Friday, July 5, 2013

How do we know what we know?

In Nederlands, there are two words for knowledge.  One is to know by direct experience (Denken) and the other is to know by indirect reports (Weten). 

Denken is overwhelmingly more valid but necessarily limited in scope.  I can only explore limited time and space, befriend only a small circle and learn from a few actions. 

Further, to be really useful, I have to massage experiences into knowledge by reflecting, talking, or writing about it.  ‘Which takes away from having more experiences.

Weten, tapping into the knowledge and skills of others, gives greater scope for learning.  But it also requires establishing relevance, communication, and trust in sources, whether news, experts, literature, friends or social media.

The classical model for accessing second-hand knowledge is to search for answers to questions.  So I check out a book, talk to a friend, follow recommendations,  then test the quality of the answers by their alignment with reality and the  outcomes that they produce.

FeedsWhen I find sources I like and trust, then I accept more of my information from them.  I attend a business class, read the Economist, share conversation over coffee.   ‘Good, but still limited in three main ways.

First, it’s hard to keep up with the flow of people and news that interests me.  My aggregator has a growing backlog of unread blog posts; old issues of magazines pile up in my tablet.  I call a friend to ask about their health,, find out that she has new vacation pictures, stories about kids, a change of job I hadn’t suspected.  I feel like I can’t keep up, much less think through, the news and conversations that fill each day.  (Even if only the ones in English!)

Second, I identify new sources using similarity searches: friends of friends.  “Find more like this” works well for music and movies, but I know that it gets dangerously constrained when applied to news and commentary.  A single point of view, endlessly reinforced, creates a brittle and embattled outlook towards life and people, nurtures homogeneous communities that feel both exceptional and victimized.  As the Economist notes, “Americans prefer talking heads because they increasingly prefer to hear opinion rather than fact.”

Finally, I am all too aware that I am taking samples from someone else’s narrative, colored with their motives and biases.   Even with the best of intentions, people pick examples by analogy, tell you whet they think you need to hear, omit context and embellish details.  I’ve had situations go horribly wrong in the past few months despite getting trusted advice  which, in hindsight, was simply misguided or malicious.

I want to keep up with people and trends that are meaningful and important  to me.  I want to be deeply informed about things that matter to me and occasionally surprised and challenged by new ideas.  I want to grow my social and professional circle.

TweetdeckDave Winer talks about one alternative: rather than pulling items individually by polling trusted sources, we should embrace the flow of a “river of news”. 

He envisions sitting on the bank of the news crawl, the Twitter feed, the Facebook scroll. We become aware of new information as it becomes more prevalent, we inspect it if it’s interesting, we discern trends in the evolution of the stream.  Last week, Dave released River3, a Dropbox based aggregator implementing the principles: you can see sample output at MediaHackers.

Another idea is Curated Content: diverting streams from the river related to particular topics.  These can be crowd-sourced (Digg), organized by an editor (  or scrapbooked (FlipBoard magazines).  I prefer the latter: I don’t trust crowd-sourced content (selection can be superficial and self-reinforcing) and newsletters too often pile up, unread.

And then there’s the question of who is doing the curating.  As Google, Facebook, or PRISM watch us, they build up profiles leading to predictions.  They create individualized filters that constrain and, ultimately, manipulate what we see and do.

And it’s likely to be inaccurate.  To paraphrase William Buffet, we are obsessed with having our public persona being seen, but also with our private self remaining hidden.  Basing our trusted sources on our projected selves cannot yield truth.

I’m not sure that we’ve yet seen the ideal way of learning through weten.  More data is available, but it’s getting harder and harder to organize, collate, and prioritize.  And there’s no choice but to keep listening, reading, sampling, analyzing, and learning.

And even then, it still comes back around to denken.

Events, experienced first-hand, often prove how little I really do know.  The bite can be really painful but, in the end, I hope  it doesn’t make me cynical.

Insight and wisdom are best gained by simply living.

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