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3 Knowledge and Digitalization

What happens to knowledge and space, with digital technologies? Information and Communication Technology has emerged in the twentieth century as a means for creating new media and new tools for data/information processing. Telephone, fax, e-mail, chats, etc. were multiplying the means for communicating at a distance both synchronously and asynchronously. Moreover, computers have allowed handling large amounts of data as well as to perform complex computations. But the diffusion and multiplication of media as well as the invisible integration of data/ information processing modules within human-computer interactions so that machines appear capable to react to human actions in a plastic, almost 'intelligent' way, made technology always more transparent. Media and computing systems disappear (or better, look like if they had disappeared) but the space where they are situated (embedded) is irremediably changed, augmented, by them.

In this augmentation process, misplacing and replacing are multiplying their possibilities, since our image of space, on the one hand, is loosing some of its distinctive features (e.g., its Euclidean features) and, on the other hand, is becoming more plastic and flexible. For what regards the first point above, the notion of distance is progressively loosing sense: in cyberspace there are no distances, we are always together, and concepts like privacy need to be reinvented[1]; on the other hand, space changes form reacting to the actions and interactions of its inhabitants, even if it remains irreducible to their will.[2] The plasticity of augmented space allows to reframe both the practice of seclusion (I can decide to share a place with other human beings or not, at any time) and the potential for openness (whichever is the boundary of a place, I can pass through it), but it leaves human beings without a rational sharable criterion for making sense of spaces and places (human beings, in fact, invented ways to assign values to spatial positions through distances and boundaries, that become ineffective in augmented spaces). On the one hand, the physical constraints of space dissolve in augmented spaces, so that they are no longer capable to offer means for coupling movements with sense making interactions (consider how human beings have learned to use the near/far couple for indicating degrees of availability to other people); on the other hand, knowledge sharing with other human beings makes shared augmented space more crowded and therefore more confused. But augmenting a space may give to it new properties that can change our spatial sense-making.

New criteria can emerge if we listen to the lesson of situated action (De Michelis, 2007; Suchman, 1987; Winograd & Flores, 1986): we can articulate spaces and places in accordance with the different contexts where we act, with the different stories we live ('stories and venues' is the metaphor inspiring the new operating system for workstations, itsme, we are developing in Milano; De Michelis, 2015a; De Michelis, Loregian, & Moderini, 2009). Misplacing and replacing can in fact be redefined as ways for, respectively, breaking the boundary of a story (and of its related place/venue) and redefining the place/venue associated to a story, after a breakdown. This new grammar for space appropriation allowing us to give sense to our lives, requires us to remember that misplacing and replacing are moves based on knowledge creation and sharing; that knowledge is what transforms a space into a place; and, finally, that misplacing reflects the 'discovery' of the irreducibility of anything to its objectification (De Michelis, 2014). After thousands of years, when the notion of space has been steady and immutable and we had no reason to reflect on it, we are now forced, for de-constructing it, to interrogate ourselves on the sense of space, and on its contribution to sense making.

The relation between space and knowledge has been also analyzed by Nonaka and Konno (1998), revisiting the concept of 'Bá: Ba is, according to the Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida, a shared space, which harbors meaning for emerging relationships. Ba is the space where knowledge is created through the interactions among human beings inhabiting it. According to Nonaka and Konno, Ba is not necessarily a physical space, but can be also virtual or mental, or any combination of them. The space emerging through distinctions we have introduced in the previous sections of this contribution, shares therefore its basic features with Ba and converges with it in grounding in space the creation and sharing of knowledge.

In both cases, anyway, knowledge management cannot be conceived in functional terms, since knowledge is always spreading light on something and, contemporarily, recognizing the limits of what we know about it. Assuming a phenomenological stance (De Michelis, 2008; Rorty, 1979), on the one hand, I consider the spatial organization of knowledge as constitutive of knowledge itself, since the latter emerges together with the social space where it is situated and, on the other hand, I want to show how knowledge reflects, in its irreducible multiplicity, the diverse social spaces (and aggregates) where human beings live their social experiences. In this way, we can avoid any reduction of knowledge to information as well as recognize its dynamic nature (what matters is not knowledge in itself, but the process of its creation!). Going back to milieus, it can be relevant to observe that their evolution in face of the augmentation of their places, cannot be fully captured by the changing figures of traditional sociological categories, but requires the discovery of new meaningful categories.[3]

  • [1] This paper is not the right place to discuss this issue: let us take it as a reasonable hypothesis on the base of some evidences human beings share while participating in social computing systems like Facebook and Twitter
  • [2] Again, without opening a discussion going beyond the scope of this paper, the reader can consider how rooms of any type are always more shaped by the information displayed on the screens hanging at their walls
  • [3] Understanding what is happening in the European cities, for example, cannot be performed only observing how the distribution of the inhabitants is changing within metropolitan areas, using the standard labor market classification. Rather it is necessary, in my opinion, to redefine the labor market in order to capture how work practice and human experience is changing
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