Knowledge technologies in context
Knowledge technologies in context

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Knowledge technologies in context

2.4 Codification and formalisation continued

An important point is that the process of ‘objectifying’ knowledge brings with it a gradual change in the knowledge represented, because content and form are inextricably linked. McLuhan's famous quotation ‘the medium is the message’ highlights this phenomenon, but overstates the case a little. We can say that the medium shapes the message, as follows:

Figure 3
(Source: based on Stahl, 1993a)
Figure 3 ‘Hermeneutic presence’ and symbolic representations
  • As we move from tacit, individual, pre-understanding to shared, formal, computer-based representation, we express our thoughts in an increasingly structured way, providing the computer with greater access to the content of the information. The intellectual effort required to transform knowledge representations from one state to another can lead to new insights, since the particular representation used forces us to make certain information explicit that was previously implicit. Typically, ‘information chunks’ have to be broken down into smaller units of particular classes, given names, classified and structured. Having to reason about these can clarify our thinking.

  • However, as we move from tacit towards finer-grained symbolic representations, we strip away details of the context(s) in which that knowledge was displayed and/or has meaning. It is usually difficult, and often impossible, to reverse the direction and recover tacit pre-understanding from symbolic representations. The ‘knowledge processes’ in Figure 2 should be understood as interpretative acts; that is, in a situation, from a perspective, for a purpose. The transformations bring about ontological changes (see Box 2.1) that unavoidably distort knowledge and ‘alienate’ it from the person possessing it in particular ways, effecting a gradual shift in definition of knowledge and expertise from an ability to a symbolically encoded fact. This critical standpoint is not intended to be ‘anti-technology’; rather, it is a principled basis on which to understand how technologies come to embody and perpetuate world views and associated value systems.

  • Different ways of codifying knowledge give us different languages in which to describe the world. If we take seriously the argument that the language we use to talk about the world constrains and shapes our understanding, then we can even talk about the possibility of an ‘ontological shift’ taking place – the set of distinctions we regard as important to make when describing the world changes, depending on the representation we are using and the reasons for using it.

Box 2.1 Ontology

In philosophy, an ontology refers to ‘being’ or ‘the nature of being in the world’. The term ontology has been appropriated by artificial intelligence research to mean a ‘reusable terminological scheme’; that is, a scheme for providing a rigorous description of the concepts and attributes, and their interrelationships, that are deemed relevant to describe a particular aspect of the world. Its precision means that it can serve as a ‘technical dictionary’ to ensure a common point of reference in a complex area. An ontology is an abstract knowledge model which does not need software to exist. However, a strength is that it can also be implemented as software to build a knowledge-based system. We return to ontologies in Section 4.3.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371