Designing Universal Knowledge: The World as Flatland – Report 1

by Andy Polaine on March 8, 2009

in 2D, Thought

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Given that it is a book about classification, Designing Universal Knowledge: The World as Flatland – Report 1 (Amazon: US|CA|UK|DE) by Gerlinde Schuller is oddly difficult to classify.

Schuller is head of the Information Design Studio in Amsterdam and begins the book by reminding us of the relationship between knowledge and power:

“Knowledge is power. If one possesses a collection of the ‘universal knowledge’ of the world, one has ultimate power. Establishing comprehensive, global collections of knowledge already fascinated mankind thousands of years ago. Today, modern communication and information technologies offer quick and prompt collecting, high memory capacities and wide-ranging access. In addition, globalization and the Internet advance a mentality which moves away from the local and regional towards the international and universal. Collections of knowledge, such as archives, encyclopaedias, databases and libraries, also follow this trend. They are engaged in a race against time in both the technological and creative area.”
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Described as a “theoretical and design-related examination of the theme of knowledge collections” the book seeks to answer the following questions:

Who is collecting the world’s knowledge?
How are knowledge archives structured and designed?
Who determines the access to this knowledge?
What knowledge entails power?

Schuller and the design team at the Information Design Studio have chosen an encyclopaedia system for the book, which is sometimes a work of information design and other times more traditionally encyclopaedic in its classification approach.

Peppered throughout are essays by Alex Wright, Willem van Weelden, Markus Frenzl and Femke Snelting as well as Schuller’s interviews with an eclectic mix of people: Richard Saul Wurman, John Maeda, Nigel Holmes, Wim Crouwel, Paul Kahn, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, Rop Gonggrijp, Marion Winkenbach, Hannah Hurtzig and Martin Alberts.

All of the above are either creators or creators of knowledge and information in some way. Some are educators and organisers of information, which also makes them generators, transmitters and shapers of knowledge as well.

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The interview with Richard Saul Wurman honesty in his interview is the highlight:

“My passion is drieven by my interest. I don’t care about universal knowledge. I case about selective things that I don’t understand.”

Saul Wurman goes on to explain just why he got into the field of information theory in the first place:

“I had a moment of deepest terror, where I realized I didn’t understand anything. That was just before I graduated from architecture school. I was probably twenty-one. I do remember it because I reflected back on it continuously. It was terrifying, and it still is. You don’t lose your terror, what you do is to understand it better.”

The other essays and interviews are much less engaging and often highlight the biggest paradox and problem for this book. A book that is critiquing the collecting, curating and organisation of information in relation to power suffers from the self-referential criticism that its author and editors are deciding what to include and what to leave out.

It is not clear at all why some of the people have been selected to write essays or respond to interview questions. There are obvious choices like Saul Wurman, but others seem to just be in the author’s social or professional circle. This would not be a problem if the book was on a different subject, but in this case the only way out of the self-referential paradox – a collection of knowledge critiquing the collection of knowledge – is to be clear about the selection process used and this is not mentioned at all.

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I was also surprised by the rather naïve conservatism in several of the interviews and essays that grated with the book’s opening statements. A common attitude from curators, librarians and archivists is that knowledge is best collected, organised and selected by knowledge professionals (curators, librarians and archivists, of course) rather than the unwashed. An interview with Jimmy Wales was notably absent.

The usual expansion of this view is that these institutions should be public, state-run organisations rather than private ones, such as Google. Yet there was no critique here of the secular elitism of those professions, nor that governments are often less accountable (or equally unaccountable) than corporations. I might not be able to vote in the USA, for example, but I can buy shares in Google and be a shareholder activist should I choose. Nor is there much in the book about other middle ways to choose from. Open-source gets no mention and Creative Commons is essentially just a footnote in the entry for Copyright.

Designing Universal Knowledge is a fascinating curiosity of a book, but it is not the kind of rigorous research or report the title and opening leads you to expect. Two more volumes are planned: Designing Breaking News and Designing World Projections and my guess is that they will be much stronger than this one given Schuller’s background.

This is the kind of book I call a toilet book (in the nicest of ways). The essays and longer interviews are definitely worth reading, but the rest of the book you will want to dip into during idle moments and be amazed and entertained by the factoids within, rather like flicking through a printed copy of Wikipedia.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Designing Universal Knowledge: The World as Flatland – Report 1 is published by Lars Müller Publishers.

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