Bill Long 11/15/06
The "Next Generation" of Internet-Based Learning
The genesis for this idea came from two sources: (1) my own thinking over the past two years as I have increasingly added to these pages; and (2) an article in the Nov. 8, 2006 NY Times entitled "Entrepreneurs See a Web Guided by Common Sense," by John Markoff, which describes a longed-for new development in Internet research, called "Web 3.0," which will enable intelligence-based rather than list-based internet searches. While I will relate some of these thoughts to Markoff's article, I will begin and end in a far different place. My major point is that the next generation of Internet technology ought to be designed in a way that will help us reconceptualize the invention, acquisition and cultivation of knowledge. I begin with Francis Bacon, who was one of the last thinkers in Western society to have thought he developed a whole new manner of thinking and learning.
Bacon's Novum Organon (1620)
When Bacon gave his title to this foundational work of learning, he was playing off of and playing with Aristotle. The Stagirite had reigned supreme in logic, science and philosophy for nearly 1900 years in the West, but Bacon, along with others in the fields of optics and astronomy, felt that Aristotle's categories were fundamentally insufficient for the "modern" world. The Organon is a "tool" or "instrument," and it referred most specifically to the six logical treatises written by Aristotle to aid in thinking through all propositions, but Bacon would be so bold as to recommend a "new tool" or a new method of conceptualizing and practicing learning. He lays out his method in the introduction.
"Now my method, though hard to practice, is easy to explain; and it is this. I propose to establish progressive stages of certainty."
How do you establish these progressive stages of certainly in knowledge? Well, by considering a different method of learning.
"The evidence of the sense, helped and guarded by a certain process of correction, I retain. But the mental operation which follows the act of sense I for the most part reject; and instead of it I open and lay out a new and certain path for the mind to proceed in, starting directly from the simple sensuous perception.."
How does learning begin? From the "simple sensuous perception." Rather than beginning from religious or philosophical doctrine and then using Aristotelian categories of logic to extrapolate from what was certainly known to all other things, Bacon says we should begin with the simple observation of what is before us. Just as there is a certain simplicity to any political revolution, so a knowledge revolution arises out of a very simple observation. We will pursue "simple sensuous perception." We need this new starting point. If you have an incorrect or unhelpful starting point, then all the "correct" logical methods in the world will only bring you to madness and not insight.
In my judgment he goes on to give an unclear example (reshaping an obelisk) and some incomplete observations, but his basic point is clear: that in the new era in which he lives, a new method for the gathering knowledge is appropriate. And he makes clear that what is at stake for him is not the mere cultivation but also the invention of knowledge. He has no fight with contemporary philosophy about some of its categories and ideas, but he wants
"not [to be] content to rest in and use the knowledge which has already been discovered, [but to] aspire(s) to penetrate further; to overcome, not an adversary in argument, but nature in action; to seek, no pretty and probable conjectures, but certain and demonstrable knowledge...I invited all such to join themselves, as true sons of knowledge, with me, that passing by the outer courts of nature, which members have trodden, we may find a way at length into her inner chambers."
Bacon is tantalizingly imprecise at this point regarding exactly the stakes for which he is playing, but we can see he is longing for a kind of knowledge that is sure and demonstrable, that arises from the senses rather than from preconceived categories, that gets to the heart or essence or inner nature of objects, and to do this all "in a manner not harsh or unpleasant."
Back to the 21st Century
Even though I only gave excerpts from Bacon's introduction, a few things are evident. When you think you are inventing a new approach to knowledge you generally have both a simple principle and, at first, a confused method. That is, you must isolate the fundamental inadequacy of the current system as a prelude to being able to move to a new system. But, when you lay out the principles of the new system, you often are at a loss to delineate them precisely. Why? Because new categories, approaches, questions and learnings emerge only after the "revolution" is underway. You can't necessarily work out all the details beforehand because you haven't confronted what the new world will look like when you apply your new and basic insight to it. Once you begin to experiment, though, you have a new world opening before your very eyes.
The thesis of the next essay is that this new world of learning is before our eyes not only with the advent of the Internet but with possibilities for more detailed searches to create and reorganize knowledge. Read on.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long