I agree that T.D. Wilson's comments (Working Knowledge, Ubiquity, August 8, 2000) hinge on a semantic definition, but semantic distinctions are important. As IT people, we should be aware of the importance of using words appropriately. Whatever this stuff is that the "knowledge management" people want to do, if it is to be any good, it will be an extension of activities that humans have been doing for millions of years. We said it around the campfire; we painted it on walls; we scribbled it on parchment; we set it in type; and now we put it into computers. There are many words for this stuff. Although "knowledge" can validly be used to describe the entire body held in common, historically, only people intending to be pompous and pretentious have used that word to describe individual chunks or even small systems, say, the size of an encyclopedia. Anything labeled "knowledge management" cannot help but come across as mere business hype, and those who choose it can reasonably expect to face an uphill battle if they wish to show substance.
An even worse situation exists with respect to "distance learning." People working in this field seem to use the words "learning," "teaching" and "education" as if they are interchangeable. They are not. Every real teacher knows that good teaching has almost nothing to do with the mechanics of learning but has everything to do with inspiring and fueling the hunger not only to learn but also to think. Teachers must necessarily deal with the mechanics of learning, because they must have something to do while building up the foundations for the rare moments of teaching. Yet the most important thing teachers do during this time is applied anthropology.
Critics who speak of the need for a social environment understand this. Those defenders who respond with snide comments about learning from books, as if that were the issue, effectively advertise that they are completely ignorant of teaching. Can computers act as an effective replacement in the absence of a living, breathing teacher? I don't know. I know that some teachers, such as Richard Feynman, are skilled enough to be real teachers on videotape after they are dead, so I have hope for electronic media. I hope that some aspects of computers, such as games, have the potential of providing an emotional hook similar to the social one.
As we think about this, at least we should remember what really is being criticized and think about the criticisms rather than dismiss them with silliness. Furthermore, we might also consider that those who, seemingly proudly, advertise their ignorance of teaching with silly deflections might not be the best people to meet the challenges. After all, if all they can provide is snide comments about books, given that Amazon.com and Federal Express already exist, then they are superfluous.
-- Eric Pepke
Previous comments on "Working Knowledge."
Quality in diversity
The author makes an excellent point with respect to quality arising from diversity ("Universal Usability," Ubiquity, August 29, 2000). Also, the insight into the digital divide is very real and disturbing. Although we have tons of technologies our next level should be to make them safe, easily usable and highly diffusible to a large amount of people all over the world.
Computer Information Systems student, Drexel University
Lonely and depressed? Don't blame the Net
The Internet today spans the globe and has established a body and soul of its own. Technology bashers would say that not only does this lead to erosion of social values but also of the self. However, as the writer points out ("Deconstructing the Internet Paradox," Ubiquity, April 25, 2000), these questions are irrelevant and cannot be linked to advent of the Internet Age. Such fears were raised about television too. However, such fears now seem antiquated and abstruse. Similarly, the Internet, continuously evolving as a conscience, will develop into something with its own set of pros and cons.
I believe Joseph Newcomer is correct in stating his views. Although I would say that self-absorbing activities in general are not conducive to the growth of a healthy society, they cannot be quoted as the reason for depression and loneliness. In fact, talking to other people with similar interests can at times be a lot more comforting. Human beings need a platform for expressing themselves. The Internet, while connecting various communities and building a platform above the barriers of society, is like all other "self absorbing" activities -- detaching the individual from the society. I am thankful to the author for criticizing a misleading report.
-- Nipun Mehra