What, then, will we think about knowing?

Edge.org, which is one of the most intellectually stimulating places on the web, offers many, many provocative ideas written around anannual theme. In 2005 it was "What We Believe, but Cannnot Prove." For 2006, it's "What's Your Dangerous Idea?"

Included among the many listed authors are people I recognize from my work with information technology professionals. The field of IT has run up against a number of epistemic issues as people increasingly connect and stay connected. For example, I wonder how knowledge -- or knowing -- will be conceived in a future where everything knowable can also be instantly known.

In other words what, then, will we think about knowing?

How we conceive knowing matters. As I've indicated just recently, this is one reason I believe the current emphasis on design is more than just another business fad. It requires a certain a priori knowing that's hard, if not impossible, to digitize or duplicate. It knows something in a very human way in a time when businesses seek to measure every operation. Design stamps humanity on process.

Clay Shirky, someone I admire for thinking about the nature of connectedness, touches on a couple philosophical issues related to knowing -- agency and volition -- in his submitted Edge.org dangerous idea, "Free Will is Going Away." He offers this challenging take on the future:

the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain. We can wait for that collision, and decide what to do then, or we can begin thinking through what sort of legal, political, and economic systems we need in a world where our old conception of free will is rendered inoperable.

Science has made evident that our minds can be manipulated without our conscious knowledge. It should be equally clear that our minds can also consciously manipulate.

There are many things we do not yet know. Agency or autonomy, in my view, does not require complete knowledge; otherwise there would be no voluntary acts. But reverse the action: if there are no voluntary acts, then the implication is that those with complete, or superior knowledge, claim agency. In other words, I know more than you.

This is fine in the operating room, but appeals to special knowledge in the public square has a long and troubled history. "Legal, political, and economic systems" that institutionalize special knowledge give me pause. Shirky's concluding paragraph begs the question, absent a notion of free will, on what other basis will we consider and opt for alternatives in this future society? And who decides?


Technorati tags: Clay Shirky, volition, agency, empiricism, knowledge