- 1 Introducing our initiative
- 2 Introducing knowledge federation
- 3 Intermission
- 4 Knowledge federation introduces itself
- 5 A case for a new paradigm in knowledge work
- 6 Turning on the light
Introducing our initiative
A historical parallel
To understand the nature of the vision that motivates our initiative, think about the world at the twilight of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance. Recall the devastating religious wars, terrifying epidemics... Bring to mind the iconic image of the scholastics discussing "how many angels can dance on a needle point"; and the iconic image of Galilei in house arrest, a century after Copernicus, whispering eppur si muove into his beard.
Observe that the problems of the epoch were not resolved by focusing on those problems, but by a slow and steady development of a whole new approach to knowledge. Several centuries of accelerated evolution followed. Could a similar advent be in store for us today?
"If I have seen further," Sir Isaac Newton famously declared, "it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The point of departure of our initiative was a discovery. We did not discover that the best ideas of our best minds were drowning in an ocean of glut. Vannevar Bush, a giant, diagnosed that nearly three quarters of a century ago. He urged the scientists to focus on that disturbing trend and find a remedy. But needless to say, this too drowned in glut.
What we did find out, when we began to develop and apply knowledge federation as a remedial praxis, was that now just as in Newton's time, the insights of giants add up to a whole new approach to knowledge. And that just as the case was then, this new approach to knowledge naturally leads to sweeping changes of the ways in which core issues are understood and handled.
We thus realized that there is an approach to knowledge which
- resolves the fundamental incongruities and provides a solid and rigorous foundation for creating truth and meaning – and hence needs to be developed for fundamental or academic reasons
- gives us the people the power to use knowledge to understand and manage the complex and rapidly changing realities we have created – and hence needs to be developed for pragmatic reasons as well
It is the insight into this dual nature of the emerging approach to knowledge that compelled us to apply the best of our abilities to its exploration and development.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality", observed Buckminster Fuller. "To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” So we built knowledge federation as a model or a prototype of a new way to work with knowledge (or technically a paradigm); and of a new institution (or technically a transdiscipline) that is capable of developing this new new approach to knowledge in academic and real-life practice.
By sharing this model, we do not aim to give conclusive answers. Our goal is indeed much higher – it is to open up a creative frontier where the ways in which knowledge is created and used, and more generally the ways in which our creative efforts are directed, are brought into focus and continuously recreated and improved.
By sharing this model, we initiate a conversation about the ways we handle a most important resource – human creativity (or insight, ingenuity, capacity to envision and induce change...) and its fruits accumulated through the ages. We may need to depend on this resource at this point in our history more than we ever did!
What follows is a description of the knowledge federation model, and an invitation to a conversation. The purpose of the conversation will be to discuss the opportunity that our model will illuminate – and by doing that already make concerted progress toward our goal.
We rush to make this clear: When we say "conversation", we don't mean just talking. On the contrary! The idea is to develop a new way of talking in public, an orchestrated, media-enabled and growing global conversation about the themes that matter. The idea is to evolve a collective mind capable of thinking new thoughts, of grasping situations and finding solutions. We intend to bring giants, instead of Donald Trump, to the focus of the public eye.
We will not solve global problems
Donella Meadows talked about systemic leverage points as those places within a complex system "where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything". She identified "the mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise" as the most impactful kind of systemic leverage points. Our proposal is to act in this most impactful way.
We are proposing an approach to contemporary issues that is complementary to the conventional approaches, which focus on those issues.
This does not mean that we are proposing to replace or diminish the worthy efforts of our friends and colleagues that are focused on specific problems such as the climate change, or on the millennium development goals. Our proposal is to vastly augment the prospects of those efforts to succeed. And to also change the mood that "sustainability" might be associated with from sustaining to creating; from necessity to opportunity. To add enthusiasm and vigor, the discovery and development of a whole new order of things, to the growing concern about "contemporary issues".
On a similar note, we are not implying that anything is wrong with the fine work that our academic colleagues are doing. Science rose to prominence owing to its successes in dispelling age-old prejudices, by explaining the natural phenomena. That it ended up in "the Grand Revelator of modern Western culture" role was an unintended consequence of its successes, as Benjamin Lee Whorf insightfully observed. Science was not conceived for the role of informing people about basic things in life. The paradigm we are proposing is incommensurable to traditional science, in Thomas Kuhn's usage of this word – it represents a different set of values and ways of looking at things, and it serves a different set of purposes. We have ample evidence to show that if our society shall have the kind of benefits that it can and must draw from the results in disciplinary academic work, then (something like) knowledge federation must also be in place.
We will not change the world
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has", wrote Margaret Mead. You'll find evidence of our thoughtfulness and commitment on these pages.
And yet it is clear to us, and should be clear to you too, that we cannot really change the world. The world is not only us – it is all of us together! It includes you too.
So if the world will indeed change, that will be a result of your doing, of your thoughtfulness and commitment!
