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How does one come to know something?

As I’ve experienced it, knowledge is the private triumph of failure.

When you realize you don’t know something, you become conscious of a void in your own mind. To triumph over your state of not-knowing, you’ll seek out information to fill that void—perhaps through a book, an experience, or a conversation. And as your mind flexes to synthesize these inputs, you’ll have an internal experience of knowledge building.

It takes time to synthesize information and experiences into knowledge. Sometimes hours, sometimes months, sometimes years. But as you learn new things, you build a personal web of knowledge. And as this web grows and evolves throughout your life, it solidifies into an ecosystem of wisdom, which, over time, becomes as unique as your own DNA.

To have deep knowledge about something is to have a rich inner world built around that subject’s orbit. How, then, does knowledge come to exist in the world beyond an individual’s private mind?

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Diagrams by Willa Köerner

Entire cultures, ideologies, and schools of thought—the very bedrocks of our societies—are built upon the notion that as one person grows more wise, so can the whole community. However, the idea that knowledge’s evolution happens privately and individually presents us with a problem: how do we manage knowledge and wisdom collectively?

Throughout time, humans have sought out ways to translate our private knowledge-building experiences into more public forms. At the most basic level, we do this through language. Ever since we learned to communicate through words (or grunts) some 100,000 years ago, we’ve been pushing our knowledge-sharing techniques further.

In 2018, digital and networked technologies play a leading role in our knowledge-sharing toolkit. As just a few examples, we have content management systems (CMSs), encyclopedic information-organizing protocols like Wikipedia, and social content-sharing platforms (think of apps like Yelp, sites like TripAdvisor, or even some uses of social platforms like Twitter). The most valuable of today’s networked technologies are successful thanks to their ability to aggregate personal knowledge within a communal archive that we all may learn from and build upon. Why else be networked at all?

Intentionally or not, networked culture creates patterns of information exchange. Together, these patterns merge to form the public infrastructure on which we all come to build our own knowledge networks. But while we all may share a common current of information, the way the current gets channeled, plugged into, and illuminated is a personal affair, happening in the shuttered privacy of one’s own mind.

We are now at a unique point. Networked technologies have catalyzed the exponential growth of our communal knowledge archives. But without reflection, we risk constructing the Library of Babel on a shoddy, shuddering foundation. Building the right digital tools to illuminate private knowledge-building in a public space responsibly and thoughtfully takes experimentation. Luckily, the successes and failures of the tools we already use leave us some clues about what to try next.

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From 2010 to 2014, I worked for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Anyone who’s worked in a museum understands the importance of having a good CMS to store information related to an artwork’s provenance, copyright data, loan and exhibition history, and much more. SFMOMA’s CMS worked properly, but I always found it difficult to use, because while it retained every bit of information about an artwork, it lacked a sense of humanity. And what is art, if not a container for humanity’s emotion, experiences, and collective wisdom? I wanted a CMS that would instantly provide context, clarity, and meaning for an artwork. But that, it seemed, was not the CMS’s purpose.

Perhaps the most insightful knowledge-sharing possibility of a museum’s collection-management software comes not from the CMS itself, but rather from the objects it seeks to catalogue. A unique work of art is a beautiful example of how private experiences can be shared obliquely, poetically, and timelessly. While a CMS provides a rigid skeleton of information, the organic, vital hum of a unique artwork offers an experiential counterpoint. The work itself is a breath of life; a ghost in the machine.

Artworks don’t manage knowledge—they channel it. It takes time and attention to understand an artwork’s meaning. Each piece demands a process of reconciliation, and a merging of two contexts: the artwork’s own history and the viewer’s private knowledge network. When it’s placed in a new context, its meaning evolves and expands elastically. It stores information fluidly, no reduction necessary.

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SFMOMA during an installation

In early 2015, I moved from working for an arts institution to working for Kickstarter, the arts-supporting technology company. Kickstarter was (and still is) a lean, mission-driven company with a start-up mentality. So much of the work we did back then was exploratory: what should our work be, anyway? We had a simple and strong mission—helping people to bring creative projects to life—and we experimented to see which approaches, strategies, and tactics would best serve that mission.

As we tried things, we learned a lot. But in many ways, it felt like we were moving in a spiral, building up new sets of knowledge just to orbit the same ideas from a slightly more advanced perspective. We expected the satisfaction of linear knowledge growth, yet despite all the tools at our disposal to expand and archive knowledge, the more we learned, the more we seemed to forget.

It would be easy to blame our inability to securely contain and grow knowledge on a failure of our tools. We used everything from Slack to Google Drive to Trello, Gmail, Gchat, the back-end of our own website, note documents, reports, editorial calendars, and other collaborative tools to endlessly ping ideas back and forth until they felt right. But the tools themselves weren’t the culprit so much as they were surface-level distractions used to cover up our own unwillingness to slow down and deeply consider the knowledge we were building.

Knowledge is slippery, leaky, and ever-shifting. When we spread out our learnings across an expansive, inconsistently used set of platforms, it oozes into multiple digital cracks and crevices. As this happens, the surface area widens, and the depth becomes shallow. In this way, networked technologies enable the evaporation of knowledge.

This evaporation of knowledge is not experienced solely by companies like Kickstarter. Rather, it’s a universal trouble faced by most all of us in today’s ever-shifting techno-centric reality. Tools that exist to collectively (or privately) manage data can create a mirage of real or effective knowledge management. We think that because we’re using the tool, we’re good. But if not properly tended to—i.e., if not nurtured and proactively brought along for the ride into the future—knowledge leaks out and dries up.

