What I Learned in My Knowledge Management Class

The following essay summarizes some key concepts taught by Pierre Lévy in his excellent Knowledge Management seminar. It may be read as a follow-up to my previous article. Indeed, the most pressing question raised by the field of knowledge management today may be: how can we augment collective intelligence? I provide answers through four of the core ideas discussed in class.

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1) We are witnessing the rise of a generation of cyborgs who engage with each other through digital media.

In recent years, ubiquitous computers have induced exceptional change in society: cognition is now typically augmented by algorithms, decisions increasingly rely on the statistical treatment of mindbogglingly huge data streams, and above all, nearly everyone is now virtually connected to everyone.

Therefore, our cognitive prostheses serve one purpose above all others: communicating. What does this mean? When I speak, it is not merely to convey a proposition with a truth-value, but also to interact with fellow humans. Ludwig Wittgenstein asserts that “words are deeds”, a notion that is echoed by the “speech acts” of John R. Searle and John L. Austin.

On-line, nearly everything we do influences the structure of the network (through stigmergy). This calls for responsibility with regard to our role in shaping mankind’s collective memory. As we become simultaneously readers, authors, critics, editors, curators, librarians… we must come to integrate the notion of citizenship of the knowledge society. In ethical terms, this entails that we help others orient themselves in the collective memory.

In this sense, the crucial operations of knowledge management are the improvement of coding systems and of systems for reproducing and distributing knowledge.

2) We must rethink classical theories of knowledge management, lest they become obsolete.

When Ikujiro Nonaka developed his pioneering theory of knowledge management, around 1995, the World Wide Web was barely in its infancy. His theory is essentially applied epistemology based on the notions of tacit and explicit knowledge developed many decades prior by Michael Polanyi (for whom “we know more than we can say”):

  • The tacit is subjective, empirical, simultaneous, analog, practical…
  • The explicit is objective, rational, sequential, digital, theoretical…

Within this framework, knowledge is created in the interaction of the tacit and explicit dimensions. More recently, Nonaka has been writing on the concept of ba (borrowed from Kitaro Nishida): an actual or virtual place which promotes a feeling of proximity and receives a signification. Such a meaningful place to which people belong is deemed necessary for knowledge creation.

Although he goes into great pains to distinguish his ideas from those of the aforementioned authors, these theories are reminiscent of Étienne Wenger‘s account of communities of practice, within which the “negotiation of meaning” emerges from a dynamic of reification (“games”) and participation (“matches”).

In both cases, however, the theories outlined appear abstract and somewhat out of touch with my experience as a human in the 21st century. It seems likely that such theories are in need of a major update to reflect the recent evolution of society. Figure 1 below describes Pierre Lévy’s update of Nonaka & Takeuchi’s SECI model.

Pierre Lévy's Take on Nonaka & Takeuchi's SECI Model of the Transformation of Knowledge

Figure 1: The SECI model as explained by Pierre Lévy (click to enlarge)

3) Knowledge management is now principally done on-line via a “public hypersphere”.

If knowledge management requires personal investment, we must never forget that it is also, and perhaps primarily, a social process. According to thinkers such as Lev Vygotsky or Mikhail Bakhtin, the human ability to think is triggered not by monologue or soliloquy, but by effective dialogue. The main difference between our knowledge and that of animals is that it is discursive: we can learn to think as humans because we are embedded in social relationships.

Then, it should come as no surprise that “social media” are now the prominent space where knowledge management takes place. Each augmentation of language augments our cognitive capacities – from that perspective, the new platforms for organizing and sharing information that appear in cyberspace are nothing but another step in the progression that already saw mankind move from orality to scribal writing to lettered writing to mass media.

Common memory represents the result of collective learning, which emerges from combined individual learning processes (this cycle is described in Figure 2 below). As this process now takes place prominently in cyberspace, the unique features of the new anthropological plane must be accounted for: the new cardinal virtue is no longer objectivity, but transparency, and one’s attention is more scarce (and more valuable!) than ever before…

The Collaborative Learning Cycle in the Public Hypersphere

Figure 2: Pierre Lévy’s collaborative learning cycle (click to enlarge)

4) Pierre Lévy’s theory of thought is awesome.

Pierre Lévy’s own answer to the problem of augmenting collective intelligence is that we must make it reflexive by enabling participants to observe the workings of their own collective intelligence, in the same way that a dancer watches himself in the mirror to improve, for it is only after the fact that we realize our mistakes.

The two main traditional paradigms of artificial intelligence – which respectively attempt to reduce intelligence to logic and biology – yielded unsatisfactory partial results in light of the complexity of human thought. Could we develop a computable model of thought on wholly different grounds? Natural languages are irregular and in constant flux, thus they cannot provide the basis for such a model.

I will leave the reader with the following diagrammatic representation of Pierre Lévy’s model, as a teaser for his upcoming book.

Pierre Lévy Model of Thought (2013)

Figure 3: Pierre Lévy’s model of thought (click to enlarge)

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