The following text is much inspired by my work creating Saint-Blaise.Net, an association aimed at further developing the village community of Saint-Blaise socially, culturally and economically via a judicious use of the Internet. I have also been influenced by reading the interview with Karlfried Dürckheim [L'esprit guide, Frantz Woerly, Albin Michel, 1985] and his ideas about the importance of experience which I have taken the liberty of transfering from the spiritual to knowledge. I'd also like to thank Vikas Nath, currently at the LSE, who wrote to me about his KnowNet, the visiting of which set me writing this article. Finally, this article first appeared in a slightly different form as a series of notes on MyNotebook.
Knowledge and the Local Community
Discomfort with universal access
I was curious to know why I feel uncomfortable reading texts advocating widespread access to information. I have already written about the impossibility of universal access. Recently, I have come to believe that a good part of my discomfort is due to the fact that the information to be accessed is almost invariably created by others. We have been dispossessed as creators of knowledge (at least in the minds of those advocates) and our experience has been relegated to the distant background.
Creative approach to knowledge
The beginnings of my experience with Saint-Blaise.Net - integrating the use of the Internet in a village of 3000 inhabitants - indicates that the local community must first build on its own knowledge and experience. Ours is a creative approach to knowledge rather than one of consumption. The accent elsewhere seems to be on a passive model in which most people are seen and see themselves as consumers rather than creators of knowledge. At best, people can play around with information created by others.
Models of learning as consumption of knowledge
Despite a more experiential approach to learning in early school years, young people are rapidly channelled into a way of learning centred on consuming the knowledge of others rather than building on personal experience. The very principal of educational institutions is that they are privileged places for learning and as a result knowledge becomes a commodity dispensed by others outside our daily experience. Adult society, given the complexity of the world, has delegated much knowledge generation to experts, creating considerable problems for "ordinary people" to re-integrate that knowledge. What a waste when you pay others royally to learn for you only to realise that it is extremely difficult to transfer that learning back to yourself and subsequently use it.
Knowledge based on experience
What sort of knowledge and experience are we talking about? There is an on-going confusion between information and knowledge. I too have treated the two here almost as if they were synonymous. When we read about access to knowledge, often the authors mean information, that is to say: news, prices, stock values, statistics, ... as well as scientific facts. When they talk about creating knowledge, they generally imply "filtering, sorting and prioritising" (to quote one of them) what is already available elsewhere. I have written here of knowledge and experience. When people talk to others about their experience, what they have to say is anchored in their being, in their lives, even if the memories they recount have become distorted with time. Their tale is generally less abstract and more present than the more general, disembodied considerations that are often put forward as knowledge. What people have to say not only creates a link between them and us and weaves the threads of community around us, but it invariably leads to subjects from which we can learn much for ourselves. It is this knowledge based on experience that I am talking about. This is the knowledge which when shared serves to build and reinforce the community.
Against the backdrop of the past
In this local knowledge, there is both memory and accumulated knowledge and experience. Memory as understood here is not the recall of what has been stored in the brain, but rather as more or less structured past experience about people, places and events, and about how and why things are done. Recognising the role of memory is particularly important in understanding local knowledge because it constitutes a good part of the background against which current activities take place. Without this backdrop, what we do doesn't really make full sense. Without it, our acts are cut off from their roots.
Recognising the value of personal experience
In reality, much of the knowledge available in the local community is not widely known or shared, even within the community. The loss of the oral tradition has maybe contributed to the decrease in the circulation of such experience. The ever increasing size of local communities has no doubt also had its toll. Many people are reticent about sharing their experience or are convinced they have nothing to offer. One of the major tasks in opening up and sharing experience and knowledge locally consists of encouraging individuals to see that their experience is of value. This can be achieved by providing recognition for that experience. Note that sharing experience in this way implies a high level of respect for others that includes respecting the individual's right to withhold his or her experience should the person wish. It also means that listening to what others have to say is our free choice. This in turn means that creating mutual confidence is extremely important.
Sharing experience, as it is understood here, has nothing to do with the unrestrained way with which some people exhibit their least emotions or analyse at length and in detail their personal problems. Doing so in the right context no doubt can do some good for the individual, but that is not the point here. Sharing experience and personal knowledge in the community-wide context has to do with finding a balance between, on the one hand, the singular and the particular and, on the other, all that is general and collective. Clearly there is a need to celebrate that which makes each of us special - a fact that is totally neglected in our consumer society where material goods constitute the essential difference between people. But, at the same time, in communicating our experience to others, we need to have the community at heart and consider that in doing so we contribute to the collective good. We touch here briefly on the larger ethical framework that necessarily underscores all human exchange and action if it is to be in the interests of all and sustainable in the long run.
Once the barriers to expression have been overcome, there is still a need to communicate that experience and knowledge. How good it is to be able share experience with others - but talking to people about what you know has its limits if you want to do so more widely without loosing something of the heart-felt direct contact. It is here that the Internet can play a key role both as a less rigid form of publication (the web) allowing people to evolve and develop what they have written and as a channel for asynchronous communication (e-mail) freeing people to choose when and to whom they want to respond.
Bringing people to write about their experience can be difficult. Many people have given up on writing as a form of expression, daunted as they were by earlier unpleasant experiences. In parenthesis, much of the difficulty people had in writing at school was probably due to the fact that what they were obliged to write wasn't based on their own experience but on imposed themes and ill-undestood styles.
