The New Way of Knowing

It’s apparent that in a world dominated by a single global civilization linked together with a fuzzy, ad hoc semi-structured network, that the nature of knowledge itself is changing. David Weinberger put it perfectly in his book /Too Big to Know/:

The new way of knowing is just now becoming apparent. Although we can’t yet know its adult form, some aspects are taking form. Networked knowledge is less certain but more human. Less settled but more transparent. Less reliable but more inclusive. Less consistent but far richer. It feels more natural because the old ideas of knowledge were never realistic, although it’s taken the networking of our culture to get us to admit this.

The problem of course is that so much of clockworks of human societies are based on the idea of knowledge being absolute and exact. This is understandable when atomic clocks here on earth have been outperforming the accuracy of pulsars, nature’s stopwatches for time keeping for decades now.

But then, it’s science that has had to retreat from exactitude for some time now. The dual wave-particle nature of photons, chaos and uncertainty theory and quantum everything are all teaching us the same thing. The universe is not classically deterministic. We can know the statistical probability of something but can not predict any one instance of something.

This is a very different world we find ourselves living in from the heady days in the late 1940’s and 1950’s and early ‘60’s when everything seemed possible and knowable. It was a world where IBM had the trees on their campus cut square; a clear message that /we are in control,/ and given enough time we will be able to control /everything/.

The great modern legal systems, which had originally been founded on the concept of /common law/, where custom and judicial precedent was often more important rather than statutes (laws) gradually gave way to strict statutory law that were expected to be followed to the letter, without question or recourse. This led to the proliferation of now only onerous laws, but mountains of regulations, rules and red tape which taken together are all but impossible to comply with, and waste enormous amounts of time and resources.

Computing systems are no different. Search engines are governed by complex algorithms, which provide results which are not meant to be precise or even correct. But this has not stopped law makers and regulators from around the planet to try to force algorithmic services to be exact and precise.

Human cognition is far messier and inexact than we believe it to be, even on our best days. How can we expect these systems to do something that we are incapable of doing, and which, in all likely hood is as doomed to failure as because of the fundamental limitation of the ability of an observer to predict a result.

We need to dump the baggage of precision that is still being forced down our throats and reimagine a society which, as Weinberger says, “feels more natural because the old ideas of knowledge were never realistic.”