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.