KMW2006 – The New Shape of Knowledge

David Weinberger gave an amazing opening keynote on day 3 of KMWorld & Intranets – I think this was my favorite. See the few pictures I took.

David started with what he called the most hideous slide ever (it was very animated – bouncing words everywhere). The point was that knowledge is changing in all ways but one – the who of knowledge is going from experts to all of us (taxonomy v. folksonomy), the where of knowledge is going from people in cubicles to people in public places, the how is going from people sitting in a room to people engaging in conversation, the when is changing from this ribbon we’ve had of working in private to making it public and not being able to change it anymore – the ribbon is being broken, and the shape is what the whole keynote is about. The one thing that is not changing is the what (the content) of knowledge – and the what is boring.

So what has knowledge been? David starts with Plato who said 2 very important things “Justified true belief” (content) and “The wise man knows how to carve nature at its joints” (order) – the idea is that there are natural dividing places in nature. To explain this (and this was funny if you were there) David pointed out that we all know there are 9 planets. However, now we know how made up and arbitrary these joints (our knowledge) are because the International Astronomical Union came to us and told us that Pluto wasn’t a planet anymore – there aren’t 9 planets – there are only 8.

In the other example, David showed us an image of how to cut a pig (something like this only cuter). The idea is that there is a right way to carve a pig – but in truth there are infinite ways to carve up that pig. The problem is that we assume that nature (the joints) is orderly and we try to make it so.

The truth is that there are so many ways to carve up our world – not just one orderly way – which is why we need tagging (great transition – don’t you think?). The way we’re carving up our world is dependent on our interests, our individual needs, and so on. So, deciding ahead of time that here is the taxonomy – and having only one taxonomy is the same as saying there is only one way to carve up the pig and limits our ability to do what we need and want to do.

David then took us through 7 properties of traditional knowledge. The first of these is that knowledge is in our heads – which is what psychotics believe – it is the definition of schizophrenia – and obviously untrue. The next is that there is only 1 (no plural) knowledge. Third is that therefore it is the same for everyone – there is only one truth and everything else is wrong. It’s simple – the world looks really complex, but once we figure it out it’s simple. Next, because there is so much to know, most of the opinions we hear are false and which means that we need experts (librarians) to help us weed through it all. Sixth, is that we’ve assumed that knowledge is not just a collection of facts, it’s order, and we prefer to organize things in trees (bird is a vertebrate is an animal..). Lastly, we assume that knowledge is as big as we are – it expands over years.

The reason a lot of these principles match the rules of reality is because the means by which we have preserved and presented knowledge is physical. It’s books, it’s blackboards, it’s white boards. It means that the topics of knowledge have to be divided up because books have to be divided up. It’s as if libraries were invented to keep ideas apart. Where do you put a book about the history of military cooking? You can’t put it in all 3 places because of the rules of matter, books can only be in one place at one time.

David then introduced us to the 3 orders of order:

  1. Organize the books (put them on shelves). This is a binary decision and forces us to think in trees
  2. Separate the meta data about the books and organize it.
  3. Everything is digital. The information, the content and the meta data.

We are no longer limited by the physical. An example is an online camera store – in the physical store you can only put the camera on one shelf. In the online world you’re going to list that camera everywhere you can think of so that it’s easier to sell. The thing is that this kind of disorder in the real world is messy – online messiness is a virtue – it enables ideas to come together. Finally, online everything is meta data. In the physical world there are objects and labels for the objects. Online you can go onto Google Books and type in an author and you’ll get back not just the titles the author wrote, but the content of the books. This works the other way too – you can search for a line from the book and get that same book. There is no distinction between the content and the meta data. Meta data is now what you know that you’re going to use to find what you don’t know.

If everything is meta data, the multiplier of knowledge goes up a lot – suddenly everything is a label to help us find something else.

Online we can also re-order data in a way that makes sense to us (if you did this in a real store you’d be thrown out). One of the ways to do this is faceted search. David showed us the NCSU Endeca catalog as an example of this. Any branch on your search results page can act as a root for your search – creating the tree for you. You can limit your search by female authors and then 19th century if you choose or you can choose to limit first by the 20th century and then fiction authors – you’re in control. The system is organized around your needs and way of thinking, not the thinking of a catalog librarian.

So now we’ve gone from the organized tree to a pile of leaves. But it’s not just a pile of leaves, it’s a pile that’s full of links and meta data. This changes the role of the traditional knowledge manager – who’s job it was to filter out the crap for us. Now, it takes more effort to delete than to include. Storage is basically free so why take the time to go through the data and delete items? This also means that 3 years from now you’ll be able to go back and pull up and article that at the time was insignificant and now is very important. So there is no reason to exclude and every reason to include now that we have tools that let us sort and filter on the way out.

Rather than the experts deciding how things are going to be structured, give the users those tools so that they can decide how they want it organized and structured – postpone the taxonomy until the last step. Taxonomy is not the only way to see data – it’s one way – another way is it to let users have a bit of control (tagging).

Next, David gave us 4 things this talk was not about and one that it was.

This does not make things simple

That’s okay! The example he gave us what a speech that President Bush gave that was 2400 words – and you know that the speechwriters said, we have to make it simple for the American people. Well, a few hours later David checked Technorati and found that there were over 2400 blog posts about this talk (1 per word). Each post would find something interesting in the speech and expand on it. Bloggers are taking the simple and making it complex – which is exactly what we do in conversation – why? Because we’re sick of being treated like idiots (expletives removed) who can only handle little simple ideas, we want the complexity.

It’s not about you

You’re making a new you online. Our blogs are a new self, we’re writing ourselves into existence on the web with each post and populating the online world. Your blog is your new public self in the new public space of the web.

It’s not about experts [Wikipedia critics, skip to the next point – heed this warning]

David believes that Wikipedia is a credible source. He knows that the fact that it’s in the Wikipedia does not make it fact, but he does feel that the Wikipedia provides resources which can be trusted. Why? Because it’s highly edited, because there are discussions going on about the facts that people are including in these articles (and we’re going to be able to go back and look at this for years to come), because it provides warning notices that make it more credible (ex. Neutrality is disputed) – this is not something you’ll ever see on a newspaper.

It’s not about knowledge

David explained this by using the example of businesses. Businesses own their goods they also had all of this information and content – knowledge. They had assumed that it was theirs and that they owned it – building a wall around their businesses. In today’s world this model doesn’t work anymore, so what’s happening is the knowledge (content) is being sucked out, leaving only the businesses as husks to hold the products. For example – Amazon. The content is being moved out of the business and aggregated on the web and having more content added to them (tagging, reviews, images, etc).

It is about externalizing meaning

We get meaning by having the huge pile of leaves (the web) to sort through and putting it together – and we get to do it ourselves – and we want to do it ourselves! This enables understanding.

This does not mean that David feels that the growth of the web is the death of knowledge – we’re way too good at being knowers.

Technorati Tags: ,


  1. Thanks for this great summary!

  2. Thanks for this great summary!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *