Industrialized Learning: Knowledge != Information

To comment on Dan’s post titled Industrialized Learning?? I agree the the industrialization of the search for knowledge is a scary thing indeed, and in many respects the structure of our education system has suggested a trend in that direction (for more on that, watch this excellent video).  However, I don’t think that is necessarily Google’s goal.  As Carr mentioned, Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”  Organizing information, and creating tools to systematically archive and find information is not the same as industrializing the search for knowledge.  In fact, I would argue that the search for knowledge benefits if all the world’s existing information is organized in a systematic way to make it easy for anyone to access it.  Libraries have had a similar goal long before Google came around.

Now certainly, the way our information is organized and the way we search for it does change the way we think about information, I think that was one of the key points in Carr’s article.  However, changing the way we think in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it is in fact a continuous process that has been a reality since we were able to stand upright freeing our hands for tasks other than mobility.

To be clear, I am not suggesting we give Google (or any other organization that deals with our information) carte blanche when it comes to the handling of the world’s information.  However, it is important to keep in mind that while information is a component of knowledge, information alone does not define knowledge.  The fear that the standardization and systematization of tasks will turn humans into mindless automatons is certainly something to think about and there is plenty of evidence from the Industrial Revolution that that is indeed the case.  However, the same economic forces that favor standardizing and systematization of a task also favor replacing a human automaton with a robot designed to complete that task.  Of course, currently we are facing a new problem as a result: how do we employ all these people who’s jobs have been replaced with robots?  We definitely need to have that discussion, but I don’t think the answer is to fight the systematization of tasks and put people back in those jobs, but rather to focus on what we are still better at than any  algorithm: creative thinking and imagination, and the search for knowledge.

The Freedom to be “Technologically Elite”

Also in response to Kim’s recent post.  I think the conversation about access and the issue of digital inclusion is a very important one to have, and we need to continue to be aware of how the tools and technologies we use may include or exclude people.  I would like to talk a bit about the concept of the “technological elite” that Kim brought up.  It’s important to be aware that it is possible for an elite minority to control the tools the majority comes to depend and rely on, but that is not currently the case, and in fact, I would argue that it will only become a reality if the majority allows it to happen.  As Jon Udell mentioned in his conversation the Internet itself has always been and continues to be an inherently distributed technology.  No single organization, whether it be corporate or governmental, owns or controls it.  There have been attempts, and there will continue to be attempts to restrict freedoms and tighten control, like the recent attempted SOPA/PIPA legislation, but it is our responsibility to continue to be aware of those attempts and fight them.

Many popular software tools in use, including WordPress which powers this blog, are free and open source.  This means that anyone can take a look at the source code to learn what is going on behind the scenes, and in many cases, modify and improve that tool for your own or public use.  The language that WordPress is written in, PHP is not only open-source, but there are a plethora of free tutorials online for anyone interested in learning how to program in the language.  The database used by WordPress to store and retrieve content, MySQL is currently open source, though the project itself was originally proprietary (Another relational database management system, PostgreSQL, has been open source for the entirety of its live-time and in many cases can be used as a drop-in replacement for MySQL). The majority of servers powering the internet run some version of the Linux operating system, itself freely available and open source.

Each of these projects, at the various layers the build up to form the tools that we use are generally well documented with enough information freely available to allow anyone who wants to become an expert in their use and design.  Now of course, not everyone will become an expert, and they experts for any one project are not necessarily experts in any other.  But specialization has allowed us to advance as a society in a way that would not be possible without it.

And because I love food:

When many of us began specializing in fields that did not involve agriculture and food production, we became dependent on those who did for our very survival.  Yet I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard anyone call farmers members of the “Agricultural Elite”.  Like the Internet tools I’ve mentioned, any of us have the agency to become experts in farming if we so choose.