Scaling knowledge: Should our disciplines have mesh or tree-like relation to each other?

Beyond Open: Culture and Scaling in the Making of KnowledgeI’ve just been reading some of Tim Berners-Lee’s Weaving the Web about building the World Wide Web and it put me in mind of Paul Frijters’ recent post on teaching the social sciences. Paul argued that:

The biggest change needed is to teach the material in terms of basic patterns, with more complex arguments taught later as combinations of basic patterns. Another change needed is to enforce a single language on the entire curriculum. Finally, what is needed is far more use of virtual reality-teaching and field trips so that students experience the phenomena they are meant to understand, unlocking their visual acuity and emotional skills as learning tools. Students should learn with their whole being, not merely with their abstractive capacities.

Regarding the first two points, 1Berners-Lee’s frustrations with the world before he changed it seem to mirror Paul’s. He was frustrated with the ‘tree like’ organisation of knowledge 2. and wanted to invent a looser, more ‘associative’ form of knowledge architecture which he called ‘mesh’.

Be that as it may this seems like quite a big deal to me. Indeed, as the internet grew in order to effectively scale it needed to move away from ‘tree-like’ architectures for sending data packets through the net as outlined in this write up of the Border Gateway Protocol (or as us aficionados call it the BGP – some of us have only been aficionados for the last couple of minutes, but we’ll leave that to one side).

Anyway, the way knowledge started being classified in the 19th century was by discipline. Sometimes a discipline disappeared because it was discredited – as in the case of phrenology. But mostly the disciplines stayed in place and each spawned endless sub-disciplines. The disciplines are tree-like structures of knowledge, sometimes paying obsessive attention to their unitary structure as in the case of micro-foundations in economics and selfish genes as in the case of neo-Darwinism.

There are occasional cross-overs, as in the case of behavioural science and economics or imaging and psychology or evolutionary psychology for instance. Interdisciplinarity is spoken of at least by some with reverence, but all the disciplinary incentives are against it and the tree-like structures of each discipline remain in place. Thus these crossovers might be likened to rhizomes rather than any real challenge to the tree-like structure of disciplines and plantation like structures of knowledge generally.

As knowledge has proliferated over the last two centuries, you’d expect some re-architecture of the relations between disciplines, but there’s been no systematic change whatever, and what occasional change there has been, has been limited to ad hoc marriages of sub-disciplines where new technical possibilities present themselves or where exhaustion with the sterility of one discipline sets in and some (usually very limited) reaction is in order. An example of the former is where MRI imaging is now used in psychology and even in philosophy and of the latter is behavioural economics or the empirical or ‘Freakonomic’ turn in economics (though this is also to some extent the response to the new technical possibilities of ‘big data’ and desktop computing).

  1. I won’t comment on his third point other than including it here because of its importance and my strong agreement with it.
  2. The paper proposing that he work on what became the World Wide Web had a heading “The problem with trees” and began “Many systems are organised hierarchically”
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Review of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline: Guest Post from Simon Molloy

Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline could upend our thinking about our future of planet Earth with far reaching implications for policy on climate change, immigration and border control, defence, education, child care, and jobs, to name just a few.

In the face of Hollywood’s habitual dystopianism we have become inculcated with familiar mantras: we are facing a global population crisis, humans are a plague on the planet, we are poisoning the Earth and so on.

These population mantras are wrong. Not just wrong; diametrically wrong, according to the book’s Canadian authors, Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, and journalist, John Ibbitson. They say, “We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but a population bust”.

Based on extensive research aimed at assessing the trajectory of global fertility rates, they argue that “one of the great defining events of human history will occur in three decades, give or take, when global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end”. Continue reading

Posted in Climate Change, Economics and public policy | 18 Comments

French Film Festival

Top Picks

Trailer Icon 03 The Trouble With You (Opening Night)
Yvonne is the principled young widow of the local police chief who was killed in the line of duty. Each night she puts their young son to sleep with tales of his daring and bravery, and so naturally Yvonne is horrified to learn that her husband was not the embodiment of virtue as she had been led to believe-an innocent man named Antoine, has spent eight years falsely imprisoned as a result of his corruption! Yvonne decides to do everything she can to help return the hapless parolee to his regular life and devoted fiancé. Unfortunately, Antoine has trouble adjusting back to society, and soon blows a fuse that leads to an hilarious trail of destruction, where moral, social and romantic obligations are put to the test in a spectacular way.
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB

