Content & Communication

Critical Turning Point in the Transfer of Knowledge

Written by Agnes Banks
Category: Content & Communication Published: Friday, 27 May 2016 11:08
Hits: 2051

We generally think of the internet as a fountain of knowledge where we can go to wash away our ignorance about any subject, or like a climb to the mountaintop to listen to the wisdom of a sage imparting knowledge and information. When we say, as we watch the flow of information and knowledge, that we are witnesses to a global shift in consciousness, we are not exaggerating.

Many say the web makes us smarter. Does it? Philosophers warn us about technology breaking knowledge transmission circuits, even a risk of a return to barbarism. Should we worry? How and why is knowledge transmission affected by the disruption of our socio-economic system? Has the transfer of knowledge become an impossible mission? 

This is part 1 of 3 articles:
Part 1: Critical Turning Point in the Transfer of Knowledge, June 1, 2016
Part 2: The Web Black Hole June 2, 2016
Part 3: A Web of Disruption & Innovation (coming soon...)

Being digitally connected has led to so many changes in our lives. Almost every aspect of our lives can be controlled by an app. We are losing the ability to add without a digital device. We get news about our kids from their Facebook pages, and reply to their posts with a click on the Like icon. We endorse friends and peers to increase our profile rank. We enjoy spending hours every day on our digital devices, at work, at the dinner table, in bed. And we marvel at the diverse and enriched lives we have with instant access to global information. The world is at our fingertips. We feel so much smarter since we can find all the answers that we need with a click of a mouse or by speaking to Siri.

If only my parents or grandparents could have had such an opportunity! I learned so much from them, about social behavior, a cultural sense of well-being, assertiveness, critical thoughts. We spent long hours talking at the family table during homework time and during holidays. They taught so much, transmitting knowledge about their past experience of life, of the culture of their ancestors.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Benjamin Franklin

What is happening to knowledge transmission today? Has it improved with the internet? The ability to learn is about more than building and strengthening neural connections. Why are thinkers and philosophers speaking of a major disruption of our socio-economic system and breaks in knowledge transmission? Has the transmission of knowledge become an impossible mission in the digital age? “A man who asks is a fool for five minutes. A man who never asks is a fool for life,” says a Chinese proverb. We can easily ask questions on the web, making it easy to avoid being a long-term fool.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Alvin Toffler

Statistics & Connectivity

Internet Live Stats data speaks for themselves: "About 40 percent of the world’s population, or some 3.4 billion users, have an internet connection today. In 1995, it was less than 1 percent of the world population, The first billion was reached in 2005. The second billion in 2010. The third billion in 2014..." Truly mind-boggling growth!  Let's look at the estimated number of internet users by July 1, 2016, and the pies below showing the statistics for internet users by world regions:

Year Internet Users Penetration
(% of pop.
1Y User
1Y User 
World Pop.
2016* 3,424,971,237 46.1 % 7,432,663,275 4,007,692,038 7.5 % 238,975,082 1.13 %

Source: Internet Live Stats (elaboration of data by International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and United Nations Population Division).

* estimate for July 1, 2016

The website, Hosting Facts, provides us with further insights: 

The internet has now become such a force to reckon with, responsible for trillions of dollars in direct and indirect revenue annually...

He goes on to say that: 

...Asia accounts for 48.4% of global internet users. China has the highest percentage of internet users (21.97%), followed by the U.S. (9.58%) and India (8.33%). In contrast, while a whopping 86.75% of the U.S. population uses the internet, the U.S. is only ranked #25 in terms of internet penetration. The U.K. ranks #15 in terms of internet penetration with an estimated 89.90% of U.K. citizens using the internet.

Only 44% of web traffic is from humans; a massive 56% of web traffic is from bots, impersonators, hacking tools, scrapers and spammers...

 One can argue that providing access is bringing knowledge and technology to isolated populations. Of course, as others may point out, internet coverage is not always and altruistic endeavor. Understanding how the internet contributes to the growing world economy, how connectivity problems will be solved, will help us understand what is at stake.

Global Access

How and when high-speed internet services will be globally accessible? The UN has declared internet access a basic human right, meaning that the impact of the digital revolution is bound to snowball in the near future. 

Providing access is fundamentally a positive action if there is not an attempt to standardize access and block diversity. A glance at the statistics previously mentioned in this article, showing a world penetration of only 46% of the world potential, indicates that there are plenty of opportunities and room for growth.

