Knowledge Federation Made Easy

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Knowledge federation

Suppose that you are given a sequence of numbers, 4, 7, 13, 5, 8 and the task to arrange them in increasing order. The solution is easy: 4, 5, 7, 8, 13. Suppose, however, that the task you are given is to solve the same problem for any sequence of numbers; the solution is no longer a sequence of numbers, but a general procedure. This abstract or generic problem is called 'sorting;' its solution, which is a general procedure, is called 'a sorting algorithm.' Abstract problems like sorting are practically interesting because each of them appears in different guises in a broad variety of real-life problems and situations; an algorithm for the abstract problem is easily customized for solution of those practical ones.

The study of algorithms became of particular interest in early 1950s with the advent of the computer — a device capable of performing algorithms of any kind. The need to develop algorithms and programs led to the development of academic computer science (this practical need turned out to lead to academically deep and interesting questions).

Our present situation is similar — the Web too is a new device capable of performing complex tasks and procedures. Can we turn the creation of Web-based systemic solutions into an organized academic activity? Can the Web be 'programmed' — in some new sense that we might now attribute to this word, of course? Can we support this 'programming' by suitable academic work? The practical need and the challenge are clear: since computer-powered Web is becoming the nervous system of our various collective organisms, 'programming the Web' means programming our collective minds; and since the Web is becoming the medium where we spend our free time and meet and socialize, 'programming the Web' means creating the nuts and bolts of culture — we'd better do this job right! The paradox that information technology has led to information overload or glut shows that this challenge is still with us [1].

The possibility to 'program the Web' would mean the possibility to do designs on an incomparably larger scale than what has hitherto been possible — and of similarly large importance — the possibility to create whole new ways of doing knowledge work, for example in public informing or in education. Think about the new creative frontier that would open up: we could shift attention all the way from micro to giga: forget the microchip — Intel is doing a good enough job — it is the large-scale socio-technical system for knowledge work that now demand our attention.

There is, however, a catch — a reason why this analogy between the computer and the Web break down. The task of 'programming the Web' is profoundly different from its single computer counterpart, because the Web includes people as well as machines; without the people, we have no 'machine' which we might use to develop and test solutions. And with the people, what we have is no longer a machine but a community and a culture — and cultures cannot really be programmed. Furthermore, no programmer team and no company has the expertise or the authority to do designs on this large scale; there is no game designer who can design 'the education game' or 'the journalism game' — the people actually working in the field must do that, but they cannot do this alone; the solutions must be allowed to evolve through practice.

So this new sort of 'programming' is still lacking both its 'programmer' and its 'programming environment' to become reality.

The Knowledge Federation community is both. We are a community of professionals and stake holders with suitable mix of backgrounds, equipped with suitable technology, developing socio-technical systems by using our own community as sandbox or 'programming environment;' or in other words by practicing self-organization or 'bootstrapping' [2]. By implementing this strategy, Knowledge Federation enables design work to expand to the level of Web-wide socio-technical systems.

It is conceivable that in this new domain of complex challenges we might again find a way to create simplicity and order — perhaps by formulating certain generic or abstract problems and corresponding solutions, roughly analogous to algorithms, each of which will then enable solutions to a variety of practical tasks. Knowledge federation is a case in point. When written in small letters, 'knowledge federation' is a new sort of 'algorithm' — it is an abstract or generic socio-technical system. The tasks it handles are basic ones in knowledge work such as organizing documents and extracting meaning, converting disparate ideas into insights and contending opinions into solutions. Knowledge federation is indeed analogous to a sorting algorithm, except that it transforms and organizes documents and ideas, not numbers.

In other pages of the Introducing Knowledge Federation hypertext you will find more details about what knowledge federation is and in what way it enables new systemic solutions in application areas such as education, journalism and science [3]. Here we spend a few more moments with the single 'systemic solution' that makes all those other solutions possible — the Knowledge Federation community — because there, as it tends to be the case when people and culture are involved, the creative part is often in the details.

