The following blog is a reflection on what I learned through my graduate course, Knowledge Management, taught by Professor Pierre Lévy, and serves to highlight the lessons I will take with me on my own journey of accumulating, understanding, and disseminating knowledge.
The Evolution of Knowledge Society
Humans, unlike other species, have the ability to manipulate symbols through transmission, translation, and memory. Before the invention of writing, the symbols humans were manipulating were transient, as they were transmitted orally. The invention of writing, which first originated in Mesopotamia, brought about a tremendous augmentation of our symbolic manipulation powers. Symbols were now lasting, and could be accumulated. The invention of writing is the first of four major revolutions in Communication, as identified by Professor Pierre Lévy. It is important to note that these improvements to symbol manipulation do no override previous technologies, but build upon each other.
The second revolution, although harder to define, arose with the invention of the alphabet. The alphabet provided 20-24 symbols instead of the thousands in the original writing systems, and literacy was no longer limited to the scribes and certain castes who previously held the monopoly over reading and writing. The third revolution, or improvement to symbol manipulation, was due to the mechanical reproduction and transmission of symbols. The printing press was the first technology to augment and mechanize the reproduction of symbols, and as a result, symbol manipulation and knowledge management was enhanced.
The fourth revolution, brought on by digital technology and algorithmic writing, is what we are currently beginning to experience. Software, such as Word processing and Adobe Photoshop, have further revolutionized our ability to manipulate symbols. So what does this new layer of complexity, brought on by digital technologies, mean for knowledge management today?
Open Systems and Information Overload
Traditionally, as Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody (2008) points out, professionals, such as journalists, become gatekeepers “by providing a necessary or desirable social function but also by controlling that function” (p. 69). This gatekeeping function is sometimes embedded in the technology, as it was with scribes, “who had mastered the technology of writing” (Shirky, 2008, p. 69).Conversely, the Internet’s open ecology enables the framework the to publish everything, and filter afterwards. An example of this can be seen through the open system of Wikipedia, where millions of users are free to access, edit, and create articles. Moreover, Wikipedia’s infrastructure enables a ‘spontaneous division of labor’, where any individual is able to offer a contribution, on any scale, enabling the mass collaboration of knowledge.
Frameworks that filter content before publication force us to trust that the gatekeepers have a strong understanding of what matters to readers. David Weinberger, author of Too Big To Know (2012), argues that no matter what their level of expertise is, gatekeepers “cannot possibly anticipate every human interest or every turn of history” (p. 184). Therefore, by bringing more knowledge onto the Net, Weinberger asserts that the Net will “become systemically smarter” because the new knowledge we are encountering no longer has to pass through a series of gatekeepers; knowledge is no longer a collection of carefully selected works, but is an “infrastructure of connection” (p. 186).
Digital technologies have brought together both broadcasting and conversation capabilities, and as a result, users are able to become media outlets (Shirky, 2008). Consequently, the line between amateur and professional producers has been blurred. Whether through the use of platforms such as social media sites, blogs, or forums, users are constantly curating, commenting, and disseminating information. Has this digital revolution facilitated an information overload? One may argue that “signs of this are all around us” , as many of us know someone who has tried separate themselves from online communication by “removing their profiles from social networks and complaining of social media fatigue” (Basulto, 2012, para 1). So how do we manage this constant flow of information online without ‘going off the grid’?
Personal Knowledge Management
Harold Jarche defines Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) as “a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world & work more effectively” (Dale, 2013, para. 7). Similarly, Wikipedia, defines PKM as “a collection of processes that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve, and share knowledge in his or her daily activities” (Dale, 2013, para. 8). Moreover, individuals are responsible for taking charge of their own personal and professional development through managing their networks of knowledge.
