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A healthy level of disturbance creates more knowledge

On Wikipedia and other knowledge-generating communities, even non-experts can provide information that is not inferior in quality to classic encyclopedias. But what individual and systemic prerequisites are required for this collaborative work? And under what circumstances can knowledge platforms become echo chambers of ideological or even extremist positions? In her guest lecture at LIfBi Lectures, Prof. Dr. Ulrike Cress gave exciting insights into the current research of the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien (IWM) in Tübingen.

 As part of the second lecture in the series of LIfBi Lectures in the current summer semester, digital media not only played a role in terms of content but also led to a premiere: Due to the corona pandemic, Ulrike Cress, Director of the IWM, only made a virtual visit to the LIfBi and for the first time delivered a LIfBi Lecture via video call.

In the beginning, Cress introduced the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien, presenting selected projects from the field of research as well as knowledge transfer for society. In her subsequent lecture on “Collaborative knowledge construction: How is knowledge created in the digital age?”, she dealt with individual and social processes of knowledge construction.

Wikipedia and other jointly compiled encyclopedias are vivid examples of the fact that knowledge is not only received but increasingly also collectively generated. The social dimension of knowledge becomes visible in this shared knowledge construction: The users in the respective communities’ are confronted with highly dynamic, self-organized, social systems that force their specific set of rules on individuals.

According to her diagnosis, the set of rules in which the collaborative work takes place has a strong regulating effect on the individuals working in these systems: What this system considers to be true is true. Deviating opinions or new information are questioned, checked, adjusted, accepted, or rejected in a continuous process. And this applies to scientifically based statements as well as to global conspiracy theories.

Thus, the special features of these social, meaning-creating systems are, on the one hand, their strong self-regulation (which in the case of Wikipedia contributes to a high quality of the knowledge generated) and, on the other hand, the ability to learn through disturbances or irritations and thus to develop further.

Cress cited as an example of these effects the genesis of the German Wikipedia article on the nuclear incident in Fukushima, which was produced only seven hours after the event. Alongside the article, a meta-discussion quickly developed between the users about the quality and validity of evidence. The IWM researchers concluded that knowledge generation is a co-evolution of cognitive and social systems. “Disturbances” in these interactions lead to the further development of rules, to individual and collective learning, and—at least on Wikipedia—therefore also to better knowledge. According to her analysis, a medium level of external irritation is most effective for further development.
Cress argues that this becomes problematic when the set of rules underlying the generation of knowledge is itself already shaped in an ideological or extremist way. Echo chambers of extreme opinions can quickly form here, which are difficult to break up from the outside.


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