Dave Weinberger has got me thinking again (cheers, Dave).
1. I had been planning on beginning by talking briefly about Aristotle’s discovery of the shape of knowledge: To know this robin is to see its place in a hierarchy of similarities (it’s like other birds) and differences (it’s different from other birds), an incredibly efficient way to organize complex systems.
2. I had been planning on ending by talking about knowledge as a property of conversations.
3. Last year, when writing about why blogs are not (generally) echo chambers, I had talked about conversation as the iterating of differences on a shared ground.
So, in the middle of last night it occurred to me that conversations, as the iteration of differences on the basis of similarity, are formally like Aristotle’s description of knowledge as the placing of the known in a system of differences and similarities.
(The ‘echo chamber’ piece is well worth a look, incidentally, even if you aren’t interested in the Dean campaign.)
The key point here, I think, is that the Aristotelian hierarchy is an achieved system of differences-within-similarity. If we characterise a conversation as ‘the iteration of differences on the basis of similarity’, the stress should be on iteration, on process. In other words, it’s not a collaborative attempt to chip away the accumulated crud of ambiguity and tautology and reveal the true hierarchy of knowledge in all its crystalline precision. The knowledge produced by a conversation exists within the conversation, and grows within it; there’s always another difference to be iterated (or collapsed). (Compare wikis – although not, oddly, (the public face of) Wikipedia.)
Conversations don’t produce a tidy set of definitions which can be picked up and applied elsewhere. What they produce – in one light, what they are – is a tangle of more-or-less definitive associations and exclusions, all resting on a set of prior assumptions whose own definitions are fairly hazy. The sense you make of any argument depends on what you think of its reference points, the argument it’s responding to, the person advancing it, the person being responded to… The knowledge produced within a conversation is the (continuing) accumulation of this kind of ‘sense’. Structurally, it’s not a tree; it’s more like a swarm. Conversations are knowledge clouds.
Now pull back. I recently wrote a paper on the 2001-5 Italian government led by Silvio Berlusconi. I quoted several news sources, but also cited sources with titles like “Interpretive approaches and the study of Italian politics” and “System crisis and the origins of a new Right”. In other words, I situated my argument within the context of arguments already advanced by other authors. I’m a newcomer to the field of Italian studies; as such, I have little or no standing in the field, and what I have is enhanced if I can underpin what I write with assertions from established writers. The credibility of my arguments is also enhanced, at least among readers who agree with the writers I’ve cited; to turn it round, the credibility of my arguments, advanced without supporting quotations, is minimal. (Referees made this point, without commenting on the merits of the arguments themselves.) Academic publication, I would suggest, is a continuing conversation – and academic discourse is a knowledge cloud.
Two conclusions. If ‘cloudiness’ is a universal condition, del.icio.us and flickr and tag clouds and so forth don’t enable us to do anything new; what they are giving us is a live demonstration of how the social mind works. Which could be interesting, to put it mildly. On the other hand, those of us who are into tagging need to give some thought to what we’ve been doing in all these other areas to mitigate the adverse effects of clouds – ranging from group pathologies to the undue influence exerted by anti-social young guys.