Eclectic Curiosity

The Knowledge Web

Posted on May 8th, 2007, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Uncategorized. No Comments

Not having seen his BBC and PBS series Connections, I was unaware of science historian James Burke until a kind commenter here (thanks Jeffrey!) tipped me off to a superb interview he gave last fall with The Stranova Blog. The interview mainly covers Burke’s Knowledge Web, an ambitious volnteer-run project with the goal of mapping out the time, space, and technology of human thought and experience for the purpose of facilitating broad inter-connected learning in education. This is must-listen! Here’s just one bite:

The problem, it seems to me, with modern education is that it’s 17th century education. It’s still alive and kicking too much. We take little kids and we spend their entire lives preparing them to be successful by learning more and more about less and less. In the present century, our brain’s know a fantastic amount about almost nothing. I have a friend who got his doctorate in Milton’s use of the comma and he’s now head of the department because that type of specialization is highly valued.

The problem with it, it seems to me, is it comes about from technology requirements and economic requirements of the past for which these types of structures were very sensibly created. That is to say, to run with the ball, to take the material discovered in the Industrial Revolution or even before it in the 17th century – exploration of the planet, new sciences around and after Galileo – and to concentrate on these discoveries in order to maximize the benefit to society that they provide. And to do that you needed a type of intellectual microscope to burrow deep into these things. Once you know what gravity is you really need to find out what it does for you, what it does itself, what is it down to the smallest detail. That’s laudable and it’s entirely necessary in the past.

It seems to me – and I risk the ire of every academic – that taking knowledge from this academic point of view is doing society a disservice in the sense that what we need in the next 100 years – especially we in the West with the so-called “flat earth” happening around us – is how we get people to think creatively. It is no longer a sign of intelligence that someone can remember things. It should no longer be a test of things if they can give the right answer. Because the right answer…is often the least creative one and the ones least likely to get you flak from your tutor. You see, in creative thinking you often make mistakes. If you make mistakes in specialist reductionist learning you fail and if you don’t get the degree you are unintelligent. Well, that’s self-evidently nonsense!

So, what this sort of interdisciplinary approach to knowledge that the Knowledge Web represents is an attempt to try and create some sort of infrastructure in which people can learn to think cross-disciplinarily and therefore creatively beacause I believe that all creative thinking comes from bringing concepts, ideas, and people together in new ways. The way you do that is to break the boundaries between the disciplines and cross them. And that for most specialists is scary and not to be done.

James Burke also has a book by the same name. The Knowledge Web takes readers on a meandering story weaving together histories, inventions, discoveries, conflicts and personalities, dwelling no more than a couple paragraphs before sliding over to something peripherally related. A journey. Some choice excerpts:

–But given the conditions under which science and technology work, how else could it be? At last count there were more than twenty thousand different disciplines, each of them staffed by researchers straining to replace what they produced yesterday.

These noodling world-changers are spurred on by at least two powerful motivators. The first is that you are more than likely to achieve recognition if you make your particular research niche so specialist that there’s only room in it for you. So the aim of most scientists is to know more and more about less and less, and to describe what it is they know in terms of such precision as to be virtually incomprehensible to their colleagues, let alone the general public. (p.11)

–This reduction of reality to its constituent parts is at the root of the view of knowledge known as “reductionism,” from which science sprang in the seventeenth-century West. Simply put, scientific knowledge comes as the result of taking things apart to see how they work. (p.12)

–There is no reason to suppose that this process of proliferation and fragmentation will lessen or cease. It is at the heart of what, since Darwin’s time, has been called “progress.” If we live today in the best possible materialist worlds, it is because of the tremendous strides made by specialist research that has given us everything from more absorbent diapers to linear accelerators. We in the technologically advanced nations are healthier, wealthier, more mobile, better-informed individuals than ever before in history, thanks to myriad speciaists and the products of their pencil-chewing efforts. (p.13)

–It is true that over time, as technology diversified, knowledge slowly diffused outward into the community via information media such as alphabet, paper, the printing press and telecommunications. But at the same time these systems also served to increase the overall amount of specialist knowledge. What reached the general public was usually out-of-date or no longer vital to the interests of the elite. And as specialist knowledge expanded, so did the gulf between those who had information and those who did not. (p.13)

–…[T]he culture of scarcity with which we have lived for millennia has not prepared us well for the responsibilities technology will force on us in the next few decades. Reductionism, representative democracy and the division of labor have tended to leave such matters in the hands of specialists who are, increasingly, no more aware of the ramifications of their work than anybody else. (p.14)

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