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  • Subject area(s): Philosophy
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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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NETWORKED KNOWLEDGE

INTRODUCTION

The development of information technology is affecting and shaping society in many ways. It has significantly increased the volume of information as well as the speed of communication. It has allowed for “free” and instant access to all sorts of information and has made it possible for anyone to create content of any kind. However, just as there is free access to information, there is also free access to misinformation. In other words, anything goes. Actual facts have become very difficult to distinguish from so called ‘alternative facts'.  Yet, people circumvent utilizing traditional means of obtaining information and seek facts via the internet, which subsequently undermines established institutions of knowledge.  However, this move to seek facts via the internet has increased online connectivity and interactivity among internauts  which has brought about unfettered networks. The internauts collaborate together in these networks, exchanging their   different points of views. This essay examines what knowledge is in these networks.  It will begin by exploring the formal understanding of knowledge and how it is communicated. The second part will then discuss the new media, its characteristics, some of the resulting theories that have emerged, and how all of this transforms knowledge.

1. CLASSICAL COMMUNICATION OF KNOWLEDGE

By our very nature, we desire to know the world around us. The epistemological problem, or how we know, has been a continual topic of discussion in the history of humankind. Philosophers during the Enlightenment argued that our perception and categorization of things are at the center of our understanding of the world. When we perceive things, we sort them according to their patterns and anomalies - and this is how we know things. However, our perception is our opinion and judgment from what we experience. This brings in the possibility of doubt, because our perception is merely subjective. Thus, to know things objectively and indubitably, there is need for a social agreement of what our shared perceptions are, coupled with verifiable evidence to support them. Scholars study these shared experiences and evidence, and organized them into a systematic arrangement of factual truths and principles which were then recorded in books and subsequently served as a means of communicating knowledge. As civilization evolved, other means of communicating knowledge and information developed, such as newspapers, radio and television; however, books remained the primary means of obtaining knowledge.

The building of academic institutions and the development of standardized curriculums allowed those with the desire to learn to be part of an organized community wherein they could be taught by trained teachers.   Chris Dede (2008) terms this the classical perspective on which formal education is based.   The educational institution and the scholar came to be understood as the primary “authorities” of knowledge. One tended to trust the information emerging from these institutions because they were the sources for veritable facts and truths. When printing was developed, books and newspapers became the conventional media through which new ideas were spread they shaped public knowledge about the world.  This allowed for huge advances in culture and society

2. THE INTERNET PHASE

The internet is a huge global communication facility of interconnected networks of computer. Larry Sanger (2008) views the internet as an information highway. Due to the superabundance and instant accessibility of information, the internet is re-shaping knowledge. As Dede (2008) says, “the internet is redefining how we and with whom we learn”. Is this abundance of information making us more knowledgeable or stupid? Larry Sanger (2008) thinks that this excess information ‘is devaluing knowledge,' and causes it to lose its distinctive characteristics. Similarly, David Weinberger (2016) suggests that this avalanche of information is transforming knowledge in such a way that we can no longer recognize knowledge when we see it. He posits that knowledge in this age of the internet is picking up properties of the new medium (Weinberger 2014:10). To understand knowledge in this context, let us consider some characteristics of the internet network: global nature, hyperlinks, mix of facts, and interactivity.

2.1. Global Nature:

The internet is a gigantic network complex. As mentioned in the introduction, it offers a plethora of information and this information is accessible to the entire world – for the mere fact that the internet spans the entire globe. We only need to get connected and can be immediately in touch with almost everything humanity has produced. However, there is a downside that comes with this overwhelming amount of information coming from all parts of the world. The downside can be found in attempting to manage it all.  According to Nicholas Carr  our brains are confronted with more distractions than ever before and this affects how we learn. If we fire up a browser to find out the various species of birds, we will be overwhelmed by the results that the search engine provides. This bounty of information can be very confusing. Sometimes we find ourselves navigating into online places we never imagined and haven't the faintest idea as to how we got there. Thus, as the internet directly puts forth this seemingly endless stream of information, we become unable to immerse ourselves and focus on one particular web source as we constantly find ourselves interrupted in order to check out all the information which we are being bombarded with at simultaneously.  

Information was managed differently when its primary medium was books and newspapers.  Academic authorities determined what students would study at a given period of time. Books in libraries were filtered to match the objective of set curriculum. In the era of news and news media (Radio, Television, and Newspaper), chief editors, known as gatekeepers  (Shabir et al 2015) filtered and shaped the news. Traditional news media could not cover the news as comprehensively as the internet does today. The gatekeepers decided according to the policy of the media house and their audience what news was suitable or not. In other words, they controlled the flow of information through their media, thereby controlling the public's knowledge of news events. Maxwell McCombs and Donald L. Shaw (1972) highlighted the gatekeeping process, when they put forth the agenda setting function of mass media. They emphasized that the media had the power to focus on a particular news item thereby influencing how much importance the audience attached to that news item. How a news item is framed was also another means of filtering access to information and influencing public knowledge. The way in which the news was presented became just an important element as the choice and emphasis of the news item. In short, the gatekeepers and media organizations did not only tell audiences what to think, but also how to think about what they think .

