The Promise and Peril of the Digital Knowledge Loop

Excerpt of Albert Wenger’s draft book World After Capital: “The zero marginal cost and universality of digital technologies are already impacting the three phases of learning, creating and sharing, giving rise to a Digital Knowledge Loop. This Digital Knowledge Loop holds both amazing promise and great peril, as can be seen in the example of YouTube.

YouTube has experienced astounding growth since its release in beta form in 2005. People around the world now upload over 100 hours of video content to YouTube every minute. It is difficult to grasp just how much content that is. If you were to spend 100 years watching YouTube twenty-four hours a day, you still wouldn’t be able to watch all the video that people upload in the course of a single week. YouTube contains amazing educational content on topics as diverse as gardening and theoretical math. Many of those videos show the promise of the Digital Knowledge loop. For example, Destin Sandlin, the creator of the Smarter Every Day series of videos. Destin is interested in all things science. When he learns something new, such as the make-up of butterfly wings, he creates a new engaging video sharing that with the world. But the peril of the Digital Knowledge Loop is right there as well: YouTube is also full of videos that peddle conspiracies, spread mis-information, and even incite outright hate.

Both the promise and the peril are made possible by the same characteristics of YouTube: All of the videos are available for free to anyone in the world (except for those countries in which YouTube is blocked). They are also available 24×7. And they become available globally the second someone publishes a new one. Anybody can publish a video. All you need to access these videos is an Internet connection and a smartphone—you don’t even need a laptop or other traditional computer. That means already today two to three billion people, almost half of the world’s population has access to YouTube and can participate in the Digital Knowledge Loop for good and for bad.

These characteristics, which draw on the underlying capabilities of digital technology, are also found in other systems that similarly show the promise and peril of the Digital Knowledge Loop.

Wikipedia, the collectively-produced online encyclopedia is another great example. Here is how it works at its most promising: Someone reads an entry and learns the method used by Pythagoras to approximate the number pi. They then go off and create an animation that illustrates this method. Finally, they share the animation by publishing it back to Wikipedia thus making it easier for more people to learn. Wikipedia entries result from a large collaboration and ongoing revision process, with only a single entry per topic visible at any given time (although you can examine both the history of the page and the conversations about it). What makes this possible is a piece of software known as a wiki that keeps track of all the historical edits [58]. When that process works well it raises the quality of entries over time. But when there is a coordinated effort at manipulation or insufficient editing resources, Wikipedia too can spread misinformation instantly and globally.

Wikipedia illustrates another important aspect of the Digital Knowledge Loop: it allows individuals to participate in extremely small or minor ways. If you wish, you can contribute to Wikipedia by fixing a single typo. In fact, the minimal contribution unit is just one letter! I have not yet contributed anything of length to Wikipedia, but I have fixed probably a dozen or so typos. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you get ten thousand people to fix a typo every day, that’s 3.65 million typos a year. Let’s assume that a single person takes two minutes on average to discover and fix a typo. It would take nearly fifty people working full time for a year (2500 hours) to fix 3.65 million typos.

Small contributions by many that add up are only possible in the Digital Knowledge Loop. The Wikipedia spelling correction example shows the power of such contributions. Their peril can be seen in systems such as Twitter and Facebook, where the smallest contributions are Likes and Retweets or Reposts to one’s friends or followers. While these tiny actions can amplify high quality content, they can just as easily spread mistakes, rumors and propaganda. The impact of these information cascades ranges from viral jokes to swaying the outcomes of elections and has even led to major outbreaks of violence.

Some platforms even make it possible for people to passively contribute to the Digital Knowledge Loop. The app Waze is a good example. …The promise of the Digital Knowledge Loop is broad access to a rapidly improving body of knowledge. The peril is a fragmented post-truth society constantly in conflict. Both of these possibilities are enabled by the same fundamental characteristics of digital technologies. And once again we see clearly that technology by itself does not determine the future…(More).