Knowledge is both an individual and communal phenomenon. For the individual, as Plato formalizes it, knowledge is a justifiably believed truth. Similarly, for the community, knowledge is the sphere of shared information and wisdom that is accepted as valid by the majority of people with access to that knowledge-space. But how does a piece of information enter that knowledge space and how does it become justifiably believed? In this paper, we explore the shifts that occurred in how people created, owned, and believed in shared knowledge spaces as they moved from oral to print and ultimately to digital-networked communication. We consider the way communication technologies affected the evolution of this knowledge space not only in the way it afforded the broad sharing of knowledge (across time and space) but also in the way it influenced the notion of justifiability and authority over that knowledge.

This paper is not, however, an epistemological discussion, but rather, a review of the development of communication technologies from pre-literacy to the Information Age, as it relates to the creation and sharing of knowledge. Readers who are interested in the former topic are encouraged to explore the concept further at We are deliberately pointing readers to Wikipedia, as it highlights our questions on shared knowledge: questions about transformative capacities in the creation, ownership, transfer and trust in knowledge, as well as changes in its transmission and storage as enabled through communication technologies. As a sidebar to this article, we will also be discussing our own personal experiences with wikis as an authoring platform. This article was originally written using wiki technology, and readers are encouraged to explore and contribute to it at

Knowledge in the Age of Orality or Pre-writing

The creation of symbolic language is widely credited with leading to the first great Information Revolution early in humankind's history, between one and two million years ago to 100,000 years ago (Sabbatini, 2001). (Symbolic language is a term used to refer to the creation of shared symbols by a group, allowing for communication and meaning. See Wood, 2005, for an extended discussion or Wikipedia for a briefer but comparable definition.) The development and use of symbolic language allowed humans to actualize and share knowledge outside of the specific here-and-now situation they were in, providing the "essential basis of human consciousness" (Bickerton 2000, cited in Sabbatini, 2001). Symbolic language allowed humans to think hypothetically, to organize experiences, to conceptualize time, and to plan for the future. It is the basis of human personal, social, cultural, economic, and political structures and underlies all knowledge.

This development, therefore, enabled all human achievement. It allowed complex human social organizations to flower in early human cultures that were entirely oral. Although we are hampered in our understanding of those oral cultures today by both the barriers of time and the impermanence of orality, scholars have studied the evidence, comparing primary oral cultures to later cultures that incorporated writing (chirographic cultures) and print. In his seminal text on orality and literacy, Walter J. Ong (1982) posits that cultures that primarily use spoken language have particular cognitive and social characteristics arising from the oral or "sounded" nature of language. In Chapter Three of his text he discusses the "psychodynamics of orality," or the major and minor characteristics of orally based cognition (thought) and expression (language use). These characteristics include oral expression that is additive, rather than subordinative; aggregative rather than analytic; situational rather than abstract; conservative; redundant or "copious"; homeostatic; empathetic and participatory; agonistically toned; and close to the human lifeworld.

These psychodynamics of orality affect knowledge in a number of ways. Because sound is evanescent and fleeting, shared knowledge in oral cultures was ephemeral. Information was memorized by individuals and predominantly transmitted via one-to-one conversations. Knowledge thus was fluid rather than fixed, and subject to errors in transmission and to loss of information. The extent of communally shared knowledge was limited by the capacity of the human memory and often required the use of mnemonic devices and formulaicness in thought and expression. It was typically grounded in the present and was concrete, and abstract thinking and deductive reasoning were uncommon. The shared knowledge space in pre-literate cultures was localized and participatory. All members of the community had the potential to contribute to it in the sense that all members were able to speak and be heard. As authoritative roles such as shaman or village elder emerged, those voices carried a greater (more "justifiable") influence, but even with this local arbitration on what did and did not pass for justifiable truth, the knowledge space was localized to and transmutable by the community as a whole and the individuals within it.

Knowledge in the Age of Writing

Writing, according to researchers' estimates, developed only recently in terms of human history (Schmandt-Besserat, 1978). Oral cultures dominated the early history of humankind, and primary oral cultures saw the development of much of the knowledge that made possible the future flowering of the great human civilizations. These great civilizations grew hand-in-hand with writing, the second great Information Revolution. About 5000 years ago the earliest forms of writing were developed in Sumeria (Schmandt-Besserat, 1978).

With the development of writing, the nature of knowledge changed dramatically and irrevocably. Ong (1982) notes that writing restructured human consciousness. As humans moved from a sound-based to a vision-based culture, their ways of thought and expression changed. The development of writing, with its use of a codifiable visual medium, created cultures with unique characteristics that conclusively differentiated them from the earlier oral cultures. Meaning was now conveyed by carefully placed and chosen words committed to a static medium, eliminating the need for reliance on memory.

Unlike speaking, the characteristics of writing include the freeing of communication from the barriers of space and time, less redundancy and greater planning in communication, and the invention and use of textual cues and recognized conventions of grammar and usage to compensate for the lack of presence (verbal and physical) of another person. Additionally, writing promoted detachment and self-consciousness because writers were able to share their thoughts without being physically present with a specific or known reader. Relatedly, writing encouraged the advance of abstract and analytic thought.

