The Knowledgeable vs. The Knowledge-Able

January 8, 2009

Michael Wesch’s new essay in Academic Commons should be read far beyond the realms of academia. 

AxisPortals fully expects to be quoting from “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able:  Learning in New Media Environments” for a long while.  Indeed, the piece is so darned quotable that it might just be faster to throw quotation marks around the whole thing and leave it at that.   “Yeah, what he said,” isn’t one of AxisPortals’ most frequently invoked phrases, but that’s the reaction that this essay prompted.  Wesch understands the phenomenon collectively (not to mention ubiquitously and often unthoughtfully) known as Web 2.0 far better than the vast majority of human beings do.  Better yet, he’s able to share that understanding in sharp but approachable prose. 

Here’s one favorite section of the essay:

 Wikis, blogs, tagging, social networking and other developments that fall under the “Web 2.0” buzz are especially promising in this regard because they are inspired by a spirit of interactivity, participation, and collaboration. It is this “spirit” of Web 2.0 which is important to education. The technology is secondary. This is a social revolution, not a technological one, and its most revolutionary aspect may be the ways in which it empowers us to rethink education and the teacher-student relationship in an almost limitless variety of ways.

That’s smart on so many levels that it’s hard to know exactly where to begin praising it, but “the technology is secondary”  and “it is this ‘spirit’of Web 2.0 which is  important” are particularly striking turns of phrase,  and their wisdom is utterly applicable in  the business world.   Again and again, this is the very thing I wish I could magically and permanently impress on IT decision makers, especially in the SMB.  Which specific technology you have access to is in many respects much less important than knowing something about how to use it.  And “knowing how to use it” is increasingly less a matter of technical training and know how than it is a matter of understanding how communication is different, now, and how our goals and our measures of success must also shift.   Stasis is simply gone.  Emergence is the order of the day.  Sounds simple, but envisioning communication as a constant back and forth flow still requires a major shift in world view for many business leaders.

Not long ago, I watched a CEO type painstakingly set up a folder hierarchy for a new document storage solution (not quite a CMS, even–more a matter of shared FTP folders).  Now, I”m not entirely against organization.  After all, without some sense of structure, people feel lost and frustrated.  On the other hand, I know that forcing users into rigid, predetermined folder hierarchies often defeats the very purpose of any document sharing and storage tool. 

It’s tough to know ahead of time exactly which documents an organization will produce, and documents themselves are fluid.  Where was the possibility for users to tag their information, I wondered?  Where was the possibility for them to work on projects simultaneously?  Where was the possibility for them to create the organic and emerging structures that would best suit their ongoing projects, and their new or developing ideas?  Where, for gosh sakes, was the possibility for users even to accomplish something so elemental as adding  a new folder? 

This was definitely a case of the specific technology entirely trumping and possibly even ultimately squelching the spirit of the thing. 

Why is the cardboard folder still our model of the ideal information container and transporter, anyway?  I’ve always hated real world folders.  They get dog eared, people fail to alphabetize them correctly, stuff gets taken out of them without being put back into them, and they accumulate in  a most frightening fashion. They’re really quite the pain.  So why is the kind of manilla folder that a 50’s era secretary was forever fussing with  still our overarching metaphor for how information should be managed?  Maybe it’s time to change that.  Oh, we don’t have to get rid of them entirely–AxisPortals would never (well, seldom) suggest igniting a folder bonfire–but we really do need to think beyond those rectangular containers, and to understand that even information that is visibly sorted into a folder does and should exceed the boundaries of that folder, and should be easy to locate in other ways (keyword, tag, title, text search), and easy to mix and remix with far flung documents from all sorts of exotic elsewheres (including other folders, of course).  We need to understand that every document is a multiplicity of flows.

AxisPortals Aphorism: Information doesn’t have to be captured in flat little alphabetized containers any more.  If you free it, it will flow. (Try clicking on some of the tags and categories even in this fledgling blog, and you will soon see exactly what AxisPortals means.)