Emerging forms of knowledge expression
Struggling with the definition of the novel form, E.M. Forster came down reluctantly to the finding that 'Yes, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story'. There's really no way around that, even though folks like Joyce have done their darnedest. I feel the same nebulous dismay when I try to define what an academic product is. Here's a form that articles take in the field of computer supported cooperative work: wide ranging introduction; literature review section which covers far more reading than you will use in the text; truncated methods section which doesn't allow you to interrogate the text easily; objective findings, which generally seem otherwise and would often be known anyway by the average citizen without doing any research; discussion, which is too short and (pace Paul Dourish), implications for design. It's all in the service of Poincare's vision of another brick in the wall of the edifice of science. If I'm asked what it is that most academics write most of the time, I'd have to say: "Yes, oh dear yes, the canonical academic product is the finding".
Reading knowledge work and producing knowledge have over the years and in an unfortunate sequence of path dependencies, tend to become ever more constrained. We now know the 'natural' armature of the chapter heading, the footnote and the index for example - however these were just as much creations as hot lead presses. Unfortunately, at outset of a new era of information infrastructure, we are still in general marching backwards into the future (McLuhan). We have a great production machine - why not produce a million articles where once we had a thousand? This is the only, natural way to produce knowledge, after all. The new information technology will help with this - where once my personal filing system could hold a few hundred files and folders, I now command a virtual office where these number in the hundreds of thousands.
However it's not all about doom and gloom at this point. Within many fields, and outside of academia, new forms of knowledge expression abound:
- the performance of knowledge
There is a body of work in anthropology around dancing knowledge and wisdom. Dance is a rich modality for knowledge expression. Eevi Beck's Thundering Silence work, for example, involves a text narrator, an automated Prezi presentation and herself dancing. Just like the motif in Wagnerian opera, the dancer provides a rich subtext to the text and images. The knowledge experience for the witness resonates in all registers (Levi-Strauss) simultaneously.
- the representation of knowledge
I was at a workshop recently where someone posed a difficult question to the speaker (a computer scientist). He gave an embarrassed chuckle and said: "I could give you a good answer to that question, but unfortunately I don't have the slideware to hand". Slideware, the third dimension to software and hardware. Slideware is powerpoint slides which are bartered, in a curious gift economy (Hénaff) extensively in scientific work. Many of my colleagues - incuding myself as my own best colleague - have many powerpoint presentations that we've not yet had the time to put into text. And yet you can see the problem with the latter predicate - why insist on a powerpoint-text-powerpoint knowledge expression machine, when the work of 'text' can be truly counter-productive - it drains multi-dimensionality. Powerpoint has its own problems with linearity - more flexible forms like Prezi, with its infinite canvas present new forms of trail-making (resonant with the phenomenology of trails in Ingold's work on lines and their theory in Adrian Cussins' work).
- knowledge and the database
One of the great myths of the scientific article was that the paper itself contained all and only the information to reproduce an experiment and to point to future research. But it has been a commonplace in the analysis of science (Collins) that the papers never provide enough information for the former; and in the sociology of science that they are but part of a larger ecology (for example, the circulation of tacit knowledge through the circulation of graduate students - Ravetz). The scientific paper acted as a screen which through its linear narrative protected the reader from the data. Where data was referred to, it was as represented in other texts. Text mediating database is akin to walking a high wire which is unconnected to supports at either end. The journal Vectors has dealt with this well - especially the Blue Velvet article by David Theo Goldberg and Stefka Hristova. Here, text falls from the sky into the database, which reveals itself as a set of videos, images, census tables and so forth.
There was a period on the 1970s when computer programmers were paid for the number of lines of code they wrote on a given day. As soon as this is enunciated, it's clear how silly it is: the best code does in two lines that which others would labor to do in a thousand (just like Euclid's two line proof that there an infinite number of prime numbers). However, it remains generally true that knowledge producers in our society are rewarded for the number of lines of text that they produce on a given day. Oh, I intone to my graduate students, you need to be producing two to three peer-reviewed papers a year, work on your monograph - and then the kingdom of heaven shall be thine. This is really silly. Peer review broke down as a system about forty years ago - we have so many texts, and so little time to do free labor that in any field, in any journal, you can find glaring errors. Science, Technology and Human Values carried an article several years back from folks who had sent the same paper out to 80 some journals (Epstein). The piece was a resubmission of a paper published in an Australian social work journal in the 1950s. Half of the 'resubmissions' contained a totally mangled version of the experimental protocol. Acceptance rate was about 90% all told (check) - this for both the mangled and unmangled versions. One person picked out the plagiarism (out of several hundred reviewers).
If we want to produce scalable knowledge for planetary management (which is what most science is about today), then we need to get away from the academic article. We certainly do not want text to trump resonance - since complexity can never be represented in linear form. Nor, more controversially perhaps, do we want text to trump database. Since the Enlightenment, we have lived in a database epoch (Bowker, Manovich): it is in and through databases that our knowledge is represented, grown and propagated. Let's call an end to the epiphenomenon of the text.