Collaboration is to the new paradigm as competition is to the old one. In Norway (this website is hosted at the University of Oslo) there is a word for this – dugnad (pronounced as doognud). A typical dugnad might be organized by the people in a neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon, to gather fallen leaves and branches and do small repairs in the commons, and then share a meal together. We now need the dugnad spirit at the university. And of course also in our society.
So if you'll feel inspired by what's presented on these pages, please consider knowledge federation to be your project, not ours.
Introducing knowledge federation
Knowledge federation is just knowledge creation
As our logo might suggest, knowledge federation means 'connecting the dots' – combining disparate pieces of information and other knowledge resources into higher-order units of meaning. The meaning we assign to this keyword is similar as in political and institutional federation, where smaller entities unite to achieve higher visibility and impact.
One might say that what we are calling knowledge federation is just what we normally do with information to turn it into knowledge. You may have an idea in mind – but can you say that you really know it, before you have checked if it's consistent with your other ideas? And with the ideas of others? And even then – can you say that your idea is known before other people have integrated it with their ideas?
Science too federates knowledge; citations and peer reviews are there to secure that. But science does its federation in an idiosyncratic way – by explaining the mechanisms of nature, and the phenomena as their consequence.
Why develop an initiative around such an everyday activity?
A natural approach to knowledge
What we have undertaken to put in place is what one might call the natural way to federate knowledge; or the natural handling of knowledge. Think on the one side of all the knowledge we own, in academic articles and also broader. Include the heritage of the world traditions. Include the insights reached by creative people daily. Think on the other side of all the questions we need to have answered. Think about the insights that could inform our lives, the rules of thumb that could direct our action. Imagine them occupying distinct levels of generality. You may then understand knowledge federation as whatever we the people may need to do to maintain, organize, update and keep up to date the elements of this hierarchy.
Put simply, knowledge federation is the creation and use of knowledge we need – to be able to understand the increasingly complex world around us; to be able to live and act in it in an informed, sustainable or simply better way.
Our vision is of an informed post-traditional or post-industrial society – where our understanding and handling of the core issues of our lives and times reflect the best available knowledge; where knowledge is created and integrated and applied with that goal in mind; and where information technology is developed and used accordingly.
As a way of handling knowledge, knowledge federation is in the proper sense of that word (as Thomas Kuhn defined it and used it) a paradigm. We offer it as an alternative to the approaches to knowledge where the goal is to create a single "reality picture", with which whatever is to be considered "real" or "true" must be consistent. Isn't the dictatorship of any single worldview an impediment to communication; and to evolution of ideas? In knowledge federation the ideas and their authors are allowed to preserve some of their autonomy and identity. The goal is still to unify them and make our understanding of the world coherent – but not at all cost! Sometimes good ideas just cannot be reconciled. Sometimes they represent distinct points of view, each useful in its own right.
We would not be repeating Einstein's familiar adage if it did not point so perfectly to the very first step with which our journey needs to begin. In what ways may our thinking need to be different, if we should be able to understand and develop the emerging paradigm? We here point to two characteristics which – as everything indeed tends to be in a paradigm – are so closely related that they may well be considered as two sides of a single coin.
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
The first characteristic of the new thinking is to take the time to think and digest.
Slow thinking is to Einstein's "same thinking" as slow food is to fast food – it takes a bit more time, but it gives incomparably better nourishment and digestion. It also builds an entirely different relationship with (not food but) ideas and the people who developed them, which makes it all so much more worthwhile.
A paradigm is a harmonious yet complex web of relationships. If you want to step into the realm of opportunities we are now opening up, if you want to look beyond our thus far cloudy visions, and see the concrete web of relationships that makes all this truly exciting – then you need to slow down and reflect. Give yourself time to discover. There's just no way around that. We can point to relationships – but it's you who'll need to see them and examine them.
The question immediately arises – in the busy world we live in, how can we find the time that the slow thinking obviously requires? The answer is that we don't really need to be so busy. Being busy will turn out to be a consequence of the structure of "the systems in which we live and work". To an astonishing and even breath-taking degree, those systems will turn out to be wasting our time and energy, without us noticing that!
And so becoming capable of seeing those systems is a key step in our liberation from the prevailing paradigm, and toward the emerging one. To put this differently, the second characteristic of (what we propose as) the remedial way to think is that it is systemic. What exactly this means, practically and concretely – we'll now offer to you to reflect on and grasp. This brief intuitive introduction to systemic thinking will not only help you slow down and reflect, but it will also already give you a concrete idea of the kind of changes of our daily realities that we've been talking about so far in abstract terms.
Knowledge federation introduces itself
The next step
The way we create, use and value knowledge has a life of its own, or more precisely, an evolution of its own. The academic tradition – as represented by science and philosophy – is upholding the contemporary standard of excellence.
What we are talking about is the next step in this evolution – which leads into a whole new way of working and a whole new standard of excellence, or in a word, a whole new paradigm.
So before we let this paradigm introduce itself, here's a very brief account of the historical process, the evolution that brought us to the point where we are now.
