Negotiating the mesh of social meaning

I finally got around to reading Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger. I thought that I understood the premise and contents fairly well from my readings on the Web but I was pleasantly surprised by this book, which is now available in paperback. There is lots here that I will refer back to and the book will definitely stay on my reference library shelf.

For instance, I already knew this concept 😉

In the miscellaneous order, the only distinction between metadata and data is that metadata is what you already know and data is what you’re trying find.

But then we go one step beyond the Cluetrain:

The markets that conversations make are real markets, not mere statistical clusterings.

I highlighted this passge near the end:

In the world after the Enlightenment, the cultural task was to build knowledge. In the miscellaneous world, the task is to build meaning, even though we can’t yet know what we’ll do with this new domain. Certainly some will mine it for knowledge that will change our lives through science and business. But knowledge will only be one product. Knowledge’s new place will be in an ever-present mesh of social meaning. Knowledge is thus not being dethroned. We are way too good at knowing, and our continued progress – and survival – depends on it. But knowledge is now not our only project or our single highest meaning. Making sense of what we know is the broader task, a task for understanding within the infrastructure of meaning.

This made me pause and think about what we mean when we discuss knowledge work, and if it may be the wrong label.

9 Responses to “Negotiating the mesh of social meaning”

  1. Michele Martin

    Interesting idea, Harold–how do you see this changing our discussions about knowledge work? I do struggle with that label because I don’t know that many people really define or see themselves as “knowledge workers.”

  2. Tom Haskins

    Harold: I’m thinking that “knowledge management” is a fitting term for knowing as a “controlled substance”. When we deal with miscellany, folksonomies, tagging, and other “third order of order” containers, the word “management” seems inappropriate to me. Perhaps we will speak of “meaning ecologies” or “sense-making interdependencies”.

    I’m looking forward to your further pondering on David Weinberger’s profound book.

  3. Harold

    Many folks call this post-industrial age the knowledge era but maybe Dan Pink’s term the creative era (reinforced by Richard Florida’s work) may be more appropriate. Creative, in terms of creating meaning, may be a better term, but then again creative has many connotations that some may find unsuitable for their field.

    Both knowledge and management are limiting terms, and as you say, Tom, management is really the wrong term. Maybe we should say “knowledge managing”, as in “I think I’m just barely managing all this knowledge stuff”.

  4. Dave Ferguson

    Thanks a lot, Harold — I’ve been behind schedule all week, and wandering over here to a thought-provoking reflection, and comments batting three for three, isn’t getting me caught up at all.

    That underlined passage made me think of a huge but oddly entertaining tome on the development of markets that a friend gave me. In early economies (I don’t want to say “primitive”), barter is extremely common, money is suspect, and there’s a sometimes unacknowledge shared belief that things have intrinsic value.

    (That’s the notion that your clay pot is worth two liters of barley, say.)

    In more robust economics that extend farther, in a sense the individual elements are the knowledge (the facts), but the function of the economy depends on channels of exchange (the meaning).

    That’s where money comes into its own — in a sense, it means what people decide it means. And objects no longer have an objective value (the way the price of gold was for years defined as $45 U.S. an ounce) — there’s a meaning applied to them, and that’s what gives them value.

    Quite the tangent, but I’m not up to the knowledge-worker label yet. I tend to agree with Michele (and said as much on Work Literacy) — I think most workers define themselves in terms of the major processes they engage in (Damn it, Jim, I’m a physician, not a knowledge worker!).

    “Knowledge worker” other than as a catchall term doesn’t have much more meaning than “user of English.”

  5. Harold

    Good point, Dave. Perhaps knowledge work is far too broad, and maybe we should just avoid it and concentrate on each specific context.

  6. Tom Haskins

    For me, the term “knowledge work” implies something I should be doing, can fall behind in getting it done, and do poorly with unavoidable consequences. All those implications suggest it can be managed which gives rise to the term “knowledge management”. In the context of work literacy, “knowledge work” would get done faster, better, cheaper by using the Web 2.0 tools effectively. Literacy makes a slight shift from pressuring people to be “in the know, well informed, cognizant, etc” to supporting them in adopting these tools and making effective use of them. Compared to hierarchies and factory models, work literacy is benign, empowering and a welcomed change.

    When we consider bigger shifts like going from an industrial to creative economy or from expert taxonomies to unique folksonomies — we’re dealing with greater complexity and emergent outcomes. We cannot make the results happen, manage the work involved or count on improvements by using the tools. We’re dealing with networks that grew to know more or communities that connected additional resources to itself. The meaning shows up amidst the interactions.

    Understandings get held between the nodes (people, info sources, etc) in the combined effect of all the linkages. Like Dave’s examples of economic transactions, the value of the content is no longer objectively pinned to the content itself. A market emerges where shared interests, uses, appetites and preferences collectively combine to define what’s it’s worth, what it’s good for, and what difference it actually makes. When we think about how valuable a particular blog post, comment or bookmark of a post is, the value is not in what was written. It’s in the unseen uses it’s put to by “knowledge workers” interacting with others, generating content themselves, linking between documents and contributing to searchable public archives for later uses. All that is unmanageable and ecological.

  7. Michele Martin

    Harold, it’s interesting that you bring up Dan Pink. That’s who I immediately thought about when I read this post, thinking that his framework of the six essential competencies might be a good one for describing what we need to be doing to be “literate” or at least competitive for most kinds of “knowledge” work.

    I hear you on using the label “creative” instead of “knowledge” work, although I personally would prefer to have my work described in terms of being creative. But maybe part of the paradigm shift for people is helping them to recognize that “higher order” work (in Dan Pink’s terms) is about being creative–if you aren’t adding value through your use of the six essential competencies, then you’re in trouble because that’s work that will either be done by a computer or done overseas.

    In my work with clients I’m continually trying to convey to them the fact that they need to make this critical shift to operating effectively in this creative economy. It can be a hard sell, in part because we’ve tended to value left-brain, analytical abilities for so long. Interestingly, to me one of the values and attractions of social media is that it so clearly supports the use of right-brain skills. I suspect that the more we use these tools, the more adept we become in those 6 competency areas.

  8. James BonTempo

    If, as Tom says, we’re moving towards support and empowerment (and I agree, this is preferable to using force), how do we ensure that people will engage in the “creative” work? How do we motivate them? Am I misunderstanding Michele’s comments if I imagine that folks may find themselves out of a job if they don’t participate? This seems like it might make for some pretty good motivation! But it also seems perhaps a bit extreme and alarmist.


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