Making sense of our connected world


Making sense of our connected world


There is no Knowledge Society. A Case for Critical Research on Internet and Society

28 October 2013

For more than five decades, the term “knowledge society” has been buzzing around in discourses about society, technology and research (for some examples: Lane 1966, Toffler 1980; Naisbitt 1984, Drucker 1993, UNESCO 2005). Although it is hard to find a more or less consistent definition of the term within scholarly literature, the overall discourse limns a picture of a society that is increasingly knowledge focused; in which technological progress goes hand in hand with access to knowledge creation. Condensing the essential facts, the “knowledge society” proclaims an era of universal, equal and inclusive access to knowledge creation.

This is a myth.

In this blog entry, I hold two bold assumptions that I want to share with you. First, the knowledge society is a myth, even in academia. And second, the narrative of a knowledge society constrains research on Internet and society.

Is it time to get rid of a concept that is in fact nothing more than a castle in the air?

A Knowledge Society is a Myth, Even in Academia

Even in academia, a field perhaps closest to the empirical equivalent of a knowledge society, knowledge creation is far from being universal, equal or inclusive.

Let’s do a quick fact-checking.

The creation of academic knowledge is highly tool dependent. The means of production consist of far more than just a computer with Internet access. It requires expensive analysis software, measuring instruments, supercomputers and other barrier-to-entry devices. And even though the open access movement notched up major successes in the last few years, the access to scientific knowledge—which I consider a core commodity for knowledge creation in any discipline—is neither equal nor global. Ask any librarian in the world whether all knowledge is freely available to everyone; you would be laughed at. In terms of impact, open access journals still lag behind the top non-Open Access journals. I am not saying that the barrier-free access to knowledge creation is not desirable. In reality, it simply does not exist.

Now, let’s assume that not only the access to the means for academic knowledge creation would be barrier-free, but also that the acquisition of knowledge, would be equal (which is of course not the case). Would knowledge be a commons? Would researchers innately desire to contribute to a public good? I do not think so. There is still the argument that knowledge is power: a system in which the core currency is information will always be a system based on exchange of information. If knowledge is a form of capital, one will always consider the tradeoffs associated with sharing it. While this claim is provocative, I am convinced that there is no universal and purely societal motivation for contributing to a public good. In order to discuss ideas about openness in academia, we have to discuss the adequacy of reward systems.

The entry barriers to knowledge creation are manifold. To suggest that we overcame a post-industrial era and live in the midst of society that offers equal access to knowledge and knowledge creation simply neglects the social reality that we live in. In fact, in none of its crucial characteristics does the concept of the knowledge society meet the empirical reality. It has no substance, neither as a label for the society we live in nor as a social concept that aims to explain how we create knowledge.

The Narrative of a Knowledge Society Constrains Scientific Discovery

While it is perhaps unfair to critique the grand ideal of a knowledge society, I believe that a lot of its intellectual premises influence how we do research on Internet and Society today. Its ideas of openness, equality and inclusion resonate in our ontological assumptions of interaction on the Net. And I believe this is problematic for scientific discovery in the field of Internet and Society. It is problematic because it makes us blind to the real issues of Internet and society research today.

Let me try to exemplify my point in the case of conceptualizations of online co-creation.

Benkler’s Commons-based peer production and Surowiecki Wisdom of Crowds were groundbreaking. They finally allowed for explanations of purposeful interaction between individuals that are dispersed and non-familiar. They described new forms of organizational structures without formal entities and old-fashioned depictions of leadership; forms of organizations that are networked, partially active and amazingly successful. In many cases, networked co-creation surpasses bureaucratic forms of organizing.

Nevertheless, novel forms of co-creation are not accompanied by the absence of leadership, the absence of power relations and, therefore, equal participation. They are absolutely more egalitarian and inclusive than traditional concepts of knowledge creation, but they also fall victim to misuse. And I fear that our conceptualizations and empirical foci still turn a blind eye on these issues.

Let’s take the flagship example of Wikipedia.

