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Knowledge as conversation

We used to believe that the world was divided into those who believe the truth and those who don’t. Our job was to convert them, kill them, or let them live their lives peacefully unaware they were about to plummet into an eternity of fire for believing the wrong things.

Then we were able to communicate at the speed of light rather than at the speed of wind, so we learned more about other cultures. At least some of us grudgingly concluded that those other people were entitled to their contrary beliefs. The world, we admitted, was unsatisfyingly relativistic and we attempted the impossible task of believing that beliefs for which we were willing to die were no better than their contradictions. Different strokes for different belief systems.

Then the Internet happened and the world fell into conversation. It’s no longer a matter of getting reports back on the strange beliefs of distant lands — “Why, in China crickets are considered to be smart and monkeys to be dumb…Believe it or not!” — but an immediate awareness that we’re all living within a single conversation space. We may not actually be IM’ing Chinese Communists or Jihadists, but we at least know that what’s being said in one corner of the Web is being refracted elsewhere. And we know that we can pick up the Skype phone and actually talk with a Communist. Where there aren’t actual conversations, there is now the constant awareness of the potential for conversation.

There is a big difference between a relativistic world in which contrary beliefs assert themselves and a conversational world in which contrary beliefs talk with one another. In the relativistic world, we resign ourselves to the differences. In the conversational world, the differences talk. Even though neither side is going to “win” — conversation is the eternal fate of humankind — knowledge becomes the negotiation of beliefs in a shared world. What do we need to talk through? What can’t we give up? What do we believe in common that seems so different? What should we just not talk about? These are the questions that now shape knowledge.

Knowledge is not the body of beliefs that needs no further discussion. Knowledge is the neverending conversation. And much of that conversation is precisely about what we can disagree about and still share a world.

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