This report lays groundwork for a new approach to understanding the massive transformations currently underway in how people create, share, and dispute knowledge. We explore some of the major questions that need to be addressed if these changes are to reach their full potential, and the types of inquiries they will require. We seek to inspire new ways of thinking around issues that have been obscured by older approaches and assumptions – some of them in the process of being undermined and remade by the very forces described here. Our report is at the same time a manifesto and an unfinished agenda, a statement and a provocation we hope will inspire others to further investigation.
Enormous transformations have occurred over the last 20 years in our systems for generating, sharing, and disputing human knowledge. Changes associated with Internet technologies — such as social media, “big data,” open source software, ubiquitous computing, and Wikipedia — have altered the basic mechanics by which knowledge is produced and circulated. Remarkable new knowledge practices have emerged, captured under the language of crowdsourcing, cyberinfrastructure, personal informatics, citizen science, open access, MOOCs, and dozens of other terms that wouldn’t have shown up in the Wikipedia pages (!!) of a decade ago; academic studies of some of these phenomena have become virtual scholarly fields unto themselves. Knowledge institutions like universities, libraries, and government agencies (and increasingly private entities like Facebook, Google, and Twitter) have begun to adjust, opening up vast stores of anonymized data to analysis and exploitation, engaging users and publics in new ways, and in some cases rethinking logics and practices that have been decades if not centuries in the making.
These developments have emerged in part from deliberate strategies on the part of funders and policymakers. For example, National Science Foundation programs including Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence (late 1990s), the Digital Libraries Initiative (late 1990s to early 2000s), Information Technology Research (early 2000s), the Office of Cyberinfrastructure (mid 2000s), and Human and Social Dynamics (late 2000s) encouraged researchers to experiment with new modes of knowledge production and dissemination, as well as to study how such forms emerge. The Sloan Foundation (and others) funded important scientific initiatives, such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, that exploited these new modes. Finally, the Obama Administration’s data.gov initiative represents the latest in a series of experiments in opening government databases to use by non-governmental entities.
Such has been the power of the Internet, both as a new medium and as a metaphor for knowledge, that much of the research surrounding these phenomena has attended mainly to two principal axes of change: first, technical systems and standards (computers and networks, of course, but also metadata, federated data systems, and middleware), and second, new modes of analyzing social (re)organization that exploit the extensive traces left behind by users of information technology. Major, related social and institutional changes in knowledge infrastructure include at least the following:
· Education: the rise of for-profit and online universities; open courseware; massively open online courses; a generalized crisis of traditional pedagogies
· Libraries: changing structures, services, and physical spaces
· The publishing industry: e-books vs. paper; prohibitive pricing of scientific journals; the collapse of university presses
· Intellectual property: distortions of copyright and patent law; creative commons practices; stark and growing differences between legal frameworks and actual use practices
· Global flows: increasingly rapid and supple transborder movement of researchers, students, professional expertise, and knowledge-based industries
· Knowledge politics: the “filter bubble” ; counter-expertise; challenges to expert knowledge organizations
This list — which could easily be far longer — makes clear that we are living through a period of fundamental transformations that profoundly challenge our understanding of the basic processes by which knowledge is created, debated, and spread.
This challenge is of more than intellectual concern. The institutions in which most knowledge workers live and labor have not kept pace, or have done so piecemeal, without a long-term vision or a strategy. For example, the widespread excitement about crowdsourced knowledge, assembled by unpaid individuals who volunteer their time out of personal interest, ignores the fact that most knowledge workers’ salaries are still paid by bricks-and-mortar organizations with hierarchical structures, established institutional cultures, systems of credit and compensation, and other “sticky” processes and routines. Similarly, our educational systems, libraries, publishers, news organizations, intellectual property structures, and political mechanisms have struggled to match or adapt to the changing information environment (Borgman 2007). The result is a patchwork of unsatisfactory kludges, contradictions, and inconsistencies that may undermine the prospects for change.
Popular attention and academic research on changing knowledge systems has tended to follow the new, fast-moving, and dramatic parts of the current transition. For example, in Reinventing Discovery, Nielsen (2012) extrapolates from current events to the eventual rise of a scientific culture of “extreme openness” where “all information of scientific value, from raw experimental data and computer code to all the questions, ideas, folk knowledge, and speculations that are currently locked up inside the heads of individual scientists” is moved onto the network, “in forms that are not just human-readable, but also machine-readable, as part of a data web.” Shirky (2010) argues that a “cognitive surplus” will permit massively distributed contributions to the analysis of information and the production of new knowledge. While surely partially correct, these breathless assessments too often lose track of crucial questions about the complex processes of mutual adjustment by which older knowledge institutions adapt to emergent ones, and vice versa. Charmed by the novelty of the first date, they miss the complexity of the marriage that ensues: the dynamics of scale, time, and adjustment by which new practices emerge.
We think the time has come to reconceive our object(s) of interest around the idea of knowledge infrastructures. To help configure this interest, we posed three themes for workshop participants to deliberate:
1. How are knowledge infrastructures changing?
2. How do knowledge infrastructures reinforce or
redistribute authority, influence, power and control?
3. How can we best study, know, and imagine today’s (and tomorrow’s) knowledge infrastructures?
The remainder of this report summarizes the intense discussions that ensued. It highlights the issues we believe will be most salient for at least the next ten years — i.e., a set of research questions urgently in need of study — and discusses the tools and methods we will need.
 The workshop organizers deliberately decided to bypass the problem of definition, instead allowing the phrase “knowledge infrastructure” to serve as a suggestive provocation. This report adopts a similar strategy, though it provides numerous pointers to the burgeoning literature in infrastructure studies.