David is a carefree 20-something in the throes of a new romance with Lena, and lives a carefree life until an incident abruptly forces him to assume the guardianship of his seven-year-old niece, Amanda.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Alexandre lives in Lyon with his wife and children. One day, quite by chance, he discovers that the priest who abused him when he was a member of a boy scout troop is still working with children. Determined to see justice served, Alexandre re-establishes contact with his boyhood friends – also victims of the same priest – François and Emmanuel. The men vow to ‘lift the burden of silence’. However, as the institutional weight and power of the Catholic Church bears down on this defiant group of survivors determined to tell their story, no one is left unscathed.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Two decades after its filming, Olivier Meyrou’s controversial yet exquisitely drawn portrait of France’s last great fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, has finally seen the light of day, having previously been withheld from release by Saint Laurent’s business partner, Pierre Bergé. Echoing its ambiguous title, Celebration goes behind-the-scenes to present both Yves the Legend and Yves the Man, as he prepares his final collection before the fashion house was sold to Gucci in 1999. Icons of the glamour industry and the many top models who have donned Saint Laurent’s gowns – show their unerring dedication to the fashion house and its namesake. And then there’s Yves himself – on the one hand, larger than life and, on the other, astonishingly reclusive, irritable and even inelegant.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

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Burnheim on Gray on Hayek

Friedrich Hayek was notoriously less savvy with photoshoots than some of his relatives.

A few years ago I read some John Gray on Friedrich Hayek. In short, he’s very good on Hayek, though he seems to have moved on rather to larger topics, not always to good effect. Anyway, If you have the best part of an hour, you could do a lot worse than read Gray on Hayek back in 1982 when Gray was (I think) something of a fellow traveller (and it was less evident how badly some neoliberal reform would go – I’m looking at you GFC). And here’s an excellent revisiting of Hayek 33 years later. I recommend both heartily.

I really should have written the words above just to let you know of two excellent essays, but I probably wouldn’t have bothered but for the reaction I got from John Burnheim when I sent him a link to the first essay above. Below the fold are the words he sent back in reply. As usual, there seems to be a vast depth of thought behind his words.   Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, Economics and public policy, Philosophy, Political theory | 8 Comments

When is a conversation not a conversation? When it’s a political conversation.


It looks like liberal democracy is falling apart. But we can put it back together if we take democracy seriously enough—as seriously as the ancient Greeks.

The chaos of Donald Trump was unimaginable just a decade ago. Brexit was a similar humiliation for Britain’s political class, leading to its bewildered paralysis ever since. How do such things happen? Perhaps because I admire economists’ deployment of very simple ideas to powerful effect, I’ve come to an approach to these problems that I think is simple and compelling.

First, democracy is government by conversation. A political conversation should often be competitive—to sharpen ideas and measure their support. Yet, to remain a conversation rather than a parody of one, it must also be a co-operative search, if not for agreement, then at least for mutual understanding of where positions differ. However, this co-operative foundation for our politics has been largely extinguished by the weaponisation of political communication by professionals operating on the mass media, and, more recently by “trolling” on social media.

Second, where elections bake competition into the operating system of representation, there’s another, even more time honoured way to represent the people. The ancient Greeks built their democracy around it and it hides in plain sight today whenever a jury is empanelled in a court of law. And, whether it concerns legal or political matters, deliberation within such bodies nurtures the collaborative aspects of conversation. Giving citizens’ juries and assemblies chosen by lot a role within our beleaguered democracy could see it renewed.


To become a politician you compete for election. You then join party colleagues competing against their opponents. Yet democracy implies limits to competition. We remain safe for now that no substantial political grouping perpetuates extra-legal violence. Yet something more fundamental is afoot.