Compared to traditional organizations, the leadership at Wikipedia is less formal and more discursive, less universal and more participatory. But, nevertheless, leadership exists. It takes a quick look at the WikipediaTalk Pages or the WikiProjectssub-sites to realize that editing at Wikipedia is competitive. Simple statements forego critical examination and discussion in designated expert groups. It often requires niche knowledge and community standing to actually materialize a passage. Apart from the fact that even a Wiki requires basic computer skills, a core threshold is the cultural capital, the specialized knowledge in a particular field and the know-how to participate. Partaking in co-creation is not equal, not inclusive and not universal and I doubt that Wikipedia would be such a blossoming example of co-creation if it really were. Still we lack concepts for novel forms of leadership, decision-making and power relations in informal entities. We leave out power.

There are also concerns about the motivation underlying participation in co-creation on the Net. While I am sure that editing, cleaning, programming and managing at Wikipedia can be partially attributed to an individual’s desire to contribute to a common good, this is not always the case. The reasons for partaking can also be attributed to Wikipedia’s many forms of socialrecognition. I doubt that in any community in which contributions are attributable to a person, participation is solely based on the common weal. Still we subsume individual motivations and characteristics under the crude idea of euphoric do-gooder. We leave out the person.

A system’s level of openness can also lead to its misuse. Just a few days ago, Wikimedia had to shut down a few hundred users’ accounts because they “may have been paid to write articles on Wikipedia promoting organizations or products, and have been violating numerous site policies and guidelines, including prohibitions against sockpuppetry and undisclosed conflicts of interest.” Novel and open forms of purposeful interaction also hold novel forms of misuse and bureaucracy. We leave out misuse.

My central point here is the following: if our epistemological and ontological conjectures for interaction on the Net do not account for new forms of power relations, self-interested behavior, we risk running out of concepts that allow us to explain novel forms of decision making, hierarchy and misuse.

And this is precisely what critical research on Internet and society needs to do: it needs to confront the technical opportunities with the human and social barriers as they are, and not as we wish them to be. (For example, Benkler dedicates a whole paper on the issue of power within networks.)

The Case for Critical Internet Science

In this blog entry, while provocative and somewhat disillusioning, I want to propose that our concepts for Internet and Society and for knowledge-creation in the 21st century need to withstand critical empirical examination. Let’s stop cherry-picking empirical success cases to justify unlimited openness in research. Let’s focus on cases that fail, on cases of misuse and loss of control. Let’s challenge the concepts we have with the reality. Let’s replace the tech-utopian euphoria that guided our investigations on Internet and society by well-intended critical reflection.

We need critical reflection on how we can prevent new systemic threats, how we can create intelligent incentives for individuals to share their knowledge, and how we can lower the barriers to entry for knowledge creation.

We need to steer our endeavors towards a more critical approach to Internet phenomena. Not because we are pessimistic about technology, but because we need to make sure it is used responsibly.

We are not living in a knowledge society, but we should do our best to get there.

This post is part of a regular series of articles by doctoral candidates of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. It does not necessarily represent the view of the Institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Benedikt Fecher, Dr.

Forschungsprogrammleiter: Wissen & Gesellschaft

Sign up for HIIG's Monthly Digest

and receive our latest blog articles.

Our Journals

Future Events

Further articles

Data has a better idea

CfA: AI and inclusion – the challenges of automated tools in HR

A Pop-Up Lab by the AI & Society Lab A unique opportunity to make an impact at the intersection of AI and inclusion and to collaborate with aspiring researchers in…

Despite digital work: hierarchies remain

Providers, such as Slack, Trello or Yam, advertise to increase the participation of employees in organisations. Their software (“enterprise social software”) creates company-internal communication channels that function similar to social…

The Coronavirus warning app should and can explain its opportunities and risks better

The warning app for contact tracing of newly corona infected persons was downloaded a good 15 million times within the first three weeks after its launch. Most of these downloads…


  1. Frédéric Dubois on 29 October 2013 at 10:43 am

    Great post, Benedikt.