Knowledge Federation community

I introduce the Knowledge Federation community by introducing several of its members:

Meet Tanja Aitamurto, a Finnish journalist turned journalism designer. Tanja saw that continuing in journalism as it is could be futile, because traditional journalism lacks a business model that would make it viable in an era of information abundance. A winner of the best article award at last year's Stanford University convention of creative journalists, Tanja however realizes that journalism design requires also people other than journalists to do it right—the ones who can be creative with media technology, and also business planners and... Tanja finds all those people in Knowledge Federation [4] and also more — the possibility to federate good journalism, i.e. to implement it as part of a larger knowledge work ecosystem, which scouts out and prepares truly relevant material.

Meet Yuzuru Tanaka, Professor and Knowledge Media Laboratory leader at the University of Hokaido. Tanaka is the creator of 'meme media' and the Webbles. Like Topic Maps and Cohere and Semantic Web and Zotero, Webbles is a technology that enables a specific way of combining knowledge artifacts across professional and disciplinary boundaries or 'silos.' And yet Tanaka realizes that also those technologies are in danger of remaining in their own silos! The next step must be the development of real-life knowledge work practices that employ the new technology, in areas like academic communication, education, journalism... But those practices cannot be developed by technology developers alone. Tanaka is one of the progenitors of knowledge federation.

Meet Mei Lin Fung, a business woman living in Palo Alto, California. As a specialist in business organization, Mei Lin is aware of the potential of the Web and the new media to empower decentralized and innovative organizational patterns. In her spare time Mei Lin is one of the leaders of Program for the Future — an initiative to realize Doug Engelbart's vision where networked computers enable 'collective intelligence'. Knowledge Federation being a strategy to realize Doug Engelbart's vision [2], Mei Lin decides to join and contribute.

Meet Jack Park, a Silicon Valley researcher and innovator, presently developing knowledge gardens and deploying them in South Korea, Kuwait, and Malaysia under the auspices of the Millennium Project. Jack realizes that socio-technical design of this kind needs a research community. He is one of the people who started Knowledge Federation.

Meet Marco Quagiotto; at Politecnico di Milano, Marco developed 'knowledge cartography,' which he describes as a way to "extend the cartographic metaphor beyond visual analogy, and to expose it as a narrative model and tool to intervene in complex, heterogeneous, dynamic realities (...). The map (...) is not only a passive representation of reality but a tool for the production of meaning." In Knowledge Federation Marco finds a venue for bringing knowledge cartography into actual knowledge work practices.

Meet Carolina Rossini, a Brazilian attorney specializing in intellectual property and innovation policy, now working in the US as legal advisor to Creative Commons. Although the Web enabled world-wide cocreation and reuse and sharing of knowledge, legal obstacles still remain from the era of the printing press. In Knowledge Federation Carol finds an opportunity to apply her expertise to change of practice in key areas.

Meet Sinan Mašović, a business adviser and prospective entrepreneur from Zagreb, Croatia. Although he already won an award in a Croatian business plan competition, Sinan is still searching for his venture idea. Aware that fortunes are made in the zone where new technology meets new business organization (just as the case was once upon a time in Detroit), Sinan finds in Knowledge Federation an opportunity to work at the creative frontier where new media technology enables new ways of orchestrating knowledge work.

Meet Dejan Raković, a quantum physicist and professor at the University of Belgrade. Through his research Dejan reached an insight that has potential to lead to methodological advancement in disciplines distant from his own, and to impact general culture [5]. Although he has already authored more than 200 research articles and 35 books, Dejan realizes that conventional publishing will not be sufficient; if his results should have the impact they can and need to have, they will have to be federated.

