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28 Oktober 2013

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

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 presse@hiig.de.

Dieser Beitrag spiegelt die Meinung der Autorinnen und Autoren und weder notwendigerweise noch ausschließlich die Meinung des Institutes wider. Für mehr Informationen zu den Inhalten dieser Beiträge und den assoziierten Forschungsprojekten kontaktieren Sie bitte info@hiig.de

Benedikt Fecher, Dr.

Associate Researcher & Former Head of Research Programme: Knowledge & Society

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