Stolen knowledge

Found via Seb’s Open Research and McGee’s Musings: John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s ‘Stolen Knowledge’:

“The point is illustrated in our opening quotation from Tagore, the Indian poet, musician, and Nobel laureate. Describing the role of the instructor hired to teach him music, Tagore writes “he determined to teach me music, and consequently no learning took place”-at least, no learning in the terms laid out by the teacher and his syllabus. But Tagore reveals with wonderful insight that something important and profound did result from interactions between these two: “Nevertheless, I did pick up from him a certain amount of stolen knowledge” (our emphasis). This knowledge Tagore “stole” by watching and listening to the musician as the latter, outside his classes, played for his own and others’ entertainment. Only then, and not in dismembered didactic exercises, was Tagore able to see and understand the social practice of musicianship.

It is a fundamental challenge for design-for both the school and the workplace to redesign the learning environment so that newcomers can legitimately and peripherally participate in authentic social practice in rich and productive ways to, in short, make it possible for learners to “steal” the knowledge they need.”

Three thoughts. One: how much of my knowledge or skills are stolen? As I was educated in architecture but ended up an interaction designer – I imagine quite a lot. Certainly I remember lots of acts of theft from people like Stefan, Yoz, Mick and the rest back in the Delphi days when I was straight out of architecture college.

Two: semantics. Is it theft? is knowledge property? This is a fine semantic distinction perhaps, but to think of ‘knowledge property’ rather than the perhaps more abstract ‘intellectual property’. Knowledge can be embodied or physical – sporting techniques or craft: and often these are freely and gleefully shared by those who possess it. Expertise. It can be emulated and aspired to, but not perfectly copied. You will always carve the wood differently from the master who taught you, leaving your signature on the expertise you develop. Once the knowledge is abstracted, intellectualised and industrialised – then it can be perhaps perfectly reproduced, and hence aside from compelling Jeffersonian quotations on lit tapers; we have developed notions of intellectual property.

Three: we’ve had devices for knowledge-catburglars. From cold-war minox cameras, to worries about camera phones in the workplace. But what about less-clandestine, more social mobile devices or application for supporting the behaviour described by Seely-Brown and Duiguid above, i.e.: “so that newcomers can legitimately and peripherally participate in authentic social practice in rich and productive ways to, in short, make it possible for learners to “steal” the knowledge they need.”. Perhaps a number of the component devices and services are already available. I’ve found myself using my camera phone while others have been cooking, to capture aide-memoire material around a recipe.

An easy way to capture and structure ‘stolen knowledge’ is only one part of the solution of course – reading it back and reproducing the context and content in ways that support practice is perhaps the harder task.

» John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid: STOLEN KNOWLEDGE

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