There’s No Such Thing as Free Knowledge

Twice in the last week I’ve heard the phrase “free knowledge.” I understand that there are many people with more influence in the world than I who like this term (e.g., Jimmy Wales’s “Free Knowledge requires Free Software and Free File Formats“). In fact, I heard Jimmy use this phrase last week at the Shuttleworth/Soros/Hewlett-sponsored meeting in Cape Town. He was describing why he doesn’t like the term “content.” Because “content,” he said, sounds like a static something that can be packaged and shipped. And so he prefers the more living, breathing, dynamic term “knowledge,” which he uses to characterize sites like Wikipeida. Now, fully understanding that many of you could care less, I have to get this off my chest anyway…

There is no such thing as disembodied knowledge. To know requires a knower, and what that knower knows is knowledge. Only a knower can know something; that is, only a knower can have knowledge. Now, a knower may make an attempt to create an externalization of what s/he knows – an artifact of their knowing. But this artifact of their knowing is no more knowledge than a fossilized dinosaur footprint or bone is a dinosaur. A webpage cannot know, a website cannot know, and even a highly interconnected, frequently updated website cannot know. Because we can only understand the “free” in “free knowledge” to mean “free from embodiment, free from the necessary prerequisite of a knower,” the entire idea of “free knowledge” is a contradiction in terms that means absolutely nothing.

And while I have great respect for the incredible resource that Wikipedia is, it is nothing more than that – a resource. Wikipedia is content, because at any point in time I can visit the page on economics and download, “package,” and “ship” it. Now, someone will immediately say, “but it will be updated, and then what you’ve shipped will miss out on these updates.” This is completely true, just like when I visit Wikipedia to learn something about economics, I don’t get an automated email the next day saying, “this paragraph you read yesterday has changed.” Just like when I purchase a textbook about economics I don’t get the updates included in the next edition of the book. The fact that the Wikipedia page is updated much more frequently than the textbook, and that these updates are freely available to me does not change the fact that Wikipedia and other websites are resources. A publicly accessible edit tab does not somehow make it magically possible to disembody knowledge from a knower – it simply makes it possible to update content very quickly and in a highly scalable way. The difference in the speed and scalability with which updates occur never allows the resource to cross an imaginary qualitative boundary which transforms static content into a knower.

Please note that my disdain for the term “free knowledge” has nothing to do with the seemingly eternal “free versus open” disagreement. The term “open knowledge” is equally without meaning. I chose the term “open content” very specifically. Websites, videos, podcasts, PDFs, and other files that can be transfered or streamed across the network show by the very fact that they can be transfered or streamed across the network show that they can be “packaged” and “shipped” via internet protocols. They are content. They are resources. They are artifacts. They are not knowledge.

5 thoughts on “There’s No Such Thing as Free Knowledge”

  1. Funny.

    But yes, you’re right. This, in particular, is dead on: “There is no such thing as disembodied knowledge. To know requires a knower, and what that knower knows is knowledge.”

    This creates problems for George Siemens. Not insurmountable problems, if we are careful about what constitutes a ‘knower’. But problem enough. Because a brick cannot ’embody knowledge’ or ‘have knowledge’. Nor can a book. Nor can a website.

    Much, much more interesting is the question of ‘what is a knower?’. Only humans? No – I would want to say my cat knows things – it certainly knows when it’s food time; those mad scrambles aren’t just guesses.

    To know – I argue – is to be organized in a certain way. It implies a certain level of complexity, and it requires the sort of set of entities that *can* be organized in that way.

  2. I think Wikipedia is content, but he (Wales) probably wanted to distinguish content in general (like mp3s, tv shows, books) from educational/informative/useful content (news casts, encyclopedia content, class lectures and notes).

    And yes you do get information from an episode of CSI, for example (getting shot is yucky), and you do get useful information from an episode of American Idol (I probably could never be a singer).

    But we don’t normally tune into CSI or American Idol or listen to a song in order to learn something or gain more skills & knowledge. WeWe do have that intention however usually when we go to Wikipedia or connect to some “personal learning environment” or search on google.

    I guess I like “open learning” or something that emphasizes the process and the intentions of the person.

  3. “the difference in the speed and scalability with which updates occur never allows the resource to cross an imaginary qualitative boundary which transforms static content into a knower.”

    I think the speed and scalability makes a huge difference. In my world a pond, a lake, a sea and a river are all different even if they all are simply “water”. They all hold very different kind of affordances. Wikipedia is a river. A book is much more a pond or a lake. If a resource is under continuous reconsideration – in a fast and almost global scale – it starts to embed the “knowers” (the community) in it and becomes (almost) knowledge itself. This is what happens in a scientific publishing too – in a different scale. Rivers are good.

  4. It’s all really a big game of semantics but…
    I agree with what you’re saying, David. Knowledge is actionable information. As a sentient being I am able to receive a stream of ideas (regardless of the update rate of the source, be it a dusty textbook or twitter) and make a decision based on my digest of those ideas.

    Content is a representation of ideas that can be dispersed, gathered, or even “mashed up”. Only lifeforms that can act for themselves can possess knowledge.

    (That’s how I see the terms, anyway. I don’t manage any marketing budgets or anything so I can really say it as I see it.) 🙂

  5. Websites, videos, podcasts, PDFs, and other files can be knowledge also to someone who had never got into before in my opinion. To someone who are familiar with those format, they are just old stuff being gathered and put together.

    A book is one thing you have in hand and it will never by changed except making notes on it by yourself. Wikipedia is just like Teemu’s word “river”, it is always running until there is no more headsteam or rain(resources). New knowledge is like the rain, it will never stop.

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