Is knowledge "in the network"?

There is an ongoing debate about social media and learning, about whether 'knowledge is in the network' - whether this is a connectivist or a rhizomatic network, its much the same.

I have always been uncomfortable with this idea, not because I dont like networks, or dont recognise that knowledge, networks, communities, identities and learning are all inter-related, but because as an old-fashioned semiotician, I just think its (at least half) wrong. Material and virtual artefacts (which not only 'embody' knowledge, but constitute it) can outlive their creators and the networks that might have been instrumental in their creation - and interpretation.

So knowledge is not (and certainly not exclusively) 'in the network’, for two substantial reasons …

1. Formal scientific knowledge (most specifically in the natural sciences) creates knowledge in texts, algorithms, graphics, etc: artefacts, that have universal currency – they can be passed from hand to hand, and time to time. They create whole 'languages' and notation systems to do this. (The illusion of universal truth, on the other hand, needs to be guarded against at all times, as it is totally unscientific, science being founded on radical scepticism, and the requirements of fallibility). You can ‘set these texts down’, these artefacts. You can write them, draw them, store, transmit, copy and reproduce them, and when everyone in the network has passed on (and/or died) these artefacts continue to exist. (Whether you remember how to use them, and interpret them, is up to you).

2. Value (as in Etienne Wenger's work on value creation networks) is created in the social networks of actual people, and is to be found by engaging in those social networks, as well as engaging with tapestries of meaning – hypertexts, like this, emergent one between me, you, and the artefacts and people that might be linked here. In these hypertexts, knowledge is found in particular ‘wreadings’ - a hybrid term I used many years ago in a thesis of mine – i.e. a combination of reading, writing and interpreting, all of which are actually inseparable.

So the meaning - the emergent knowledge - in this text is to be found and created in the way links, thoughts, debates, people and experiences, are threaded and weaved together in a (hyper/textual) tapestry of meaning. Some of this exists only in the engagement with the social network – in material or virtual space – some of it exists only in engagement with the threads, links and layers of a hypertext. But there is a constant interplay between these social networks and the artefacts and texts that constitute the tapestries of meaning that capture (much of) that meaning, and just like the knowledge of natural science, this kind of knowledge too continues to exist after its creators and their networks are long gone.

Of course, in a fundamental sense, all texts are hypertexts, as all signs pick up on, contribute to, and reversion other uses of signs, and may create new uses which then (as Barthes said) become signs of their (new) selves. The tapestries of meaning, like the formalised texts of natural science, also have an (enduring) existence outside networks.

And see:


and ...


and the next question is:

Is knowledge in the community? Read more ...
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