Solid and Liquid

I believe we are experiencing a shift in the dominant metaphor for knowledge. In the past we talked about knowledge as a solid, with attendant concerns such as security and certainty. In the future, our dominant metaphor for knowledge will be that of a fluid, supple and adaptive. That shift will have consequences for the architecture of knowledge, from epistemology to pedagogy and policy.

Three ways of knowing

Aristotle thought that human beings are rational animals. After a century of world wars and the Freudian and cognitive revolutions, it’s not clear if we’re all that rational. Yet, we are epistemic creatures. The acquisition and exercise of knowledge is central to most cultures. As societies become complex, they divide our concern for knowledge into specialized streams. Some talk about the nature of knowledge. Others investigate it’s transmission from teacher to student. A third group looks it’s social organization.

First comes epistemology: what is knowledge, where does it come from and to whom does it belong? This is one of the oldest questions in philosophy, both East and West. Then there’s the related question: what is education, what should I teach, how should I teach it and to whom?

Finally, there’s the institutionalization of knowledge in schools, colleges, universities and research laboratories. Our questions about these institutions are often economic: what should society pay for, why and how much?

The three put together form a triumvirate: epistemology, pedagogy and policy. While all three concern themselves with knowledge, the communities surrounding them have distinct cultures. Epistemology lives in philosophy departments and in thoughtful corners of the natural and social sciences. It’s been the concern of some of the greatest philosophers. Pedagogy belongs to schools of education. It is often seen as a pragmatic, career oriented training for future teachers rather than an investigation of knowledge per se. The institutional structure of knowledge belongs to administrators, bureaucrats, planners and grant making agencies.

That settled trichotomy is understandable, for our epistemic practices are thousands of years old. I don’t think they work anymore. I am no fan of disruption as business schools use that term, but I believe we are at the cusp of a massive shift in the nature, production and communication of knowledge.

The Centrality of Knowledge

Information surrounds us. We struggle to make sense and value out of it. Information is useless without structure and organization. No wonder that Google says it’s mission is “to organize the world’s information.” All this information is overwhelming even with the organizational tools we have at our mousetips. In any case, it’s not what we’re looking for. If not, we would be spending our days browsing through Wikipedia.

Information needs to become knowledge and wisdom for it to fruition, unless we want to become mental bulimics. We are running on old intuitions about the nature and function of knowledge, what one might call paper knowledge. It’s knowledge that tacitly assumes print to be it’s primary medium. Paper era intuitions are inadequate for our information era realities.

We are moving away from the age of print to the age of the screen and from text to multimedia. Epistemology, pedagogy and policy need revision. A revision that makes these three streams run down to the same river. That river is what I call epistry, a tapestry of knowledge that is part philosophy, part science, part art and part politics.

As I argued in an earlier piece, design plays a major role in epistry. It helps us merge the formal architecture of knowledge (epistemology) with the interpersonal architecture of knowledge (pedagogy) with the institution architecture of knowledge (policy). We need to design fluid knowledge systems.

Crystalline and Fluid Knowledge

Everyone agrees that learning is -more or less- the same today as it was a thousand years ago. Some of us think that’s a good thing, other’s the opposite. Even our theories of knowledge are about the same today as they were three hundred years ago.

Meanwhile, the world has changed. Classical knowledge was individual, rigid and abstract, much like a crystal. Bertrand Russell captured it’s allure in his view of mathematical beauty:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.

Solid State

Both Russell and Einstein dreamed of a final theory reducing the universe to a few logical or physical principles. I believe that dream is dead. The search for final principles isn’t over, but our understanding is no longer measured against that lack. If there’s one thing that our formal knowledge systems haven’t understood, it’s that the future of knowledge is collaborative, fluid and situated.

We don’t want crystalline knowledge. We should prize fluidity over precision. Further, many of the challenges of the future are systemic challenges. Not for the lone hero tilting against the windmills of the universe. It’s in system creation that current knowledge systems fail dramatically. Even with all the benefits of modern technology, the best we can do is rocket science. What do I mean?

Collective Wisdom

The high point of rocket science was the Apollo mission to the moon. It was a vertically integrated project with a single purpose: sending human beings to Earth’s only satellite. There are other examples, both good and bad: the Manhattan project, the human genome project and so on.

Solid melting away

Houston, we are not rocket scientists anymore. The challenges of the future are multi-faceted. They involve simultaneous engagement along several fronts. Tackling climate change isn’t like sending a man to the moon or Mars. Neither is understanding consciousness or ensuring ecosystem wellbeing. These problems demand a different epistemology. They need a different pedagogy. They will be implemented by an alternate institutional structure. We will need much epistry if we’re to be successful.


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