How we got where we are
The rediscovery of Aristotle (whose works had been preserved by the Arabs) was a major event in the history of the Middle Ages. But the scholastics used his rational method only to argue the truths of the Scriptures.
Aristotle's natural philosophy was common-sense: Objects have a tendency to fall down, and the heavier ones tend to fall faster. Galilei saw a flaw in his conclusion – and proved it wrong experimentally, by throwing stones from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
It was, however, Newton, that brought mathematics into this affaire: v = gt. The constant g can be measured by experiment. We can use the maths to predict precisely what the speed of a falling object will be!
This approach to exploring natural phenomena proved to be so superior to what existed before, and so fertile both in explaining phenomena and in changing the human condition, that it naturally became the standard of excellence that all knowledge (if it is to be called "scientific" or "academic") should emulate.
Knowledge federation as a language
Every paradigm brings with it a new way of speaking. The only thing that is different about knowledge federation is that it does not bring along a fixed language – but a way to recreate the language; to both make the terms precise and adapt them to what needs to be seen and said.
So think about knowledge federation as a way to liberate academic language from age-old concepts and patterns; think of it as a way to federate what we've learn about knowledge and knowledge work from the sciences, and also from the arts and communication design and... – and adapt that for the purpose at hand, of creating insights that can provide us the kind of practical orientation we most urgently need.
In what follows we'll introduce just a handful of most basic such new concepts – and use them to define more precisely what our initiative is about.
A curious-looking mathematical formula
Why use only maths?
It is best to consider the above image as a straight-forward generalization of the language of mathematics. Think of it as a curious-looking mathematical formula. Just as Newton's formula does, this ideogram describes a relationship between two things, represented by the bus and its headlights. But while Newton's kind of maths expresses only quantitative relationships, between quantities measured by dry numbers, an ideogram can represent virtually any relationship, even an emotional one. It can express the nature of a situation.
By depicting modernity as a bus with candle headlights, the Modernity ideogram helps us point to an incongruity and a paradox. The ideogram depicts a situation where in our hither-to modernization we have forgotten to modernize something quite essential.
But this situation can be remedied!
Last century brought a disruption in the mentioned evolutionary process. Not something small and subtle, but very large and obvious. To model the behavior of small particles of matter, as revealed by the experiments, the physicists needed to thoroughly revise not only the "natural laws", but also the very concepts in terms of which the phenomena were modeled. The "Newton's laws" turned out to be only an approximation. The concepts he used were shown to be not his discovery, but his creation.
"We are not discovering reality", the giants concluded, "we are constructing (representations of) reality". We shall see evidence of this in Federation through Images, where this disruption and the opportunity it has opened for us will be our theme. Thomas Kuhn, originally a physicist, moved to the philosophy of science and made himself a name there by telling us about the paradigms. Some controversy arose (as it indeed should when the foundations are moving): Do those paradigms really exist in the sciences – or is all this only Kuhn's construction?
What we are calling design epistemology is simply an academically clean way by which such controversies can be resolved. A way in which the evolution can be continued by (as we pointed out above) both resolving the fundamental difficulties and putting good knowledge to good use. The whole thing takes just two simple steps:
- Turn the above conclusion of the giants, or the constructivist credo as we are calling it, into a convention (instead of making it as a statement about reality) – by combining it with what Villard Van Orman Quine called "truth by convention" (mathematicians make such conventions when they define their formulas; and when they say "Let x be...")
- State – as a convention – that the purpose of knowledge (in the particular context or paradigm we are creating) is not to "objectively describe reality" – but to provide the information and knowledge to contemporary people and society as they may need it
This then allows us to state everything else – concepts, methods, and even the values which guide us in knowledge work – by making conventions.
Quite a handful of technical-academic ideas, eh? Fortunately, the knowledge federation comes to our rescue! You may (unless you are an academic and interested in all this) now safely forget all that's been told – because the Modernity ideogram expresses the gist of it in a nutshell. What it's saying is – in knowledge federation we are using a different set of values, and standards of excellence, to evaluate knowledge and knowledge work. We don't try to tell "the objective truth about reality". Our goal is far more humble – and yet practically far more urgent: it is to provide, and be, those 'headlights'. It is to show the way.
You may notice how this represents an answer to the challenge posited by the Modernity ideogram. Much of our problem is those age-old reifications: science is what the scientists are doing; public informing is what the journalists are doing. We don't really have a clear sense of purpose beyond that, and even if we would try to give those large things a purpose – someone would surely object "but is it really so?". Here we have both a purpose and the truth of it – by convention. It makes just as little sense to argue against it, as to ask whether x "really is" as a mathematician defined it.
But the Modernity ideogram also bears this subtler message: No sequence of improvements of the candle will produce the light bulb. The resolution of our quest is in the exact sense of the word a paradigm – a fundamentally and thoroughly new way to conceive of knowledge and to organize its handling. To create the light bulb, we need to know that this is possible. We need a model to guide us. You may now understand what's being introduced here as that model. It's what we need so that we may waste no time trying to improve 'the candle' – when it's really the 'the light bulb' we should be talking about and creating.