The technology used by companies to provide internet service, whether ground-based, air-based, or space-based, enables the possibility of access for remote areas of the world, but it is a challenging and expensive endeavor. Also, we must remind ourselves that the internet coverage is not the altruistic endeavor that media and major players pretend it.

There are several worthy projects that aim to bring the internet to isolated populations, using low-tech solutions such as Wi-Fi balloons. The balloons float at about 18 km (11 miles) from the earth, providing internet access to remote areas. They create an aerial wireless network with up to 4G-LTE—speeds that many Europeans in limited-access areas still dream about, including myself. 

One project, named Project Loon, by Google (formerly known as Google X, under Alphabet's X), has been dedicated for years to developing balloons that can circumnavigate the globe, delivering Wi-Fi. They faced numerous hurdles in developing the balloons, trying to figure out a way to manage high winds while keeping the balloon floating at a steady altitude. It has had successful tests in remote areas of the world.

FaceBook has built a solar-powered drone that can fly several months without landing and uses lasers to beam data to the ground. "Our goal with is to bring affordable access to basic internet services available to every person in the world," said Mark Zuckerberg in March 2014. An article in Wired: Inside Facebook’s Ambitious Plan to Connect the Whole World, Jessi Hempel wrote about the project in January 2016, highlighting how the challenges could deter everyone, but not Zuckerberg. 

We could go into further details about on how corporations are going to deliver internet access accross the globle, but for this discussion, the point is to emphasize that an explosion of users is going to lead to a heightened impact of the internet on our cultural, socio-economic lives.

Articles by  (@TheSpaceGal) provide detailed information and insights aboutThe Corporate Battle For Global Internet Connectivity, Sep 18, 2015, Creating A New Type Of Internet, (Sep 25, 2015) and The Next Big Space Race?, (October 2, 2015). The articles (part 1-3) were published on TechCrunch and are readings to better understand what is to be won or lost to achieve the world connection. Calandrelli concludes that there is a big prize for the ultimate winner(s) and quotes Web’s CEO Greg Wyler:

We are solving a big problem for emerging markets, which is literally half the world, and the other half is connected only intermittently. That’s what these people are fighting for – the ability to provide a new or better internet service to the entire world. 

In her article about satellites, radio spectrum rights, and space race, she remarks that the major challenges are likely not associated with financing and technology development, but because of strict international regulations, government policies for internet development. Ownership of radio frequency “real estate” is a huge component of the challenges that operators face in this game:

"Any satellite operator that communicates with the Earth is required to apply for part of this limited frequency spectrum through the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which allocates global radio spectrum and satellite orbits to companies like OneWeb and SpaceX...It’s important that companies “stay in their lane” and only operate along the orbits and the spectrum that they were allocated. Some older companies stationed in the higher geostationary orbit (GEO) are worried that, with OneWeb’s proposed plans, they may unintentionally interfere with current companies’ operations..."

And to continue" 

"If one CEO intends to design a business around optimizing the number of people receiving internet, while the other wants to optimize the financial gain to be made, it would makes sense that the two would go separate ways. So today, each are working toward their similar, but different goals of global satellite internet development. OneWeb will be launching their first test satellites in 2017. SpaceX hasn’t released an estimated first launch date, but in January, Musk said that he hopes to provide initial service within five years. Many would pose this as a race between OneWeb and SpaceX. This is misleading..."

Leaving Emily Calandrellli to the study of the future of internet connectivity, it is time to come back to Earth and to peek at what ethnology research can teach us on the impact of internet access.

The Traditional Gatekeepers of High Culture

Are the "fathers" of the internet, who believed in a decentralized and universally connected network, watching us? The technological and cultural transformation of our societies is creating a disruption (good or bad) that the "fathers" may not have imagined in their wildest dreams. 

