cultivating knowledge diversity


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Cultivating Knowledge Diversity: Reflections on cognitive justice, ICT and development

by Maja van der Velden (draft Jan. 2004)

Abstract. The unique capabilities of the Internet seem to offer new ways to solve problems and make decisions. But this approach presents the Internet as a neutral technology, 'empty' of any bias that shapes the ways it homogenises or diversifies. Yet the bias of the Internet is inscribed in its technology. Can a biased technology cultivate the diversity of our knowledge? This paper proposes cognitive justice as a framework to investigate issues of knowledge and diversity. The Open Knowledge Network is presented as an example of an alternative approach to ICT for social and economic development.

1. Introduction

In Biology, diversity is defined as a characteristic of living systems that is maintained via autonomous self-organisation. A free, self-organising system is able to adapt, respond and evolve, without losing its autonomy. In social and cultural studies, the concept of diversity is used to refer to the conditions, expressions and experiences of multiple cultural groups as they interact and relate to one another within a social organisation.

Recent insights into the importance of diversity come from new understandings of ecological systems, in particular the role of autopoiesis and autonomy (Varela, F., H. Maturana, and R. Uribe, 1974). Diversity is increasingly understood as an important factor in the capacity of systems to adapt to change and to solve complex problems. A diverse system facilitates self-organisation by providing spaces for ‘give and take’, symbiosis and reciprocity. Self-organisation supports diversity through self-regulation, decentralisation and local control (Shiva, 1993, 1997).

Mahatma Gandhi saw the capacity to self-organise as the basis for communication between different cultures. He referred to autonomous self-organisation and diversity when he said:
“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people's houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.” (Gandhi, 1958)

Gandhi’s ‘house’ can be understood as a metaphor for a free self-organised system within a locally controlled, decentralised network of ‘houses’, and with spaces for ‘give and take’ where communication between equally valid cultures can take place and diversity can be cultivated. Visvanathan (see Kraak, 1998) uses the concept of cognitive justice to refer to the equal validity of the different knowledges of these cultures and the dialogic relationship in which these knowledges should co-exist.

The concept of cognitive justice, the equality of knowledges assumes that knowledge is embodied and embedded. Our knowledge cannot be separated from our bodies, language, and social and cultural history (Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 1991; Maturana and Varela, 1992). Knowledge is situated, it is always located, offering a partial perspective (Haraway, 1995):
“Knowledge is understood as relative, representing the powers and interests of a certain group. Knowledge is expressed in the act of knowing and thus involves a knower. In contrast, most knowledge and development literature treats knowledge as an object that can be expressed and represented independently from the knower. This knowledge is undone from its context and ideology, its ‘embodiedness’ and ‘situatedness’, and presented as neutral and universally good.” (van der Velden, 2004).

Is there a role for the new information and communication technology (ICT) in cultivating the diversity of human knowledge? Can ICT further cognitive justice by providing spaces for dialogues between different knowledges? This paper will investigate diversity in the context of ICT for local and global knowledge sharing for social and economic development. The Open Knowledge Network will be presented as an alternative approach to knowledge sharing for development.

[Peer-reviewed paper (full) to be presented at "Cultural Attitudes Towards Technology and Communication'04", June 27-July 1, 2004, hosted by Karlstad University]
Programming for Cognitive Justice
The importance of cognitive justice for the design and development of information systems is that it provides a framework that challenges the assumed neutrality of the technology and the technology designer. With cognitive justice there is no objective ‘expert’ position from which to design and develop technology. Cognitive justice focuses information systems design on the knowers and the environments in which their knowledge is situated. As a result, the design process itself becomes a dialogue of diverse interests and values. The importance of this dialogue is that it takes place during the design of the "technical arrangements that precede the use of the technology in question”.
Who is afraid of diversity?
Paper submitted for presentation at "Off the Shelf or from the ground up? ICTs and cultural marginalisation, homogenisation or hybridization", Fourth biennal conference on Cultural Attitudes towards Culture and Communication (CATaC), 27 June-1 July, 2004, Karlstad, Sweden.

Complete draft paper available on request. Send an email to
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