Fear of the ‘Stopping Point’

Head in water by Rose Borchovski
Head in water by Rose Borchovski

There is an awful lot to know. According to my old copy of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary the word ‘know’ made its first appearance in the English language in 1592: “The act of knowing; knowledge”. The very earliest reference to ‘knowledge’ in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary dates back to 1477 when it was used to describe “The fact or condition of being instructed; information acquired by study; learning.” I wonder, when ‘know’ initially appeared was it viewed as a bit of slang used by trendy young Elizabethans?

Fear of Sleeping by Rose Borchovski
Fear of Sleeping by Rose Borchovski

My father inherited a small library and his study was lined with books organized in tall dark bookcases that scraped the ceiling with their pointed gothic trim. Most of these books caused me to feel quite faint with the stunning dullness of their long winded (picture-less) yet at one time (at least) solidly knowledgeable texts. Hidden amongst these musty books there were some gems; one was Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary which contained words that have long since fallen out of use. Interesting to consider that the eventual standardization of the English language actually caused words to vanish. The classifications of Johnson’s Dictionary trumped earlier dictionaries and 173 years later the Oxford English Dictionary trumped Johnson’s. It is a funny thought that we lost words as we tried to organize and standardize their spelling and meaning.

These dictionary knowledge-games sprang to mind recently when I heard a NY Tech Council talk given by David Weinberger author of the book Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the RoomWeinberger observes that we have conjured up some successful strategies for managing the infinitely unknown amount of things we may one day need to know. We have developed these strategies because, as he says, the world is way bigger than our skulls and our skulls simply don’t scale; in truth, as we learn more and more, we do indeed find our skulls don’t get bigger. (In fact, they have got smaller when compared to Cro Magnon‘s skull.)

As Weinberger says, we manage the infinite amount of things that there are ‘to know’ by breaking off brain sized chunks of the world, we get to know this chunk, master it, and in due course become expert. If we need to find answers to certain questions (beyond our ken) we can go off and find someone who knows the answers (because of their particular chunk of expertise) and see if they can resolve our questions.

The Smaller Spectacles by Rose Borchovski
The Smaller Spectacles by Rose Borchovski

Now (suggests Weinberger) this is a very effective system, it gives us a mechanism where ‘experts’ know what we don’t know so we can stop asking the questions! This is what Weinberger calls a ‘stopping point’. He also suggests that this idea of containing knowledge is not natural; knowledge finds itself stored in libraries, folded within dictionaries and other learned tomes where it might end up laced through 8pt font footnotes. The result is that knowledge is rationed out, compartmentalized, freeze dried and re-packaged. Knowledge is manipulated through good intentions and attempts are made, by generally well meaning people, to carefully control it. (I am not including overt manifestations of political censorship here just actions done with the kindest of intentions.) The result is that experts, libraries, dictionaries, books and footnotes turn into stopping points for ideas and imagination. Education itself, the honorable dispensary of knowledge is a stopping point. Schools and universities and libraries are stopping points, good ideas themselves can be stopping points! All quite alarming when you stop to think about it…

Rather Puzzled by Rose Borchovski
Rather Puzzled by Rose Borchovski

Knowledge found at a stopping point is:

  • Settled
  • Scarce
  • Orderly
  • Clean
  • Perfect in its organization.

On those occasions when we avoid, or fail to contain knowledge i.e. when knowledge has not been forced into a stopping point it is characteristically :

  • Unbounded
  • Overwhelming
  • Unsettled
  • Messy to its core
  • Disorganized
Why by Rose Borchovski

Weinberger observes that knowledge ‘unbounded’ shares the same characteristics as the Internet and (perhaps more profoundly) also shares the same characteristics of what it means to be human. He rounds out his talk by identifying some new methods of knowledge management and education via our messy Internet. He gives an example of how education in the future might avoid stopping points when he describes how software developers act as if education is a public act. I think he is referring to the open source community where software developers ask their questions in online forums, and help each other out by posting code for all to use. Through this process they communicate the very act of learning across their networks and reap rich results by developing rapid learning environments tailor made to meet their needs.

Perhaps online educational experiments such as CCK MOOCs demonstrate another avenue for the open sourcing of knowledge? I am also wondering whether online dictionaries of slang might allow knowledge (and the words we use to describe it) to expand into infinity and beyond?

Eyeball and butterfly net by Rose Borchovski
Eyeball and butterfly net by Rose Borchovski

Images of the work of virtual world artist Rose Borchovski taken in Second Life at her exhibition The Susa Bubble Story located at http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Cariacou/97/113/22

Article about Rose Borchovski (aka) Saskia Boddeke.

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