The question to be addressed in this short essay is “What is the future of knowledge?” In order to answer this question, we must begin with two fundamental questions: “What is knowledge?” and “How is knowledge transferred?”
For current purposes we can define knowledge as “a body of arguments and/or evidence that either supports or refutes a given world view.” As an example of “arguments that support or refute a world view,” we can consider the philosophical arguments advanced by Plato to support his contention that the society he described in “The Republic” would be superior to all other possible forms of government. Although many considered Plato’s imaginary society to be almost utopian, its principles were later supplanted by the concepts of individual rights and equality of the citizens that were advanced by, among others, Locke and Rousseau. Since neither set of arguments can be tested empirically, and their acceptance is dependent on the individual, we will define such arguments as “subjective” data. As an example of “evidence that supports of refutes,” consider the case of Newton’s “Principia”.
The “Principia” is considered the single work that effectively destroyed the existing world views of geocentrism and the need for a “Prime Mover” to explain the motion of the planets. In doing so, he relied on the earlier work of Kepler and Galileo. We will define such empirically-testable knowledge as “objective” data. The fact that Newton relied on the work of others leads to our first conclusion: “Knowledge” is not truly “knowledge” unless it can be readily conveyed to others (“universality of knowledge”). Restated, knowledge that cannot be readily transferred remains merely “opinion” or “data.”
Prior to the “electronic age” (ca 1920 – 1990), the primary method for transferring knowledge was via printed materials such as books, magazines or professional journals; later supplemented by audiovisual media such as radio, television, and recorded media. Although effective, given the technological sophistication of the era, such media could not address the issue of universal access since the transfer of knowledge was restricted to those having physical possession of the transfer medium. The “Internet” age, which naturally evolved from its parent “electronic” age, has the potential to finally realize the goal of universal access to knowledge. Unfortunately, as with any evolutionary process, “not all the bugs have been worked out” regarding this new era.
A major problem remains with the way that knowledge is searched for and then presented to those attempting to access knowledge. The root of this problem lies with the fact that all Internet search engines (e.g. Firefox, Google, or Internet Explorer) use essentially the same, outdated, search algorithm, which is based on the number of “keywords” detected in the content of a given web document. As us well known to those who have used any search engine, keyword-based” web searches will invariably contain results that are irrelevant to the search purpose (i.e., a search for “bears” will yield more references to web sites that are dedicated to middle-aged male homosexuals rather than to pages concerning ursine members of the animal kingdom). Since practically all search engines are financed by advertising revenue, search engine results are currently determined by entities with larger advertising budgets.
Problems with keyword-based searches are slowly being resolved by searches that are based on metadata, in which metadata refers to “data about other data.” Beginning with schemas such as the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (ca 1995), the trend has been to include self-descriptive data within web documents that will allow more subject-specific searching by identifiers such as date, type of media, author, or place of publication. Although some search engines already possess a limited ability to search by Dublin Core identifiers, full search capability is not expected before the end of the current decade. Another closely-related problem that remains to be fully addressed is how, once information is found, that information will be presented to the end-user.
In response to such concerns, the recent HTML 5 standard adds support for web document production that allows such advances as the inclusion of descriptive metadata, functional “layout” and/or document rendering instructions, and the imbedding multimedia content in web documents in formats that do not rely on proprietary “add-on” or “plugins.” As is the case with search engines and Dublin Core metadata, support for HTML 5 in the various web browsers is uneven, although public pressure seems to be hastening greater support in each new generation of browsers.
Finally, any consideration of the future of knowledge must recognize the emerging role of social media and to what extent we are willing to share knowledge about ourselves with essentially a worldwide audience, some of whom may not be motivated by benevolent intentions. Should social media be self-regulating and/or self-censoring or should such roles be left to national governments? Such questions are worthy of further consideration even though the latter option, in light of the dismal records of freedom of expression in China and several Islamic states, does not seem attractive.