Scope of this presentation

for Building the Knowledge Network

The Internet and particularly the World Wide Web largely serve as promotional media. While much of those promotional materials are usually relevant to a few individuals, the production of more widely useful knowledge requires more intensive conversations and collaborations. The Net also supports such conversations and collaborations, but in ways which lack the elegance of the promotional face of the Web.

On the plus side, the Web's embodiment of hypertext clearly shows the way towards a readily navigable knowledge network which will be further enhanced by the emergence of independent accreditation services. The means of reliably finding useful knowledge and information then become as valuable as the actual knowledge and information. This turns the question from knowledge in the Net to knowledge of the Net.

In our recent work for the Employment and Skills Formation Council, we developed a concept of "information literacy" as the core competency needed to function in a world of convergent technologies. At another level, an increasing growth of theoretical concepts provides tools for understanding this world of networked knowledge.

Students of the field of Science Technology and Society frequently use the concept of "actor networks" to understand not just the roles of the human actors in the production of knowledge, but also of the roles of artifacts, organisations and natural phenomena. Actor networks readily identify the interactions which produce new knowledge and new technologies. However they are prone to anthropomorphism and to exacerbating our culturally-induced blindness to non-verbal knowledge.

However, the most persuasive frame for this discourse has been provided not by the academy but by a 1984 work of science fiction, William Gibson's Neuromancer, in which the term "cyberspace" was coined. In today's largely pre-graphical cyberspace, chunks of computer programming code and associated data can already wander the Internet as your agent, seeking our information of interest to you. You can converse with other Net-users by directing your typed words to a shared chat room, and you can look forward to the computing and communications capabilities which will enable your avatar to interact with others in a three-dimensional virtual reality.

In cyberspace, your place in the world does not matter. Even basic e-mail catalyses effective communication across traditional status boundaries. On the Net you can be who you want to be without revealing your real world status. However, most Net users make no effort to disguise their identities. The task of the Net community is to expand the cyberspatial frontier which we are doing today with our Web pages, our meeting places and, recently, with three-dimensional scenes defined in Virtual Reality Modelling Language. Beyond using information to plan and promote activities in the physical world, more and more of the final products of our work remain entirely in cyberspace.

The interconnectedness and interdependence of the emerging cyberspace makes it a natural target of study for system sciences which allow absence of central control and impredictability of emergent behaviour. Techniques of measurement and formalisation which have empowered the physical sciences and material technologies give way to reliance of models developed by analogy to the biological and the social. In Gibson's words "the street finds its own uses" of the knowledge network that is cyberspace.