Vincent Remy, chief editor at Télérama, in Peut-on encore transmettre ? (Can we still transmit?) recalls that ten years ago, Alessandra Baricco, in The Barbarians, (translated into English in 2014, originally serialized in an Italian newspaper in 2006) published an optimistic view about technology and cultural transformation, and the mutation of our civilization. Baricco discusses how connectivity is changing the way we experience global culture. Many reviewers declared the essay as a brilliant critique on the evolution of today's society, while others  were more critical. At the same time, I fondly remember Baricco’s lines of sarcasm and even mockery about the current state of affairs. The review on the website, Creative States goes further:

In his essay, Baricco shows how cultural arenas have been plundered in what may feel like - at least to the traditional gatekeepers of high culture - a sort of barbarian invasion. He defines this not as a war between old and new, but rather as an avoidable mutation we are all a part of, whether we like it or not....

Baricco compares this to a wide-scale mental and architectural restructuring resulting from new pervasive technological forces such as Google. As an example, he draws a direct connection between Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin’s scientific upbringing to show how Google’s search architecture transfers the peer review process of scientific journals into the cultural realm. In other words, just as more positive peer reviews of an article assign it more scientific value, society as a whole has learned to value things based on the number of clicks in a Google search, irrespective of quality or depth.

The results of these simple yet fundamental changes are manifold - "A technological innovation shatters the privilege of a caste, making a form of action possible for a new population. This in turn allows "Commercial bliss to take up residence in the expanded playing fields," and redefines "spectacularity as the only untouchable value." Where old elites searched beyond current culture to find meaning, Barbarians simply search for something different in a new process of "Simplification, superficiality, speed, and middlingness." Like excited atoms, they are utterly concerned with being on the move, of rapid experience along the surface of things. Baricco calls this “surfing”, just as we have learned to do on the internet.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of this entire essay is its timeliness. For 2006, "The Barbarians" describes numerous trends only now emerging, written years before Twitter even hit the Web - the ultimate tool for surfaces, rather than depths. In optimistic defense of the mutation, Baricco convinces us, despite a deep desire to resist, that there is no other way but to embrace this fundamental shift in the “what constitutes experience” and how meaning is made. 

Baricco suggests that we are becoming “…mutants, with a changed orientation to the world, where sensibility is more attuned to simplicity rather than complexity, and simultaneity rather than singularity...”

Thomas Brett reminds us in his site, Brettworks, that, in a way, Baricco’s book is like a field manual that describes not just technological trends, but also the emergent cultural spaces defined by them in which more and more of us find ourselves. “Here and there, Baricco uses the metaphor of a half-human, half-amphibian mutant that has grown gills in order to breathe underwater. That’s us."

the barbarians

Vincent Remy, wagging his finger, tells us that, within the last ten years, under the lead of Silicon Valley forces, the technological revolution has moved us from a vertical transmission of knowledge, based on inheritance and the learning process, to a society of shared speed, pleasure, and cultural experiences, exponentially infinite.

For most of us who bathe in the codes and surf on the shared waves, the web brings great opportunities and satisfaction. A sense of well-being. But the digital revolution, in its current track, is not about to reduce inequality for most of the world’s population.

The Internet can provoke feelings of solitude, of being unrecognized, non-existent, life under-valued because of the sheer numbers of users. An emptiness that is not felt in remote villages where the transmission of knowledge has not yet been taken over by technology and social networks. More worrisome is the fragmentation of our modern societies like never seen in the past.

One can only ask, again and again, where are our traditional gatekeepers of high culture? Librarians claim the title of knowledge gatekeepers. Let's not mix content and knowledge. Librarians are certainly the gatekeepers of content, but knowledge is something that we learn. Librarians need to involve their readers as well. Besides, we cannot limit such planetary responsibility and tasks to them solely. Each one of us must get involved. 

Don't miss the next article in the series:

The Web Black Hole

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First published on 

Published under license from, Copyright © 2016 Frontmatter Limited. All rights reserved.

About the Author

I, Agnes, couldn't be more excited about the future of the internet, and its tools and techniques for putting it to good use. I've been building the FrontMatter site since 2013. I'm a voracious reader and as such find many great articles that allow me to peek into the future of the digital world. I put this site together to share what I've enjoyed reading and what I've found worth sharing. Also, I love talking to people in the digital arena. I absolutely love to hear from my readers. I welcome emails with thoughts, remarks, stories and suggestions. One last thing before I go - I would love for you to contact me and tell me about yourself, or even better, to go on the FrontMatter site and let us know your suggestions for creating a positive internet.

You made my day by reading this article. I'm very thankful that you've joined me in this adventure as a reader. Join the FrontMatter Community and contribute your own articles. That will make me and other readers very happy.

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