Nick Bilton, a technology write for the New York Times, recognizes in his novel, I live in the future and here’s how it works, that the sea of information on the Internet is leaving many individuals overwhelmed, and “pushing back against a flood of online information” (p. 91). He addresses this concern with through his description of anchoring communities, which he defines as our “personal public spheres of friends, family, news outlets, blogs, and random strangers” which we use to filter and disseminate information (p. 130). The communities we build with others on social networking sites such as Twitter are imperative for our online navigation of content. For example, by being selective of who we follow on Twitter and by creating lists to organize these followers into categories, we are better able to efficiently and effectively organize incoming information. Personally, separating the users I follow into their respective research areas allows me to better manage and filter the information I encounter on Twitter. Moreover, by creating and effectively managing anchoring communities, we can help dissipate “our fears of information overload or the converse, that we might be missing something” (p. 130).
Communities of Practice are another way in which individuals can leverage online networks in order to acquire and share knowledge. Digital technologies have significantly lowered transaction costs, providing a robust platform for communities of practice. The simple question of “How did you do that” initiates the transfer of information, and “when it takes place out in public, it is also a spur to such communities of practice, bridging the former gap between publishing and conversation” (Shirky, 2008, p. 103). But what motivates users to share their expertise online? Shirky argues that their love and passion for the subject in question does, and points to the success of Wikipedia, which has grown to host over 3,719,838 articles, to demonstrate this love for sharing knowledge. Additionally, sharing information online provides users with “an opportunity for the visible display of expertise or talent” (Shirky, 2008 p.101). Once this knowledge is shared, other users have the opportunity to further its credibility through ‘ranking’ or ‘liking’ features, to comment on it, or to add to it. The beauty of online Communities of Practice is that even after the collaboration takes place and the original asker and answerers move on, the knowledge remains accessible.
What does this all mean?
We are currently experiencing the beginning of a fourth revolution in communication, as digital technologies have significantly altered the ways in which we access, disseminate, and share knowledge. In some ways, individuals must now be more aware and critical than ever, since “our new freedoms are not without their problems; it’s not a revolution if nobody loses” (Shirky, 2008, p. 209). Moreover, we must now become knowledgeable about the platforms we use to gain knowledge.
According to Lessig (2006), “many of us haven’t a clue about how networks work” and therefore we “have no clue about how they could be different” (p. 32). Code makes up the architecture of the Internet and regulates our behavior online, as it strategically enables certain functions while disabling others. What is particularly concerning is that the individuals who determine these codes “can achieve regulatory ends, often without suffering the political consequences” (Lessig, 2006, p. 136). Therefore, while we tend to view the advent of the digital revolution as an exhilarating time, it is also important to be aware of the invisible hand that guides its construction. For example, despite the enormity of information present online, many search and recommendation algorithms “direct attention to popular products or outlets” which causes a small amount of media content to replicated across platforms (Webster et al., 2012, p. 52).
We may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information we are now able to access; however, the world’s knowledge has always been difficult to sift through. If we thought knowledge was scarce before digital technologies, “it was just that our shelves were small”, whereas today, new knowledge is not limited to a set of published works (Weinberger, 2012, p. 96). The infrastructure of Internet has simply increased our access to the world’s knowledge and has provided us with the ability to be our own content producers. Therefore, while our search tools are imperfect and our access to false information has increased, knowledge seekers have more sources of information at their fingertips than ever before, which symbolizes a promising start to the digital revolution.
Basulto, D. (January 6, 2012). Information Overload.? Has There Always Been Too Much to Know? Retrieved from http://bigthink.com/endless-innovation/information-overload-there-has-always-been-too-much-to-know
Bilton, Nick. (2010). I live in the future and here’s how it works: why your world, work, & brain are being creatively disrupted. Crown Business: New York.
Dale, S. (March 25, 2013). Personal Knowledge Management. Retrieved from http://steve-dale.net/2013/03/25/personal-knowledge-management/
Lessig, L. (2006). Code 2.0. Basic Books: New York, NY.
Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin.
Webster, J., & Ksiazek, T.B. (2012). The Dynamics of Audience Fragmentation: Public Attention in an age of Digital Media. Journal of Communication, (62), pp. 39-56.
Weinberger, D. (2012). Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That Facts Aren’t Fact, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. Basic Books: New York.