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Why Knowledge Is Linked to Space

Giorgio De Michelis

Abstract

This chapter wants to go back to the emergence of space and knowledge in human discourse and to their inextricable links to understand what happens to them with ICT.

In doing so, it adopts a phenomenological stance from which it emerges with great clarity that knowing is deeply grounded on space. From this viewpoint, knowledge is what links words and space coupling distinctions and sense making, so that words give sense to human actions and, conversely, actions give sense to human words. Even when it assumes highly abstract forms, knowledge cannot be liberated from its spatial ground: even when our discourse becomes abstract, in fact, it creates in metaphorical terms a new virtual space as its necessary counterpart. Knowledge is situated in space, time and human experience and it is at the level of situatedness that ICT systems can augment the capability to act and interact. Human-centered design, interaction design and situated computing are the three lessons we must combine in order to do it.

1 Introduction

We can cast the question of how knowledge is linked to space on a very concrete level. Suffice to consider how the spatial distribution of the documents containing the knowledge that interest us (in which room they are, how they are stored, how they are classified and ordered, etc.) conditions their accessibility, as well as the ability to add new documents to the existing collection. We can take a further step if we take into account 'tacit knowledge' (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995): the spatial distribution of the documents can be integrated with information on the location of people who are highly competent on the issue in hand, and the possibilities we have of interacting with them.

From this viewpoint, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) impacts this relationship on two levels: on the one hand, by creating communication channels allowing to interact at distance with other people, to access remotely documents stored in digital repositories, and finally, to tag documents and people so that searching becomes more efficient and precise; and on the other, by creating virtual spaces where such documents and people can be accessed.

It is a very pragmatic approach that, apparently, grants good results in terms of efficiency and effectiveness of knowledge management. It does not, however, work as expected, since it is unable to deal with the situatedness of human experience (Suchman, 1987). With this term we mean that every action and/or interaction we do is situated in a specific experience, where participants share the knowledge created in past actions and interactions, further conditioning them to new actions and interactions. Knowledge as a know-how, is therefore also situated in space, time and experience, and its distribution cannot be considered a problem of rationality: where a specific knowledge item should be placed and who can and/or needs to access it, are questions that do not bear single and unchanging answers.

We must not imagine, in any case, that knowledge becomes a fuzzy concept that

is difficult to link to the Euclidean space where we (feel to) live our experiences. In fact, space itself should not be reduced to its Euclidean characterization, since, from a phenomenological viewpoint, it emerges in human experience exhibiting properties that cannot be reduced to uniform qualities of the external reality. Moreover, the emergence of space is strictly related with the experience of knowing, so that the complexity of knowledge is not separable form the complexity of space.

Going back to the emergence of space and knowledge in human discourse and to

their inextricable links seems to me a necessary path, if we want to understand what happens to them with ICT: instead of looking at the superficial changes that are under our eyes it is more interesting to rediscover what characterizes the experience of space and knowledge beyond those that have appeared for centuries their physical limits.

The paper begins with a short foundational introduction, for continuing with a reflection about knowledge digitalization. A section on augmented places and some conclusive remarks complete it.

 
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