I’ve been thinking more about David Weinberger’s ideas of knowledge and how it is formed and communicated. (I’ve discussed Weinberger earlier; see sort-of-review and on knowledge, and an excerpt from his book.) Weinberger seem convinced that the emergence of the internet, and particularly user oriented knowledge bases such as Wikipedia, will change the shape of knowledge: We need to adapt to the new shape of knowledge (see the excerpt).
First of all, what is knowledge, and how is it formed (not shaped; created)? I don’t have the answer to those questions, and they require more space and time than what I intend to spend: There is an entire philosophical branch devoted to knowledge and its structure; it’s called epistemology. (And I don’t know much about it, so what is to follow is amateur epistemology; consider yourself warned.)
My first thought is that there are two types of knowledge: personal knowledge and external knowledge. The personal kind of knowledge is basically the content of your brain, and consist of both external knowledge and memories of experiences. Memories of experiences form skills, for example; a type of knowledge that is not external. External knowledge is knowledge as recorded in books, on film, and so on. (External is probably a terrible word, but I could not come up with a better one; suggestions?) Weinberger is primarily concerned with external knowledge, and so is epistemology as far as I understand.
I described external knowledge as recorded knowlegde, and that is important. Knowledge on the internet is recorded in some form, mostly in writing. When it is recorded, it is communicated. Communication is crucial to knowledge. If I’m not wrong, Weinberger touches upon the importance of communication somewhere in his book. My point is that it is extremely hard to communicate knowledge. Anyone who has tried to put an idea down in writing knows how hard it is. Knowledge is often complicated and involved with other knowledge, which makes it harder. Bad writing is unclear; my personal opinion is that much of the writing on Wikipedia is not particularly good. I’m not certain that millions of anonymous editors can make it better. Weinberger argues that when people stop editing an article on Wikipedia, it constitutes the knowledge ‘we’ agree on. Agreement does not necessarily imply clearly written prose. To the contrary, it may be easier to agree on something fluffy and unclear, which may even mean different things to different people.
Who are ‘we’, by the way? If I’m not mistaken, only about every sixth person has daily access to the internet in the world today. How many of those who do have access devote time to edit articles on Wikipedia? The fact that certain kinds of people may be more interested in Wikipedia can lead to bias. The fact that a lot of smart people never contribute to Wikipedia leads to incompleteness.
Finally, Weinberger underscores the problem of statements which may constitute knowledge to some, but not to others. I don’t see how Wikipedia can solve that: In the end, there is only one article on each topic. It may be broad and change through time, but I simply don’t believe one source can ever be enough.
- Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger
- Four Characteristics of Knowledge
- Wikipedia vs. Public Restrooms, and Social Knowledge