If you consider the movement of the bus to be the results of our creative efforts to change things, or of "innovation", then systemic innovation is what resolves the paradox that the Modernity ideogram is pointing to. By definition (that is, by convention) – it is the safer and better way to be creative, and to move ahead.
You'll easily understand the reason, why a dramatic improvement in the way we use of our capacity to create or innovate is possible, if you just consider for a moment the principle that directs innovation in our present paradigm, the imperative to maximize profit, in the light of our metaphor, the bus with candle headlights. The dollar value of the headlights may of course be a factor to consider; but it's insignificant compared to the value of the whole bus (which in our metaphor may point to our civilization and all of us in it; or to all our technology taken together; or to the results of our daily work, which move the 'bus' forward; or to whatever else may be organizing our efforts and driving us forward into a future). It is this difference in value – between the dollar value of the headlights, and the real value of this incomparably larger entity and of all of us in it – that you may bear in mind as systemic innovation's value proposition.
To see that the issue this points to is deeper than just industrial innovation, and why we indeed offer systemic innovation as the signature theme for a civilization-wide renewal, see that the dollar value is our characteristic oversimplification, which has enabled us to reduce the complex issue (value) in a complex reality to a single parameter, which can be measured precisely and objectively. We could then apply "scientific thinking" to optimize our behavior, and to develop businesses and industries...
But the reduction to dollar value, however ubiquitous it may be, is not the only oversimplification we have been culpable of. A close second is our pervasive reduction of what is really of benefit to what feels desirable or pleasant – which drives not only our "pursuit of happiness" but also our democracy. It's the belief that we know what is good for us because we can simply feel it. This phantasmagorical oversimplification, this driving in the light of a candle, leaves some of the most interesting systems out of the picture – ourselves (how what we do affects our own capacity to feel...) and our various environments (cultural, bio-physical, socio-economic...).
Here belongs also the way we've directed the academic creativity, by the "publish or perish" principle, by which we manage to quantify our creative contribution quite precisely, and make the success in creative work a fair game for us all.
You might wonder about this word, systemic? The ideogram provides two distinct ways to define "systemic innovation", which are really just two ways to say the same thing:
- innovating (or recreating) at the level of basic socio-technical systems or institutions (which you'll understand if you think of the headlights, and turning the candle into a light bulb – to adapt it to the function it has in the larger system
- innovating with the goal of improving the larger system or systems (which you'll see if you focus on the bus, and think that what we do with knowledge really acquires the meaning and value in this much larger context)
We practice systemic innovation when our primary goal is to make the whole thing functional or vital or whole. Here "the whole thing" may of course be a whole hierarchy of things, in which what we are doing or creating has a role. We offer it as a rule of thumb pointing to a new evolutionary direction
Notice that knowledge federation and systemic innovation are so closely related, that (at this level of generality where we are presently talking) we may consider them as roughly synonymous. We can now understand knowledge federation as simply systemic innovation in knowledge work. But we can also understand systemic innovation as the result of knowledge federation – as the way we'll naturally use our creative capabilities 'when the light's been turned on'.
Guided evolution of society
If you'll consider the movement of the bus to be our society's travel into the future, or in a word its evolution, then guided evolution of society may be understood as (by definition!) the way to resolve the paradox in that context: Our ride into the future, posits the ideogram, must be illuminated by suitable information. The handling of knowledge we've inherited will not suit this purpose; therefore a more suitable way needs to be created.
Stated in this way, the guided evolution of society is of course just an unverified claim, as a scientific formula might be when it's first stated. We need a proof – or something that amounts to a proof. A purpose of this website is to provide that.
We took this keyword over from Bela H. Banathy, who considered the guided evolution of society the theme. (We must say that he too federated this insight – in several his works and notably in "Guided evolution of society".) Banathy saw this as the second great revolution – the first one being the agricultural one (where we learned to cultivate our bio-physical environment). The next revolution will empower us to cultivate our socio-cultural environment. Here is how he framed it:
We are the first generation of our species that has the privilege, the opportunity, and the burden of responsibility to engage in the process of our own evolution. We are indeed chosen people. We now have the knowledge available to us and we have the power of human and social potential that is required to initiate a new and historical social function: conscious evolution. But we can fulfill this function only if we develop evolutionary competence by evolutionary learning and acquire the will and determination to engage in conscious evolution. These are core requirements, because what evolution did for us up to now we have to learn to do for ourselves by guiding our own evolution.
A case for a new paradigm in knowledge work
How we plead our case
What we offer here is a 'view from a mountain top', or a 'view in the light of a light bulb' (created by federating knowledge) of the need and the possibility for a new paradigm in knowledge work or creative work.
