Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Collective Knowledge

Recently I put together an entertainment unit. It was quite an easy job, all I needed was a screwdriver because the wood was cut and all the joiners came with it. By doing this way I was sacrificing a tailor-made solution to fit my needs, instead putting together a pre-made design whether that was right and wrong for me. It was mostly right, looked good enough, and all I had to do was just assemble it.

But what if I wanted to do it myself? While I'm no expert, I think I would have been able to design something that would have suited my needs. And if I had the time and effort I probably could have built something quite nice. I could have taken into account what I would use it for, my space limitations, my limited carpentry abilities, and been able to design what I wanted.

This this design wouldn't start with me forging my own tools, cutting down a tree and making the bonding agents whether they be metal or chemicals. Instead I would go to the hardware store and buy the materials and equipment to make it. In fact my design is dependant on those tools and materials being in those ready-made states. Even if I had knowledge on how to make those materials and tools, the amount of time and effort it would take would make it not worth doing.

From our ancestors over 3 million years ago who first fashioned rudimentary cutting tools, there has been a gradual increase in exploration of design space, something rapidly increased in modern times. The success of modern technology is because certain advances meant opening up new opportunities. Could a mobile phone exist without the invention of the integrated circuit, which in turn was dependant upon the transistor, which in turn ... back deep in time?

Just think of what a great invention the harnessing of fire was. Not only did it mean the ability to cook food and provide warmth but it opened up new design opportunities. Forging metal and making pottery need fire, so better tools could be made which could open up even further opportunities.

Fast-forward to the present. When I go to buy timber for my hypothetical entertainment unit, the tree has been cut into usable timber by advanced tools, something I could not have done myself from scratch. The screws like the drill made by machines working to a plan, again what I could not have done myself.

Yet therein lies the advantage for the handyman. All I need to be able to drill is to know how to use one. I don't need to know how its designed, how to build one, or even how it works beyond the functional sense. I can just go and buy a drill at a hardware store, charge up the batteries and then drill away. I can do a lot with the drill, build things I couldn't without, without needing to bother with the fine details that come with the drill. In short, the tools allow me to search through a previously inaccessible design space.

And this is the way with all things designed. I don't need to be able to build a computer, an operating system or a programming language from scratch, but because all this is done for me I can build software on top of all that. My area of (relative) expertise a job that wasn't even dreamed of 50 years ago, yet is a vital part of modern society. How far our species has come!

It's not just in the practical sense, think of what job a story-teller has today. Only a few thousands years ago a story-teller was confined to oral tradition. Then with the invention of writing came the ability to write down stories so they could be passed on. And this has been further enhanced over time; just think of what movies mean for and open up to story-tellers.

There are two points I could tie all this together into. The first is one about the contingent nature of our knowledge, where what we know isn't something gained for free but a cumulation over time. The second is one of practicality, where knowledge can build on knowledge and it isn't sufficient for us to know much about anything really because what matters is the functional aspect of what we need.

Both points are interlocking, important for an understanding of what is knowledge. While we can decry the increasing rate of those who lack "basic" skills like cooking, this shouldn't be any more an issue than the lack of self-grown food. The farmer who grows my food means I can live in an urban environment where I can specialise in something else yet still have that necessary aspect of my life taken care of. I can and do like to cook, and I do have the time. But someone who is very busy in their specialisation can use specialist cooks to provide them meals.

We can devote specialists to study what we consume and determine what's safe and what's not. It opens up new exploratory paths that us as individuals wouldn't be able to do ourselves, again a good thing. Before specialisation in studies, it would have been left to anecdotes and personal experience to determine anything. Those specialists build on the collective knowledge, with the individual benefiting with only a scraping of that.

Back to my hypothetical entertainment unit and the need for those two points becomes apparent. I'm able to build the unit because of all those who came before me, being an intelligent agent isn't enough. Even the design is a result of historical contingency, genes and memes shaping how I could make one. Yet at the same time I don't need to know anything more about the process than what is functionally relevant, I only would need a tiny subset of all that collective and cumulative knowledge in order to achieve my goal. But without it I wouldn't even be able to contemplate building something like that let alone do it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Our species has gone "modular".