Billets récents
e-Groups, Knowledge building, Politics
“Power Matters”
Paper presented on April 27th 2007 (Berlin)

The digital distribution of knowledge is determined by the collaboration of multiple stake-holders: educators, programmers, various areas in the computer industry, even Administrations and States.

It is a requirement to investigate into how, and to what extent, both the digitalization of knowledge and its informational distribution imply new ways for these stake-holders to "connect” to one another, and reciprocally exercise multiple forms of power with the help of or even against one another.

Inquiring into these tensions is showing why power matters.

‘Knowledge building’ does not come out of the blue. Knowing requires learning, learning itself requiring ‘knowledge distribution’. Now ‘knowledge distribution’ is a process that belongs to various networks. Among them a family, which can be considered a ‘natural’ networked sphere where one or more generations teach the youngest or learn from one another; a school is also a network, or the Social Sphere as such, not to mention institutions and the State itself. ‘Knowledge distribution’ occurs by means of language, communication, information distribution, in other words various forms of networked distribution of discourse.

This is why, not in contemporary theory alone, but also in traditional authors like Plato, ‘knowledge distribution’ is a political matter as well as an epistemological one. Indeed, in The Republic, not only does Plato answer the question of what knowledge is, he also reflects upon what the means and the goals of such distribution are or should be.

In Plato’s mind, distributing knowledge is knowing what to teach to whom and how, according to each person’s supposedly ‘natural/essential’ capabilities. Which of course also requires some knowledge of what these ‘natural/essential’ capabilities are in themselves. Nowadays we might be reluctant to accepting that any person has a determined set of such ‘natural/essential’ intellectual and physical properties; we must nevertheless take very seriously into account the fact that the connection between such supposedly ‘given’ capabilities and the distribution of knowledge is — at least to Plato — a political matter, a matter of distributed power.

In effect, that ‘knowledge distribution’ is a matter of power; that it stresses the importance of power and its own distribution within any given network; that in fact it is one of the means through which power materializes — all of these are classical philosophical questions, which are to a large extent renewed by the development of contemporary networks and the ideological delusions they tend to sustain: delusion of availability, delusion of fluidity, delusion of easiness and pertinence. What should thus be questioned is the transparency of the process of knowledge and power building through distribution. Should this be considered a new phenomenon, we would be facing an intellectual Renaissance. So what are the terms of such an appealing philosophical ‘Renaissance’?

When asked about ‘knowledge distribution’, one must consider the very networks through which knowledge is distributed. The Internet, as such, is not a network for ‘knowledge distribution’, it is a network for the replication, distribution and commodification of information. For at least two sets of reasons, it is indeed of the utmost importance to make and stress the difference between information and knowledge.
 Information is a set of more or less accurate descriptions of facts and events — these being either ‘true’ or ‘false’. In this regard, information does not have to be true to be information, or even to be useful. On the other hand it is produced anywhere, and by means of the Internet can replicate anywhere. In other words, it is not rooted, it is not attached to any form of cultural ground. On the contrary, its circulation is in itself its cultural ground, its root is having no roots and flowing from any given world coordinate to any other world coordinate. This means that information explicitly requires to be rootless to be even more ubiquitous and efficient.
 Knowledge is also a set of more or less accurate descriptions, but it is also rooted into cultural beliefs, into an irreducible cultural background. Knowledge is also reflexive in essence, which obviously does not mean that it equals what used to be called ‘wisdom’, but it certainly is the result of some form of personal appropriation: knowing is knowing that you know [1], while possessing information can very well be accompanied with the ignorance of its meaning, use, importance, etc. If I own a revolutionary mathematical treatise without being a mathematician myself, I certainly own an important amount of information; in the meantime, I remain totally unaware of its importance, not to say its meaning, and I am still a non-mathematician and an ignorant!

In short, one could say that while knowledge is a (self) appropriating procedure, information is a depropriating process, in the sense that its logics require to follow the continuous flow of data gushing out of numerous sources and their changing patterns. Paradoxically, the dynamics of knowledge tend to the construction of substance and identity while reflecting ideas; those of information necessitate the multipolarozation of the self and its disorientation while accumulating raw data. That is why power matters, and in more than one sense:

