Nov. 2018 PT#2: Technology expands Shared Knowledge, do we still need to assimilate SK into Personal Knowledge ?


  1. “Technology provides ever-expanding access to shared knowledge. Therefore, the need to assimilate such knowledge personally is relentlessly diminishing.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

There is a possible danger with this question that students will focus on the RLS (technology) rather than the ToK (the relationship between shared and personal knowledge).  If you’re writing this essay you should focus on the ToK and not the technology (an obvious point, but it always amazes me how many RLS focussed essays I read as an examiner).

So, what is that relationship between shared and personal knowledge. Most students will, and should, start off with orthodox definitions of PK and SK. These definitions could be usefully linked to the role of WoKs in shaping PK, and the sharing of this PK to create AoKs. A reading of pg’s 17-19 of the ToK Study Guide would be very useful at this stage of the essay. Further, students could consider ways in which PK is synergistic when shared (or putting it another way, SK is a synergistic form of PK). The ToK Guide emphasises the bi-directional symbiotic relationship of SK & PK, this would be a useful place to start this essay.

The PT uses the term “the need to assimilate such knowledge personally is relentlessly diminishing.”.  This raises a set of further questions which students could well consider in their essay:

  1. What is “the need” ?
  2. What is meant by “assimilate” ?
  3. Does the use of the word “relentlessly” indicate a process beyond the control of the knower ?

Let’s take each of these questions in turn.

  1. The Need

If there’s an identified need, then there’s a consequent function, or outcome. The labelling of the need as such would require the function, or outcome, to be requisite. As such the assumption in the question indicates that the function or outcome of assimilation of SK into PK is no longer required. Which leads me to ask – what was it previously required for ?, and have those functions now disappeared ?

So, in this mythical pre-technological time we could conjecture that assimilation was required for communication, and the development of culture which enabled survival, the acquisition of food and the establishment of family and kin groups. Have these requirements now disappeared with the advent of technology? Do we not still need to communicate In order to get jobs to pay for food etc ? There is a danger here of getting bogged down in the RLS.

We could look at need from a more theoretical knowledge point of view. Do we need to assimilate SK in order to further develop PK, and is this relationship bi-directional ? The TOK study guide gives an example which  promotes this position using Einstein as an example. At which point, a big question surfaces – is the distinction between SK & PK valid ?, are these solely ideal-type models to help us to understand the complexity of knowledge construction in relation to the individual knower ? Ideal type models which are not actually found in the real world.  – we will look at this in more detail when we look at the process of “assimilation”.

Finally, the concept of need not only implies fulfilment, and deficit, but also implies causation. We can think of needs in conventional cause-effect structures. In this case does the question imply that PK causes the assimilation of SK, or vice versa ? TWE is the knower consciously proactive in this process of assimilation ? And, touching back on the RLS, what are the consequences of a model in which knowledge remains in a shared (digital) space ? I am intuitively resistant to the idea that a shared (digital) space even exists, I argue that knowledge of the shared knowledge space is inherently personal knowledge in nature. EG my knowledge of a digital repository of academic journals is both personalised and experiential, and as such is best represented as personal knowledge. If I have no need to have knowledge of the journals then this is no difference in ‘pre-technology’.

Anyway, what is meant by the term ‘technology’ in this PT ? I assume that many students will assume that it means digital technology. However, there are many other forms of technology which have been created to share knowledge, including books, libraries, lectures, conversations, paintings, dances, songs etc etc. Students could use AoK Indigenous Knowledge Systems to compare the relationship between SK & PK in different cultures, in relation to their different use of knowledge sharing technologies.

  1. “Assimilate”:

This is an interesting verb, assimilate is akin to absorb, to take in. It implies a passive process, one which is placed below learning in my ToK hierarchy. I wonder whether ‘accommodate’, or ‘construct’ may be the implied meanings of the word ‘assimilate’ in this PT ? The question describes a one way process of assimilation from SK to PT, however it could be argued that for SK to exist there must have also previously been the reverse process of assimilation from PK to SK. Which then gives rise to questions of how and why such processes occur. The why arguments are easy to make (in both directions) – comparative advantages of scale. The how arguments provide more ToK-licious challenge. I am particularly interested in the voluntary actor vs passive recipient model of how this knowledge transfer may / may not occur, this could then be developed into an ‘empiricist’ vs ‘rationalist’ argument structure.

If we develop an argument that the knower is a voluntary actor in both directional transfers then we posit knowledge as having a known identifiable advantageous property. We describe a knower who navigates their world with known needs (easy link back to the PT), essentially we develop a Rationalist argument.

However, if we develop an argument that the knower is a passive actor, in both directional transfers, we are potentially developing a knower who is the victim of happenchance and circumstance. This is a much more empiricist argument, in which sensory experience has primacy over logical reasoning. This argument is, in many ways, a more systemic evolutionary argument. The system of shared knowledge can be seen as working in a quasi-autonomous manner to identify and select personal knowledge (for assimilation) which is advantageous to the whole (various examples from The Arts, HS & NS spring to mind).

The passive/empirical argument does introduce the problem of reification of SK. If SK is a body of knowledge which operates beyond the minds of knowers where does it exist ? If SK operates beyond the control of any individual knower then how is it controlled ? Has SK become self aware ? Here we start to see the obvious parallels with the digital technology world which are/could be implied in the PT. This also takes us neatly to the third question: the use of the word ‘relentlessly’.

3. Relentlessly

Relentlessly implies never ending, continuous. In turn this could imply a process beyond the control of the knower (assuming that if the knower had control they would wish to exercise that control to vary such assimilation). This has interesting links to the interpolation of various WoKs (e.g. language may be more intentional than intuition etc), and the prominence of those WoKs in the construction of knowledge within various AoKs. That is to say, that the knower’s decision (or lack of decision) to ‘assimilate’ SK into PK may influence what knowledge is assimilated, and the purposes of that knowledge. Which neatly leads back to the concept of “need” within the PT.

Presented above are just a selection of the ways in which students could approach this PT. None of those approaches are fully expanded here, and I have been highly economical with RLS which could be used as exemplar. Essentially, I think that this question is about the distinction between SK and PK, and whether such division is valid in real world knowledge construction.

Enjoy your ToK writing !


2 thoughts on “Nov. 2018 PT#2: Technology expands Shared Knowledge, do we still need to assimilate SK into Personal Knowledge ?

    1. It’s generally better if students develop their own knowledge claims & counterclaims as this helps them to develop better analysis. If a claim is “given” to a student it makes it harder for them to develop strong analysis.
      In the case of this PT remember that the Pt is in itself a kq. In developing claims consider the types of knowledge which constitute PK, the role of technology in producing that knowledge, and whether under such circumstance it can truly be considered PK.

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