the idea of knowledge as knowing-how. A network does not know how to tune a guitar or fix a thermostat or revise a sentence.

MiGrant said...

I have no idea whether this is part of Weinberger's original point, but I would suggest that the always-instantly-available nature of the modern networked/dynamic/interactive expression of knowledge does represent an "interesting and radical" break with the past. Nowadays we have the option always at hand of doing much of our thinking outside our own brains.

MK said...

Thanks for all the comments. I do not want to dispute the fact that the Internet presents an interesting and (in some ways) radical break with how knowledge gets expressed. But there is a difference between knowledge and the expression of knowledge.

I also agree that it would have been better, if he had talked about "information."

See also the next post.