Universal knowledge

Let’s start with a triviality — my eyes don’t sense parts of the earth a thousand miles away from me. Instead, they sense the world directly in front of my eyes. Seems obvious isn’t it. Well, not so much if you look at philosophical accounts of knowledge or the design of universities.

Universities are designed to impart universal knowledge, knowledge that’s true independent of your location in space and time. That started with theology; after all the Bible is supposed to be absolute truth. When society secularized, biblical knowledge was replaced by scientific knowledge, with mathematics becoming the paradigm for absolute, universal truth.

The emphasis on universality is also related to the social function of the university. The best universities in the world get people from all over the world even if they are of a relatively similar class. They train people to go anywhere and take on roles at the top of the pyramid. Universality is central to legitimizing their roles — after all, why would anyone in Malaysia or Zanzibar take your claim to the top of the pyramid seriously if you were trained in knowledge local to Cambridge and Stanford? It’s the justifiable universality of western knowledge that underlies the power of elite western institutions.

Fortunately, while such power equations are the norm, most people’s lives are conducted outside the universal light.

Most knowledge is local

Let me start with another triviality. Farming depends on local knowledge: of the soil, of local varieties, of the weather patterns etc. Of course, there’s a globalized version of farming that requires massive irrigation to counter weather fluctuations, massive energy use to pump all that water and other insanities that we now regret. But, the fact remains that the most efficient as well as sustainable methods of farming are local in spirit and execution.

Throughout human history and the history of every other species, knowledge has been mostly local, contextual and intimate. That’s as true of negative as well as positive knowledge. We want to earn more than Johnny next door and pry into his affairs, not some distant person halfway across the world. When seen that way, you could argue that universities are actually a niche institution: they provide the tiny sliver of knowledge that isn’t local and can’t be so. Why is that tiny sliver ruling the roost? Well, that has to do with the history of power, but there’s no reason why these relations have to continue.

Actually, there’s no pragmatic reason for universal knowledge anymore. The top-down view of universality is itself tied to data poor technologies. When it is expensive and time consuming to produce data, universal principles that summarize the data and make them portable (equations, for example) are very useful. But we now live in a data rich economy, where we have the opposite problem: how to get rid of data, not how to collect it. The best means we have of filtering data appropriately are local filters. I can tell you if a news story is biased or wrong because I live here; no amount of New York Times reporting will change that fact. The future of knowledge is in aggregating the local, not in imposing the global.

Aggregating the Local

Consider classical mechanics: it shows that the same equations are valid everywhere in the universe. That’s pretty amazing, until you ask:

How does the equation propagate from one local cell to the next?

I don’t mean that the equation literally moves from earth to the moon and back. Equations are our mode of description, not the world itself. But there’s a problem, nevertheless, for the local descriptions need to be stitched together in order to form global descriptions. That’s what topological theories are for, if you want a mathematical method for doing so. However, these topological theories don’t theorize the very thing that needs theorizing:

Why is it that space is capable of being stitched together?

That may seem like a really stupid question from a geometric perspective: isn’t space just there, i.e., isn’t it an abstract background? But space isn’t geometry. We need to theorize space as a substance, which is what Einstein did with General Relativity, but that’s just one theory in physics. What we need is a general method, a new scientific method that takes local knowledge to be it’s founding insight, where the stitching together of local knowledge is an explicit part of the method rather than being assumed as a given in the background.

Designing Local Knowledge

I will work extensively with the idea of a design object: a reusable, modifiable design element.

The simplest design object for knowledge networks, especially local knowledge networks is the circle:

A circle is group of people who’re interested in the same “core.” For local knowledge there are four types of cores that are of interest:

  1. People: i.e., a circle around a teacher or a person of interest. An example of the former might be a local car mechanics who teaches a course on automotive repair. An example of the latter is a group of people who read and discuss Plato.

  2. Passion: a circle around a common passion, say, a group of people who are all interested in the same topic. Passions can be of several kinds — say, the world series game that took place yesterday, a course that you are all taking on Coursera or a continued engagement with data science.

  3. Place: a circle of people who live or work close to each other. If you live close to each other in Belmont, you can imagine starting a circle on community gardens in Belmont. If you work in the same law firm in Boston, you can imagine starting a group around a senior partner (that will combine people and place) or a group around a new law that affects you all (combining passion and place).

  4. Practice: A circle of people who do one thing together. It could be jogging, it could be a meditation practice whatever, but the group comes together for that reason.

The advantage of the circle is it’s spatiotemporality. A circle can contract and expand with time. It can also intersect with other circles. It can also vanish. In other words, the circle design allows us to create communities of varying sizes and duration around a single core. That’s very useful.