Though it apes the form of conversation, political communication has become as professionalised, as optimised to the competition to win votes as McDonald’s use of salt, fat, sugar and advertising is to win customers. Meanwhile, responding to similar competitive imperatives, the informational foundations of our democracy were being shorn away by mass media news values long before the internet arrived. Between 1968 and 1988, the length of presidential sound bites on US network news went from 43 to 9 seconds.1

The singleminded goal of each player in mass media political conversation is to manipulate it to their own end. Politicians rehearse “focus grouped” talking points and slogans like “take back control” and “roll up our sleeves” available on online lists (seriously!). Spokespeople cherry pick arguments, spurious or otherwise to defend their vested interest—until the they argue the opposite for their next client or employer. As Groucho put it, “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I’ve got others.”

Our language and etiquette are being transformed by the imperatives of political and ideological combat. The repertoire of “moves” now labelled “political correctness” have grown like bacteria in a petri dish in no small part because of their success as tactics in political debate. Taking offence, “checking” privilege, and associated strictures offer trump cards to instantly ideologise and emotionalise a conversation to one side’s tactical advantage. Continue reading

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The Public Goods of the 21st Century

For those of you in Melbourne, I thought I’d let you know of a public lecture I’m giving on Thursday night this coming week details below. If you’d like to come, make your free reservation on this page.

Thought Leadership Series Lecture | The Public Goods of the 21st Century

Date: Thursday 21 February 2019
Time: 5.30pm – 7pm
Venue: Engineers Australia Level 30, 600 Bourke St, Melbourne –>
Cost: Free. Enrol here

At elite and popular levels, we think markets provide private goods competitively and governments provide public goods like streets and street lights collectively. But, as the eighteenth-century founder of modern economics Adam Smith understood, the real story is much richer. Any social artefact of any sophistication from a conversation to a smart phone to a city is an ecology of competitive and collaborative elements at numerous levels within the system.

This lecture will explore the landscape of the private and the shared in the 21st century. Digital collaboration is burgeoning as with open source software whilst in the ‘analogue’ world, the public good of our social fabric is coming under immense pressure. The lecture will seek new ways of understanding these things to help build the world we want.

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I Wish I’d Asked: Eileen Torney edition

About a year ago my wife Eva and a friend of hers, Danny Finley started working on a program designed to tackle loneliness through intergenerational contact. Kids  are paired with older people in their community through contact between schools and aged care institutions. This is all developed with local communities, the first cab off the rank being Shepparton. A range of activities are ensuing, including story telling leading to the building of online oral histories, the teaching of recipes and cooking, dancing and the ‘reverse mentoring’ of computer literacy. It’s origin in the first of these initiatives is captured in Danny’s fantastic name for it – I Wish I’d Asked.

There’s growing enthusiasm from local institutions including Rotary, the local council and Latrobe Uni which has a campus there.

Anyway, the trigger for this post was Eva showing me some poems from Eileen Torney who is her 80s and lives in Shepparton Villages – a fantastically good aged care provider in Shepp. I liked them and reproduce them below:


Generations of work and expertise
had been repaid the farm was doing well
my mother decided I should board
at Genazzano a prestigious Convent school where her Aunt Mary was a nun
not one who taught but a humble cook and cleaner pious unworldly subservient
at the bottom of their clearly defined pecking order

Dressed in our best clothes
we visited Aunt Mary and in the stylish parlour
my mother announced that she wished to enrol me
and Aunt Mary went to fetch the Mother Superior
who refused to come
We cater for the rich was the message she sent
send her to Vaucluse our cheaper school
in vain my mother argued that she could pay the fees
she thought that was what being rich meant
Your home would not be suitable
if she invited friends (though she had never seen it)
send her to Vaucluse

As I rise in the mornings my cat demands her treat she is a registered vet-checked and privileged cat. Outside the glass door a stray meows and pleads an illegal refugee but I couldn’t let it starve
I poke a tray of pellets through the door and close it again tell it I run a soup kitchen not an adoption agency.

I call one cat Genazzano
and the other one Vaucluse.

This video was not filmed in Shepparton and has nothing directly to do with I Wish I’d Asked, but it would be fun if it could be brought off!

Continue reading

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