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Knowing

In many research projects related to the use of new technologies, the knowledge developed doesn't seem to get much beyond a small circle of individuals and has little impact on society at large except occasionally when it is embedded in the tools themselves. Widely broadcasting the results is not sufficient - even if that in itself would be a considerable improvement. There has to be involvement of all the actors concerned in developing their own understanding.

Let's see if we can grasp what is being asserted here. It might be convenient if knowledge were like objects that could be moved around, stored, picked up or thrown away without having any effect on the rest of knowledge. People could "access" knowledge easily. Others could sell it in user-friendly packages. But knowledge is not like that. It is not a series of discrete entities, even if it can be seen to be embodied in objects like books, articles, recipes, guides, ... In reality, knowledge depends on individuals, on given communities and their ways of doing things and it also depends very much on the context.

Knowledge needs to grow and develop. The metaphor of knowledge as alive and growing - something that has a life of its own - is very stimulating. To be more prosaic, knowledge is complex, inter-related and constantly changing. One of the interesting aspects of this organic metaphor is that if knowledge becomes fixed or separated from its context it loses some if not all of its value because it may no longer be appropriate to the new circumstances.

Let's stay for a moment with the idea that knowledge about the usage of new technologies including so called "best practices" need be anchored in the community directly concerned. One of the main difficulties with spreading the results of research is that the development of those results has not involved the actors concerned. Those actors rarely have the chance to think out their situation through and during the research, especially as they are generally under pressure to produce rather than to think out what they do. The understanding of research is in the heads, in the language and in the context of the research workers, not in the lives, work and acts of those "users" being studied. Here is the dilemma: "how do you 'transfer' that knowledge from the research workers to the users?" Maybe the question comes too late. What use in having built up knowledge in and around a small community of people if the very nature of that accumulation implies that few others can readily use the knowledge thus gathered? Without the direct involvement of the user, one wonders about the validity of this "closed-circuit" research. If the aim be power, surely the authority that traditionally goes with possessing knowledge will be severely diminished if that knowledge is widely seen to have no impact on the way things are done? How long can we accept the argument that maybe some day this knowledge will have its use? Shouldn't those who are going to have to act on that knowledge be in at the start of developing it?

We could be taxed with having a far too utilitarian vision of knowledge here. In many cases though, the application of knowledge about new technologies and their usage in decision-making is of an operational nature. "Is this working out well?" "How could we do better?" "What happens if we do that?" "How did they learn that?" What use having explanations, if they don't enhance our understanding of the world around us ... especially as far as those things that effect our work and our lives are concerned?

The place for ethics ...

Along side the utilitarian, as can be seen in a couple of the examples quoted above, we need to raise the question of values. We must have a clear understanding of what values underlie our action. There can be no satisfactory long-term decision-making if we do not address ethical considerations. There are many examples where the refusal of ethical considerations has led to disastrous results. The mechanisms of the market-place alone are no guarantee that the best for society as a whole will "naturally" triumph. Unfortunately the State as the delegated voice of the citizens and natural counterbalance to the unfettered desires and drives of market forces has increasingly adopted market criteria for judging what is appropriate. In other words, for many, making profit is seen as the sole value for judging.

.. and the spiritual

Our set of values, although not always explicit, form part of a larger ensemble made up of beliefs, aspirations, ambitions and visions of the way things are or should be. Adopting a much broader perspective on knowing, going beyond the materialist idea - as championed by science - that knowledge is developed by progressively moving from ignorance to understanding, the spiritual vision emphasises that we are all part of the One and the One is part of us all, and us such we inherently know all. From the spiritual point of view we do not discover, but rather uncover what we know already. Knowing, in the spiritual sense, is acquired differently from the more "material" knowledge. The latter can, however, contribute to the former depending on the attitude in which that learning is undertaken. "What is the relevance?", you may well ask. Beyond the ethical questions raised above, is there not an all-embracing framework in which "knowing" takes on a much broader and deeper meaning? Is not the enthusiasm for the Internet symptomatic of a deeper drive to be connected to the One?

Alan McCluskey, Barcelona.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
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Created: October 9th, 1998 - Last up-dated: October 9th, 1998