Our point is that there have been three disruptive changes during the past century:
- fundamental insights have been reached in the sciences, which challenged or disproved the assumptions based on which our knowledge-related values, and practices, have developed
- new information technology enables, and as we shall see also demands that we reconsider and change the way we handle knowledge
- our civilization has reached a condition, and also a level of development or maturity, where what we need as information is entirely different than what the case was just a generation or two ago
It has indeed turned out that each of those changes have been so clear-cut and so spectacularly large in degree, that each of them alone provides more than a sufficient reason for engaging in the kind of changes that we are about to describe and propose. We highlight that by weaving together the stories and the insights of giants that represent the main milestones in the mentioned disruptive changes. We see that what's really going on in our time, and what's really worth seeing and attending to, is not Donald Trump but a sweeping Enlightenment-like change. And we already get glimpses of iconic characters and stories that might represent it, as Galilei and Newton were the icons of the previous such change.
In each of the four modules in which our case is presented, we look at our case from a different angle. You may understand them with the help of our metaphorical image, the Modernity ideogram, as showing respectively that (1) we have, and need a different principle of operation – not fire but electricity; (2) we have the technology that is needed for creating the light bulb; (3) a plan of a light bulb, together with the proof of concept – showing in what way the light bulb can be created, and what practical differences it may make; (4) the larger picture, where by looking at our civilization's evolution 'in the light of the light bulb', and the particular point in it where we now find ourselves, we see our own times and mores in a similar way as we may see the mindset of the Middle Ages – which of course makes the change immanent.
Here and also in those four modules, we use the technique that is common in journalism – which is to present a larger issue by telling a concrete story, which typically involves a giant and one of his core insights. This will give some real-life touch and zest to our stories – but it will leave you the challenge of seeing the larger picture we are pointing at by talking about concrete people and things.
Federation through Images
Our ideas of what constitutes "good" information have been evolving since antiquity, and they now find their foremost expression in science and philosophy. In Federation through Images we show that the developments in 20th century's science and philosophy empower the next disruptive change, along the lines we've just discussed.
You may interpret what's told there in the light of our Modernity image, and the challenge to create the (socio-technical) 'light bulb": Is there a whole new principle of operation, so that we may no longer use 'fire' but 'electricity', and be able to provide a strong enough illumination, that can show us the whole way, so that we may no longer be 'driving in the light of the candle'?
We answer by 'standing on the shoulders of giants'; we show that surprisingly many of the 20th century's giants in science and philosophy saw that the new insights challenged the very foundations based on which our knowledge-work practices developed, and the very criteria we commonly use to assign value to knowledge and to knowldge work.
And we'll represent them here by a single one – Werner Heisenberg. Sixty years ago, in "Physics and Philosophy", Heisenberg explained how
the nineteenth century developed an extremely rigid frame for natural science which formed not only science but also the general outlook of great masses of people.
He then pointed out how this frame of concepts was too narrow and too rigid for expressing some of the core elements of human culture – which as a result appeared to modern people as irrelevant. And how correspondingly limited and utilitarian values and worldviews became prominent. Heisenberg then explained how modern physics disproved this "narrow frame"; and concluded that
one may say that the most important change brought about by its results consists in the dissolution of this rigid frame of concepts of the nineteenth century.
If we now (in the spirit of systemic innovation, and the emerging paradigm) consider that our social role is to provide good knowledge and viable standards for good knowledge – then we see that just this Heisenberg's insight alone gives us an obligation – which we've failed to respond to for sixty years.
The substance of Federation through Images is to show how the fundamental insights reached in 20th century science and philosophy allow us to develop a way out of "the rigid frame" – which is a rigorously founded methodology for creating truth and meaning about any issue and at any level of generality, which we are calling polyscopy. You may understand polyscopy as an adaptation of "the scientific method" that makes it suitable for providing the kind of insights that our people and society need, or in other words for knowledge federation. In essence, polyscopy is just a generalization of the scientific approach to knowledge, based on recent scientific / philosophical insights – as we've already pointed out by talking about design epistemology, which is of course the epistemological foundation for polyscopy.
As the technique for extracting and presenting core insights of leading thinkers we used the metaphorical and often paradoxical images called ideograms. The result is a cartoon-like introduction to the philosophical underpinnings of a refreshingly novel approach to knowledge.
Federation through Stories
The abstract definition of systemic innovation we've given a moment ago, and the "value proposition" to make the kind of difference that the comparison of the dollar value of the headlights with the value of the entire bus and the people in it may suggest, may have left you wondering: Are there real-life, practical examples that confirm this theory?
You may have also felt, when we introduced knowledge federation as 'the light bulb' that uses the new technology to illuminate the way, that we were doing gross injustice to IT innovation: Aren't we living in the Age of Information? Isn't our information technology (or in other words our civilization's 'headlights') indeed the most modern part of our civilization, the one where the largest progress has been made, the one that best characterizes our progress? In Federation through Stories we explain why this is not the case, why the candle headlights analogy works most beautifully in this pivotal domain as well – by telling the story of Douglas Engelbart, the man who conceived, developed, prototyped and demonstrated – in 1968 – the core elements of the new media technology, which is in common use. This story works on many levels, and gives us a textbook example to work with when trying to understand the emerging paradigm and the paradoxical dynamics around it (notice that we are this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of Engelbart's demo...).
