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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: ]

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