Knowledge Technologies and Openness

The World Wide Web is the most powerful platform and enabler for innumerable digital technological and social innovations that can facilitate all aspects of learning, research, collaboration, collective intelligence, self-organization, political awareness, and mobilization. A powerful, “always open” portal enabling knowledge discovery, from history and geography, to the arts and sciences, the web is a portal to practical, sustainable knowhow—how to grow vegetables, how to save the planet, how to produce electricity at home, and so on, offering the potential to make a difference in the world and to enhance everyday life for people across the planet.

But ultimately, at least for some of us, the only knowledge that matters is that which leads to increased understanding of the meaning of life: knowledge of the path of enlightenment. Of course many people do not fully understand what enlightenment is, or why it should be pursued; that the cessation of suffering and the fulfillment of all wishes, the answers to all questions, are not possible in the real world. They are utopia.

Today, more people than ever have easy access a wealth of online literature in almost any field of human knowledge. One can find mentoring opportunities, join online communities, and participate in human endeavors, armed only with an understanding of how to use and access the Internet. Although the digital divide remains a reality affecting many societies—linguistic and computer literacy is not universal, and not everyone has access to a low-cost connection and an Internet-enabled device—this gap is narrowing with each generation.

But what about finding happiness? 

Information systems science preaches at length that information and communication technologies (ICT) must be implemented using “right” principles, claiming that good technology can help people achieve and maintain happiness. We all experience gratification when clicking on a link that opens swiftly, helping us find a document, a photo, a video, or the answer to a question. Conversely, poorly designed information systems, which are error-prone or provide incorrect information, or are too complicated or expensive, can lead to misery and potentially even destroy life on earth (more on that in another article).

It is generally accepted that the criteria for what can be referred to as “good technology” can be boiled down to good practices, including availability, simplicity, and affordability. More generally speaking, technology is useful for extending human cognition: by making such a vast repository of knowledge instantly available, and facilitating knowledge discovery and creation, technology can become a valuable tool for helping human society along the path to wisdom, enlightenment, and happiness.

The web and its associated protocols and standards is an “open” technology that, at least in theory, adheres to good practices: availability, accessibility, always on, and so on. It is not only free to use and access, it is also, most importantly, free to write to. The particular feature ensuring that anyone can publish content to the web has, almost overnight, overturned the restrictions of participatory information flows related to costly production and ownership overheads, at least in principle.

For example, as I write this article, His Holiness the Karmapa is giving teachings in Bodh Ghaya during Kagyu Monlam on “The Torch of Meaning.” This teaching is being webcast live from the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment, into the vastness of cyberspace via three different YouTube Channels, and is translated live into different languages. If one of the channels should fail due to human or technical error, anyone can jump in using the live chat functionality to translate, or approximate a translation, from another channel. This implies that the interactive quality of the web enables anyone with a level of knowledge (in this case of Spanish or Chinese) to be immediately useful and help others. 

The usefulness of an “open” live chat channel rests, however, on the responsibility of the users, and their tolerance of those who are not so responsible. A few spam messages appear on the chat feed from time to time, unwanted advertisements unrelated to the video content, interspersing useful and relevant conversations and comments. Users have to put up with these interruptions, and learn to ignore them, since the benefits of having an open chat channel outweigh such nuisances. Even better, moderators can learn to identify and block spammers. Achieving the right balance between openness and discipline is the key to many Dharma practices—as the Buddha said, too tight won’t do, too loose won’t either.

It is thanks to this free flow of communication and information that open-value networks and the rapid diffusion of innovations that characterize our times are actually possible. It is also thanks to the open and participatory nature of the web that cognitive biases and restricted views of knowledge can be overcome. Such open technologies include, and sometimes depend on:

i) An open source environment, which applies to software (code), hardware (designs and patents), and intellectual property in general (via initiatives such as Creative Commons and GNU licenses, enabling creators and inventors to share their work.

ii) Open standards, technical conventions, and specifications generally applicable to networked technologies to facilitate interoperability between different technologies.

iii) Open data and access to knowledge (A2K)

iv) Net neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers should allow access to all content and applications, regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites on behalf of vested interests.

Mutual correspondence

It is true that the mindless adoption of technology can have a detrimental impact—just as, for example, an overindulgence in idle chatting or gossiping and too many pointless phone calls simply because telecommunications providers offer cheap services encourage distractions and superficiality. Yet it must also be acknowledged that the mindful adoption of technology can be instrumental in supporting and facilitating the fulfillment of human cognitive and creative potential. Web technologies, for example, can help sustainability because they enable instant multilateral communication without the need for high capital investment to set up and harness. They can also reduce the environmental cost of such communication (in terms of paper and tree consumption, for example) and reduce the necessity of travel by enabling virtual interaction.

Good technologies, like nature, are designed to propagate themselves; to generate abundance so that they can self-replicate. In addition, web technologies can be used to share good news, increase general awareness, stimulate responsible and virtuous behavior, encourage cooperation, and to propagate knowledge about the Dharma, enlightenment, and the Noble Eightfold Path. It is therefore vital that technological design and implementation are guided by virtuous principles, at the same time as they facilitate and enable knowledge to be fostered. This, in turn, will lead to virtue, mindfulness, and the skillful dissemination of knowledge.

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