23 August 2005

Can We Talk?

David Weinberger is a smart guy. The type of smart guy who says or writes something, and you say, gee, I wish I wrote that. I'd hate him, if I didn't like him so much.

The thing that's got me going on about Weinberger is his latest entry, "Knowledge as Conversation." He succinctly and elegantly breezes through the distinctions among what is valued as knowledge in relation to "the other" through three relatively modern eras that can be characterized as, "I'm right, you're wrong (and going to hell)," "I'm right, you're wrong, but I'll accept the fact that you're wrong (and you're still going to hell)," and "We believe different things, and each of us has a reason for our respective beliefs; let's talk about it and share our understanding." David is much more profound:
There is a big difference between a relativistic world in which contrary beliefs assert themselves and a conversational world in which contrary beliefs talk with one another. In the relativistic world, we resign ourselves to the differences. In the conversational world, the differences talk. Even though neither side is going to "win" — conversation is the eternal fate of humankind — knowledge becomes the negotiation of beliefs in a shared world. What do we need to talk through? What can't we give up? What do we believe in common that seems so different? What should we just not talk about? These are the questions that now shape knowledge.
I'm immediately drawn to Foucault's approach to the construction of knowledge and truth as being mediated through discourses of power (and resistance), which brings to mind the controversies and discourses that are now flowing throughout our conflicted world. Here's where I would add to Weinberger: Knowledge is not only the negotiation of beliefs, but the understanding and explication of the contextual factors from which those beliefs emerge, making visible the control points and pressures on those factors, and negotiating (or perhaps navigating) those control points.

The heated-up television era that is an example of Weinberger's relativistic world is characteristic of those who exercise political power in the Western world, and importantly, in the United States. (As an aside, I should point out that McLuhan's television enabled a more conversational form, albeit in a less optimistic fashion than Weinberger perceives conversations.) On the other hand, the connectedness enabled by instantaneous, multiway communications - or ubiquitous connectivity that enables pervasive proximity, as I describe it - is the message of the conversational world medium. As these two worlds construct self and identity differently, the juxtaposition of the two leads to conflict.

As I have previously noted, this is the fundamental problem that the GW Bush administration has in managing its agenda. Bush and crew are relatively truthful, that is, they construct the truth relative to their beliefs, and consider that "I'm right, you're wrong, and I'll accept the fact that you're wrong (and you're still going to hell)." This is precisely Bush's public response, for example, to the now-iconic Cindy Sheehan. (Others, especially among the Religious Right, are more absolutist in their responses.)

The connected, conversational world enables emergent transparency that allows its participants to create knowledge based on greater information and the flow of conversation. The relativistic world creates fragmented groups that own relative truths which can only be mediated through conflict, if at all. The clash between the two defines the ground conditions of contemporary world politics, and the various "war(s) on ..." of which American politicians seem to be so enamoured.

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