These two sentences were (intended to be) the first slide of Engelbart's presentation of his vision for the future of (information-) technological innovation in 2007 at Google. We shall see that this 'new thinking' was precisely what we've been calling systemic innovation. Engelbart's insight is so central to the overall case we are presenting, that we won't resist the urge to give you the gist of it right away.
Digital technology could help make this a better world. But we've also got to change our way of thinking.
The printing press analogy works, because the printing press was to a large degree the technical invention that led to the Enlightenment, by making knowledge so much more widely accessible. The question is what invention may play a similar role in the emerging next phase of our society's illumination? The answer is of course the "network-interconnected interactive digital media" – but there's a catch! Even the printing press (let it symbolize here the Industrial Age and the paradigm we want to evolve beyond) merely made what the scribes were doing more efficient. To communicate, people still needed to write and publish books, and hope that the people who needed what's written in them would find them on a book shelf. But the network-interconnected interactive digital media is a disruption of a completely new kind – it's not a broadcasting device but a "nervous system" (this metaphor is Engelbart's own); it interconnects us people in such a way that we can think together and coordinate our action, just as the cells in a sufficiently complex organism do!
To see that this is not what has happened, think about the "desktop" and the "mailbox" in your computer: The new technology has been used to implement the physical environment we've had around us – including the ways of doing things that evolved based on it. Consider the fact that in academic research we are still communicating by publishing books and articles. Haven't we indeed used the new technology to re-create 'fancy candles'.
To see the difference that makes a difference, imagine that your cells were using your own nervous systems to merely broadcast data! Think about your state of mind that would result. Then think about how this reflects upon our society's state of mind, our "collective intelligence"...
When we apply the Industrial Age efficiency thinking and values, and use the Web to merely broadcast knowledge, augment the volume, reduce the price – then the result is of course information glut. "We are drowning in information", Neil Postman observed! A completely new phase in our (social-systemic evolution) – new division, specialization and organization of the work with information, and beyond – is what's called for, and what's ahead of us.
There are in addition several points that spice up the Engelbart's history, which are the reasons why we gave it the name (in the Federation through Stories) "the incredible story of Doug):
- Engelbart saw this whole new possibility, to give our society in peril a whole new 'nervous system', already in 1951 – when there were only a handful of computers in the world, which were used solely for numerical scientific calculations (he immediately decided to dedicate his career to this cause
- Engelbart was unable to communicate his vision to the Silicon Valley – even after having been recognized as The Valley's "giant in residence" (think about Galilei in house arrest...)
So the simple conclusion we may draw from this story is that to draw real benefits from information technology, systemic innovation must replace the conventional reliance on the market. And conversely – that the contemporary information technology is an enabler of large-scale systemic change, because it's been conceived to serve that role.
We use vignettes – short, lively, catchy, sticky... real-life people and situation stories – to explain and empower some of the core ideas of daring thinkers. A vignette liberates an insight from the language of a discipline and enables a non-expert to 'step into the shoes' of a leading thinker, 'look through his eye glasses'. By combining vignettes into threads, and threads into higher units of meaning, we take this process of federation all the way to the kind of direction-setting principles we've just been talking about.
Federation through Applications
In Federation through Applications we showcase the creative frontier that is opening up.
One way to enter it is by taking a look at your smart phone; appreciate so many fruits of finest human work and ingenuity that had to come together to produce this true wonder of technological micro-gadgetry. Then consider the even more wonderful neglect which we have shown toward those far more important mega-gadgets – in which people and technology come together to give us the knowledge we need. The last century gave us the airplane, the washing machine, the TV, the computer... If this century's inventions are going to be systems that make ourselves all our other systems work well – which may be a more suitable way to inform the public, or to organize and share the results of academic research in a way that will benefit us all, or to (re-)educate the young and the old in a way that enables societal change instead of hindering it, or a completely new approach to healthcare or to tourism – then who, and in what way, will do this sort of innovation? What might be its results? What technologies might enable it? What practical differences might this make? What can we do to begin such a change?
Alternatively you may consider what's presented here as a sufficiently complete prototype of the (socio-technical) 'light bulb', with examples of application, which amounts to a proof of concept, showing "it works" – and what we'll be able to see when its light's been turned on.
Fifty years ago Erich Jantsch made a proposal for the university of the future, and made an appeal that the university take the new leadership role which, as he saw it, was due.
[T]he university should make structural changes within itself toward a new purpose of enhancing the society’s capacity for continuous self-renewal.
Suppose the university did that. Suppose that we opened up the university to take such a leadership role. What new ways of working, results, effects... could be achieved? What might this new creative frontier look like, what might it consist of, how may it be organized?
The technique demonstrated here is the prototypes – which are the characteristic products of systemic innovation. Here's a related question to consider: If we should aim at systemic impact, if our key goal is to re-create systems including our own – then the traditional academic articles and book cannot be our only or even our main product. But what else should we do? And how?