2.2. Hyperlinks

 How is filtering done on the internet? With the explosion of information on the internet, there are little or no filters. Internauts are exposed to a vast array of information and forced to make sense out of it on their own. Obtaining concise information can be a tedious thing to do. Now, the task is made easy by hyperlinks. In spite of the glut of information available on the internet, hyperlinks are a means by which the internet can provide information in a certain order. The links order information by ranking sites, thereby easing navigability as well as visibility on the internet while enabling access and collection of data. The hyperlinks also indicate that there is more information elsewhere and all one needs to do is to click. Weinberger (2014, p.6) sees this not so much as a way of filtering information out, but rather filtering information to ‘the front'.

In this process of filtering forward via hyperlinking, a new form of gatekeeping is being perceived. Eli Praiser (2011) in his article, when the internet thinks it knows you, observed that based on our clicks, the internet provides us with “personalized and appealing results”. How does this play out? The introduction of cookies, codes and algorithms allows the tracking of our surfing habits. Some sort of profile of interest is built up from this track. The result is obvious: the exposure of information becomes selective as the internet uses this profile to serve us with customized results.  Willi Knight (2017) thinks these codes are biased and yet they are remaking our lives.  Here is where the tragedy lies: the customization of search results affects what information we should have. These results limit us to only our very particular interests. Praiser (2011) states that the codes “have enormous power to determine what we know about the world.” They may eventually lead us into ‘filter bubbles' which has the consequence of making us less open-minded.

2.3. Mix of ‘facts'

The amount of ‘facts' on the internet is mind-boggling. We turn to the internet to find information, to exchange data, to inform ourselves of daily news around the world, to give and obtain advice on issues from politics to solving domestic (household) problems.  All this information influences our worldviews, attitudes and beliefs. Unfortunately, for all the accurate facts and statistics on the internet, there are equally as many mis-facts, misinformation, propaganda and other nonsense.  The internet has become an anonymous arena where there are little or no repercussions for sharing misinformation. As such, propagandistic and vindictive websites have emerged (Bartlet and Miller 2011). In the midst of this online pandemonium, facts are at the mercy of what people want to believe, which makes knowledge insecure. Who to trust and what information to trust becomes very difficult. The result of this is confirmation bias, wherein people focus on information and facts that confirm their pre-existing beliefs. They may engage solely in forums that allow them to communicate only with likeminded people who share their interest and concerns. Many express concern that engaging in these ‘cocoons'  may have pernicious effects. This also negatively affects the ‘democratic opinion forming processes (Borgesius et al, 2016).   In his farewell speech, President Obama (2017) warned against this:

For too many of us, it's become safer to retreat into our own filter bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or our college campuses or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions…..and increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it is true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.

Besides this warning and invitation to critically evaluate information, David Weinberger (2016) argues that knowledge in the age of the internet depends on individuals engaging in conversations within communities (somewhat like an echo chamber ), solidifying their beliefs amidst their tiny differences and becoming more and more reinforced in what they believe.

2.4. Interactivity

As earlier mentioned, the internet is a network of computers. But the internet does not just link up computers into networks; it heavily connects peoples, minds and ideas . Even though some reports claim that the internet is increasing the level of social isolation, the internet network links people into large-scale and more diverse social discussion networks (Hampton et al, 2009).  These networks are open-ended and stimulate people into interacting in an unrestricted manner, frankly collaborating and sharing their multiplicity of views.  These discussion networks have become a sort of online ‘gymnasium', or open access online avenues, where people actively engage in all sorts of activities as well as the pursuit of knowledge. As people link up, interact and engage in these multidimensional and multimodal discussions, David Weinberger (2016) avers that networked knowledge lies in these linkages – as he says, ‘knowledge is in the medium'. He argues that before, knowledge was understood as a product finely pieced together. That is, to know was to get the right product through memorization and regurgitation. But he underlines that in this digital age, knowledge is becoming what happens when links connect differences and peoples. That is to say networked knowledge lies in the web and processes of discussions. Thinking and knowing happens in these online interactive discussions. Chris Dede acknowledges that this is a shift in epistemology driven by the interactive media (Dede 2008).

This trend is reproduced and proliferated by Web 2.0 which are websites that become and grow out of what the net users make of them, - that is to say they are the participants.  The users generate knowledge by negotiating and compromises. They interact and collaborate by means of posts, comments, tweets, message board and conversation threading.

CONCLUSION

What is knowledge in a networked world? The internet has enriched our lives in ways that we could scarcely imagine. It has been argued throughout this essay that the internet has made it possible for us to instantly access a wealth of information. This instant access came as a shock to the system, transforming how we think and how we know. With information immediately ubiquitous and accessible, it upset the traditional way of acquiring knowledge which was through a gradual completion of standard curriculum. Unlike classical or traditional education which filtered out information and presented knowledge in very concise, orderly and structured manner, the internet hyperlinks filters information forward and yet also makes access instantaneous. While classical education provided a legitimate and qualifiable level of  knowledge, the internet  exposes people to a veritable cacophony of information and in the midst of which, leading people inclined to access that information which is most compatible with their preconceived beliefs, whether they are true or not. They voluntarily or involuntarily isolate themselves with people who share the same biases as they do. With that said, though the internet does offer access to a seemingly endless range of information, it also offers the possibility for connection. Hence, diverse online discussion networks have emerged enabling people to openly collaborate, share and develop their ideas without restrictions. Thus, knowledge in these networks becomes democratized, discursive and open-ended.  

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