Just as the psychodynamics of orality affected knowledge in oral cultures, so also did the psychodynamics of writing affect knowledge in chirographic cultures. Knowledge now became fixed rather than fluid, and problems with human error in transmission and loss of information could be mitigated. Written text in a sense became a secondary, back-up memory for humans, and freed knowledge from the limits of individual human memory. Writing not only increased the time and place that the knowledge space was now available to, but also the extent of that space. Abstract thinking and deductive reasoning developed and became the bases for the development of rhetoric, mathematics, science, and literature. Perhaps most importantly, by preserving knowledge and information, writing enabling recorded human history. Whereas in oral cultures there may have been many differing stories of "how things were," writing enabled a single [hi]story — authored and authorized within a written document.

These changes in the nature of knowledge occurred gradually, and over the course of millennia. As the changes spread, an important outcome was that the creators and arbiters of knowledge were no longer the community, but the individual experts. Those who possessed the privilege of literacy became the producers and keepers of information; knowledge moved from the localized community to the geographically or temporally wider but smaller community of the educated literate. These changes were admittedly slow, but persistent and ultimately successful.

Knowledge in the Age of Print

Several millennia after the establishment of chirography and the scribal culture, the nature of Western knowledge was changed dramatically with Gutenberg's printing press, leading to the third Information Revolution. The mechanization of writing changed the creation and dissemination of information and the scope and content of the shared knowledge space.

Print had profound impacts on social, cultural, political and economic development as the world moved from a chirographic to a print culture from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Elizabeth Eisenstein (1983) in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, points out that the print culture represented a unique departure from the chirographic or scribal culture. However, it is important to note a cautionary point made by Eisenstein (1983) that at the time of Gutenberg's press there was such a big overlap between orality, script, and print that it is hard for us at this removed time to precisely judge when one ended and the other began.

The first major impact of the printing press was to make written text more affordable and to gradually democratize literacy, thus ultimately democratizing knowledge. Concurrently, as books (and in particular, the Bible) became available, there were also religious and political shifts (in the West it was the Reformation) that moved the authority to read (be part of the literate knowledge space) from an elite minority to everyman. The process was slow and did not unfold worldwide until the 20th century. But today we are all absolute products of literacy, subject to the cognitive and expressive characteristics of a literate culture discussed in the previous section.

Print also concretized knowledge. The possibility of transcription errors that occurred with human scribes was lessened as documents could be printed in large quantities. Just as writing had freed knowledge from the limits of individual human memory, print freed information from the constraints of hand copying texts. Mass production of information led to a radical increase in the extent of knowledge in the Western world. The new availability of information led to advances in science and scholarship. Knowledge could be more easily obtained, and far more easily disseminated. This led to spectacular increases in the creation of new knowledge, as scholars built on shared information and collaborated in study. Abstract thinking and deductive reasoning became increasingly the norm, and the humanities, letters, and sciences flourished.

Print thus facilitated the Scientific Revolution, which led to the Industrial Age, which culminated in the Age of Information. The nature of knowledge today is directly related to the developments in early modern Europe, as outlined by Eisenstein (1983).

Knowledge in the Industrial Age

The printing revolution had far-reaching effects on knowledge, forming the basis of the Industrial Revolution. The inventions and products of the Industrial Age further impacted knowledge. During the Industrial Age, information became available cheaply and plentifully. Cheap printed text not only meant that more people had access to knowledge, but that it was economical to tailor it to specific populations. Specialized texts allowed professions to share their knowledge better than they had been able to do under the apprenticeship system.

Publishing houses were created to take advantage of increasingly sophisticated transportation systems to easily produce, control, and distribute knowledge from a central location. Knowledge became something determined and controlled by an expert far away through encapsulation into printed text, while equally controlled by the economic forces represented by publishing houses. Publishers became the new authority in justifying which knowledge was to become part of the shared global knowledge and which was not. The New York Times' motto, "All the News That's Fit to Print" implied that printed knowledge was, by definition, fit (justified) knowledge.

One result of this change in the conceptualization of knowledge occurred as the technologies of mass production and mass transportation commoditized knowledge. The convergence of the paper mills that now used wood pulp to produce cheap paper with the engine-driven printing presses and the trains that now carried daily newspapers, journals and "penny-dreadfuls," did result in a widespread distribution of text-based knowledge, leading to democratization of information. That commoditization of information opened the door to the Information Age.

Knowledge in the Information Age

The commoditization, democratization, and arbitration of knowledge was furthered by the developing technologies in the latter half of the 20th century, the computer and digital and cyber technologies. The Information Age (notably not called the Knowledge Age!) has seen an unprecedented explosion in access to, and availability of, information. Information is now not bound by the physical restrictions of printed texts, nor is access to information limited by geographical or temporal boundaries. Cyberspace immeasurably extends possibilities for storage and transmission of information, and access to information. Not surprisingly to the authors, the expanded availability of information has not translated to a commensurate increase in knowledge (for so many reasons that their consideration is beyond the scope of this article). However, the change in options and technologies for information creation, transmission, and storage certainly impacts our conceptions of knowledge. The number of people that were online now in 2005 was 1.08 billion (ClickZ Stats, 2005) and the Internet in general, and the World Wide Web specifically, have become more than a means of accessing information — they have evolved into a medium for knowledge exchange (Jackson, 1997).