The prototypes here serve as
- models, embodying and exhibiting systemic solutions, how the things may be put together, which may then be adapted to other situations and improved further
- interventions, because they are (by definition) embedded within real-life situations and practices, aiming to change them
- experiments, showing what works and what doesn't, and what still needs to be changed or improved
In Federation through Images we exhibit about 40 prototypes, which together compose the single central one – of the creative frontier which we are pointing to by our four mentioned main keywords. We have developed it in the manner of prospectors who have found gold and are preparing an area for large-scale mining – by building a school and a hospital and a hotel and... What exactly is to be built and how – those are the questions that those prototypes are there to answer.
Federation through Conversations
In Federation through Conversations the theme is the larger societal change – and the change of our understanding of core issues.
In 1968 The Club of Rome was initiated, as a global think tank to study the future prospects of humanity, and give recommendations and incite action. Based on a decade of The Club's work, Aurelio Peccei – its founding president and motor power – gave this diagnosis:
The future will either be an inspired product of a great cultural revival, or there will be no future.
In what way might such a change, "a great cultural revival", realistically happen? What may we do to contribute to such a change of mood, and of action?
What insight, what evidence, may we bring up to help us see our own time as we may see the mindset of the Middle Ages – and see the change as immanent; and truly wish for change.
Here, just as the case was in the first two, there is a very concrete insight – and it's about the way in which we've hitherto been evolving. The insight is in a truest sense sensational – and is hence ready to replace the familiar media sensations involving Donald Trump and others.
To reach this insight, we needed to federate a variety insights originating mostly from the humanities; but also from Buddhism and other world traditions.
This being of considerable importance, we give its own title and section.
Far from being "just talking", these conversations build communication, in a certain new way, both regarding the media used and the manner of communicating. We use the dialog. By conversing we bring the public attention to completely new themes. And we evolve a public sphere capable of developing public awareness about those themes. Here in the truest sense the medium is the message.
Turning on the light
Where would you point it?
Sometimes when we talk about this work people ask "so where do you think this can be applied?" Well, it's a new way to work with information, we answer. So it can be applied wherever information is applied. This is of course true, but it still misses the main point. Which is that our main value proposition is to vastly broaden and strengthen the application of information or knowledge. This leaves a vast range of possible themes for us to talk about. But it's time now to be concrete, and choose one. Or a handful.
So imagine that you had it – a strong and flexible electrical flashlight (metaphorically speaking), which you can point at will toward any question or theme you may want to illuminate. Suppose that a prototype of this flashlight has just been completed, and now you want to demonstrate its value in practice. You want to show it to people, show what it can do, invite – and attract – the people to try it and use it. What themes would you choose?
We've chosen the following three themes.
The paradigm strategy dialog
One could say that this is the most natural and straight-forward choice we could have made. The 'road of the bus' is really the course of our civilization's evolution. Can we illuminate that – and show how exactly it's been developing; where we are coming from and where we are headed; and what we should do at this particular point on this road where we currently are, what course should we steer? And how? These are, roughly, the themes of The Paradigm Strategy dialog.
While of course anyone can participate, the intended primary audience are the informed and concerned creatives, the global change makers. Can we engage them to co-create a vision? Can we use the knowledge federation techniques and technologies to orchestrate a global conversation where the best insights of our present best minds are aided by the most relevant insights of the historical giants, to co-create a state-of-the-art vision for all of us, and for our society?
The prototype vision that is offered is what we called the paradigm strategy – which is to focus our energies on shifting the whole paradigm. The insight to be developed is that while even small and obviously necessary changes may be difficult or impossible (because they don't fit into the existing paradigm), the biiig change may still be easy (because we are at the point in our evolution where everything's been prepared for it, and where that's just our natural next step).
To illuminate our evolutionary trajectory and the just mentioned view of our present-day position on it we have developed The Paradigm Strategy poster, where a variety of knowledge federation techniques are applied and showcased. The giants here are the leading thinkers in sociology, cognitive science, philosophy... But not only.
Long story made short – by federating Chomsky as linguist, Harari as historian, Graeber as anthropologist, Nietzsche as philosopher, Bourdieu and Giddens as sociologists, Damasio as cognitive scientist... we arrive at a radically fresh view of the nature of our societal evolution. And of our socialization. Without going into details (which will be shared in Federation through Conversations and of course in the conversations) let's just highlight a single paradigm-shifting detail: Our shared single worldview, which in the earlier paradigm tended to be considered as "the objective truth about the nature reality" (even if we could never really agree what exactly this thing might be...) – now becomes an instrument of our socialization! The liberation from clinging on to this "reality picture" is then seen as our evolutionary step forward. So we have made a full circle and came back to – epistemology, which is of course the mother of any paradigm.
Let us here also share an insight, a high-level view that follows from this conversation – how we've been evolving socially and culturally as the homo ludens (man the (game) player). This expression has been used as the title of an old book, but we've polished it and redefined it, so that it has a much more precise and agile meaning what good old Johan Huizinga intended. The point is that the homo ludens is not the homo sapiens; he does not really seek knowledge or use knowledge. He's become adapted to the complex reality combined with the lack of suitable information – by simply learning his different social roles, and in particular his profession, as one would learn the rules of a game; and by playing competitively, aiming to increase what he (or better said the game) considers as his gains or interests. The homo ludens learns by seeing what works in practice, and adapting. In the shadow of this evolutionary condition, needless to say, one finds spectacular opportunities for insight and improvement – which should give zest and zeal to this conversation.