  1. The substitution of information for knowledge relies upon the commodification of knowledge itself, thus its utilitarian mutation into mere information. Represented as a perfect multi-accessible encyclopedic world, the Internet is supposed to provide us with ‘content’, a not so neutral word meaning that what we experience is ‘valuable‘ — though little is said about what makes it ‘content’, if not ‘valuable’. ‘Content’ being continuously removed/added, it allows for an extensive (com-)modification of the Internet’s patterns and organization [2]. Hence, economical if not political power is central to the process of information distribution, for information can be more effectively distributed if strong organized networks provide the necessary means for such distribution [3].
  2. This is not only to say that networks providing us with flows of information have to be organized, though if they are, as corporate or professional networks, they will be more efficient at commodifying their ‘goods’. In fact ‘organization’ relates to information itself. Information needs to be organized into at least some pattern of knowledge, it has to be distributed as ‘true’ or ‘false’, thus it has to be pre-processed, ‘crunched’ so to say, into acceptable chunks of ‘knowledge’. To the commodifying instance, the epistemological criteria for this processing are not really at stake. What is at stake is the efficiency of the process of commodification, the ‘acceptability’ of the results in terms of ‘knowledge’ and the satisfaction — intellectual or commercial — of the recipient. True, on second thought, it is to the analyst a crucial epistemological problem a) to determine according to which patterns information has been or should be processed and transformed into knowledge, then distributed as such; and b) to determine according to which principles one — anyone — should be chosen do the work of processing information into knowledge: institutions or individuals? search engines or scientists? private companies or public administrations? bottom-up encyclopedias or P2P Wikis? Which leads us to a third point.
  3. One might consider that the solution to the problem of knowledge commodification could be an increasing competition between organized and informal networks. These are currently competing, as academic institutions against nebulae locally productive of syndicated content (such as Wikis or Blogs), as well as interest groups of many kinds, like patients’, students’, tax payers’, etc. However things are not so simple. It is obviously inaccurate to pretend that ‘non oraganized groups’ are ‘not organized’ or ‘badly organized’. Indeed, though their hierarchical structure might be different from the traditional chain of command, informal groups are groups of distributed power, where decisions must be taken, where efforts must be made, where personal or financial investments are needed, where sometimes sacrifices are made, in terms of time, availability, family life, etc. In other words, there is no real alternative between organized and non-organized networks or between power and the absence of power. There are simply various forms of knowledge distribution, which are a consequence of various forms of power distribution [4].
  4. The efficiency dilemma the competing so-called organized and non-organized networks have to tackle with — who does what, when and how — is not simply a matter of socio-politically distributed power. It is also, more consistently, a matter of technical power, a matter of controlling either one or both the hardware and software equipment needed to deal with information and/or knowledge. It is a fact that both software and hardware are required to distribute and build knowledge, which means that the power to do so has to do with the power to control what you do by doing so! For instance at a very local and narrow level, a knowledgeable teacher must know how to broadcast and make accessible his knowledge to his students, as well as how to allow them to discuss any issues they need to. This implies technology as well as network access for the teacher and his/her students, and that their school be equipped with the proper hardware and software, machines and technicians being available for using or administrating the network. This means policies and investments at an institutional level, not only the school itself. It is thus quite understandable why power matters: it ‘crystalizes’, it becomes material, so to say, as if power were ‘plugged’ not only into the machines — the hardware and the software — but also into the ‘humanware’ around them: the social sphere in which political, economical, and social decisions are taken.

To summarize what has just been said, it is obvious that ‘power matters’ in a triple sense. In the sense that dealing with knowledge building/distribution is dealing with power building/distribution; in the sense that power is thus a central issue, not a collateral concern; and in the sense that we can observe its materialization in the form of the network industries and the socio-polical sphere they determine.

This argument seems to result into a twofold conclusion.

On the one hand, it seems obvious by now that one may not reflect upon knowledge and its building and distribution without coping with the multiple and complex technical and human structures that lie ‘under the hood’ of knowledge as such. This is an old idea already to be found in Plato’s philosophy, unsurpassed to this day. In its reality, the problem of knowledge is not only an epistemological one, it is also a political problem implying the use of power — arbitrary or not. Even more so as networks and the Internet tend to make us believe in the transparency and the ubiquitous accessibility of ‘knowledge’.

On the other hand, knowledge itself and its nature are obviously at stake. This is surely a wide open debate. One might certainly stigmatize the informational desubstantialization of knowledge: we are facing flows of text, sound, images, video, without really knowing what to make of them. Or maybe we might just let ourselves be submersed, hoping to ‘scuba-dive’ into the depths of information and find some illuminating ideas for our present and/or future... But then again, perhaps we should think twice about this very complex phenomenon of information and/or knowledge flows. For we might in fact be experiencing new patterns of knowledge building and distribution, where dynamic building blocks are coherently though only temporarily organized into schemes of our world and its reality. That would be neither knowledge nor information, that would be: infoledge! The one remaining, almost hitchcockean question being: ‘What exactly is infoledge?’

[1] This is also a very old idea, analyzed in Plato’s Theætetus for instance or in Spinoza’s Treatise on the Improvement of Understanding.

[2] Indeed, snapshots of the Internet are not the same according to whether they are taken by a popular search engine or a professional one, through the measuring of data flows or through the analysis of the syndication of semantic ‘clouds’ of content.

[3] In A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2003), McKenzie Wark calls this commodification process the ‘vectoralization’ of information.

[4] See Geert Lovink, The Principle of Notworking, available online at URL: http://www.hva.nl/lectoraten/documenten/ol09-050224-lovink.pdf.

PS: Centre Marc Bloch (Berlin)