IA Summit 2006: Whats Up with Knowledge?

Published on Author Christopher Fahey

[I’m getting me feet wet for the first time in the world of liveblogging. I’m not sure if I like it or not — it feels a little antisocial or even rude, and I often find myself wanting to pull out my sketchbook and write with a pen — but as part of my ongoing effort to give lots of new technology usage behaviors a chance, I’m trying it out. ]

David Weinberger, co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto and author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined , is the opening/keynote speaker here at the 2006 IA Summit. He’s talking about his new book Everything is Miscellaneous, which seems to have a lot of overlap with Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability in addressing how we classify and find things historically and in the future.

Weinberger notes that humans have been organizing knowledge with the same principles we’ve used to organize physical stuff for thousands of years. We do it without questioning it, even: Because of the physical constraints of storing information using words, on papers, in books, on shelves, and in buildings, we’ve built our tools in a certain way that may not necessarily map directly to the ways we will classify and find information in the future, or even in ways that may in fact be contrary to nature of the knowledge itself.

He questions the “standard model” of information theory, Data –> Information –> Knowledge –> Wisdom, arguing that it deceives us into viewing it as a one-way linear progression… when in fact there are plenty of ways of breaking the model. For example, it is our wisdom that enables us to consume and use information and knowledge effectively, effectively tying this line into a knot.

All of our traditional models of defining knowledge (is that an oxymoron? or a redundancy?) are still rooted, ultimately, in archaic paper-based models of storing knowledge. He even mentioned that the economics of the publishing industry have an impact on how we understand and structure knowledge. Damn clever.

He listed some defining characteristics of knowledge that we usually take for granted:

  • There are three aspects of knowledge: the knower–> the knowledge <-- the known
  • Knowledge is immutable: it is the same for everyone, and there is only one knowledge
  • Knowledge is simple (think Occam’s Razor)
  • Knowledge is independent of knower: it doesnt matter who says it
  • Knowledge is bigger than we are, and it outlasts us
  • Knowledge is orderly

As he rattled these off, the little art school posmodernist in me realized that he was probably going to shoot them all down before he was done. Sure enough, he did — even invoking postmodernism in the process.

It ocurred to me that where postmodern theorists and philosophers merely speculate about these things, we as information architects are actively building concrete examples every day. We’re showing, for example, that it is indeed possible to classify knowledge, and in turn reality, with a variety of different systems, none of which have any clear superiority over another, and more importantly none of which purport to be the ultimate representation of The Way Things Are.

When open mike time came, I phrased this insight into a question, asking Weinberger if the dissolution of monolithic systems of describing knowledge (and the current polyphony of valid and thoroughly useful new systems like folksonomies, search engines, etc.) doesn’t actually provide a strong argument against, of all things, intelligent design. Okay, it’s a stretch, but Weinberger was making some pretty mind-opening connections between the the practical and the philosophical effects of digital classification.

The silence in the room that followed was pretty disturbing to me at first, and I feared for a moment that maybe there more crazy ID people in the audience than I had ever imagined. I quickly amended the question by noting that it seems that we, as practicing information architects, are actually playing a leading role in the development of an important new philosophical and metaphysical world view. The vibe changed, after a pause, and Weinberger responded that philosophers really did do the initial legwork on this, beginning many decades ago — and I couldn’t help but agree.

Still, experiment always follows closely behind theory, and nothing is really and truly “believed” until the concrete results pile up high enough (except in the case of intelligent design, which due to its intrinsically supernatural nature people will believe no matter how much evidence piles up aginst it).

I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people who work at NASA or in related deep-space research (for example the scientists who are looking for signs of microbial life on Mars or the SETI people) are secretly or even subconsciously trying to find that final nail to hammer into the coffin of creationism, to finally prove once and for all that life is not unique on Earth. Such a discovery would probably even undermine the bulk of literal Judeo-Christian teaching, striking right at the core.

So perhaps the work we IAs do may have a similar subtle motivation, where many of us have a deep suspicion of the old, authoritative ways of describing reality. We seek to discover new systems of the world, and — who knows — maybe our systems will eventually fundamentally replace the old.

6 Responses to IA Summit 2006: Whats Up with Knowledge?

  1. on a more serious note – I really like the connections you’re making between IA and postmodern philosophy… I’ve actually gone back and re-read some of my old Deleuze & Guattari texts lately in light of a project I’ve been working on lately.

    Who’d have thought I’d actually revisit them… and that they’d make so much more sense with an IA context :)

  2. Leisa, thanks for visiting!

    My liveblogging experiment has turned out to be not so “live” after all. I think that the more “live” I’ve tried to be, the less of my own insight I’ve been able to give and the more I end up being a mere recording device. Instead my reports are and will be more of my own reaction to what I’ve been seeing and hearing.

    Regarding philosophy, I am just as surprised as you to realize that some of what we information architects are doing professionally may have such close relevance to postmodern theory. When I first heard information architects discussing “ontologies”, I thought to myself “this sounds familiar” — but it took me a while to realize that it’s the same subject, i.e., the nature of knowledge. David Weinberger’s remarks were both eye-opening and gratifying for me in the way they finally connected the stuff that tickled my fancy as a wide-eyed student in college with the stuff that intrigues me today as a professional information architect.