Dealing with knowledge deluge
It needs to be said: how to handle knowledge, in general, is not something for individuals to attempt. It is, fundamentally, a collective endeavour. Gone are the days of the “renaissance man” who was supposed to know all there was to know. Perhaps now it is the time for the “regenerative collective” instead.
Within the regenerative collective, no individual attempts to know everything in detail. What each individual strives to know is, instead, which other person they can trust to know more about what they want to know about than they do themselves. Trusting implies personal knowledge. And, because knowledge is so abundant and extensive, no small group can know everything. What becomes important is not to know the expert on any particular topic – as perhaps might be the case in some idealised version of the academic community – but rather, to know someone personally who you can trust to know personally someone who knows … etc., until you find the person who really knows what you want to find out.
A nice relatable example of this is in the world of DIY. I have long been a DIY enthusiast, and attempted to know enough to get by with a whole range of odd jobs. This was memorably encouraged by Nick Goodhart encouraging me to design and build what we called the “climbing-in frame” for the Newbury Manflier. But my experience really took off during house (OK, cottage) renovation in Tanyrallt in North Wales. I got quite good at general carpentry, plumbing and drainage. After a long period of not doing much, partly due to living in new houses, I found myself in the last two years back in the DIY game, building a woodshed from scratch last year, and this year doing a whole lot of quite complex work on the terrace, for where I have been living in Ransberg, Kortenaken. Right now I am fitting out a loft where my daughter lives in Lancaster, and finding the same issues coming right back. Who can I ask, first to know what is a reasonable way to do a job, and then to check if I have done it right? So, I muse to myself, if I was part of a friendly network of skill-sharing people, I could quickly and reliably ask someone I know. And, naturally, they could ask me, maybe about web pages, maybe about ontology, who knows? It's not just about wants and offers in an impersonal abstract sense of matching things. It's about knowing and trusting people; about building and maintaining relationships; it's about knowledge, trust, expertise, reliability, and so on.
Part of property work also involves getting rid of things that are no longer useful, and acquiring new things that are needed. Here again, the normal ways of doing this are hopelessly inadequate. Do you go to Facebook, and in doing that give away a whole lot of information to that particular IT behemoth? Do you try something like Freegle? Success there seems to depend on a mixture of long-suffering patience and extreme luck. Or ebay?
Interestingly, in Belgium the system seems to work rather better. 2dehands is a pretty universal second-hand site that seems more friendly and manageable than Ebay. Then there is the Kringwinkel network of shops. I've bought several things from both.
For some time I've been saying that second-hand trade is knowledge-intensive, and this connects it to DIY etc. It's impractical to know everything about every kind of second-hand item. But it is possible to know enough about, say, builders' power tools, to know what is valuable, what is not; what is in demand and what should be simply scrapped; how to use different equipment or how to find instructions for their use.
And so, on to rich topics like permaculture. It's knowledge-rich, for sure. And that knowledge is contextualised — where you are makes a huge difference to what species will form part of a viable, rich local ecosystem. No one can know all of this. That is perhaps why traditional or indigenous wisdom is so good when it fits, but also useless when it doesn't.
Useful knowledge: that's what we all need, adapted to ourselves and our context. And that's what I want to be contributing towards — useful knowledge ecosystems. And, at the risk of labouring a point that may by now be obvious, the idea isn't to make all knowledge accessible to everyone. That is simply impossible. The goal is to weave together the knowledge content with the social structures, to form useful knowledge commons, supporting commons-based peer production (see articles in Wikipedia or P2P Foundation wiki) among other nice buzzwords.
There's a wider ecosystem here as well. It can be seen as including:
- knowledge commons serving communities of practice
- knowledge maintained by expert collectives
- knowledge maintenance process cultivating expertise
- tight social network of interdependent experts
- research consultancy capability
- high quality research, and therefore
- capability to support higher education