Meet Ingela Teppy Flatin from Oslo, Norway. While waiting to begin a doctorate abroad, Ingela wants to do something that can make a difference. She joins Knowledge Federation to help us organize Knowledge Federation Dialog Oslo 2011, where we will be federating Dejan Raković's work, and by doing that developing ways to spread agile ideas through academia and into media and public space.

Let me also introduce myself: I am Dino Karabeg, a theoretical computer scientist/algorithm designer at the University of Oslo. In Knowledge Federation I apply my skills to socio-technical designs. But as a theoretical scientist I also have a bent for simple, fundamental ideas. Knowledge Federation gives me an opportunity to work with one — developing knowledge work at large in the manner of 'the sciences of the artificial' [6].

I couild have chosen a completely different sample of ten members, and the conclusion would still be the same — although we come to Knowledge Federation from completely different professional backgrounds, Knowledge Federation turns out to be a natural next step on our career path. It is as if each of us had been digging in our own field with a spade, and then we realized that digging with spades is not the way of the future, that we can now build bulldozers. But that to accomplish this, we need to build together [7].

At the same time, the work we are doing in Knowledge Federation is a natural next step on our shared way to a 'sustainable' or better future [8]. Knowledge Federation extends an attractive value proposition to its prospective members by offering an answer to a contemporary dilemma: "How can we contribute significantly enough to making the world safe and sane for our children, withough compromising our normal work and career?" Knowledge Federation answers this question by creating a synergy between our personal career goals and our transpersonal or global ones.


  1. As Neil Postman pointed out (see for ex. this excerpt from his interview with Richard Hefner), the effect on our collective and personal minds may even adverse — loss of meaning:
    Lack of information can be very dangerous (...) too much information can also be very dangerous, because it can lead to a situation of meaninglessness that is, people not having any basis for knowing what is relevant, what is irrelevant, what is useful, what is not useful, that they live in a culture that is simply committed, through all of its media, to generate tons of information every hour, without categorizing it in any way for you, so that you don't know what any of it means.

    Postman pointed out that the underlying problem is that have been using the new technology to power our old industrial-age business models and values — which points at the need for the sort of new thinking and new type of creative work that is the subject of this page.

  2. This way of designing socio-technical systems has been developed by Douglas Engelbart, a forefather of knowledge federation, see the Prolog to Knowledge Federation 2008 — First International Workshop on Knowledge Federation.
  3. We are obviously overloading the term 'knowledge federation' by using it both as the name for the design community and the object this community is designing (we make a distinction by capitalizing 'Knowledge Federation' in the former case); this is appropriate because Knowledge Federation is indeed itself organized as a knowledge federation; our community it is creating its object by creating itself!
  4. Knowledge Federation is a federation; by joining it one does not abandon one's original professional identity.
  5. See Tesla and the Nature of Creativity (TNC) - a Knowledge Federation Use Case.
  6. In "The Sciences of the Artificial" (MIT Press, 1972) Herbert Simon pointed at a rise of a new kind of science (an example of which is my own field, computer science), which studies man-made things, aiming to make them better. The possibility to develop knowledge work as a conscious, trans-disciplinary pursuit stems from an epistemological insight reached in 20th century science and philosophy — that knowledge work is already an imperfect man-made thing, and not a camera obscura-like reality recorder — see my vignette In an old joke a bishop came to a village and the church bell did not ring....
  7. This bulldozer metaphor still fails to reflect the main reason for Knowledge Federation— conceivably, one might still build a bulldozer alone; but since designing new patterns in knowledge work necessarily involves not only machines and programs but also people as building elements, this socio-technical design requires a society of knowledge worker acting both as the design team and as a sanbox.
  8. See this brief argument I presented at Visions of Possible Worlds conference in Milan, Italy, in 2004.

See also

  • What is Knowledge Federation?, post-recording of my half-hour lecture given at Trinity College Doublin in June 2009, which introduced Knowledge Federation and highlighted its potential to contribute to human knowledge (takes a couple of minutes to download).

Return to Introducing Knowledge Federation

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