Time for knowledge and wisdom
“I never have the time”. “The internet’s just providing too much information these days”. “No-one ever knows where to start with all this information”. Common symptoms of the Non-Believer, enough to stop him or her ever starting their own blog, podcast or del.icio.us bookmarking site. But there is some truth in what these detractors say.
The internet could be seen as becoming a victim of its own success by providing a means for the masses to not only seek information but, in the past few years, to provide their own versions and interpretations of information in real time and at the click of a mouse. Information which would have been interesting in a book two years ago would now be of more interest in a blog, defunct in days or hours as it is reinterpreted by scores, hundreds or thousands of others around the globe. (This is why the concept of a blog as a portfolio of work is such a bizarre thought for me: it’s setting your work up to be reinterpreted when, with the finished products of a portfolio, you want to present, for better or for worse, a final version of your thoughts. But I digress…)
As educators we believe we work first and foremost in the knowledge industry, yet our current attitudes and beliefs of what in fact constitutes knowledge are widely out of touch with the reality of modern knowledge systems.
The traditional idea of Western knowledge goes back to the Greeks. They had an intensely practical problem: When the citizens of the city spoke up in Athens’ democracy (no women, poor people or slaves need apply), how could they decide whom to believe? The craft of rhetoric was advancing. Could human judgment keep up with it? Are there ways of discerning a true opinion from a false one? What makes an opinion worthy of belief? Thus did the quest for knowledge begin.
I, along with Weinberger, would take issue with this definition, though, based on some excellent writing in this year’s Newsweek Issues 2006 that makes the salient distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’. What Dave Weinberger is describing latterly is more to do with wisdom than knowledge. I ask how much our classrooms, schools and education systems are geared up to impart wisdom. Do most teachers you know teach wisdom? Would they know how to ascertain the author, date and time written of a web page or blog post? Do they know how to use referencing tools such as Google and Technorati to work out the relative reliability of opinion? Do they know how to realize when someone with a high rating in one of these referencers is abusing their position? Do they know how to teach their students to think for themselves when the find someone at the end of the Long Tail, with few references, but a great point to make?
And to go back to knowledge, in our blogged and tagged world, what is knowledge? Thanks to del.icio.us and the interlinked world of the blogosphere every person has a different account of knowledge.
So what can we do with so much information, and is this the first time that we have had to cope with this onslaught of information. Is this info flux a Bad Thing?
Info Flux: a Bad Thing?
Note the question mark. Fareed Zakaria’s opening piece in this year’s Special Edition Newsweek does a first class job at positioning today’s knowledge crisis within the context of world history. My favourite quote is from Thomas Hobbes, 1651: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. He was describing the average life of the average human being. Those who did not have that particular life were those with knowledge, generally merchants, princes and priests.
Well, here’s my take. In today’s knowledge society the gap is probably growing between those who have the knowledge and those who don’t, except those without the knowledge don’t have to inhabit Third World countries. As Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon’s Global Voices project shows, the Third World is able to use weblogs and podcasts to increase their knowledge and thus compete in the global knowledge economy of which we are all part. No, those who are going to chance a life that ressembles Hobbes’ “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short” one. And at the moment those who are choosing to ignore this information society include a scary number of our teachers.
Leapfrogging the info flux until it’s safe to come out
Another (great) point made in this Newsweek story is the description of industrial revolution. Britain slogged it out, inventing everything that makes the world go round today (penicillin, phone, steam engines, TV, tarmac… and, yes, all of these were from Scottish inventors ;-)). America, then Japan, Taiwan, then Korea and then the rest of China jumped onto our bandwagon and made a killing. Britain paid for the R&D in sweat, toil and tears but the others, quite rightly, waited until it was a safe bet. France made the mistake of guarding its information (in Minitel) instead of making the Minitel public and sharing the secrets. If they had done that they would have been the inventors of the Internet. Imagine if they had privatised that one…
The problem for Scottish teachers, and almost certainly for those elsewhere in Europe at the moment, is that the R&D of today is taking place in the same countries that jumped on our bandwagon. I feel we’re seriously missing the boat on the information bandwagon through our education system’s reluctance to adopt ‘risky’ (in their eyes) solutions that have potential. Meanwhile, our students are living in a vacuum of knowledge – the knowledge that really matters to them in their futures – because their elders are not actively seeking to put in the effort to make risky projects work. Like John Logie Baird, Alexander Bell, James Watt and all these other Scottish inventors took huge risks in their projects.
This very British relationship with the computer goes back to the computer’s inventor (yes, he was a Brit, too). Having made a prototype of the Difference Engine that did very little but which had obvious potential for the early 1800s, Charles Babbage needed a benefactor to test it out on a larger scale. He ended up getting the money and spending it on something he thought would be better. He didn’t share this with anyone. He spent all the money and died a lonely, detested, mocked man.
If he had been able to share his knowledge with a wider community in the way that we can now someone would have left a message on his blog telling him to go with his original thought. If he wrote back and refused they would have bought the idea from him and done it themselves, saving the human race the 200 year wait, the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars. With a blog, a podcast maybe, his sources and plans bookmarked in del.icio.us, he would have been liberated, empowered, faster, better and more successful in making his project work.
And so why, when we have the tools, do teachers, Local Authorities and national authorities refuse to use and endorse them?
I plan, in my own little way, to do my bit in Scotland to change that. Anyone want to join me?
Next Post: Moving towards Digital Learning Aggregation to open the social world.