One way of approaching the writing of experience is to use the interview. Listening carefully (full of care) to what others have to say is a first step towards helping them recognise the value of their experience. Writing what they say and then submitting those texts to them for correction is a further step, this time towards the written formulation of their ideas. And publishing the corrected text of the interview is both an additional step towards the wider recognition of the value of their experience but also a first move towards sharing that experience within the community.
Beyond the written word
Note that not all knowledge needs to be or should be written down. One of the errors of advocates of so-called "knowledge management" is that they believe they can get all useful knowledge into a computer. This is not only impossible, but also undesirable. Much context-based knowledge, what is called "tacit" knowledge, is best kept out of a computer because it changes so rapidly and depends on a context that can hardly be categorised in a computer. For such knowledge, the Internet is an efficient means of locating and contacting those who have the knowledge that interests us rather than trying to cram their knowledge into a database. For the local community this implies that the Internet needs to be used in conjunction with other local activities so as to put people in contact with each other or at least to offer the possibility of getting in contact with each other when it is desired or required.
Structures for sharing knowledge
Sharing knowledge within the local community can take place at any time and in any place. But a number of contexts play a privileged role. Clubs and associations, for example, the church, trade unions and political parties, not to mention the family. All are contexts in which individuals can share their experience and knowledge with others. There are however limitations to these structures when it comes to intensifying the exchange and development of knowledge - which after all is the underlying aim of a so-called "knowledge society". One of these limitations is the restriction to experience circulating between these structures. However, probably the most important limitation is that sharing experience and sharing knowledge are not considered as the central activity of these groups. If it is perceived at all, it is seen as a secondary, additional advantage. What is needed is a catalyst that works with existing structures to focalise attention more on sharing experience and developing knowledge. This is exactly what Saint.Blaise.Net is about. The aim of Saint-Blaise.Net is to encourage social, cultural and economic development within the village by a judicious use of the Internet. Having said that, the Internet, in a way, is only a pretext, even if it is also a very useful tool. The Internet should never be our central preoccupation. We are not here to glorify technology.
Why share knowledge?
Sharing knowledge consolidates and enriches the community both by nurturing knowledge and facilitating decision-making but also by strengthening the links and bonds between people. At the same time, it contributes to the well being of each and every individual by reinforcing their sense of personal value as a human being (rather than purely as a wage-earner) and by strengthening their relationship to those around them. Note that the notion of value used here goes beyond that of value being equated with money or material possessions. I suspect that attempts to harness the emergence of the knowledge society uniquely to market logic - making all knowledge a saleable commodity - is an impoverishment of a potentially much more rewarding and enriching human experience. Sharing contributes lastingly to sustainability of society.
And knowledge from elsewhere?
Don't misunderstand me. In talking of what might be called "home-grown" knowledge, I don't mean to suggest that knowledge "made elsewhere" should be neglected. On the contrary, it is extremely important. It is just that the balance in our society is disproportionately weighed in favour of knowledge from elsewhere. What I'm stressing here is that knowledge acquired from outside the community needs to be integrated into the solid foundations of knowledge developed and shared within the community. What's more, knowledge acquired from abstract sources, for example by reading, needs to be integrated via our experience. Marc-Alain Ouaknin expresses an attitude to reading that seems to me to characterise best what I mean. Rather than taking what is written at its face value, as dogma if you like, he pleads for an on-going exploration that goes beyond the self-evident. [See Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Lire aux éclats - éloge de la caresse, Seuil, 1989] As such, reading becomes an intense personal experience. Of course, with this approach in mind, many books may well not be worth reading.
One of the extremely delicate balances in society is that between constancy and change. Too much of one or the other can be unhealthy for all concerned. This is true at all levels of life from the single cell to the whole universe. It is particularly true of the local community.
Building on local experience
In talking of knowledge within a village like Saint-Blaise we are at the heart of that problem of balance. People's lasting value to society does not necessarily lie in their current performance and aggregate income but rather in accumulated past experience. The coherence of local society is not to be found in current trends or fads, but in time-honoured activities that structure time and space and give a meaning to life. At the same time, the village cannot exist isolated from the world around it. Interconnectedness has become a central part of our understanding of the world in which the ideas and acts of others elsewhere necessarily have an impact on our daily lives. So-called "globalisation" appears to be one aspect of such interconnectedness. Unfortunately, much of the discourse about globalisation ignores the local community and its rich past. It is this sense that one could wonder if globalisation, in its current short-sighted form, does not lead us blindly to much misery in an unsustainable future. We may well wish to protect ourselves against such an undesirable and unrequested influence from the outside world. However, setting the "global" context in a more positive light, experiences flowing into the local community from elsewhere can bring a refreshing, if not essential breath of fresh air, including new ideas, new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing the world, a wider, more enriching perspective as well as unforeseen answers to otherwise unsolvable problems.
Integrating knowledge from elsewhere
Finding the right balance between the old and the new, between the tried and tested and the excitement of risk-taking, needs to be anchored in our approach to knowledge. I suspect, although I haven't the proof yet, that opening up and exchanging experience within the local community will facilitate the judicious integration of knowledge and experience from elsewhere. Being solidly anchored in a feeling of the value of their own experience should make it possible for the local community to feel less threatened by innovation and more open to new experience. At the same time, they should be better equipped to judge the appropriateness of what is available and freely choose what is best for them and their community.
Alan McCluskey, Saint-BlaiseShare or comment
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