An interesting subtlety is that the homo ludens and the homo sapiens are not only two different cultural species and ways of evolving; they are also signature themes of two incommensurable paradigms (ways of creating truth and meaning). Each of them – by looking in his own characteristic way – sees the other as going extinct, and himself as the paragon of evolution: The homo ludens just looks around, see that it's the homo ludens specimen who are succeeding in life, and that the homo sapiens specimen are becoming scarce, and draws the obvious conclusion. The cultural homo sapiens looks at the data, sees the global trends, and the values and behaviors that are causing them, and draws the opposite conclusion.
However timely the paradigm strategy may be as a theme, it is probably too abstract and esoteric for most people. To engage the general public in a conversation, we have prepared a whole other one – which brings in much of the same insights and content, but through a back door, so to speak. The title theme of this dialog, however, is religion, and its nature and future. Here too we have a document that can strike the conversation; it's the book (presently a manuscript) titled "Liberation" and subtitled "Religion for the third millennium". It's the first book in the intended Knowledge Federation trilogy, by which knowledge federation will be introduced to general audiences.
In traditional cultures, religion has served as the ethical and hence also evolutionary guidance; it's provided the moral code and the sense of identity that held the people together in a community.
Religion is also a theme on which the opinions are most strongly held – both when they are pro religion, or a certain specific religion, and when they are against it. So this theme has the potential to truly engage the people. This potential is vastly augmented by the fact that, as it turns out, we have a way of looking at this theme that is likely to upset both the pro and the con side! How is this possible?
You must have noticed that religion has been associated with believing in something, even against evidence. Those beliefs were, furthermore, so strong, that people have been prone to go into armed disputes even over small differences – flagrantly violating the Almighty's explicit command not to kill (delivered by Moses, who's been recognized as a prophet in major Western religions). So the question is – what's really going on here? And – can we understand the issue of religion in a completely new way – which will help us reconfigure our values and our priorities, and bind us together in a society in a completely new way?
Early in the 20th century a young monk in Thailand spent a couple of years in a monastery in Bangkok and thought "This just cannot be it!" So he decided to do as the Buddha did – he went alone into a forest and experimented. He also had the original Pali scriptures with him, to help him find the original way. And reportedly he did!
What Buddhadasa ("the slave of the Buddha", as this giant of religion called himself) found out was that the essence of the Buddha's teaching was different, and in a way opposite from how Buddhism is usually understood and taught. And not only that – the practice he rediscovered is in its essential elements opposite from what's evolved as "the pursuit of happiness" in most of the modern world. Buddhadasa saw the Buddha's discovery, which he rediscovered, as a kind of a natural law, the discoveries of which have marked the inception of all major religions. Or more simply, what Buddhadasa discovered, and undertook to give to the world, was "the essence of religion".
You may of course be tempted to disqualify the Buddha's or Buddhadasa's approach to happiness as a product of some rigidly held religious belief. But the epistemological essence of Buddhadasa's teaching is that it's not only purely evidence-based or experience-based – but also that the liberation from any sort of clinging, and to clinging to beliefs in particular, is the essential part of the practice.
In the Liberation book we federate Buddhadasa's teaching about religion by (1) moving it from the domain of religion as belief to the domain of the pursuit of happiness; (2) linking this with a variety of other sources, thus producing a kind of a roadmap to happiness puzzle, and then showing how this piece snuggly fits in and completes the puzzle; (3) showing how religions – once this meme was discovered – tended to become instruments of negative socialization; and how we may now do better, and need to do better.
Knowledge federation dialog
Finally, we need to talk about our prototype, about knowledge federation. While this conversation will complete the prototype (by creating a feedback loop with the help of which it will evolve further), the real theme and interest of this conversation is of course well beyond what our little model might suggest.
In the midst of all our various evolutionary mishaps, we've done at least one thing right – academic tenure! And the ethos of academic freedom! We've created what's virtually a global army, quite large in size, of people who've been selected and trained and sponsored to think freely. If we agree that we now need a fresh new evolutionary course – beyond "the survival of the fittest" – then it's hard to even imagine how this new course could emerge without the help of this army. The army just needs to be mobilized.
You may now understand all that's been told as an academic argument for such a mobilization!
You may recognize as salient points the fact that neither Engelbart nor Jantsch – whom we've honored as icons of knowledge federation and systemic innovation – found support for their activities at leading universities. Can we do better than that?
We offer knowledge federation as a prototype of an evolutionary department, which can enable the university to (as Jantsch suggested) "make structural changes within itself toward a new purpose of enhancing the society’s capacity for continuous self-renewal".
The purpose of this third conversation is to take advantage of our prototype to dialog about the role and the future of the university – and see if a re-mobilization may result.