Revolutions In Knowledge, Useful And Otherwise

Lynne Kiesling

Today Wired News has an interesting commentary entitled “Like It or Not, Blogs Have Legs”, from Adam Penenberg of the NYU School of Journalism. In addition to his sharing my dislike of the word “blog”, Penenberg shares with me a lot of beliefs and perspectives on how meaningful and valuable this current gale of the communication revolution is. For example,

Rather, it’s a revolution in the dissemination of intellectual capital.

Some would say I’m overselling this, but then again these are probably the same people who consider bloggers “pajama pundits.” Or are the solipsists who once looked upon the internet as a fad, believing it would suffer the same fate as CB radios, and who once thought online news would never equal print.

But in fact the blogosphere has evolved into a sphere of memes and ideas that are constantly shaped by the millions of web users who write, read and comment on blogs. In a sense, it operates in a similar fashion to open-source code, where a loose confederation of programmers tinkers with software, adding to it and sharing contributions with anyone who is interested.

The most important phrase in that excerpt is the first one — a revolution in the dissemination of intellectual capital. You can make all of the comparisons you want with the effects of Gutenberg’s moveable type, but today we see more widespread and larger overall effects from dissemination because the technology drastically shortens the turnaround time between putting an idea out there and getting feedback on it from others.

Another important aspect of the dissemination of intellectual capital that Penenberg didn’t engage directly in his commentary is its distributed nature (alhough his reference to open source gets at it obliquely). In this communication environment, lots of people put ideas out there. Lots of people read them and comment on them. Lots of people send links to them to other interested people, who may read and comment. Initial idea gets refined, or discarded if it does not meet its criticisms.

Thousands and thousands of us are doing this simultaneously, and many of us doing so on the same topics. Is that wasteful duplication of effort? No, that’s the way ideas arise, take shape, evolve, and ultimately provide value to people beyond the person who came up with the idea.

The best discussion I have seen of those ideas are Jonathan Wilde’s two Catallarchy posts from November 2003: The blogosphere: a kosmos and The blogosphere: a free-market anarchy”. I riffed off of Jonathan’s ideas (and Hayek’s!) in this post from December 2003. I think if you combine these ideas of kosmos and taxis with Penenberg’s articulation in today’s Wired News commentary, you have some powerful insights into the importance of distributed, networked dissemination and discussion of new ideas.

A very good scholarly treatment of related ideas comes from my friend and colleague Joel Mokyr, whose book The Gifts of Athena was an analysis of the growth and dissemination of technical and scientific knowledge (particularly what he terms “useful knowledge”), and the fundamental role of that growth and dissemination in explaining the sustained prosperity, productivity and growth of western societies. Joel is obviously analyzing history, but most of the themes, actions and opportunities that he finds crucial in the 18th-19th century in Europe transcend the time period and can be generalized to today.


One thought on “Revolutions In Knowledge, Useful And Otherwise

  1. You don’t care the word “blogs.”

    How about “wogs”?

    It’s easier to say, and it will infuriate lots of prissy people.

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