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NECC talk – New Shape of Knowledge

I’m keynoting the National Educational Computing Conference today in Philadelphia. Here’s a sketch of what I plan on saying. (The first two paragraphs are a variation on my “stump” speech, and you may recognize bits from elsewhere.)

Knowledge is being shaken to its roots. Knowledge began in ancience Greece as a way of sorting through conversations to discover what’s the right advice for guiding the state. Over time, it got associated with certainty and became more and more restricted and less in touch with the messy human context. In fact, it took on four properties, two of which mirror the nature of reality and two of which mirror the nature of autocratic political reality: 1. There’s one knowledge to serve all humans. 2. When sorting ideas, we have to put them in separate bins. 3. We need experts to do the sorting. 4. These gatekeepers have power.

But in the digital age, we snip the connection between how we organize physical stuff and how we organize knowledge. Four principles of organization change: A leaf can be on many branches, messiness is a virtue, the owners of the information no longer own the organization of that information, and users are contributors.

So, what is the new shape of knowledge?

First, Andy Clark in Being There reminds us that we have always externalized thought, which is a good thing: We got smarter when we learned how to write on walls to express more complex ideas. We used to worry about the effect of calculators on children’s cognitive abilities. Now we worry about Google. Books made us smarter. Now bits are going to make us even smarter.

So, what happens when we shake knowledge off of paper? Quick example: Freed of the limitations of paper and publishing, topics get smaller and better aligned with human interests.

But, you can see with Linnaeus how the use of paper shaped knowledge. The fact that he recorded species on index cards led to him organizing them one way and not another.

And we’ve treated documents as if they were containers. That’s because we’ve thought of our minds as containers. But the Web is made of links — pages pointing outside of themselves to other pages — each a little act of generosity.

But why believe what anything on the Web says? Yes, why believe even Doc Searls? Because are now capable of multi-subjectivity: many voices in conversation. Knowledge is becoming conversation.

Two further effects: 1. On the Web, we don’t have to settle every dispute. Thus, knowledge can stay local and ambiguous. 2. We don’t insist on a perfect beer before we drink one, and we shouldn’t insist on perfect knowledge; since knowledge is social, it’s as flawed as we are. (Of course, the criteria of belief vary by domain. I want more certainty from my doctor than I do from Jon Stewart or Michael Moore.)

So, how do we teach our kids? Do we cram their heads full of content and then test them on it? As individuals? Do we imply ambiguity is a failure? Do we insist on being right? Or do we say that knowledge is an unending conversation? Do we teach children to seek ambiguity and love difference?

Conversation is a paradox because it iterates difference on a common ground. That a paradox happens every day is a miracle. [Technorati tags: ]

25 Responses to “NECC talk – New Shape of Knowledge”

  1. Wish I could be there to see you today. I had no idea this was taking place. Good luck with the keynote.

  2. David

    Congratulations on your recent book contract.

    What is your source for saying that knowledge began in ancient Greece? And are you using a dictionary definition when you use the word knowledge?

  3. A Birthday and a Blog Book

    So I was hoping to “officially” announce this bit of news before NECC , and since I haven’t left for Philly yet, I guess I made it.

  4. The very first thing I say – it’s actually on the title slide – is that my domain of discourse is the West. And, I am arbitrarily (along with most western philosophers) starting k with the Greeks. At the end, I may say that the right approach is the Jewish notion of local revelation.

  5. Thanks for the clarification. When I listened to your Library of Congress presentation, I got stuck on that point and it made it hard for me to benefit from the rest of your thoughts. I think another listen is in order.

  6. Is there an MP3 available?

  7. Thanks for the clarification. I do hope you’ll at least give a nod to the many ways k gets organized by different cultures/eras — or is that the sequel?

    I’m reminded of the researchers I once represented, who always told me emphatically that as far as “KM” was concerned, the only important letter of the acronym was the K. Researchers (worldwide, interestingly enough) offer a sort of paradox. They tend to:

    * tolerate messiness — no, celebrate it. (And they have some of the most messy offices and desks I have ever seen.)

    * but are always looking for patterns — truths, k — that can be verified, using what? the scientific method, discourse, sprinkled with an almost childlike awe that any minute the world may look different.

    * allow themselves to come up with wild and creative ideas, then scrutinize them mercilessly.

    * submit the findings (k) that survive to a rigorous, often brutal, peer review before they, as a community, let their k be announced or published.

    * work as a community toward both consensus on _agreement_ (similarity) as well as disagreement (difference). It’s a conversation about finding shared K, all the while acknowledging there is no such thing as, for example, “right advice” or “certainty.”