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This slipping-away of knowledge is always happening. It happens in our minds, as memories fade. But arguably, we don’t need to retain all knowledge. To know too much can be a burden. As such, the process of collectively managing knowledge begs us all to be fortune tellers: What information will we need in the future?

Of course, the future is always just out of reach. The best we can do is attempt to share the collective knowledge of today in ways that feel honest, generous, and timeless. We need to retain something of the personal, of the human—of the original private triumph of failure.

Again, imagine the dynamism of an art object. In its enduring singularity, it retains that which we impress upon it; it suggests and offers knowledge, but it never instructs. It is a portal to knowledge, but not the knowledge in and of itself.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about narrative as a tool for collective knowledge management. Narrative formats enable one person’s hard-won wisdom to be translated into an accessible experience. Rather than storing knowledge as a series of facts in a CMS or in another type of productized, collaborative tool, narrative enables a writer or storyteller to simulate a knowledge-growing experience in the mind of a reader. And with a little effort on the part of the reader to internalize what they’ve read, this simulated experience can be translated into an actual knowledge-building experience.

Plus, narrative endures. Stories can be unforgettable.

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The Creative Independent’s Library

I currently work at The Creative Independent, where we think a lot about how we can use narrative formats to make the hard-won wisdom of those with deep knowledge more accessible.

In the field of creativity, shared knowledge and wisdom have historically been hard to come by. This may be due to the house-of-cards structures upon which many creative industries are built. Or, perhaps it’s due to the fact that industries that seem to reward buttoned-up, ego-driven practices do not tend to generate great knowledge-sharing economies. Either way, we saw the lack of a central network for archiving knowledge and wisdom that could collectively help answer questions like, How do I make a decent living as an artist? or How can I overcome my crippling creative anxiety?

We’ve found that interviews provide an effective framework for mining and sharing deep wisdom. By asking our interview subjects thoughtful, personal questions about the knowledge networks they’ve spent their lives growing, we’ve been able to create a repository of honest and vulnerable musings on all types of issues related to living life as a creative person.

As we’ve grown our archive of wisdom over the past year, we’ve explored multiple approaches to managing knowledge in narrative formats, from the purely practical to the more effusive and emotional. We’ve tried publishing how-to guidesanswers to creative FAQs, and essays, all of which share the goal of offering up hard-won knowledge for collective gain. We’ve also started to create surveys as a way to amass collective knowledge about complicated subjects (i.e. our survey report on visual artists and financial stability), and we’ve started focusing on weekly themes such as “Overcoming creative anxiety” and “Making a living” as a way to resurface the wisdom on our site, and make it more relevant and findable.

To me, experimenting with new ways to collect and archive wisdom in accessible formats is exciting. Each time we explore a new format, we ask: How do we make it easier for readers to find wisdom that’s relevant to their own unique knowledge gap? Are certain knowledge gaps shared by all creative people at one point or another? How might a reader translate knowledge gained through a narrative format into actual wisdom?

When contemplating these questions, it’s easy to get carried away into a techno-utopian dream world where all wisdom is neatly catalogued into accessible bits, so any problem could be easily researched and overcome. While that vision may or may not be attainable, it does feel quite possible to imagine a world in which all people treat their own hard-won wisdom like open-source code, generously offering it up to others in whatever ways they can. On top of that, I can also imagine a world where frameworks for storing this wisdom exist far and beyond our current tools, none of which feel quite adequate.

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The Creative Independent’s People page

As we continue to experiment with new methods for collectively managing knowledge, it’s been useful to keep a few key ideas in mind.

Firstly, knowledge is personal. At the very base of this idea lies the fact that people—real, live human beings—are the best containers for knowledge and wisdom. Any tool, structure, or interface attempting to collectively manage knowledge must have people at its very core.

Secondly, knowledge and wisdom are precious. Acquiring deep wisdom is a pursuit that requires passion and commitment. Once acquired, wisdom is a badge of honor. And to receive someone else’s knowledge is a gift. We must create tools that honor knowledge and wisdom for what they are: private, delicate triumphs earned through hard work and perseverance.

Thirdly, we’re not a very consistent species. We do things for a while, but then we might lose interest (or, we might die). New frameworks for collectively managing knowledge must embrace the not-so-predictable nature of the human psyche. They must be forgiving, and they must be built to endure.

Lastly, knowledge and wisdom are hardly “manageable.” They may be channeled, yes, but never fully captured. To capture is to kill. Keep the energy flowing.

As we move deeper into the Aquarian Age, society and culture will continue to shift in directions that privilege connectedness, idealism, nonconformity, and humanitarianism. Opening up our collective knowledge networks is not some far-off dream—it’s already happening. But how well, and how soon a more transformative knowledge-sharing economy can be built depends on the tools and frameworks built by those of us who are here right now.

Coming up with the best and most enduring way to manage knowledge collectively is a daunting task, for sure. Luckily, forcing a solution out of thin air isn’t what’s expected of us. Rather, the best we can do now is keep experimenting with vivid enthusiasm and caring optimism. I believe the key to catalyzing and building accessible knowledge-sharing economies lies in getting to know ourselves better as living, breathing, thinking, and feeling humans.

When we ask, “What collective wisdom-sharing systems are possible?” we must imagine an entire universe of potential outcomes, of which only the first few planets and stars are visible. And as we continue to peer off into this vast expanse to see what else might be out there, we don’t need to build a better telescope—we only need travel deeper into ourselves.

This essay adapts and expands upon a talk Willa gave on knowledge management at SYPartners, as part of a night of discussion hosted by SYPand and Are.na.