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Delocalized and Resituated Knowledge in the Information Age

I offer a deliberately fragmentary outlook encompassing only two schematic observations pertinent to the proposed definition and the spatial structures of knowledge. Both show changes in the organization and dispersion of epistemic practices. I first introduce my observations, then explain and discuss each in turn:

  • (a) As the physical location of knowledge loses importance, the social location of the agents and use of knowledge becomes increasingly relevant.
  • (b) As the long-standing functional division between information and knowledge becomes partly challenged by information-processing machines, the sociophysical location of stored data partly replaces the traditional geography of knowledge.

Part of assumption (a) is common sense today. An optimistic statement containing it is, “Today a child anywhere in the world who has Internet access has access to more knowledge than a child in the best schools of industrial countries did a quarter of a century ago” (Stiglitz, 1999, p. 318). This statement is true as far as access to textual sources of knowledge is concerned, and yet it sounds rather naive. The reason is that Stiglitz is not speaking of the social and cognitive framework that helps one choose the right sources and make sense of them, nor does he mention possible contexts of use. Even if the child, by chance or by genius, finds the right track to develop sophisticated knowledge in genetic engineering, or investment banking, or the construction of microchips, she or he will still need other favorable conditions in order to put this knowledge to any use or even make money with it. The ensemble of such conditions—such as nationality, language background, travel opportunities, established contacts, educational credentials, and material means—is what I propose to call (with loose reference to Bourdieu, 1985) the social location of the knowledge protagonist. Of course, globalized access to knowledge sources will enable additional people to repair cars, build bombs, or engage in software programming, but in many cases the limits of their social location will replace the former effects of spatial distance.

Further reflection on the economic uses of knowledge shows that social location may even become more important than it has been in industrial capitalism. General knowledge that can be technically distributed at little more than zero cost is not well suited as a source of private wealth. Standard economic approaches show that treating it as a nonpublic good incurs general inefficiencies in both immediate consumption and the chances of creating further knowledge (Arrow, 1962; Stiglitz, 1999). Things look different, however, for the situated knowledge of experts. Tasks such as adapting software to a firm’s special needs, installing new microchips in a car model’s control system, finding the cheapest possible labor force where supply chains are still sufficient, and identifying the passages in U.S. patent law that keep competitors off the market involve profitable expertise. As the examples suggest, such expertise can be needed either in productive settings or in settings marked by conflicting interests, to the benefit or detriment of general welfare. In both cases, it is the unique social situation of use that determines the structure of valuable knowledge. In light of the previous discussion, this new impact of social location can also be seen as a factor that tightens social control. Instead of socially overdetermined spatial distances, mere social power relations now sort out who can successfully act as a knowledge agent.

At the same time, reduced generality, or increased sensitivity to individual capacities and specific situations, affect the concept of knowledge itself. The marginal case is that knowledge is reduced to intransparent expert reputation, or mere knowing how to do things at a certain (social) place.[1] In rather unspecific and impersonal settings, other reasons raise the question of whether knowledge is still appropriate as a name. As observation (b) suggests, the old practices of keeping information available for future use have been duplicated by a process not easily called knowledge: storing encoded information or data for future operations. The relevant word here is operations, for encoded information is something that one can already find in charts, written calculations, and even books. What is new is that such information can be automatically processed without the intervention of human agents but with huge practical and epistemic effects. Examples are the instances when stock market programs buy and sell shares, police software identifies dangerous persons, and semantic tools browse scientific data bases.

The standard definition makes it simple to distinguish the information processed from knowledge in such cases. The operations in question involve neither beliefs nor truth and justification, or do so only in the period when programs are designed. Pragmatic definitions, too, offer a clear criterion of distinction in that use or context of experience imply that human agents participate in the process. Yet I think the more interesting point is that practices of knowledge are really pervaded by processes that make it hard to draw boundaries. A semantic symptom is that the knowledge economy and society have always been discussed in relation to mere information.[2] That scope proves to be adequate. Human agency is only one of an increasing number of forces that keep information available and intervene in the world accordingly.

Goals and consequences are still a human and social affair. One of the most remarkable effects of the rise of information technology is that the geopolitical location of data storage is gaining new relevance. Although knowledge is spreading ever more widely across the globe, the question of whose territory data are stored on plainly matters because the answer determines who will protect them or can compel access to them. In broad theoretical terms, the duality of social control and not completely controllable spatial dispersion must be complemented by a third dimension: struggles over the control of the spatial infrastructure of information. Such struggles have probably occurred ever since the first clay-tablet reports on crops were assembled in capital cities, and they continue in the age of the transhuman information- knowledge complex.

  • [1] The examples of knowledge work discussed by Willke (1998), taken mainly from the sphere ofbusiness consulting, illustrate this aspect. What counts as knowledge in consulting is at least opento dispute.
  • [2] The first paradigm was given by Machlup (1962), who simply refused to distinguish betweenknowledge and information (p. 8). Extensive studies of the “information economy” have followed(Porat & Rubin, 1977), and publications on the “information society” have abounded since the late1970s.
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