Some of the points I would otherwise have raised in this posting are discussed in these other posts, so here I just want to focus on where Stephen and I agree and where we don’t, because I feel that he has in one or two places confused what people I was quoting said with my own views. Also, my own views wobble to some extent as we discuss the issue more!
First, I think Stephen and I agree that there are many different forms of knowledge, and depending on the context, each form of knowledge may have value. However, I don’t believe the distinction between ‘academic’ knowledge and ‘applied’ knowledge is particularly useful. What is useful is a distinction between academic and non-academic knowledge, as measured by the values or propositions that underpin each kind of knowledge.
Nor do I believe that academic knowledge IS ‘pure’ or timeless or objectively ‘true’. It is the principles or values that drive academic knowledge that are important. It AIMS for deep understanding, general principles, empirically-based theories, timelessness, etc., but I think most academics would agree that knowledge is dynamic, changing and constantly evolving. (My criticism of a lot of science teaching is that it over-emphasises ‘facts’ or content, and under-emphasises scientific method and values). Academic knowledge is not perfect, but does have value because of the standards it requires. Nor do I think academic knowledge or methods have run out of steam. We see evidence all around us that suggests academic knowledge is generating new drug treatments, new understandings of climate change, and yes, better technology, and certainly new knowledge.
I also agree with Stephen that knowledge is not just ‘stuff’, as Jane Gilbert puts it, but is dynamic. However, I also believe that knowledge is also not just ‘flow’. Content or ‘stuff’ does matter as well as the discussions or interpretations we have about content. Where does the ‘stuff’ come from that ebbs and flows over the discussions on the internet? It may not originate or end in the heads of individuals, but it certainly flows though them, where it is interpreted and transformed. Here we get into the differences between learning, thinking and knowledge. Knowledge may be dynamic and changing, but at some point each person does settle, if only for a brief time, on what they think knowledge to be. At this point it does become ‘stuff’ or content. I still contend then that ‘stuff’ or content does matter, though recognising that what we do with the stuff is even more important.
One clarification I would like to make (here’s a wobble) is that I do agree that one way knowledge is changing is in the way it is represented, as Lindsay Jordan says in her comment to Stephen’s response. In the end, this is likely to result in a shift in knowledge that may be very important, and it is in this area where I think Stephen and I may have some agreement. It should be remembered that Socrates criticised writing because it could not lead to ‘true’ knowledge which came only from verbal dialogue and oratory. Writing however is important because it provides a permanent record of knowledge. The printing press was important because it enabled the written word to spread to many more people. As a consequence, scholars could challenge and better interpret, through reflection, what others had written, and more accurately and carefully argue their own positions. Many scholars believe that one consequence of this was the Renaissance and the age of enlightenment, and modern academia consequently came to depend very heavily on the print medium.
Now we have other ways to record and transmit knowledge that can be studied and reflected upon, such as video, audio, animations, and graphics, and the Internet does expand enormously the speed and range by which these representations of knowledge can be transmitted. Maybe this will eventually lead to a ‘knowledge revolution’ equivalent to the age of enlightenment. But I do not believe we are there yet, for the following reasons.
My concern about much of the discussion of the ‘new’ knowledge is that it seems to depend on what I might call majority voting – it is the number of hits that matter, not the quality of the content. Now let me qualify what I am going to write by stating that I realise the limitations of expertise. Experts can and do make mistakes as we have seen from the tragic case of Dr. Smith, the Ontario pathologist, whose mistakes caused many people to go unjustifiably to prison. Experts do need to be always challenged. Nevertheless in many areas of life I prefer to trust in expertise that has been externally tested and validated to someone who just believes that they are an expert. I do not think that testing and expertise comes about because a lot of people visit their web site, for instance. Because Al-Quaida’s web site gets a lot of hits, does it make them ‘right’?
To say that knowledge is driving parts of the economy may be a functional view of knowledge, but it doesn’t necessarily define the type of knowledge, as Stephen argues. Indeed, I argued that several different types of knowledge were driving the economy, not just academic knowledge. I would include what Stephen defines as ‘new’ knowledge, resulting from recent developments over the Internet such as search engines. This may or may not be ontologically different from other kinds of knowledge. My concern is whether this kind of knowledge, described variously as crowd (or cloud) or networked behaviour, provides a form of knowledge that we can trust or can act on. It may or may not, but I would like to see more evidence, more research, using the traditional academic values of rigour, objectivity, and measurement. I suspect that the answer will depend on the quality of the content and the level or standard of discussion that flows through. Until then, I’m sticking with my position that valid and reliable new forms of knowledge are not yet present – but they may be emerging.
Lastly, Stephen was puzzled as to why I felt a blog was not the best way to discuss this issue. What I feel the topic needs is more space and time, and a critique from philosophers would also add to the discussion, I am sure, because I do not have specialist knowledge or training in epistemology. I would like to have had more time to review other writers on this topic, and more space to elaborate my views. I feel that I could do a better job that way. It was not because I needed the discussion to be academically reviewed in the way that journals are reviewed, and indeed, if it was, I doubt if it would be published. So you don’t have to believe what I say, because I’m not an expert on this topic – and even if I were, you should be challenging me!