    Really good to see you advocate critical internet research. This is precisely what’s missing. On the other side, although I share your analysis, I also think that researchers have a responsibility not only to look at the misuses, fails and losses of control but, to also examine ‘low-profile’ successes. Not the big stories that make the headlines, but the little perls of open research. I guess what I’m saying here, is that these two concurring narratives need to put in balance.

    As the editor of an open access journal (The Internet Policy Review), I would be glad to get my head around two or three open access journals that you would deem silently successful, in the sense of lowering the barrier to knowledge creation and sharing.



  2. Bene on 29 October 2013 at 3:04 pm

    Merci Frédéric for your comment. I agree about the balance part. Thank you for pointing it out. I guess we have a coffee date soon to talk about that Open Access ideas for IPR.


  3. Jens Hartmann on 29 October 2013 at 8:29 pm

    Hi Bene, nice article, very interesting to read. Absolutely agree with you in that we need to further elaborate on concepts for novel forms of leadership, decision-making and power relations in informal entities. Without you have to account for power, individuals, and misuse when looking at how (relatively) informal networks of co-creation work. I would like to point out that you do this quite naturally when you approach the whole topic with a general theory of human behavior and its socio-structural embededness (e.g., social cognitive theory) at hand. Keep in touch!

  4. Jens Hartmann on 29 October 2013 at 8:31 pm

    Sorry there is typo in my post: it should read “Without DOUBT you have to account for power” 😉

  5. Steffen K. on 30 October 2013 at 12:54 am


    Awesome, great read, great thoughts! I find the power stuff interesting to think about!

    Maybe you’ve read it already, but there’s a great (fairly old) article by Aaron Swartz who looked at the contributions to wikipedia:

    Aside from that some arguments why I personally see a knowledge society developing in some respects (but as I am new to this topic, this might be trivial or silly):
    (1) MOOCs are making (at least academic) knowledge much more widely accessible than it used to be. (2) open access mandates (NIH/MIT/DFG etc.) make research results accessible to everyone and open access is getting a more proliferate requirement for funding. (3) technologies like google scholar make finding stuff a whole lot easier. (4) I find the academic blogosphere to become more and more vibrant (while I only know the stats/econ part of it). (5) GNU R is basically taking over the market for analysis software and (6) massive amounts of data are freely available in a more and more convenient way. In all the mentioned areas I still see momentum so things are gonna be even better.

    All things mentioned however are from more or less academic spheres and I might maybe say: knowledge society? “yup, but just for an elite.”


  6. Bene on 30 October 2013 at 12:53 pm

    @jens: thanks for the comment; and really good point! i have no doubt that we actually have a decent toolkit in social sciences, cognitive science and whatnot. and i think in the end it’s much about the philosophical stance of the researcher and the methodology he or she applies to a phenomena.

    i remeber we had a quick discussion about big data and the end of deductive reasoning (; and i wonder why such a thought becomes mainstream; instead of the idea that the availability of big data allows new forms of deduction and testing. i guess that you are on my side in this particular case; but let me point out that this is an issue of research philosophy and methodology and that this (not so mainstream) point made it to a well-recognized tech magazine; and you can find these cases in which the technological possibilities determine the ontology of the (Internet and society) researcher and the scope for interaction.

  7. Bene on 30 October 2013 at 1:16 pm

    @steffen. thanks for the good thoughts and the afternoon coffee reading! i actually wrote my masters about wikipedia organizing and am excited to see what aaron swartz has to say.

    and i agree to your point that there is a great change in academia when it comes to the access of knowledge and knowledge creation. i think, we do not disagree on that point.

    i guess what i am trying to say is that we have to examine those new possibilities from the point of view that they are used to lower entry-barriers, make the acquisition of knowledge easier and ultimately more inclusive. for example: why are there not built-in automated literature analyses in google scholar to make the results more lucid? can moocs really replace small-group learning? and if, how? How can we make great input, outside of the journal system, count (sharing code, data, etc.)? How can researchers that invest time and effort in great blogs be compensated (for example:

    Btw.: We have a Digitaler Salon on MOOCs ant the future of universities today:

    as far as i know, d-radio will put the talk online at the weekend. I will listen carefully.
    thanks again

Leave a Comment