  8. I am in your keynote now. we are starting a blogging crucade in our district next year… we were inspired from your comments on blogumentary…. enjoying your visit here in PA.

  9. NECC talk – New Shape of Knowledge

  10. I read your Small Pieces Loosely Joined a year ago, and found it inspiring and useful in framing a post-Internet concept of knowledge. But I was left wondering how you’d link this to the broader, current state of education — and particularly public education in the US.

    After typing five pages of notes from your address to educators from around the country, I’m not sure I’m further along. If we know that knowledge takes a new form, a form of “continuous conversation”, what are the implications for us in the political/pragmatic sphere where we exist? Are there such things as baby steps toward better educational practices in this new knowledge age?

    For one step, certainly the role of educator becomes that of “conversation facilitator”. It makes sense that some of the constructivist work associated with online pedagogy is deeply linked to this path (see, for instance, Facilitating Online Learning)

    But the problem of education is that it is the whole problem… from textbooks to the assessment industry to the political accountability movement to locally-controlled, locally-funded schools. Where do we begin to reform education outside of our classrooms? Is mine a problem of being too much in the forest to see the baby-step trees?

    Great keynote, David. Thanks for lighting us up. Cheers.

  11. I too was at the keynote tonight and was very impressed. Like some of the other commentators, your speech raised a few questions in my mind.

    Conversation (such as that on blogs) may help us determine truths that can be intuited and further develop our own ideas, but can it really give us empirical knowledge about the world? It seems to me that this was the technique the Ancient Greeks were using when it might have been more (or equally) useful for them to engage in scientific experimentation to see if what they were thinking was actually true.

    I think my question really boils down to this: if knowledge truly is conversational, what is the role of empiricism in this new school of thought and furthermore how can we be sure that the knowledge we receive (even in our individual reasoning) in the conversation is “true and justified” rather than just spin (or based upon a falsity)? It would seem to me that relying so heavily on “the conversation” could lead to delusion (through the intentional or accidental propagation of falsehood) rather than greater knowledge.

    Am I just missing the big picture here?

  12. Mr. Weinberger,

    Thanks for the thought-provoking lecture this evening at NECC.

    While you were discussing the transformation of knowledge in the age of “bits” I couldnt help wondering what your “philosophy of knowledge loss” is.

    Allow me to explain, in the age of bits we possess the ability to have a virtual encyclopedia of infinite size (as you referenced tonight with the Wikipedia). However, the ability to destroy this knowledge instantly is just real. Cyber criminals pose a genuine threat to accumulated digital knowledge.

    What if, per your example, we left the days of memorizing state capitals behind and a criminal made Google unavailable? Or simply made your connection to the Internet unavailable? Does this change the way we store our “external thought?”

    My only concern as we move toward digitally enabled conversation is the simplicity of interrupting it. (Just look at the decline in the uselfulness of email in the age of SPAM.)

    So, with all that said, do you think that these security concerns have any bearing on the concept of knowledge in the digital age?


  13. There will always be outlaws in society. They could set fire to a library same as they could hack wikipedia.

  14. Someone recently told a non-techie teacher in our town that if they see “wikipedia” in a bibiliography list on a research paper they should raise red flags. The idea being that its not ‘real’, verified knowledge, but instead written by any ole Joe Schmoe and shouldn’t be used for research.

    I’m curious anyone’s thoughts on this; wondering if students citing wiki in papers; and are teachers allowing it as a valid source?

  15. Ryan,

    My answer to your question is that the assignment should change. I would send my students to Wikipedia for research. But then there job would be to prove that the information is true. Information is no longer a product to be consumed. It’s an ongoing and global conversation, and what power to learn we could give our students, if we could make them a part of the global conversation.

    Dave, thanks so much for your talk last night. You spoke directly to the struggle that we face as educators. We have a genuine love for what we do and a passion for preparing our children for the future. We are, however, having difficulties coming to grips with the fact that the market place is changing and that the very nature of information (shape of knowledge) has changed.

    It necessitates a new notion of what it means to be literate. The mantra here at NECC will be “integrating technology”. I believe (and will be saying on Wednesday) that we should instead, redefine literacy to reflect the changing shape of knowledge, and then integrate that. The technology will come along because it is where the information is.

    You can read my further reflections on your talk in today’s 2ยข worth.

  16. Interview With David Weinberger

    So I lucked out and got a chance to chat with NECC keynote speaker David Weinberger for about 45 minutes before he gave his address yesterday.

