Newsletter #11: Occupy Knowledge

I got into the pursuit of knowledge for the adventure, for the sense that we were exploring parts of the cosmos that had never been explored before. That might well be a personality issue. I once read that people get into science for one of two reasons:

  1. They tried to blow up their homes while doing chemistry experiments in the basement.
  2. They read a lot of science fiction

If you had to guess which one is the adventurer type, which one would you guess? The danger of too much science fiction reading is that the fiction might dominate the science. It might also serve as a Walter Mitty-ish imagination without power.

Knowledge without Imagination

Unfortunately, we are in the opposite of the Walter Mitty situation. We have too much power and too little imagination, and too much control and too little ethics, all of which suggest that we are approaching the end of an era of knowing.

At the same time, we are undergoing a maker revolution, a world where the ordinary person can once again hope to contribute to a new era of creation. The internet, as it spreads into the world of things, also makes it possible for us to aggregate people and knowledge in unprecedented ways. In other words, we have all the prerequisites for a new epistemic imagination, a new adventure in the world of knowledge.

That new adventure requires a social infrastructure, a new architecture of knowing.

Organic Knowledge

Our current knowledge systems — schools, colleges and universities in particular — were designed for an era of knowledge scarcity. Consider the three key ingredients of knowledge aggregation:

  1. Literacy and Numeracy
  2. Data
  3. Texts

For most of recorded human history all of these ingredients — as an aside, note that history itself needs all three features listed above — were scarce. Very few people were literate. Even fewer were numerate. Arguably the latter is still true. Data was scarce. Human beings spent years collecting data about stars, minerals and fossils, just to name three of the most important objects investigated by science. Texts were restricted to a very small elite; even with printing, only a few people had access to libraries that conveyed an accurate representation of the state of human knowledge.

Our institutions are built around the idea of knowledge scarcity. We hoard data. We jealously guard our ideas until they can be published. Universities are built around this idea as well: they project an aura of elitism, of being the preserve of a select few. They arrange people on a linear scale of smart to stupid, with entry being reserved to the smart few. Lecture halls and exams are designed so that the chosen masters can evaluate potential apprentices.

In economic terms, knowledge, especially what might be called higher learning, is designed to be a luxury good. While some form of knowledge is made available to everyone, the kind of knowledge that allows you to prosper on epistemic grounds (i.e., prosper because of the knowledge you possess, not the people you know) is still pretty closely guarded.

I find that strange. Almost every other industry has been democratized. While there are luxury cars and high end computers, we are used to the idea that a mass produced car or computer is an exquisitely crafted device that works well for almost everyone’s needs. In fact, it’s the democratization of computing and transport that has led to advances even at the higher end. The tablet of today is better than the supercomputer of fifty years ago. We would’t have seen those advances if — as the chairman of IBM once said — there were only 7000 computers in the world.

I believe that we are the advent of an era of the consumerization of knowledge, of a period where anyone can access as much knowledge as they desire at any time. The internet has made that possible. At the same time, we are at the advent of an era of the cognitivization of knowledge as well, i.e., of an era where human knowledge is no longer seen as a scarce resource. Instead, knowledge will be part of a living breathing world that we navigate like we navigate the physical world. We are now ready to add a knowledge layer to the physical layer of the earth. Think about it as augmented reality meets epistemology.

The Basic Assumption

The organic knowledge hypothesis has two components:

  1. Human created knowledge (artificial knowledge, so to speak) should be layered on top of our cognitive structures, i.e., we should be embedded in it and be able to navigate it just like we navigate physical space.
  2. Networked communities of learning should arise to occupy knowledge niches in this new knowledge ecology.

This Week’s Links

  1. What happens when machine learning gets lateral thinking. It’s only a matter of time before algorithms start saying “I feel your pain.”
  2. Knowledge needs texts. Texts need writers. Writers need to type. Typing needs a keyboard. The story of the best keyboard ever made.

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