Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Urban Geography Of Knowledge

Encyclopedia Britannica is a relic of the industrial era. Wikipedia is iconic of the post-industrial era, or whatever you want to call the current epoch coming to a close. Encyclopedia Britannica is now dead. So is the associated mode of knowledge production:

The vision of knowledge as paradigmatic, structured, ordered, like the hierarchy of the church and the deputations of sovereignty, was very much a product of encyclopedism’s golden age, the eighteenth century. Indeed, Diderot and his cohort sought for secular knowledge the kind of power and authority reserved for the monarchy and the magisterium of the Church. It’s a theory of knowledge in keeping with its time — although Diderot and his contemporaries already recognized the problematic nature of any single specified taxonomy of knowledge; the rule of the alphabet offered not only a handy organizing schema, but a leveling arbitrariness as well. But these means of ordering knowledge are thoroughly out of step in our own omnivalent age, which finds us suspicious of expertise, more comfortable with the iterative and approximate.

I see the golden age of encyclopedism as the late 19th century, when the demands of building a nation-state required experts to be gatekeepers of knowledge. This is when geography as a social science was born. Heck, this was when social science was born. Geography as a body of knowledge was intimately tied to state-building. A reflection of the times, geography was (still is) structured, ordered, and hierarchical.

The geographic models of urban hierarchy are a good example of encyclopedism. These models are maps of industrial economic geography. Wikipedism is a map of the urban post-industrial economic geography:

Wikipedia maps knowledge as ambitiously as the encyclopedia of old; only its cartography is different. Indeed, mapping is woven into the very structure and method of Wikipedia itself; it isn’t found in orderings and topics, but in the network-locative irruptions of facticity and assertion, citation and correction that make up the entries. Fully documented on the “talk page” of each Wikipedia entry, these records of individual edits and vettings comprise a map of knowledge as it lives in a networked world.

Geographers such as Peter Taylor have tried to map global network urbanism. But industrial encyclopedism is hard to shake. There is a hierarchy of alpha, beta, and gamma world cities. Lesser metros orbit around an urban Leviathan, the real drivers of economic globalization.

Putting aside metro GDP and the diffusion of business services, talent migration is the map of Wikipedism.  In terms of people flows, alpha cities give as good as they get. Knowledge (e.g. nanotechnology) has no problem pooling in Albany, NY. An idea from a sub-gamma part of the world is as good as one from New York City. Talent doesn't need to be at the top of the urban hierarchy to be at its most productive.

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