Knowledge is also freed from the dictates of the publishing houses. Today, we do not assume, as we did in the past, that the printed text is the critical medium determining knowledge creation and distribution. "We are presently living through a period in which such assumptions have been undermined to the point where they are no longer tenable. The circumstances, conditions, and the very status of knowledge, learning, teaching, and researching are currently in a state of profound upheaval under the double impact of rapid and far-reaching technological change and the massive assault on longstanding narratives of foundation and legitimization." (Lankshear et al., 17). For many — young people in particular — the believable truth of a piece of information is justified by the proprietary search algorithms of Google, and no longer solely based on the say-so of a book or journal publisher.

The fixity of knowledge that began in the age of writing and was concretized by print is also changing, as knowledge becomes fluid again. For instance, if the knowledge is housed in a technology such as a wiki,[1] it is not just readable and writeable by anyone, it is also removable by anyone. In a wiki, knowledge is no longer permanently fixed for access at a later time or place, but is now returned to something like the "primary oral" state of ephemerality, and, like the oral knowledge that existed only so long as what had been said was remembered, this knowledge exists only so long as it goes unchanged or undeleted—or remembered.

With democratization comes a return to a more community-focused and empathetic approach to knowledge such as the world has not seen since pre-literate cultures. Collaborative software on the Web allows for many voices to be heard equally. Technologies from UseNet to blogs and wikis enable the formation of communities across geographical barriers. These communities not only share information, but also participate in the creation and arbitration of knowledge. Wikipedia, for example, is a knowledge source created by more people than any other single information source. Today, according to Seelye (2005), Wikipedia is "the biggest encyclopedia in the history of the world... receiving 2.5 billion page views a month, and offering at least 1,000 articles in 82 languages. The number of articles, already close to two million, is growing by 7 percent a month." What is notable is that the entire body of knowledge in Wikipedia is created by users rather than by experts who disseminate their knowledge through traditional print publication venues.

However, readers may or may not find Wikipedia text acceptable or authoritative - an issue highlighted by a recent controversy about accuracy of information on Wikipedia.

That controversy is worth addressing, as it is directly related to our focus here. The credibility of Wikipedia, "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," came under attack after a controversy over a falsified posting in Wikipedia that libeled a prominent journalist (Seigenthaler, 2005; Said, 2005; Thalheimer, 2005; Levine, 2005). At issue was a false biography of John Seigenthaler Sr., an assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. The bogus biography claimed that Siegenthaler was involved the Kennedy assassinations and had been posted for several months on Wikipedia until someone spotted it and corrected the text. Although this led some to sarcastically wonder why Seigenthaler wasn't monitoring the Web more closely (Sjöberg, 2006), it did illustrate the vulnerability of this new, democratized knowledge space. At the same time, it also illustrated the self-correcting nature of this knowledge space - with the underlying theory that believable truths will be born out and justified over time by the involvement of the entire community in building of the knowledge space, so in a sense, the community becomes the author and authority.

As with Wikipedia, not all impacts of computers on knowledge are benign. As Lyotard (1979, translated in 1984) recognized early, digital technologies can greatly increase the commoditization of knowledge. He felt that knowledge would be produced in order to be sold, and the value of a piece of knowledge would have little to do with its usefulness and everything to do with its exchangeability. Lyotard envisaged that corporate databases and memory banks would house this knowledge and, with remarkable prescience, he advocated that the public have free access to these databases - in much the way that they have access to the online shared knowledge space today.

New technologies such as wikis can cheaply provide a large amount of knowledge to the global community (which grows larger each time someone gains access to the Internet) and at the same time maintain the malleability of information and the possibility of contribution by all. Technologies such as wikis are causing us to re-think assumptions about knowledge and how it is created and distributed. The trick for citizens in the Information Age is to be able to decide on the justifiability of the believed truth, just as their counterparts did in the Age of Orality. Thus, with the evolution throughout history of communication technologies that affect our creation, transmission, and storage of knowledge, there will continue to be changes in our conceptualization of knowledge.


    1. From Wikipedia: "A wiki is a type of website that allows anyone visiting the site to add, remove, or otherwise edit all content, very quickly and easily, often without the need for registration. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for collaborative writing.... In essence, a wiki is nothing more than a simplified system of creating HTML web pages, combined with a system that records and catalogues all revisions so that at any time, an entry can be reverted to a previous state. A wiki system may also include various tools, designed to provide users with an easy way to monitor the constantly changing state of the wiki as well as a place to discuss and resolve the many inevitable issues, namely, the inherent disagreement over wiki content. Wiki content can also be misleading, as users are bound to add incorrect information to the wiki page."return to text


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