  17. Kia ora from New Zealand,

    Actually Im here at NECC but greetings all the same. I really enjoyed your keynote last night. I often think about the way in which we restrain kids to books and paper not only when researching knowledge etc but also when they are asked to record their knowledge. I would love to see more ambiguity in the presentation of student personal understanding and knowledge in relation to their perspectives on teaching and learning in NZ schools today.

    Hope to see you in NZ again soon.

    PS. Anyone see another 317 at conf.

  18. Yikes! Too many good questions!

    About the practical implications: I wish I knew. I’m not an educator. I don’t know how to do what you’ve spent your lives learning how to do. So, I’m one of the many wrong people to ask. But, as a parent I can tell you:

    – NCLB is hurting our local schools by testing too much, teaching that education = test-passing and by squeezing the life out of the curriculum. (OTOH, support for the Mass. standardized tests/curriculum breaks down somewhat along racial lines, so my view is not representative of all parents, of course.)

    – I’d like our children to get better at evaluating sources — which means they need to be encouraged to be skeptical of authority. All authority.

    – Textbook-based learning is going to get old very quickly, but I don’t know what replaces it.

    – I don’t know how you do this, but I would love to have our children have bigger and better contexts for understanding history, science, literature, etc. A tall order, natch, made taller by the need to incorporate more and more of the world’s disparate contexts.

    – It took me many years to get comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” The first time I said it as a professor, it felt damn good. I’d like to see that modeled more as a virtue. Or maybe that was just me.

    About empiricism: I tried to address this, but did so with only a few words in semi-code. Sorry. Different disciplines have different criteria and methodology. So, sitting around shooting the breeze doesn’t do a lot for empirical discovery. But, I’d also add that empirical scientists work via conversation as well; The Nature of SCientific Revolutions and The Double Helix both make it clear just how social empirical science is. IMO.

    About security: Wikipedia is going to create a release 1.0 so that people will have a stable base to refer to. So, you can link to the current article or to the r1.0 article. That would also be a logical time to create some tapes that can be moved into physically safe facilities.

  19. Here’s a rubric for evaluating student participation in a Socratic session.

  20. On the other hand, some of these rubrics remind me of Dead Poets Society…

    “Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We’re not laying pipe, we’re talking about poetry. I mean how can you describe poetry like American Bandstand. Well, I like Byron, I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to it. Now I want you to rip out that page. Go on. Rip out the entire page. You heard me. Rip it out. Rip it out! Go on. Rip it out. Thank you Mr. Dalton.
    Gentlemen, tell you what, not just tear out that page, tear out the entire introduction. I want it gone, history. Leave nothing of it. Rip it out. Rip! Be gone J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. Rip, shred, tear, rip it out! I want to hear nothing but ripping of Mr. Pritchard. We’ll perforate it, put it on a roll. Its not the Bible, you’re not going to go to hell for this. Go on, make a clean tear, I want nothing left of it. Rip it out, rip! I don’t hear enough rip!
    Keep ripping gentlemen. This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls. Thank you Mr. Dalton. Armies of academics going forward measuring poetry, no! We will not have that here. No more Mr. J. Evans Pritchard.
    Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

  21. I was impressed by your masterful integration of your slideshow and oral presentation at NECC. The images you chose and the way you wove them with your topic points stayed with me more effectively than any bulleted Powerpoint list. From a “nuts-and-bolts” perspective, I’m curious abou what presentation platform you use and what design principles are informing your wonderfully engaging presentations?

  22. Thanks, Jeff. It’s Powerpoint XP. I don’t have any design principles, as one look at my weblog will confirm.

  23. New blogs/Old blogs

    Now that I have returned from the internet cafes of South America to my quiet computing space of home and office, it is much easier to reflect and consider and ponder and let ideas percolate according to Slow Food”-esque principles….

  24. Boiled to death!

    The Boiling Frog Syndrome: If you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, he’ll jump out. But if you place a frog into a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turn up the heat, it will boil to death. Seth writes about "The Mediocre Emergency, For years,

  25. Knowledge Management, the Information Society, etc. – everyone seems to want to get in on the act. That is even true of Spain which, despite the country’s miserable investment in R&D, and its soullessly hierarchical approach to company management, is quick to echo the latest buzzwords.

    An interesting example of this phenomenon is ESADE, a Spanish business school which (among other things) is busy preaching the Information Society creed in Spain. However, practicing what one preaches comes harder. A member of the ESADE faculty was surprised recently to discover one of the school’s clerical staff adding up figures from an Excel spreadsheet on a pocket calculator. It transpired that no one had deigned to instruct her how she could get the spreadsheet to do the arithmetic. It just goes to show how little belief such institutions have in their own pompous prescriptions for the rest of humanity.

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