David Weinberger is a fellow with Harvard’s Institute for the Internet and Society. His keynote address did everything an opening keynote is supposed to do – challenge and inspire. Here are my pitiful attempts to summarize his remarks, hoping that I get most of the salient points…
Traditionally the shape of knowledge is dendritic, as items are catagorized into smaller and smaller groups. Weinberger pointed out four assumptions about this nature of knowledge.
- One reality = one knowledge
- Reality is neatly organized. For Aristotle, this is where knowledge ends, with miscellany. We assume that in a perfect knowledge structure, everything will have "a place".
- We need expert to sort knowledge
- These experts will have power.
These assumptions, of course, are wrong. This concept of knowledge was perpetuated by Lineus’s classification system, and Dewey’s Decimal System.
Especially with the digitization of almost everything, three new orders emerge. First there is the placement of the physical item into categories. By its very nature, a physical item can only be in one location, hence one categorization. The second order is that the metadata (card catelog info, etc.) regarding the item is separated from the physical, and is itself grouped and categorized. The third order occurs when both the metadata and the physical are digitized.
Digital Knowledge Properties
- The items can be in many places, categorized multiple ways.
- Messiness is a virtue – more links are better.
- Unknown Order – The owner of information no longer owns the organization of that information. "Sort it your way" This is an enormous transfer of power.
- Users are contributors rather than passive recipients.
The best example of this new paradigm is Wikipedia. The old model, Encyclopedia Britannica, has 32 volumes and about 65,000 topics – with lots of gatekeepers to keep to that limit. Wikipedia has over 600,000 articles in English alone, and is self-policing. Hence, you can get inforamtion about topics that could NEVER be covered in Britannica, such as "deep fried mars bars" and "Heavy metal umlauts".
Of course, the even newer paradigm is that of the blog. The media has portrayed these as "hit squads" with dubious veracity, but traditional media as a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Weinberger used the example of his friend Doc Searls weblog. His entries, like many blogs, are chock full of links that take you AWAY from his site. This is totally anathema to the business model of websites, which try to keep you on the site as long as possible. The second example given was the New York Times, long time purveyor of "All the News that’s Fit to Print." The entry website for NYT has just as many, or more links than Doc Searl’s site, but everyone of these links internally. Even though presented through the Internet, NYT is still a gatekeeper of the traditional order.
So why should one believe what Doc Searls has to say, or any entry in Wikipedia, for that matter? Weinberger contends that it is not objectivity (the world as it is when we are not observing it) that we should seek, but what he termed multi-subjectivity – the reality that is constantly created as people discuss aspects of the world that matter to them. True knowledge is this constant conversation. It is ambiguous, and is subject to "multi-dispute-ism".
Weinberger also used the analogy of finding a good beer. You don’t wait for a perfect beer – you wait for a good one. According to gatekeepers, only best, perfect, or RIGHT is good enough. Some knowledge can be good enough. It can be pragmatic, local, and damn refreshing. It doesn’t need Cartesian certainty.
So what are the implications for teaching? According to Weinberger, the job of a teacher should be to make things more complicated. So how we should treat students? Shove content into heads? Evaluate by testing as individuals? Imply ambiguity is a failure? Insist on being right? We must realize that knowledge is an unending conversation. We should teach contexts of knowledge – how to Listen, to seek ambiguity, and to love difference.
Some forces are afraid af ambiguity, nuance, and difference. They believe that there is one knowledge, only right and wrong. Disagreement is never-ending, and we shouldn’t even want it to go away. A generation that embraces ambiguity will embrace a truer view of the world.